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“Others sat murmuring and idle upon the deck”: The Poetics of English Voyage Narratives from the South Sea c. 1700



Les nombreux comptes rendus anglais des voyages entrepris par des flibustiers, des corsaires et des explorateurs relèvent tous d’un langage maritime commun. Ces récits voyageaient eux-mêmes, étaient lus par des navigateurs divers et variés et les écrits étaient donc rédigés avec ces objectifs intertextuels. Ces relations, servant de guides pour les apprentis écrivains, deviennent ainsi porteurs d’autorité, hiérarchique et scientifique. Elles installent une distance entre l’écrivain et les personnes à bord. Le climat discursif, égalitaire, controversé, anarchique, pose un problème politique qui trouve sa solution soit dans un compte-rendu incontestable soit dans une écriture qui consolide l’interventionnisme autoritaire qui fait taire les voix discordantes. Néanmoins, l’étude minutieuse de ces textes montre que les histoires de voyages circulaient parmi ceux qui étaient précisément représentées dans ces comptes-rendus, comme « idly murmuring ». Ainsi, la relation de voyage voyageait de maintes façons, et ce même à bord du navire.

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1From 1669 to 1722, English vessels made relatively frequent incursions into the South Sea. These voyages had diverse agendas: trade, privateering, espionage, and perhaps most frequently outright piracy. In this article, I will examine the narratives produced from these travels, and the way they relate to the shipboard communities in which they were written. As with the voyages that produced them, these narratives are a diverse set. These texts range from the succinct logbooks produced by men whose names have largely been forgotten to the much-celebrated tomes of figures such as William Dampier and Lionel Wafer. Some of these narratives were the kind of texts which would rapidly be hidden away in archives, others would become bestsellers and inspire authors such as Defoe and Swift.

2And yet, one can conceive of these narratives as forming one body of writing. The descriptions of travels in the Pacific form one continual tradition. In part, this is possible because these narratives themselves travelled. Books such as the ones by John Narborough, William Dampier and Woodes Rogers were carried along by later travellers, who in turn referenced their writings, making them part of their own narratives. Hence, we find a certain reflexive point. These authors and travellers were aware of being part of a tradition – that they were sailing and narrating the same waters. Subsequently, it is possible to argue that these accounts constitute one body of writing because they share a language on voyaging. Hence, we find them to be structured around a set of intertwined poetics which might be called the “poetics of authority” and the “poetics of observation”. The term “poetics” is to be understood as a means of countering the contingencies of history by a mode of storytelling which tells the tale of the voyage according to “likelihood and necessity” (Aristotle 81). The poetics of voyaging deals in the kind of universals that dictate what “a certain kind of person tends to say or do” (Aristotle 81). Hence, by identifying two different types of poetics, I am distinguishing between two different narratives of exemplarity with regard to being part of a travelling community.

3Both poetic modes are dependent upon creating a certain distance from the travelling community as such. The narrator is to be found at a distance from the men on the deck and their world of discourse. Being the person who tells the story of the voyage is always to be different from the people among whom one travels – to be in a certain sense outside the shipboard community. Hence, the story of the voyage is told against the backdrop of what Miles Ogborn has called “the ship as a political space” (Ogborn 164). I would argue then that if we want to better appreciate this body of writing, we must take into account the relationship between these voyage narratives and the ship conceived as a political community. As Ogborn shows, such a community was itself constituted by writing and its materiality. This was true for voyages regimented by company or Admiralty instructions but also for pirate expeditions which were governed by their own distinct form of shipboard articles. This article will attempt to identify a relationship between these shipboard spaces and the narratives created within them by carefully examining the oscillation between the stories of the deck, the authoritarian commands and the imperative of observation in the various accounts of South Sea voyaging from circa 1680 to 1720. Instead of focusing on a single author, I will try to reach across these different narratives in order to meaningfully discuss these texts as an ensemble engaging with this political shipboard space and its story.

1. “The ship as a political space”

4Ogborn’s succinct formulation: “the ship as a political space” is particularly pertinent here because by necessity, the ship created a community of human beings who lived in both concert and conflict within what was a very crowded wooden world. I am, however, less certain of how a seventeenth or eighteenth century captain would have felt about such an assertion. Even if the writings of seafarers leave no doubt as to the political nature of shipboard space, captains manifestly wished that this were not the case. Historical anthropologist Greg Dening has argued that there is a commonsensical character to such institutions saying that they can have no politics within them. They are on the contrary filled with what is perceived as necessary and natural relations of power (Dening 132). Hence, the ideal was a ship in which the hierarchies and power relations were predetermined, preferably created through the kind of writing analyzed by Ogborn. A captain would have wished for a ship in harmony created through a clear division of agency that was not to be contested.

