Let Them Eat Salt Beef and Scurvy Grass.


If yer’ve read Part 2 of me Serf Under _ ground Journal, peut-etre, or Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Master and Commander,’ you’ll appreciate something of the wonder of the British Navy in the Age of Napoleon, the organization, the feats of navigation, the battles against French, Spanish and Dutch fleets ter rule the waves.

What a difference a day can make, both in life and fiction. In the opening chapter of Master and Commander, an anxious Lieutenant Jack Aubrey awaits the letter that will promote him to Commander of his own ship. Finally it arrives:

‘By the Right Honourable Lord Keith, Knight of the Bath, Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s Ships and Vessels employed and to be employed
in the Mediterranean, etc, etc, etc.

… You are hereby required and directed to proceed on board the Sophie and take upon you the Charge and Command of her; willing and requiring all the Officers and Company belonging to the said sloop to behave themselves in their several Employments with all due Respect and Obedience to you their Commander; and you likewise to observe as well the General Printed Instructions as what Orders and Directions you may from time to time receive from any of your superior Officers for His Majesty’s Service. Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril.

To John Aubrey, Esqr,
Hereby appointed Commander of
His Majesty’s Sloop Sophie
By command of the Admiral Thos Walker.’

‘Printed Instructions, ‘Orders and Directions.’ A fact not known to some serfs, the routines on board ship, the battle victories we witness in the Master and Commander series, based on Patrick O’Brian’s research of naval records, ships’ logs and maritime museum data, are largely attributed to the naval reforms carried out by Samuel Pepys, the first Secretary of the Admiralty. Samuel Pepys, famous diarist of London’s Outbreak of Plague in 1665, and The Great Fire of 1666 and sometimes in his diary mentioning his career in naval administration, has also been described as the father of the modern Royal Navy.

History and Serendipity.

In the reign of Elizabeth1st, England had no standing army. Britain’s escape from invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588 is a celebrated victory in British naval history. It was also a fortuitous victory. When the Spanish Armada of 160 galleons attempted their invasion, a few royal ships and many more privately owned and merchant vessels combined to fight the Spanish. The English smaller, faster ships gained a tactical advantage and decimated the larger, slower Spanish fleet.


Neither of the Stewart kings Charles 1st nor James 1st were willing to put money into developing a stronger navy. The English navy was so weak that it could not even protect the Channel Coast from raiding Barbary pirates. After the execution of Charles 1st, with the build up of rival Spanish and Dutch navies, recognizing the threat to the overseas trade that was so vital to British prosperity, Oliver Cromwell’s government improved the navy. Cromwell’s efforts, with the help of experienced naval commanders, were successful in building up the navy to thirty ships of the line. But it was Samuel Pepys under the reinstated Stewarts, who introduced the major reforms that gave Britain’s Royal Navy its long ascendancy in the world’s seas.


The son of a tailor, Samuel Pepys, gained his first post with the Navy Board through a high ranking relative, Edward Viscount Montague. When Pepys started his first employment as Clerk of the Acts to the King’s Ships, he knew nothing about ships and seamanship, but set about learning, studying the prices of naval stores and attending lectures on ship building.

In 1673, in the middle of Britain’s third Dutch War, Pepys was appointed Secretary to the new Commission of the Admiralty, and as such, became the administrative head of the Royal Navy. Perhaps his greatest achievement as Secretary was carrying through Parliament a program, that in laying down thirty new ships of the line, restored the balance of sea power upset by the ship building programs of France and the Netherlands. When Pepys first became associated with the navy in 1660, the fleet consisted of thirty battle ships carrying 1730 guns. When he retired from office he left a battle line of fifty-nine ships carrying 4,920 guns.

Samuel Pepys also left a legacy of improved administrative organization and of professional development of marine officers.

Officers and Crew.

