Tall Tales to Catch a Colonist

Ah, they were grim, those old ships: those early voyages to the colonies were testing indeed.

An early East Indiaman, for example, was just 37 metres long and 11 metres wide, and must cram in not only crew but supplies and bounty with which to return.

Henry Hudson set sail in an 80 ton boat on April 4, 1609, from Amsterdam,looking for the North West Passage. He arrived in Nova Scotia on July 2nd.  The crew consisted of ten men and one boy, stuck together on the same tiny floating wood-plank plot for three months.

The seaman’s diet started out serviceable, but deteriorated as the voyage continued. Fresh vegetables were not a consideration. Food was salted and pickled: baked bread, beer, cider, wine, dry salted beef, pickled pork and dried peas and beans. While fresh fish swam freely about the hull of the early merchant ships, no-one thought to eat them much.

A fortunate ship might have a doctor; and perhaps a chaplain to fight God’s corner. But there, far away from law and order, at the ends of the earth, a man could fancy he might make his own rules.

So that after ninety days of bad food, cramped conditions, no women, too much rum and rising tempers one might become rather fanciful on arrival.

Richard Whitbourne published A Discourse and Discovery of the New-Found-Land, with a view to encouraging the Privy Council to commit to sending more people out to Newfoundland to colonise it. And while he failed in his endeavour – the colony was wound up that same year – the book was distributed to all parishes under the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York.

It was widely read, and still makes excellent reading today.

This was no wet-behind the ears sailor. He began his working life as a 15-year-old in the merchant marine, on an early expedition to Newfoundland in 1579.  And this strange land at the edge of the world informed his working years. He returned again and again; he witnessed the possession ceremony in 1583, served as Governor of Renews from 1618-20, and his fate and the fate of Newfoundland seemed inextricably intertwined.

By the time of the strange account I am about to relate, it was 1610 and he was 46 years old, a seasoned traveller, manager and adventurer.

Whitbourne was standing in the Harbour of St John’s, he claims, at the edge of the sea,when something emerged from the waters and began swimming towards him swiftly: and cheerfully, as if it were, he says, a woman.

As it got closer he observed the features: a face; eyes, nose, mouth,chin, ears, neck and forehead and something resembling hair -no, he corrects himself, it surely was hair – and it came within a pike’s length of him. the creatures face was beautiful, he said, and well-proportioned.

It must have been the most unearthly sight: something from the fantastical world of myth emerging in his reality. So unnerving, in fact, that as it got closer Whitbourne stepped backwards.

The creature’s reaction is perhaps the most unsettling incident of all. For when it saw the man step back it dived under the water and came closer, and Whitbourne caught the sight of immaculate white shoulders and back glistening in the seawater.

At this point it swam to a neighbouring boat and put its arms up to it, trying to get in, Whitbourne reports: and the crew were reportedly so agitated they jumped out and made for shore with all speed. Not before someone had hit it on the head, though. It had a go at getting into two other boats afterwards causing similar panic.

What was it that this prominent merchant seaman and writer saw that day? The traditional recourse is that sailors were actually witnessing a dugong.

These gentle relatives of the elephant, which can be up to ten feet long, are said to have some human mannerisms, notably the way they cradle their young and a propensity to stand on their tail with their heads above the water to breathe.

But one look at these lovely creature renders them far removed from the subject of the description, rendered that day in 1610. Dugongs, would make plug-ugly wives. They are huge and ponderous, and favour warm waters, not those nasty cold currents in Newfoundland.

We could be kind, and say he really did see something extraordinary; we could be indulgent and say that six weeks of rum and no women on a ship would make anything look very beautiful.

Or we could cede that this is a persuasive text, designed to attract colonists to live on a frozen wasteland in the interests of trade.

And that maybe, just maybe. Richard Whitbourne got a little carried away by his mermaid.

Because there, far away from law and order, at the ends of the earth, a man could fancy he might make his own reality.

Picture source here


42 thoughts on “Tall Tales to Catch a Colonist

    1. It’s rather hard to believe, isn’t it, Pseu 🙂 He must have been surrounded by some very strange women in his life. (Thanks for the heads-up on the typo, by the way. All sorted now!)

  1. The New World is fraught with odd creatures that may or may not exist, even today. One county over from where I grew up, the Lizard Man of Lee County made headlines in my youth. My father, a forester, was obsessed with seeing the Lizard Man and carried on about it all the time. Just a few months ago, a man
    claimed he hit a lizard mannish creature with his car, and that’s what caused the huge crunch in the front. (Of course, it was dark when it happened, and alcohol was involved, so who can really say.)

    I love these stories, because they fuel the imagination. What are these people really seeing? Could it be something elusively unique? Or, do some people just get carried away with their own stories and sweep others along with them? Probably the latter, but the possibility of the former is fun.

  2. Ah yes, the origin of marketing genius at work, fooling the unknowing to get to the New World forthwith. So it wasn’t really an escape for religious freedom or promises of riches, it was mermaids emerging from the waters…a delightful image.

    1. To be honest, Lou, Phil made it clear that if he was told there was a creature like that in the sea near his prospective community he wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole 😀 And in view of the fact the community was wound up the same year the book was published, perhaps this tale was the death knell!

      1. Love the “bargepole” reference…I so enjoy the different sayings we have whilst attempting to share a common language. I find my American English severely lacking in so many ways….for example, we would have used a “10 foot pole”…how drab. 🙂

  3. The Manatee has also been linked to folklore on mermaids – they look very similar to Dugongs. Early 17th C man did seem to have a penchant for very large voluptuous women if you look at Rubens female paintings. However, even they are far removed from a Dugong!!!

