Islands in Ink

islands 1.jpg

Inset map in the Hulsius edition of Walter Raleigh’s Guiana (1599) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

We’re all guilty of relying too much on GPS to find our way around, so what mayhem would ensue if Google Maps simply started… making things up? Following a research visit to the British Library, Alasdair Macfarlane examines the mysterious case of an imaginary island and reveals how seventeenth-century travel guides – thanks to the efforts of some notorious buccaneers – were not as reliable as some travellers might hope.

In an anecdote included in his History of the World in Five Books (1614), Walter Raleigh recalled a conversation with a Spanish prisoner while they were reviewing a map of the Magellan Straits. Raleigh asked the gentleman about an island that appeared to be present in the straits and whether it could be of use as a colony:

“He told me merrily, that it was to be called the Painters Wives Island; saying, That whilst the fellow drew the map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her; that she, in imagination, might have an island of her own. But in filling up the Blanks of old Histories, we need not be so scrupulous.”

This story is understandably famous. Taking aside the undoubtedly possessive implications that recording an island gave imaginative ownership to the cartographer’s wife, the story illustrates the creative space afforded to the traveller and recorder in filling in the blanks of the map, a theme which was a rich vein in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for utopian and fantastic literature. The author’s freedom which Raleigh described as being proportional to the increasing distance of the chosen place from its intended audience naturally enough led to travellers being described as ‘liars by authority’ – so long as there was a low expectation of an account or description being corroborated the author could not be contradicted.


Sir Walter Raleigh, by Joseph Simpson (1915) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

That is not to say everything claimed was believed uncritically: Raleigh’s own dedication and address ‘To the Reader’ in his Discovery of Guiana (1596) describes Raleigh as being provoked into publishing ‘to answer that out of knowledge, which others shall but object out of malice’, as there were rumours that he had never travelled to Guiana at all. Trust in an account often depended on the dignity and credibility of the author, and thus Richard Hakluyt’s collection of travel accounts The Principal Navigations of the English Nation (1589-1600) included a slew of titles attributed to gentlemen ‘of quality’, or by an ‘Eye-Witness’ to various extraordinary travels and descriptions. Raleigh’s use of a Spanish prisoner to authenticate the island on the map is what interests me, however, as it has some bearing on my recent research trip to the British Library.

I mostly study early modern travel writing and Scottish colonial efforts, and my reason for visiting the British Library was for the chance to examine the ‘Sloane Manuscript’ collection, with its variety of manuscripts relating to expeditions by privateers to the South Seas in the late seventeenth century. These expeditions interest me as they frequently involve a party of privateers crossing the Isthmus of Darien, which was to be the site of an ill-fated Scottish colony at the end of the century, to travel from one coast to the next.

The specific raids from the 1680s are also remarkably well documented as many of the principle captains/actors – Bartholomew Sharp, Lionel Wafer, William Dampier, John Coxon, Basil Ringrose etc. – kept journals, many of which were later published. The BL’s manuscripts appear to be among the earliest copies of those accounts, so here was an opportunity for a cross comparison between each account, and between printed and manuscript editions.


Map of the Isthmus of Darien and Panama, taken from Sebastian Wollroth’s ‘A New Voyage Around the World’ (1697) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first manuscripts that I touched on was ‘Sloane MS 3236’ – an account by William Dampier who accompanied both expeditions to the South Seas in 1681 and 1683, and who would later gain considerable renown as an adventurer and explorer for his three circumnavigations of the globe and his publication of A New Voyage Round the World (1699). Sparing the details of his journal, one of the most fascinating discoveries in the manuscript itself was that it contained transcriptions of other people’s accounts.

Early on, Dampier describes how Lionel Wafer, the group’s chirurgeon, (surgeon) was injured in an accident whilst the party was travelling across the Isthmus, and had to remain behind with the Darien natives. Dampier then appears to pause in his own narrative to defer to ‘Mr Lionel Wafers Observations which he made when he was left behind in the midst of the Country amongst the salvage Indians.’ There follows an anthropological description of the natives of Darien and a description of the Isthmus’ topography, flora, and fauna, as well as Wafer’s adventures from his injury to re-joining Dampier’s party some months later. The narrative then returns to Dampier from the point of Wafer’s departure.