Pepys was determined that naval commanders should have more experience of the sea. In 1677 he created the first exams for would be lieutenants, including some mathematics and navigation. Directions for promotion to lieutenant required that an officer actually served three years at sea, was at least twenty years of age, produced ‘good certificates’ from the commanders under whom he served, showed diligent practice of the art of navigation and attained three further certificates. ( Ref. ‘Samuel Pepys and the Royal Navy.’ Lees Knowles, Lecturer in Military History, Trinity College, Cambridge 2019.}

Pepys’ efforts to stamp out corrupt practices endemic to the navy were less successful. Solving the problems of seamen’s wages was an ongoing problem. In the time of Charles11’s Restoration to the throne, government money was so short that sailors were owed three years back pay. Shortage of funds for the Restoration Admiralty was a chronic problem. The Restoration Board had to live on such money as Parliament would grant and the Commonwealth Government had left a massive debt of over three quarters of a million pounds for its successors. (‘Samuel Pepys and the Royal Navy,’ cited above, Dr J Tanner. ) Samuel Pepys mentions in his Diary, June 1661, that ‘seamen contractors, even the barber surgeons who supplied the medicine chests, were all clamoring for their money.’

The problem of shortage of funds was compounded for seamen, by the navy’s practice of payment to seamen by ‘pay tickets’ signed by captains in lieu of money. The system of pay tickets was used by Treasury in place of large sums of money being carried on board ships. When money was owed to them by the Treasury, seamen were often forced to sell on their pay tickets at a heavy discount. (Ref. Tanner.) It wasn’t until Victorian times that the lot of mariners started to progress with improvements in pay.

Poor food for seamen was another problem. Pepys tried to solve the corruption involved in the victualling of ships in the Royal Navy. After the third Dutch War sailors had complained that their food was so bad that it included mouldy bread and diseased meat. To prevent swindling the seamen, Pepys set up an independent system of muster masters returning accounts to the navy office as an independent check on the figures supplied by ships’ pursers who might seek to profit from buying sub-standard stores, sometime in compliance with a ship’s captain. Pepys met with suppliers and established agreed rules about the standards of food purchased from them to make up crews’ rations. Every day sailors were to get one gallon of beer, 500 gram of biscuit, 100 gram of salt beef or fish, butter and cheese.

But provisioning the Navy continued something of a problem right into the 19th century. In O’Brian’s novel, ‘The Far Side of the World,’ in Malta, coming abroad his ship, Captain Aubrey is greeted by

‘a more than usually distracted Mowett; the purser had refused to accept a large number of casks of beef that had twice made the voyage to the West Indies and back; he said they were short in weight and far, far too old for human consumption, and Pullings had gone to the Victualling Board to see what could be done: Dr Maturin had flung his slabs of portable soup into the sea, on the grounds that they were nothing but common glue, an imposture and a vile job …’ (P 77.)

Portable Soup, what is it?

Soup of the Evening, Portable Soup.

Stephen Maturin, surgeon accompanying Aubrey on his voyages, served portable soup to his patients. Portable soup, also known as pocket soup, was dehydrated food used in the 18th and 19th centuries, a precursor to later meat extracts and bouillon cubes.
Portable Soup was used as a staple for seamen and explorers because it would keep fresh for months.

In the Master and Commander books, Stephen Maturin would mix with it his own dried herbs as a protection against scurvy.

The Scourge of Scurvy.

In maritime history enthusiasts are drawn to feats of exploration and naval battles. But ‘arguably,’ says, Stewart Dunne, a past commander in the Royal Australian Navy, ‘the greatest determining factor in naval warfare and exploration for a great period of nautical history was disease, and in particular scurvy.’ ( Ref. ‘Scurvy, medical adventure, bureaucratic folly.’ Australian Naval Institute article.)

Scurvy a disease caused by severe Vitamin C deficiency causes body swelling, ulcerated gums and loss of teeth. If not treated early it is fatal. In the Age of Sail, scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwreck, combat and all other diseases combined. While its causes were unknown, it was recognized that fresh fruit and vegetables added to the staple diet at sea of salt beef and sea biscuit, kept it at bay.

The history of Admiralty treatment of scurvy, as Steward Dunne argues, was a bureaucratic bungle that allowed its proliferation much longer than necessary, due to the Admiralty Board’s intransigence in dismissing evidence of successful treatments at sea. As far back as 1497, Vasco da Gama had treated the disease with citrus fruits. Surgeon-General John Woodall Surgeon General of the East India Company, 1556-1643, averred that ‘The use of Lemmons is a precious medicine and well tried, being sound and good; let it have chief place, for it will deserve it.’ The Dutch East India Company planted fruit trees along The Cape of Good Hope where its ships stopped to re-provision.