5However, this is seldom the ship we find in the narratives with which I am concerned. Although the authors seem to share the dream of the ship as a well-governed hierarchy, without negotiation, they portray a reality in which harmony is the exception and not the rule. Thus, we find that the ship is always on the verge of falling into what a slightly later South Sea traveller would call “a State of Anarchy and Confusion” (A. Campbell 17). What precisely was such a state of anarchy? In the Greek sense, anarchy is an order which is disorder because it lacks a true founding principle, and which is instead constituted by an illegitimate equality. In such circumstances, any man’s word is as good as any other’s. Hence, the shipboard community often formed a political space of interchange, of discourse and of potential conflict. Such a state was linked to piracy. Privateer Captain Woodes Rogers would describe his own voyage as different from a pirating foray, not because of its aim but because the order that he managed to uphold was fundamentally opposed to the scandal outlined above. Pirates, he claimed, “liv’d without Government”, and what he meant was exactly that their community lacked a true beginning: “for the Officers having no Commission but what the Majority gave them, they were chang’d at every Caprice, which divided them, and occasion’d frequent Quarrels and Separations.” (Rogers xvii) Rogers is likely to have learnt of this scandalous community from the narratives of the pirates themselves. A mutiny among pirates on the shores of Juan Fernandez in 1681 was described by one eyewitness in words that would have confirmed Rogers’s suspicions: The common crew “pretending liberty to a free election as they termed it” (Cox 49). Hence, they had created a state in which the word of an authority was only as good as that of “any man” (Add. Ms. 11410 681-682). This is the trauma around which the descriptions of the ship as a political space revolve. Somewhere lurks a ship full of words, described succinctly much earlier by one Elizabethan South Sea voyager: “every man pel mel and spent his mowth with as smal discretion for hym self as attendance for the hearer” (Madox 142). This was then a community without distinction between speakers and an order in which the mode of expression did not necessarily correspond to the character of the speaker.

6Even pirates themselves wrote about their exploits in ways that were self-consciously distanced from such a disreputable lack of hierarchical difference. Not that it was not real – on that they all agreed. However, they portrayed anarchy by exempting themselves from this usurped space. Basil Ringrose, another witness to the above-mentioned mutiny on Juan Fernandez, was hailed by his editor as a man different from the norm: “at the same time making Quadrants at Sea, that others sate idle and murmuring upon the Decks” (Ringrose Preface). Ringrose was to be seen as an exemplary figure, to whom we should listen because he is not part of the scandal ravaging the political ship. Similarly, William Dampier, who was also a witness to the mutiny, would begin his narrative just as he turned his back on this community. He thus starts off by describing how later in 1681 “the abler and more experienced men” left “a great number of the meaner sort” quarrelling about who should be captain and constantly changing their minds (Dampier v). Being a narrator of the voyage thus means being at a remove and exempt from the caprices of a rootless community without any clear foundation in any given principle – a fickle, anarchic community of what one narrator would instead call “vain Idæa’s” (Dick 72).

2. The Poetics of Observation

7One strategy of distance was to relate the events taking place on the ship in as little detail as possible and instead focus one’s attention upon the world. This is constitutive of what we might call “the poetics of observation”. In this mould, the ship itself is effaced because the narrator, like Ringrose and Dampier, stands with his back to the deck, gazing upon exotic objects ripe for relation. The sea left little for the eye to consume. Francis Bacon himself had lamented how journals kept at sea were journals about a space in which “nothing [is] to be seen but sky and sea” (Bacon 374). Narrators like Dampier wrote to Bacon’s successors in the Royal Society and to a great extent left out much of what happened at sea, substituting it for observations of foreign countries and visions of the other. At the same time, these omissions do not seem to have meant that these narratives were not perceived as useful to later voyagers. Dampier was referenced extensively by writer-navigators travelling in his wake. Thus it seems likely that his book itself travelled along the itineraries described in it. As Anna Neill has argued, Dampier himself wrote to become someone distinct from the rabble among whom he travelled. His narrative thus reads as a performance of his civilized character, allowing him to enter into a small privileged elite and later to command his own official expedition of exploration (Neill 172-174). Hence, we can read his narrative as a creation of what we may follow David Featherstone in calling a “relational” identity (Featherstone 399).

8However, not only piratical subjects felt a need to distance their own words from those of their entourage. Other narratives of observation enact the same performance of a distance from the deck. Richard Simson, aboard a merchantman with a privateering license, would describe how even the most reformed would quickly learn how to “drink and swear of ye Ships Company” (Simson 80). Most men, Simson would argue, failed to hold their tongues even when they were unfamiliar with issues at stake. Sailors knew only what was their “business”, i.e. what fitted their station. But all too often they took the liberty of speaking out of bounds. Whilst doing so, they made “nothing but noyse” (Simson 36). Hence, the social world of the ship was not one of civilized speech but one of idle murmurs. A man wielding a pen within such a space was deserving of special praise.