Portrait of William Dampier, from C. J. Johnstone’s Lives and Voyages of Drake, Cavendish, and Dampier, including an Introductory View of the Earlier Discoveries in the South Sea, and the History of the Bucaniers (1832). via

The point of interest here is that Dampier declared that he had taken the details of Wafer’s sojourn from ‘the Chirurgeons own writing though sensible of the greatest part myself […]’. Indeed, I recognised extensive passages included in Wafer’s A New Voyage and Description of America (1699) from its first person narrative. The whole section on Wafer, however, shifts between what is obviously Dampier’s summation of Wafer’s experience, and fragments which were either copied from an extant account written or recounted earlier by Wafer, or are themselves the basis of Wafer’s later publication.

Nor is this the only instance in Dampier’s manuscript where one might find Dampier ghost-writing the account of others. In his detailing of his second voyage to the South Seas in the company of Captain Swan, Dampier claims the primacy of his journals as the most exact and entire accounts having been progressively written over the course of the voyage, whereas he deemed Captain Swan ‘wholly incapable of keeping a sea journal’ as he made no regular recordings or observations. Dampier then describes bitterly how modern opinion prefers to read the account of a captain rather than a passenger, and see ‘what comest from the highest hand though from men of the meanest capacity.’ Dampier thus obliges the contemporary reader’s elitist inclinations by relating ‘A Brief account of Captain Swans Voyage into the South Sea’ on the captain’s behalf. Why does this matter? Because it tells us something about how these travel journals were written and calls into question the credibility of first person accounts.

Why does this matter? Because it tells us something about how these travel journals were written and calls into question the credibility of first person accounts.

It’s impossible to know if Wafer had written some version of his text already which Dampier referred to. In Dampier’s 1697 publication he is certainly deferential to Wafer’s personal experience of Darien as he refers his readers to his former companion if they wish to learn more of the region. In the print edition of Wafer’s text, however, Wafer admits in his address ‘To the Reader’ that he kept no contemporary journal during his travels.

In order to defend his work as more than secondary recollections alone, Wafer claims to have committed some portion of his experience to writing before he returned to England, and since his return had been frequently ‘comparing’ and ‘rectifying’ those notes “by Discoursing such of my Fellow-Travellers as I have met with in London.” If this culture of fellow-travellers comparing notes and ‘rectifying’ their accounts through conferring together extended beyond Wafer, it would go some way to explaining the remarkable similarities between the accounts of the other actors involved alongside Dampier and Wafer in the raids on Porto Bello and Panama which their accounts describe.


‘The sacking of Panama’, from Howard Pyle, ‘Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main’, Harper’s Magazine (1887) [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons

I noted particular correspondence in the choice of language deployed in descriptions of the ‘Emperor’ of Darien, and other features of native dress, between the manuscripts of Dampier, Sharp, and Coxon. In this fashion, the different accounts can be seen to cross-corroborate the testimony of each actor and allow for distinct, yet unified narratives. Interestingly, the cross-corroboration of travel accounts from the South Seas has some intersection with the earlier point on the value of Spanish perspectives in authenticating British claims in the South Seas and South American waters.

Sailors would frequently take the journals of antecedent voyagers with them to act as a supplementary guide, and Dampier’s voyage was no exception. At one memorable moment while in search of land, Dampier’s manuscript notes that the ship’s navigators ‘trusted wholly to the Spanish drafts which make not less then 2350 leagues to which likewise Drake and Candish did agree in their voyages.’ Focusing now on the use of ‘Spanish Draughts,’ I turn to another manuscript in the Sloane Collection: MS 46, ‘Journal kept by Capt Bartholomew Sharp.’


