Thursday, March 03, 2011

Book Review: The Real Ancient Mariner

On the 17th February 1709, in the blue waters of the Pacific off the Chilean coast, one Simon Hatley transferred from the English privateer Duchess to its companion, the Duke. Already on-board were William Dampier and Alexander Selkirk, and together they completed a remarkable trio of literary inspiration.

It was Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned on the Juan Fernandez Islands and would later became the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Meanwhile William Dampier, navigator, explorer, buccaneer, writer and triple circumnavigator, was to become one of the inspirations for Gulliver's Travels.

The third, Simon Hatley, was the sailor that would go on to shoot an albatross and became immortalised by Coleridge as the Ancient Mariner.

This book is the story of Hatley's many voyages, including the one where he joined William Dampier and Alexander Selkirk on a raiding expedition that captured one of the Spanish Manilla Galleons, returning to London in triumph.

For me it was like meeting again an old friend, for I've read many a book about William Dampier and the sailors of late 17th Century, early 18th. It was period of wild adventures across all corners of the world by men (and it was mostly men) who you wouldn't like to meet down a dark alley after they've drunk one or two bottles of rum.

Of course there was many changes from hard fact to fictional character. In the famous poem the hardest trial is against the forces of nature while in reality Simon Hatley's nemesis was his senior, Captain George Shelvocke. Furthermore there was no taboo at the time in sailors shooting the albatross.

The book also tells the story of how Colleridge came to write the poem including his friendship with Wordsworth, whose idea it was to use the story of Hatley's deed as the turning point and moral heart. It was written some fifty years later, when the "golden age" of the buccaneer had already become history.

It was a great read which I enjoyed a lot, though must admit it did make me feeling slightly jealous. Again and again there were photos taken by the author Robert Fowke of ports and bays that Hatley had visited and read that he received a grant to fund his travels across South America. Now that must have been a lot of fun!

Above all it left me with that picture in my head: William Dampier, Alexander Selkirk and Simon Hatley on board a privateer sailing the southern seas, hunting for treasure, going on to inspire the literary gold that is Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe and The Ancient Mariner.


Tillerman said...

And who knows what future literary masterpieces may be inspired by the trio of Captain JP, O Docker and Tillerman as we sail across the blogosphere hunting for treasure and raiding the comments thread?

JP said...


Now that's a great idea!

O Docker said...

All for puns, and puns for all!

Baydog said...

Isn't it actually the Ancient "Marner", about an elderly weaver in the north of England?

Cliff Clavin said...

Uh Baydog, I believe you're confusing that with Silage Marner, the story of an impoverished midlands dairy farmer, by George Eliot, one of the most famous men in all of English letters.

Silage, of course, refers to a fermented, high-moisture fodder that can be fed to cud-chewing animals like cattle and sheep, or used as a biofuel feedstock for anaerobic digesters.

Baydog said...

No, no,'re thinking of silage of the lambs, with Billie Crystal and Joey Foster. Come on Cliffy! Get with the program.

paul and arthur said...

No one dared to stir the mound of silage.

JP said...

Surely you mean Millon De Floss! wait, that was a character in a Jasper Fforde novel.