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