- by Carol Standish
The Speedwell Voyage - A Tale of Piracy and Mutiny in the Eighteenth Century by Kenneth Poolman (Berkley Books, 180pp, $12) is a just the ticket out of bleak mid-winter. The book is an historical swashbuckler, full of peril on the high seas, graft and and corruption in a variety of primitive sailing craft. What a time!
The voyage began in 1718. The mission was to prey on Spanish treasure houses and ships on the Pacific coast of the Americas. (Britain-and most of Europe-had been at war with Spain for over a decade). The sponsors, who called themselves the Gentlemen Adventurers' Association, were a group of London merchants. Author, Poolman, calls it "a shady outfit" though letters of marque were granted by the British crown. The primary target was the Spanish king's ship scheduled to leave Acapulco for the Philippines in the spring of 1719 loaded to the gunnels with Peruvian silver to trade for Oriental silks, jewels and other treasure.
Two privateering vessels were fitted out, the 350 ton, 36 gun Success, captained by John Clipperton, a "devious, unstable and untrustworthy…ex-buccaneer" and the Speedwell, a diminutive 200 ton, 22 gun left-over from earlier times. She was "crank and tender," meaning she was top-heavy and given to capsizing. Her captain, George Shelvocke, was also a bit of a relic. Although his professional qualifications were top notch-ten years before the mast, qualified pilot and sailing master and a decade commanding a watch in His Majesty's navy, he was utterly destitute, with " 'no bread to eat and not a friend in the world.' " when he was offered the command. Poolman comments, "George on dry land was like a lobster out of water."
Shelvocke's skill as a sailor is made apparent by his successes. Although the Speedwell eventually comes to grief on the Pacific Island later made famous by Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Shelvocke managed to maraud and pillage his way up the west coast of South America from present-day Chile to Baja California in a series of captured enemy vessels. He then sailed for Macao before returning to England to write an account of the voyage in 1726.
In addition to the Spanish gun ships, horrendous storms and uncharted waters, Shelvocke also had to deal with a "giddy mutinous gang of obstinate fellows" (the crew) who were, of necessity, concerned not only with own well-being in essentially death-defying circumstances, but also with the real possibility of being cheated by all and sundry. Blessed with a wily "sea lawyer" articles which demanded and delineated sailor's rights and shares were presented to Shelvocke on several occasions. At least one of these "'tween decks" initiatives was based on the principles of the Levellers' movement. (A group of ill-paid (or never paid) Puritan soldiers in Cromwell's army came to believe that " 'The poorest he that is in England hath the right to live as well as the greatest he.' ") No doubt these words were seeds of later democracies-piratical and otherwise.
Poolman, a WWII veteran and retired BBC script and speech writer has a breezy, forthright style which keeps the story moving at an appropriately brisk pace. The account is well-researched with reliance on primary documents-writings of Captain Shelvocke and his voyage long bete noire, William Betagh, the captain of marines. Poolman's distillation of the story is the first in modern prose and a real pleasure. The facts of the are extraordinary enough to inspire further reading and Poolman has conveniently provides a bibliography. In addition a thorough index and glossary of terms aid readers of all degrees of familiarity with historic goings on at sea.