In 1774, James Lind, a Scottish physician and surgeon on board the HMS Salisbury, conducted a trial when scurvy broke out among the crew, that showed the efficacy of citrus fruit in its treatment. Dividing sufferers into six groups of twos, each with the same diet, Lind gave Group One a quart of cider daily and Group Five, two oranges and one lemon daily. Other groups received vinegar, elixir of vitriol, barley water and one group was given salt water. Only Groups One and Five improved, with Group Five completely cured.

Lind published his results in 1753, Unfortunately, James Lind, like the Admiralty Board, still believed that scurvy was essentially a result of putrification of food within the body and although recognizing the benefit of citrus fruits, weakened the effect by advocating a boiled concentrate or ‘rob,’ which destroyed the Vitamin C.

Whereas Lind was on the right track, other better placed interlocuters in the scurvy debate were not, and as a result, the Admiralty Board recommended ‘cures’ such as ‘MacBrides’ Malt.’ Even as late as the voyages of Captain Cook into the South Pacific the Admiralty failed to appreciate the efficacy of citrus fruits.

On Cook’s first voyage of 1768-71, there were three outbreaks of scurvy, Cook’s astronomer, Charles Green, died from it. Even Joseph Banks showed symptoms of the disease, white spots on the skin and ulcerated gums. But Banks cured himself by using his personal supply of lemon juice after taking the advice of Naval Surgeon Nathanial Hulme to take his own supply on the voyage.

It took the influence of Gilbert Blane employed as personal physician to an admiral of the West India Station and exposed to the scourge of scurvy on a voyage to the West Indies, who wrote to the Admiralty calling for the provision of all naval vessels with lemons and limes. Blane, later employed as surgeon at a London hospital, continued to lobby via influential friends, reiterating Lind’s earlier findings. Finally, in 1795 the Admiralty agreed to support the use of citrus juice as a preventative of scurvy.

By 1799 all naval ships on foreign service, as well as all ships on the British coast were issued with supplies. A later official Act passed in 1867 stipulated that the master of every ship of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy was to serve out an ounce of lime or lemon juice to all members of the crew as soon as they had been at sea ten days and during the remainder of the voyage, except when they were in harbour and supplied with fresh provisions.

Foraging for Scurvy Grass.


Foraging for fresh produce at stops on long voyages was a way of controlling the dreaded scourge. Captain Cook’s arrival at Tolaga Bay in New Zealand was an example. Cook himself collected ‘scurvy grass’ and oversaw that it was boiled with portable soup and oatmeal every morning for everyone’s breakfast, looking upon it as an effective anti-scorbutic. Wild celery and cranberries were also brought on board for the same purpose.

Common Scurvy-Grass, Cochlearia officinalis, also called spoon-wort, is a genus of about thirty species of annual and perennial herbs in the cabbage family Brassicaceae. They form low, rounded or creeping plants typically 5-20 cm tall with rounded or spoon-shaped leaves. Scurvy- grass can be found around the world mostly in coastal regions, on cliff tops and in salt marshes where this plant’s high tolerance of salt enables it to avoid competition from larger, less salt-tolerant plants. As the name suggests, scurvy-grass is rich in Vitamin C and makes it into the foraging books because it was harvested by sailors to be salted down by the vat-load to help stave off the disease on long sea voyages.

Back to ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin in ‘Desolation Island.’ When HMS Leopard, sailing The Roaring Forties to Australia was forced to land on an isolated island for repairs, fresh food was near at hand The island was populated by herds of sea lions, seals and vast colonies of penguins, petrels, albatross and skuas. There was also wild cabbage to be gathered against the scurvy, ‘the most wholesome cabbage I have come across in my whole career,‘ says Maturin. ‘Even its boldest detractors, ready to make the most hellish declarations and to swear through a nine inch plank that the cabbage makes them fart and rumble, cannot deny that it cured their purpurae.’ (312.)