  4. I’m a little put off with them hitting her on the head. Who knows? Of course, we think we do and yes, it might be excellent copy writing for a Nova Scotia brochure but I wasn’t there. I shall choose to think that he saw the siren or one of her sisters.

  5. And Tammy might be closest to the truth! I had never heard of the dugong — this is Wikipedia’s first comment on them: The dugong (Dugong dugon) is a large marine mammal which, together with the manatees, is one of four living species of the order Sirenia.

    I do like the possibility that this was an early attempt to peddle an interest in land acquisition! 🙂

  6. I would like to believe the laddie, but the part of his story hanging together least is that boat occupants would bop an attractive-looking lady on the bonce, and then abandon boat, as it were. If her appearance had been as described, I envisage rather a different reaction.

    1. ROFL! Col, you made me laugh out loud! Your reasoning is impeccable. Surely a pretty young mermaid would be welcomed…we will never know for sure(although I think we can take a sober guess).

  7. It’s never fails to amaze me how sometimes what we need is right next to us. Fish swimming right next to the boats left untouched! Great post, time to go read up now on Mermaids!

  8. I wish I’d started a list of things I research after I read one of your posts, Kate. It would now be a long list! And now I’ll add Dugongs. I’ve certainly never heard of them…nor the story you relate. How fascinating and it does fuel the imagination. I’m kind of a nut about Yeti’s and other legendary creatures, so I think I’ll fuel the speculation. Debra

  9. I’ve always been fascinated by the bravery of those early explorers and settlers setting off across the ocean with so little knowledge and under such harsh conditions. As for dugongs, I’ll have to look that up. I’m guessing something like a manatee but must see for myself.

  10. I’m a die-hard fan of seafaring tales, both true and fictional, AND of mermaid legends. This post lit up the scoreboard for me! I imagine, though, that it doesn’t even take a very long sea voyage to work on the imagination. Far from land, the sea is its own planet, with its own rules of reality…

  11. I’m sure mermaids enchant whoever sees them, to stop them being bopped over the head, or their witnesses from fleeing in fear, so it couldn’t have been a mermaid they saw that rum soaked day all those years ago. I’ve never heard of a dugong, but they sound to me like the inquisitive sort who would swim around a bunch of boats, so I’ll say this is what they saw. I’m now off to do some research on seventeenth century dugongs… 😀 Great post, Kate!

    1. Except, Tom, that dugongs do not have opposable thumbs, and our hero claims to watch the mermaids use their hands and arms to attempt to get into the boat.

      I’m going with the rum option, Tom 😀 Aren’t 17th century boats of special interest to you?

  12. Firstly, and a bit of a non sequitur, I’ve now got a song in my head whose refrain is “there isn’t that much ocean between Boston and St. Johns.” As it’s a lovely song, I’ll happily indulge the earworm.

    Secondly, our cold, North American coast has a wondrous myth or dark story for every rum-soaked, randy colonial who landed on its shores. Perhaps the native inhabitants knew who his watery lady was, only no one thought to ask?

  13. Oh, Kate… I have to sigh at my own ineptitude. I commented without looking at the avatar, and I’ve left my comment while logged in as a friend for whom I’m building a new blog.

    The one about the mysterious stories of the North American shores and the snark about rum-soaked colonists and overlooked natives?

    That was me, and not my lovely friend Nancy.

    1. Roger that , Will deal, as they say in the London Constabulary. No problem 😀 All the best to Nancy and her new blog! (You build blogs for people? Really? I have long admired that stylish pad of yours….)

      1. Why thank you!

        I am just starting out, as I am not a programmer, just a quick study and a fan of self-hosted wordpress blogs, but I am trying my hand doing the dirty work for people who just want to get in and write.

  14. Hi Kate,

    Earlybird kindly gave me the link to this post on your blog.

    Having lived here in Newfoundland for the last nine years, I would say the narrator had probably been partaking of the ‘screech’, and was initially a victim of the legendary storytelling prowess for which Newfoundlanders are famous. Maybe he did then use the tale to his advantage, as it were. Newfoundland really is one of the strangest of places. You have to live it to believe it. Although I must add, the Newfoundland people are some of the kindest, friendliest people I have ever met.

    Newfoundland author Michael Crummey wrote a novel inspired by the myth and tall tales of Newfoundland. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFx2nPVRuMo

  15. Dugong = mermaid? Definitely way too much rum 🙂
    Long intervals at sea have some odd effects – I’ve read that one of the dangers for sailors in these round-the-world yacht races is the lure to jump overboard (and to almost certain death) while on watch at night

  16. It’s only a shame that both in your mermaid tale, and in a reader’s Lizard Man one, folks seemed onyl too happy to admit to actually possibly hurting the poor mysterious beasties!
    I can report that some years ago I was walking through an avenue of trees through Richmond Park in London, and I was being “stalked” or flanked by what was most definately a big cat of some kind…I was sober, it was pretty much still daylight, I know dogs and cats well, and although my “hackles” were up some, I wasn’t feeling particulalry threatened by it..didn’t mention it in public at the time as it seemed such a shame to have folks go hunting it!
    Mankind has an unfortunate habit of either destroying or over-exaggerating that which we don’t fully understand or doesn’t fit into our idea of our world.

      1. At the time I thought a panther, but on reflection and with a little research there are a variety of wild cats that were often kept as pets by the rich/stupid, which were known to escape frequently and can in fact do very well in the wild here. On a sightly different note, have you ever heard the tales of the Wild Wallabies living in Dorset? Have seen those also and that one is most definately true, another casde of wildlife being kept as pets then released/escaped!

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