‘A True Description of the Bay of Panama’. The line marks Sharp’s passage, and local names include a mix of Spanish and English (Sloane Coll.: MS46; British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

As the captain Dampier and Wafer served under, Sharp was a significant actor in the events around the sacking of Porto Bello and attack on Panama, and his manuscript account provides another narrative voice that acted to corroborate the journals of the other members of the 1680/1 expedition. The journal features daily entries with running tallies of longitude and latitude in the marginalia which lend a sense of immediacy to the ledger, although the manuscript was likely a more presentable recreation by the author of an original copy.

The most enjoyable aspect of Sharp’s text, however, was the accompanying drawings, such as ‘A True description of the bay of Panama’ (seen above), which featured the coastline over a broad double page and a wake line to show the course Sharp’s vessel took in navigating the bay. Leaving one’s mark upon the landscape is rarely so simply achieved, but it does give one the impression of following behind an actual voyage as one reads, which I imagine was the intent. There are other inked drawings of some of the islands, along with the long’ and lat’ coordinates, which again has the effect of fixing the islands in place within the journal and the reader’s imaginative conception of the world

There are other inked drawings of some of the islands, along with the long’ and lat’ coordinates, which again has the effect of fixing the islands in place within the journal and the reader’s imaginative conception of the world.

Looking at the rest of the Sloane Manuscript catalogue, however, we can see that much of these drawings do not originate with Captain Sharp, instead drawing on other sources. For example, the Sloane catalogue features MS 44: “A Spanish Book of Original Drawings of the South Seas, taken by, out of a captured Spanish vessel […] 1684 – dedicated to Charles II by Captain B Sharp”, and MS 239: ‘A Book of Original Draughts of the coast of the South Sea from Acapulco to the Straits of Magallan in Spanish.”

If we compare some of the overlapping drawings between the two texts, it is a reasonable inference that MS 239 might be the ‘Spanish Book’ upon which MS 44 was based. Both texts feature drawings of ‘Guatimala’ for example, which share remarkable similarities – the most exceptional being that they both record the same volcanic eruption.


‘A drawing of the volcano of Guatimala’, taken from ‘A Spanish book of original drawings of the South Seas […] taken out of a captured vessel’. Attributed to Capt. B. Sharp (Sloane Coll.: MS 239; British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.


‘The Vulcan of Guatimala’, taken from ‘A Spanish book of original drawings of the South Seas […] taken out of a captured Spanish vessel.’ Attributed to Capt. B. Sharp (Sloane Coll.: MS 239, British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

What one can gather from this comparison is the extent to which MS 44 is a ‘translation’ of MS 239. MS 239 often lacks a means for the reader to get their bearing in the text beyond simple headers, whereas MS 44’s drawings include co-ordinates, points of anchorage, descriptions of the islands and coastline, and even ‘Directions for Sayleing’ to some of the locations listed. The significance of MS 44 to this end is indicated by its title, which describes it as original drawings taken ‘out of a captured Spanish vessel.’ As with Hakluyt’s translation and publication of French and Spanish manuscripts a century earlier, Spanish knowledge of the Americas was a jealously guarded secret.

To keep such texts in their original language was to obscure the information to outside eyes and allow those lands to remain secret and hidden. ‘Captured’ drawings are thus perceived as instantly authoritative (which is why Raleigh’s Discovery was so reliant on the testimony of captured prisoners), as the act of translation and circulation was at once one of discovery and revelation. The consequences of the power invested in MS 44, both in its ‘Spanish’ origins and in the association with Captain Sharp, becomes clear in the next iteration of the drawings which were published three years later (1687) as part of a collection of ‘Chartes of the South Seas” (MS 45).


A map of south America, including the caribbean sea and islands (1684), part of a collection of drawings of the ‘South Seas’ dedicated to Charles II by Capt. B. Sharp (Sloane Coll.: MS 44; British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

MS 45 is broken into three parts: The first part is described as ‘Containeing Sundry draughts describing the Sea Coast from Acapulco; towards Calafornia, taken from the originall Spanish Manuscript’; the second being drawings of the Galapagos and other islands following the account of William Ambros Cowley from 1683; and the third, drawings of the harbours and islands of the Caribbean sea.