… Ter let yr know, Captain Aubrey, surgeon Maturin and noisy crew make it safely ter Botany Bay without loss of ship or crew. Interesting, though doubtless futile ter surmise the future of Britain’s history, the Industrial Revolution and evolution of political liberty, without the likes of Samuel Pepys and a strong British Navy.


Sea-Change all the way


‘What’s the good of Mercators, North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?’
So the Bellman would cry and the crew would reply.
They are merely conventional signs!’

Lewis Carroll. ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’


Charles Darwin, ‘Life and Letters.’

‘Besides a general interest about the southern lands, I have now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work, and I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one. I was so struck with the distribution of the Galapagos organisms, &cc. &cc., and with the character of the American fossil mammifiers, &cc. &cc., that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species. I have read heaps of agricultural and horticultural books, and have never ceased collecting facts. At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.’ (‘Life and Letters.’ P 384. Published John Murray..)



Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography.’

‘In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under theses circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then I had last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 250 pages, which I had fairly copied and still possess.’ (Autobiography, PP118-122.)

The Evolution of Birds.

Making do with what’s in hand,
In this case ‘hands,’ –
Used to be ‘legs’ but they became
Useless little arms
With claw appendage, the kind
You find on odd marsupials like kangaroos,
And on that two-legged oddity
Of the Jurassic, Dinosaur Therapod.
By God! There’s a black swan development
If ever there was one.

Fossils unearthed in limestone quarries
By homo sapien with evolutionary tools –
Stone axes won’t do it –
Record the evolution of the therapod hand
From flexing wrist of Velociraptor to
Unenlagia’s wing-like flaps and
Primitive feathers of Caudipteryx,
Say, there’s a giant step for birds.
Then the momentous uncovering of
Flight feathers on Fossil Archaeoterix
And we have lift-off!

A new successful species. Praise be
To tricky Nature for the evolution
Of birds! Lords of the air, of updraft
And perilous tumbling,
Of utterance of sweet song, of joy
To the world and tremulous longing,
Of feathers rivaling in pattern and profusion
The spangled universe, touching the imagination
Of homo sapien, inspiring the visionary words
Of poets, expressive of delights and lamentations
Of mature lovers and yearning dreams of adolescence

Black Cockatoo.

Cockatoo funereus, your mournful cry – keee aah,
Bespeaks the long history of ancestors,
Of Pangea and the shifting of continents,
Of separation from exotic kin, the flashy
Macaw cousins from Brazil.

Black cockatoo, in appearance you exemplify
The platonic fallacy of the perfect form of things,
Of birds, your helmet crest, remnant of dinosaur origin.
Your awkward form, less defined than
The shape of more dazzling kin,
Of sulphur crested epigone. Your slow moving
Heavy flight, precursing the dalliance of eagles.
Your diet befitting mourning.
Not for you the nectar of sweet blossoms.
Instead, hard-crack seeds, fruit of hard times.
From narrow-leafed trees of adversity.

At dusk a flock of funereus choose the tops of trees
To roost in –jungian response to memories of tree-top
Foraging by dinosaur predators. You thrum your insecurity
In reassuring chorus until, exhausted, you sleep.
Do you then dream of your ancestors.

The Swan. Charles Baudelaire.

‘Andromache, I think of you! – That little stream
That mirror, poor and sad, which glittered long ago
With the vast majesty of your widow’s grieving,
That false Simois swollen by your tears,

Suddenly made fruitful my teeming memory,
As I walked across the new Carrousel
-Old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes more quickly, alas! Than the human heart);

I see only in memory that camp of stalls,
Those pile of shafts, of rough hewn cornices, the grass,
The huge stone blocks stained green in puddles of water,
And in the windows shine the jumbled bric-a-brac.

Once a menagerie was set up there;
There, one morning at the hour when Labor awakens,
Beneath the clear, cold sky when the dismal hubbub
Of street-cleaners and scavengers breaks the silence,

I saw a swan that had escaped from his cage,
That stroked the dry pavement with his webbed feet
And dragged his white plumage over the uneven ground.
Beside a dry gutter the bird opened his beak,

Restlessly bathed his wings in the dust
And cried, homesick for his native lake:
“Rain, when will you fall? Thunder, when will you roll?”
I see that hapless bird, that strange and fateful myth,

Toward the sky at times. Like the man in Ovid,
Towards the ironic, cruelly blue sky,
Stretch his avid hand upon his quivering neck,
As if he were reproaching God.’

