Literature comes to the Carolinas

John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina is the earliest book I could find on the Carolinas, where I have old family ties.  In December of 1700, Lawson set out from Charleston on an expedition to the interior.  In two months he travelled to the middle of modern day North Carolina and returned northeast to Pamlico Sound, where he started the town of Bath.  I’m not finished with the book, and at any rate I’m scarcely able to comment on its real significance.  Fortunately, Lawson’s style of narration is extremely eccentric and diverting.  It is interesting to consider that Lawson lamented that most of the English traveling to the Americas were “of the meaner sort” and held himself a gentleman and a scholar.  I’m not saying otherwise, but what companions he must have had!


Lawson encounter’d many Tygers, the dismall’st and most hideous Noise of their frightful Ditties causing great Surprizal

Lawson’s party meets with an accident on the way:

one of our Company being top-heavy, and there being nothing but a small Pole for a Bridge, over a Creek, fell into the Water up to the Chin; my self laughing at the Accident, and not taking good Heed to my Steps, came to the same Misfortune: All our Bedding was wet.  The Wind being at N. W. it froze very hard, which prepar’d such a Night’s Lodging for me, that I never desire to have the like again; the wet Bedding and freezing Air had so qualify’d our Bodies,  that in the Morning when we awak’d, we were nigh frozen to Death, until we had recruited ourselves before a large Fire of the Indians.

I will say this as I get up in the morning: “Recruit yourself!”  On his way from Charleston, Lawson travelled among the scattered plantations of refugee protestant French, and the odd Scot living on marshy islands tending livestock.  He was evidently preceded by other European traders, and he travelled with Indian guides from village to village, where he was generally well received.  Still, it was usual to encounter abandoned fields and (perhaps temporarily) deserted camps where one could make oneself at home.

We found great Store of Indian Peas, (a very good Pulse) Beans, Oyl, Thinkapin Nuts, Corn, barbacu’d Peaches, and Peach-Bread; which Peaches being made into a Quiddony, and so made up into Loves like Barley-Cakes, these cut into thin Slices, and dissolv’d in Water, makes a very grateful Acid, and extraordinary beneficial in Fevers, as hath often been try’d, and approv’d on by our English Practitioners.  The Wind being at N. W. with cold Weather, made us make a large Fire in the Indian’s Cabin; being very intent upon our Cookery, we set the Dwelling on Fire, and with much ado, put it out, tho’ with the Loss of Part of the Roof.

And I get mad when I have to wait too long in line at Dunkin Donuts on the Garden State Parkway!


Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail around the world alone. It took him three years, ending in 1898. Though the record seems strangely late to me, the book is a classic belonging to another time.

Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran away to sea as a boy, and though he became an American citizen, never settled down. Master of several ships, he raised a family with his first wife largely at sea. He held prestigious commands, but was beset by legal and financial setbacks; his first wife died, and he was nearly destitute by the time he undertook the voyage round the world, leaving a second wife behind him.

Spray was a 36 foot sloop, meaning a single masted rig with roughly triangular fore and aft sails. Spray was no fancy yacht, but the hulk of an oyster boat Slocum rebuilt so completely that it might have been another ship entirely. Crucially, he hit on a design that was able to keep a straight course with the wheel lashed in place. The feat does not seem to admit of easy explanation outside of its having a long keel and being “well balanced”, whatever that means. Anyhow, Slocum didn’t have to steer twenty four hours a day. The longest stretch of the voyage was 72 days, from Juan Fernandez off of Chile, to Samoa. In another stretch, from Christmas Island to the Cocos, he sailed twenty three days and claims to have steered for only three hours in that time. He spent his free time reading.



Slocum’s navigational methods were of a piece with his journey: at once crazily negligent and highly accomplished. He purchased his chronometer at a discount because it had a broken face; at some point it also lost its minute hand. He had a special mechanical log to measure distances travelled, but one day he reeled it in to find it had been chewed to pieces, probably by a shark. In practice, he navigated by dead reckoning. Once, to confirm his calculations, and also for the pure mathematical pleasure of it, he took his longitude by the long obsolete lunar distance method. I should have suspected that all the Longitude lone genius greatest problem business was a little hyperbolic. On the other hand, perhaps Slocum blundered through the Pacific and simply acted like he hit every mark.

One gets the sense that in these remote islands the sway of foreign missionaries and governments was still quite limited. I don’t really have a sense of the history at all. I believe Hawaii, in comparison, was basically conquered by American agribusiness around the same time. Some of Slocum’s accounts are Edenic, though with more than a touch of anarchic menace. The Cocos, he relates, were settled by two parties, a Scottish family accompanied by several sailors, and a lone adventurer with some sort of harem. The two groups did not get along, the sailors wooed the women away, and finally prevailed. Slocum remarks on how crowded with children this island was.

The first nonstop solo circumnavigation was not completed until 1969, during a race marked by bizarre and tragic turns. Slocum made many stops and devotes much of his book to them. In Tierra del Fuego he collected a cargo of shipwrecked tallow which he was able to sell on Juan Fernandez (of Robinson Crusoe fame) after teaching the inhabitants to make doughnuts. He was paid in “ancient and curious” coins from a wrecked galleon. In Samoa he met Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow. He took long enough that by the time he reached Australia and South Africa, his fame had preceded him and he was able to earn his way with public lectures.

The problem with this book is that he makes it seem too easy. A severe bout of food poisoning in the midst of a storm is an occasion for a long running joke about hallucinatory visits from the navigator of the Santa Maria. He talks to fish and and mentions breaking down in tears at the sight of land. Mostly, though, he doesn’t talk about why he wants to sail around the world or what it feels like. Perhaps it was obvious. Sailing Alone Around the World was a financial success. Slocum kept sailing. He and the Spray disappeared at sea in 1909.