9A French narrative translated into English and taken onboard an expedition in 1718 would give another version of this lamentation that was at the same time a performance of distance. Describing the hardship of life at sea, the crammed quarters and the “Irksomness” of being constantly among the same people, the author would remark: “how opposite it was to that Quiet and Retiredness which are requisite for Study and Meditation, my greatest Delights ashore.” (Frezier 2) The ship as a material, social and political space was in sharp contrast to the learned register of observation.

10Yet, recently the liberty of time aboard pirate and privateer vessels has been seen as exactly the necessary condition for the production of scientific writings of figures like William Dampier (Hasty 40-56). Observations need time to be recorded, and in the anarchic, overcrowded community of the pirate ship, time was ample. Hence, the opposition upon which the poetics of observation is anchored masks a direct link to the shipboard community and the space of what an earlier South Sea voyager had nervously framed as the empty time of “idle navigation” (Hawkins 126). We may pursue this line of reasoning by noting how the narratives, in spite of themselves, acknowledge this link between their own quest for knowledge and the scandalous deck. Ringrose would regularly relate strategic observations made among the crew members and the prisoners. He would categorise such observations by calling them “common discourse” (e.g. Ringrose 75). Dampier himself hints at this when his narrative slips and posits the questioning of the scientific imperative among the dishonourable community of the pirates themselves: “They [their fellow pirates] enquired us what we did there? how we lived? how far we had been? and what discoveries we made in those Seas. We related the whole matter, giving them an account” (Dampier 27). Dampier shows us a deck full of questions and answers – the type of questions and answers one would find in his book. Hence, his narrative seems to parallel a discourse already found on the ship, despite the unease with the words of the pirates that otherwise dominates his narrative. I would thus argue that the poetics of observation is configured through a difference which is political in itself, since it effaces the shipboard community as a site of knowledge production because such production was ambivalent if not founded upon safe difference/distance.

3. The poetics of authority

11In the writings of powerful elements within the maritime hierarchy, we often find a different type of poetics which is, however, constituted through a similar distance. This poetics of authority in voyage narratives is inherently different from that “fore-castle conversation” in which “the meanest of the crew were taught that they were as good men as [the captain]” (Shelvocke 221 and 227). But where the poetics of observation effaces itself from this scene altogether, the poetics of authority situates its own word as that which is to put an end to the anarchy among the men on the decks. A figure of this tradition is the previously mentioned Woodes Rogers, who sailed around the world from 1708 to 1711. As demonstrated by literary historian Richard Frohock, Rogers fashions his own privateer identity by portraying his own mastery of the ship as a site of speech (Frohock 2012). He does so by portraying his own command as being rooted in the type of writing to which Ogborn has drawn attention. Hence, Rogers begins his narrative by presenting the reader with his commission and the instructions framing the voyage. And his narrative unfolds as a direct consequence of such orderly words. The authority they vest in him is the authority to punish illicit speech. Hence, we find Rogers punishing one crew member for talk of piracy when the latter wishes he were “aboard a Pirate” (Rogers 280). Consequently, his own voice is positioned against the murmurs and “unlawful Friendship”, resonating from the forecastle (e.g. Rogers 14) and wields the power to produce “quiet” by meting out exemplary punishment to any offender.

12In turn, Rogers himself becomes exemplary, producing a text about how to be an effective authority figure. From this safe distance, he can narrate the murmurs of his crew who, according to Rogers, on one occasion “made a private Arrangement” signing a paper with the intent to mutiny. Hence, one political space constituted through writing is portrayed as coming into conflict with the anarchy of the crew, who, with the usurped written word, threaten the legitimate order of the ship. As befitting the hero of a narrative of triumphant authority, Rogers succeeds in calming the waters. Hence, his narrative reads like a lesson to future commanders. And it was in this capacity that it was brought along as instruction on a similar voyage a decade later (Betagh 11).

13Travel writing within this mould travelled as well, itself becoming part of “the ship as a political space”. In this capacity, Rogers’ account became part of a long tradition of ideological narratives meant to encourage seafarers during idle moments in their long navigations. The father of English maritime historiography Richard Hakluyt had recommended for his own writings to be brought along on voyages in order for the seafarers to learn from the examples of the past (Hakluyt epistle dedicatory). And the last Elizabethan South Sea traveller before the long lull leading up to Narborough’s 1669 voyage, Sir Richard Hawkins, had envisioned a similar destiny for the written account of voyages. They were to be set before the eyes of the otherwise unruly crews to show them how their ancestors had travelled in “patience, silence and suffering” (Hawkins 220). When at sea, the voyage narrative itself was to solve the problem of the deleterious political character of the ship by producing silence through examples. This may sound like a characteristic of Renaissance maritime practice but this poetics was still alive and well when in 1740 under the command of later Admiral George Anson, the first English expedition set off in the wake of the navigators discussed here. Anson’s voyage produced a narrative which, according to one editor, was to move through an example of prudence and capacity. Such was “the right Use, that might be made of this Expedition” (J. Campbell 1 365). Perhaps it was this poetics that moved the Admiralty to buy 31 copies which might illustrate the way in which the poetics of authority was perceived as being part of that materiality of writing operating as a form of maritime governance (Williams 302).