Charles Darwin, ‘Autobiography.’

…‘But at that time I had overlooked one problem of great Importance; and it is astonishing to me, except on the principle of Columbus and his egg, how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character and become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under sub-orders and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; … The solution, as I believe, is that modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.’

In the Marble Quarry. James Dickey.

‘Beginning to dangle beneath
The wind that blows from the undermined wood,
I feel the great pulley grind,

The thread I cling to lengthen
And let me soaring and spinning down into marble,
Hooked and weightlessly happy

Where the squared sun shines
Back equally from all four sides, out of stone
And years of dazzling labor,

To land at last among men
Who cut with power saws a Parian whiteness
And chewing slow tobacco,

Their eyebrows like frost,
Shunt house-sized blocks and lash them to cables
And send them heavenward

Into small-town banks,
Into the columns and statues of government buildings,
But mostly graves.

I mount my monument and rise
Slowly and spinningly from the white-gloved men
Toward the hewn sky

Out of the basement of light,
Sadly, lifted through time’s blinding layers
On perhaps my tombstone

In which the original shape
Michelangelo believed was in every rock upon earth
Is heavily stirring.

Surprised to be an angel,
To be waked in North Georgia by the ponderous play
Of men with ten ton blocks

But no more surprised than I
To feel sadness fall off as though I myself
Were rising from stone

Held by a thread in midair,
Badly cut, local-looking, and totally uninspired,
Not a masterwork.

Or even worth seeing at all
But the spirit of this place just the same,
Felt here as joy.’


Charles Darwin Origin’s of Species’ final paragraph.

‘It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependant on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction, Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead for a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence, to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.’

Camille Saint –Saens, ‘ The Carnival of The Animals,’ with Ogden Nash narrative, not the unavailable Noel Coward version but I quite like the children and animals looking at each other.



boatjacSir Oswald Brierly

‘Take with you paper and ynke.’

Fellow serfs and others pertaining ter a higher persuasion, let us go down ter the sea again fer a voyage with Captain Cook and more, but hasten, fer we must catch the tide …

In the year 1768 the Royal Society played a significant role in promoting Lieutenant James Cook’s first voyage to the South Seas. This was the Society’s largest maritime venture to date, although, since its foundation in 1660, the Royal Society had placed a high value upon the empirical observations to be gained from ships’ logs and the journals of travelers on long voyages, including, not only verbal and numerical data, but graphic records also. In order that such potentially valuable records to science should be accurate and comprehensive, the Society included ‘Directions for Seamen, bound for far voyages’ in the first volume of its ‘Philosophical Treatise.

Bernard Smith, Art Historian, in his book, ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ (1959.) examines the challenging new field of experience for Europeans that the Pacific Region provided, both for biblical creation theory and ideas of landscape art. Natural philosopher, Sir Joseph Banks and James Cook himself both inherited traditions of empirical observation derived from maritime practice and the precepts of the Royal Society, and on Cook’s voyages, professional artists trained in academies worked side by side with nautical and scientific draftsmen, and as Smith observes ‘were called upon to do similar work.’ ( B. Smith. P3.)

The Endeavour, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook sailed from Plymouth on 26th August, 1768. Cook was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the face of the sun and to seek the southern continent. His Secret Instructions set out other tasks, much in the spirit of the Royal Society’s Directions for Seamen bound for far voyages. Among other things Cook was instructed:

‘carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty, and in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones, you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also specimens of the Seeds of Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary, that We may cause proper examination and Experiments to be made of them.

You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives.

You are to send by all proper Conveyances to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Copies of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus ; and you are at the same time to send to our secretary, for our information, accounts of your Proceedings and Copys of the drawings and Surveys you shall have made.’ ( Ref. B. Smith, P14.)

‘The baggage in the hold.’