Now despite the three disparate sources for this collection of charts, there is a sense of continuity and consistency to the drawings because the same ‘Guilielmurs’ who was responsible for the artistry of MS 44 is similarly attributed to the work of MS 45. As before, there is an element to each page focused on establishing the locality of the various islands and coastal topography, with reference to co-ordinates and commentary establishing how one would get to each location. Included in the second part of these charts, indistinguishable in credence to those pages that surround it, is one island now famous for being a phantasm known as ‘Pepy’s Island’.


‘Pepy’s Island’, a drawing of the phantom Isle of Pepy, first recorded by Capt. Cowley in 1683. Taken from ‘Charts of the South Seas’ (1687) (Sloane Coll.: MS 45; British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Named for Samuel Pepys of later lasting fame as a biographer, but then Secretary to the Admiralty, Pepy’s island was first recorded in the account of Cowley in 1683 (MS 54) complete with co-ordinates and description. In the paragraph devoted to it in MS 45, the island is said to lie

‘Northward of the Magellan straights: distance 80 leagues to the Eastward of the Patagonian shore […] plentifully stored with Timber […] harbour seeming fit to harbour 1000 saile of ships.’

Whether one believes the island to be a misidentification of the Falklands, some 200 miles or so to the south, the fact remains that no such island has since been found at the listed co-ordinates. And yet here the island may be found in print and ink, with the same clarity as the text describes the coastline of Patagonia in a chart of the South Seas.

One of the most pleasing ironies of A General History of the Pyrates (1726), (a work considered to be by Daniel Defoe writing under the pseudonym of Captain Johnson), is the author’s double bluff in the preface of his work of dismissing the ‘speculative mathematicians and geographer’ who ‘seldome travel farther than their closets for their knowledge, &c are therefore unqualified to give us a good description.’ This is particularly ironic, considering that much of Defoe’s own writing was informed by travel accounts and cartographies of the South Seas and other places.


Description of ‘Pepy’s Island’ accompanying the drawing above, including co-ordinates detailed in the original account. Taken from ‘Charts of the South Seas’ (1687) (Sloane Coll.: MS 45; British Library). Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

For example, the relationship between Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the story of Alexander Selkirk, another companion to Dampier, has been well turned over – and there might be some rueful comparison in form between the circumnavigations and publications of Dampier to that other great traveller to the remote nations of the world: Lemuel Gulliver. What a challenge, then, to the ‘speculative geographer’ and opportunity for the prospective novelist, if with the same authority and by the same means as a text describes the newly discovered Galapagos it can as well assert the existence of Pepy’s Isle.

In many ways the reproduction of ‘Pepy’s Isle’ first in Cowley’s account and in subsequent descriptions of the region further demonstrates the trust placed in sailors’ accounts – as well as how that trust allowed for the conceptualisation of ideas and topographies which no one had seen since, and solely exist in print. It was enough to be described by Cowley for ‘Pepy’s Island’ to be reproduced as a drawing, and then in wider cartography as though the artist had seen it themselves. The implications for contemporary fiction and hoaxes is similarly clear. The genius of writers such as Defoe and Swift lies in their exploitation of the ambiguity of Early Modern travel writing between what could be considered authoritative and ‘true,’ and speculative or fictitious, to create realistic fictions.

What my research at the British Library has helped me uncover are the various forms taken by early modern travel writing to develop a trusted narrative, as well as how those techniques of writing and editing could mislead or beguile the public. From Dampier, Wafer, Sharp, and the whole catalogue of material, it is striking to see the coalescence of the various forms of authenticity: the association with ‘captured’ Spanish knowledge, the personal prestige of the discoverer, and the perpetuation of an account through repetition and cross-corroboration in print, to create an island in ink.

Alasdair will be elaborating on this topic with his talk ‘“Islands of Ink”: Discovery and Creation in the Travel Accounts of the South Seas’, held as part of the North East Forum in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Studies. 3-5pm, December 9, Room 2.20, The Research Beehive, Newcastle University.


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