Privateering as an Investment Strategy
(Hint: The Only Yields are Literary)
By: Gerry Scott
A friend’s generous and thoughtful gift of a print depicting a late 17th century sailing ship led me to consider what I might contribute to his site by way of a thank you. Since the site deals with thoughts on art, jazz, and investments, and frequently discusses books that deal with those subjects, I thought bringing his readers’ attention to three books on the unlikely union of high-seas adventure in pursuit of wealth and English literature might be appropriate.
In the early 18th century there was a great deal of interest in England in the possibility of reaping financial reward from trade with what was then known as the South Sea, on the model of the success of British trade with the East Indies. At the time the South Sea comprised the southern Pacific Ocean that washed upon the shores of South and Central America from Tierra del Fuego (and Cape Horn) as far north as California. While there was indeed wealth to be made in trade with the region, there was a major flaw in the scheme for British investors in that it overlooked the strict proprietary interest the Spanish Crown maintained over its colonies. So, despite the formation of the South Sea Company along the lines of the Honorable East India Company, and the extraordinary investment in it that ultimately led to the financially disastrous “South Sea Bubble,” it was highly unlikely that there would be much financial gain for British investors in the company’s stock.
There was, however, another tried and true way for loyal Britons to reap financial rewards from Spain’s colonies on the South Sea. This method was known as privateering, in which a civilian ship captain would outfit a vessel as a warship, similar to that shown in the print, and sail it on behalf of the British government against the sovereign’s foes, seizing enemy merchant ships and plundering them along the way. While this might sound like piracy, it was made perfectly legal by the ship captain obtaining a Letter of Marque from his government. It was a plan that adventurous English sea dogs had followed since the days of Sir Francis Drake.
It was this second scheme of investment that a group of London merchants decided to follow when they banded together and outfitted two vessels as privateers, the Speedwell, and the Success. The resulting voyage of the Speedwell was to ultimately play a role in the creation of one of the best-known English narrative poems of the 19th century, while the voyage of the Success would present a brief moment in time, only recently discovered, when history and literature intersect in an extraordinary way. Each of the three books dealing with these vessels has a role to play in recounting the events.
Of the three, the account written by one of the privateer captains is especially engaging. A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World by George Shelvocke has been reissued in the Seafarer’s Voices series by Seaforth Publishing. If you are unfamiliar with the series but are interested in accounts of life at sea told by those who lived it, then this series is well worth your notice. Each volume is an abridged and edited version of the original, with footnotes and a useful introduction. Vincent McInerney, who served in the merchant marine and worked for the BBC, provides the notes and introduction to Shelvocke’s account.
Shelvocke, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before undertaking his privateering voyage, originally published his account in 1726, four years after his 1719-1722 voyage. He did so largely to counter legal charges (including piracy, ironically) brought against him by the Gentlemen Adventurers after his return to England, and to refute the character assassination job done against him by the former commander of marines aboard the Speedwell, William Betagh, who had published an account the previous year.
Shelvocke’s work is an interesting tale of lashing storms, a troublesome and untrustworthy crew, outlandish battles fought at sea and ashore, great privation and near starvation, and even a shipwreck on a deserted island, the same island that Alexander Selkirk – the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – inhabited. But Shelvocke’s work is more than an adventure story, for he takes pains to include descriptive passages of the things he has seen that address natural history, anthropology, and geography, helping to place him in the category of the literary gentleman-scholar and appealing to Europe’s keen interest in reading travel literature describing the wider world at the time.
What gains Shelvocke’s real contribution to literature, however, is a brief passage in which he records that while rounding Cape Horn, his second in command, Simon Hatley, in a melancholy fit, shot a solitary albatross that has been accompanying them for several days. Some seventy years later, William Wordsworth was reading Shelvocke’s book at precisely the time that his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and was in need of a deed that would render the protagonist of his poem cursed.
The second book of the three is The Speedwell Voyage by Kenneth Poolman, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II and went on to work for the BBC. Poolman blends Shelvocke’s narrative with that of the antagonistic Betagh and the journal of George Taylor, Chief Mate aboard the Success to give a fuller account of the voyages of the two vessels. While the differences in the interpretation of events between Shelvocke and Betagh, as each strives to tarnish the other’s image as much as possible, is unresolved, the harrowing stories of both vessels make interesting reading. Additional insight is also given to the curious relationship, or lack thereof, between Shelvocke and the commander of the Success, Captain Clipperton, who may likely have been unhinged.
The third book to deal with the voyage is The Real Ancient Mariner, Pirates and Poesy on the South Sea by Robert Fawke. The author has set himself the task of trying to flesh out the life and career of Simon Hatley, Shelvocke’s melancholy second in command who gains his place in history by potting the unfortunate albatross looking for companionship in desolate seas. And, remarkably, he succeeds in putting quite a bit of flesh on Hatley’s bones. In doing so, he casts a wider historical net describing earlier voyages, the privateering literature of the day, and discovering, along the way, that during the brief time that the Speedwell and the Success cruised in company, Hatley was aboard the Success to represent Speedwell’s interests and so were the models for two other literary characters, Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, and William Dampier, whom Jonathan Swift used as inspiration for his Gulliver.
For interesting nautical reading with a literary flair, these three books each pay dividends.