The Great Chain of Being:

It was widely considered by naturalists and writers of the period that Captain Cook’s scientists, aided by his seamen, would gradually complete the picture of the universe as a vast, ordered chain of Being which had been partially known to man from early times. As a concept, the chain of being derived from Plato and Aristotle, developed during the Middle Ages and reached full expression in early modern Neo-Platonism.

The chain of Being was believed to be composed of a great number of hierarchical links from the most basic elements, minerals and metals to plants, upward to animal life, on to humans, thence to the highest immutable perfection, in other words, God. Each link in the chain was divided into sub-groups, for example, wild beasts like lions were superior to domesticated animal and docile animals, fish came below birds and fish sub-divided from other sea creatures. The cosmology rested on a platonic sense of permanence and inviolability of species, a cosmology expressed by Linnaeus, the most influential naturalist of the eighteenth century:

‘If we consider the generation of Animals, we find that each produces an off-spring after its own kind … and that from each proceeds a germ of the same nature with its parent; so that all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves form one ‘chain of universal Being’, from the beginning to the end of the world; in this sense truly may it be said that there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Cited B. Smith. P167.)

Antipodes Inversion:

Opinion about whether a geographical antipodes exists at all depends on views concerning the shape of the world as sphere or flat earth. With the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, one of the problems that Ancient Greece and Rome had investigated, a spherical world and existence of an antipodes was largely supplanted in the medieval period by Christian doctrine based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Important in keeping alive the theory of a geocentric universe and spherical earth were the observations of Pliny the Elder, influencing other monks like the Venerable Bede and mathematician Gerbert of Aurillac who became Pope Syllvester 11, which over time led to its reinstatement. Ref: From Rome to the Antipodes: the medieval form of the world, Amelia Sparavigna.

Regarding an antipodes, Pliny notes the gulf between the learned and the vulgar:

‘We maintain that men are dispersed over every part of the earth, that they stand with their feet turned towards each other, that the vault of heaven appears alike to all of them , and that they, all of them, appear to tread equally on the middle of the earth. If any one should ask, why those situated opposite us do not fall, we directly ask in return, whether those on the opposite side do not wonder that we do not fall.’ (In.Sparavigna. P2.)

What lingered post the acceptance of a geocentric universe, was the view of an antipodes as an absurdity, like Lewis Carol’s world down the rabbit hole, a place of inverted logic and inverted physical phenomena. This blinkered view sometimes acted as a constraint on objective investigation. John Byron in his ‘Journal of his Circumnavigation., 1764.’ described a Patagonian chief ‘of gigantic size’ who seemed to realize the tales of monsters in human shape.’(B. Smith. P34 ) French naturalist Francoise Peron found in New South Wales ‘inversions and contrarieties of nature in a great many phenomena, including floods that were quite unpredictable according to the known laws of meteorology in the northern part of the world. (B.Smith. P 225.)

Classical Ideas of Landscape Art:

The Royal Society’s instructions to travelers to carefully observe’ was easier said than done, think Nietzche’s mordant comment on the claims of realism in painting cited in Ernst Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion.’:

‘All nature faithfully! – But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art’s constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint.’

The illustrations in Bernard Smith’s ‘European Vision and the South Pacific,’ offer many examples of tension between the science of precise botanical draftsmanship and pictorial embellishment into the picturesque and sublime by artists trained in the precepts of classical art. Joshua Reynolds expresses them in the following:

‘A landscape painter certainly ought to study anatomically (if I may use the expression) all objects which he paints; but when he is to turn his studies to use, his skill as a man of genius, will be displayed in showing the general effect … for he applies himself to the imagination, not the curiosity, and works, not for the virtuoso or the naturalist, but for the common observer of life and Nature.’ ( In B. Smith P111.)

The Noble Savage:

The Royal Society’s instructions ‘to observe the Genius and Temper of the Natives’ also presented problems of observation, accounts and illustrations colored by the artist’s classical learning. Influenced by Plato’s theory of forms and ‘back to Golden Age’ purity, a south-seas’ portrait was often invested with classical dignity, as ‘the noble savage.’ Sometimes, where observation loosened the bonds of classical thought and illustrations were insufficiently ‘noble,’ the illustration would be subjected to the idealism of engravers, as well.