14Embodying both observation and authority, these narratives are to be understood in relation to the ship as a political space. Firstly, the distance which the texts constitute allows for these authors to grant themselves a mandate to speak, which is seen as a privileged position. These then authority figures can appropriate modes of speaking and acting, in contrast to the alternatives left open to the “people”. Hence, they ward off the uneasiness which their contemporary Shaftesbury pinpoints in deriding travel narratives because of their egalitarian character. When reading travel accounts, the readers would, according to Shaftesbury, delight in the voice of the author “be his character or genius what it will” (Shaftesbury 223). By performing difference, these authors would attempt to avoid this disgrace and dishonour in which any possibility of poetics collapses, due to the narrator being indistinct. Secondly, the voyage narrators would situate their own writing as a practice complicit with the well-governed ship. And the writing itself was to become useful to such a ship as either carrier of geographical and navigational information or as an example of how to govern or be governed. In this capacity, the narratives themselves travelled while overriding links to other narrative traditions emerging on the ship.

15However, I think that we should read such narratives carefully and consider how the stories told were part of the events that make up the contingent territory of history itself. If we want to fully understand the relationship that I have hinted at in this paper, we ought to take into account the narrative traditions within the shipboard community itself. We might ask how voyage narratives were part of the discourse of the decks, however elusive such links might be. Hence, I will end my paper with a brief set of examples – a few scenes to complicate the story further.

16In August 1680, the pirates who were later to mutiny on Juan Fernandez found themselves on the Isle of Plate. Here they victualed. Yet, they also spent their time feasting, having barbecues and playing dice. From the many narratives of this voyage, we can piece together an image in which these feasts were also the sites of discourse. What did the pirates talk about? They talked about Sir Francis Drake. Aided by legends of Spanish prisoners, they evoked Drake’s voyages and seem to have set themselves to the task of imagining a stock of silver so abundant that some would have to be thrown overboard simply to keep the ship afloat. (Cox 22; Ringrose 63; Add. Ms. 11410 711-712)

17A second example might be when Dampier, commanding a privateering expedition in 1703-04, picked up an old pirate. His officer who relates the voyage seems to forget the style in which he is writing and for a brief moment paints a picture in which the seasoned buccaneer relates the story of his travels, trials and tribulations, with the delighted privateers eagerly listening to the fascinating life story. (Funnell 14)

18We may add a third and final example with Anson’s celebrated expedition. When the fleet split, with one ship suffering a devastating shipwreck on the Chilean coast, the shipwrecked community seems to have broken up almost completely in the following months. One incident is striking. A midshipman by the name of Henry Cozens becomes all too talkative. In a drunken fit, he tells the Captain the story of a previous shipwreck in those seas, namely that suffered by George Shelvocke. Cozens’ story is an implied threat that the crew might do as Shelvocke’s had done and set up their own order through a mutiny. Cozens must have read Shelvocke’s book and appropriated it on his own terms. The Captain did not like this version of the voyage narrative and a few days later, he shot Henry Cozens directly in the mouth. Cozens died and, ironically, the shooting seems to have caused the crew to raise a mutiny. They left the Captain on the coast after having conceived of a route home, using Narborough’s printed narrative as a guide through the Straights of Magellan. (Bulkeley and Cummins 26-27)

19In conclusion, voyage narratives travelled in many guises and with many purposes within “the ship as a political space”. The printed books that sometimes caught the public’s eye intimate that accounts themselves were part of the anarchical discourse of the shipboard community and not necessarily embodiments of moral standards to be displayed to seafaring men. We find such traces of circulating stories even as the books sheltered their readers from this space by enacting their poetics of distance.

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Johan HEINSEN, « “Others sat murmuring and idle upon the deck”: The Poetics of English Voyage Narratives from the South Sea c. 1700 »E-rea [En ligne], 11.2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2014, consulté le 17 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Aalborg Universitet

Johan Heinsen (b. 1984) is lecturer of early modern maritime history at Aalborg University, Denmark. He holds a PhD on the politics of voyage and piracy narratives from Aalborg University. He is currently writing a monograph on mutinies and shipwrecks and on how they shaped the Danish Atlantic empire in the late seventeenth century.

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