“Inhabitants of Terra Del – Alexander Buchan”
“Indians of Terra del Feuge – engraving, Bartolozzi”

The clash of the classic and the exotic.

Accounts of voyages to the Pacific, Cook’s three voyages and those by the European and American expeditions of the first half of the nineteenth century provide a wealth of evidence as to the way the sciences of visible nature, geology, botany, meteorology, anthropology and the like, imposed their interests upon the graphic arts and a classical point of view.

The classical vision of the noble savage had never been the single stereotype imposed on native peoples. Naval captains William Dampier and La Perouse, for example, viewed native peoples as inferior beings. Later, close up observation of native practices not in keeping with classic idealism, and Captain Cook’s death at the hands oh natives of the Islands of Hawaii, provoked Christian evangelist attitudes to native peoples as primitive savages in need of saving.

By the first half of the nineteenth century greater care was being taken to meet the requirements of science in depiction of native peoples, not only in drawings and modeling but with the new invention of photography being brought into service to render illustrations accurately. The publication of Dumont d’Urville’s ‘Voyage Au Pole Sud, 1842-7,’ includes these photographs of lithographs by Leveille after busts modeled by Bisson. The portraits are of natives of Van Dieman’s Land, Worraddey, chief of the island of Briny, Troggarnanna, last surviving member of her tribe.


The objectivity with which natives came to be depicted is paralleled in illustrations of landscape and documentation of flora and fauna. In landscape illustration we see the documentary requirements of science and the picturesque of the classical arts battling it out in the paintings and writings of William Hodges who accompanied Cook on his Second Voyage. Hodges’ landscapes show his attempts to capture the different quality of light in his Southern voyages while still adopting classical stereotypes of the picturesque and the sublime.

With reference to the difficulties of applying the precepts of classical art to the exotic, Hodges, like Joshua Reynolds’ also cited ‘perfect knowledge’ of the art, and judgement and fancy to choose his subjects and predispose them to advantage, but by adding a third point of submitting the imagination to the strict guidance of cool judgement’ he gives Reynolds’ theory a geographical twist. (B.Smith P78.)

45865-pcA View of Cape Stevens, New Zealand – William Hodges

In later landscape painting we see closer renditions of typical landscape replacing the idealized, for example, in paintings by John William Lewin, such as ‘Campbell River,’ painted when Lewin accompanied Governor Macquarie, in 1815,on a sightseeing expedition to the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. These paintings dispensed with the contriving of picturesque composition and illustrated the openness of foliage of Australian Eucalypt trees that do not completely shroud the background.

CampbellRiverCampbell River, New South Wales – John Lewin

Naturalists and illustrators became increasingly less dominated by great chain of Being and neo-classical theories of art and more influenced by empirical habits of vision as they studied and illustrated unfamiliar flora and fauna. From a large cast of scientific observers in the South Pacific, mentioning just three or four:

One of the important influences brought to bear on travelers was the scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt who, in his writings. described the influence that the paintings of William Hodges had on his own career. Humboldt came to view the world as made up of different climatic zones and advised how written description, landscape painting and botanical illustrations could be used to give Europeans a better idea of the multiformity of nature. Humboldt’s books were widely read including by Charles Darwin. By 1810, it was said that, with the exception of Napoleon, Humboldt was the most famous man in Europe.

Another observer was Ferdinand Bauer. No one was abler than Bauer to illustrate nature’s multiformity in the South Seas. When Matthew Flinders sailed from England in the sloop Investigator in 1801 with instructions to chart the coasts of Australia, the influence of Flinders’ patron, Sir Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society, is evident in his instructions to bring back to bring back ‘such papers as the Naturalists and Painters think to send home.’ ( In B.Smith P189.) The choice of naturalist for the task was, another of Bank’s protégés, Robert Brown, accompanying him, botanical designer, Ferdinand Bauer, both masters in their fields. Bauer, a botanist of considerable ability himself, sought to reveal both the beauty of the plant and its scientific structure in his drawings and using a magnifying glass, made a practice of drawing, not only the leaf and flower, but also sections and diagrams of buds, seed pods, petals and the roots of plants.

Banksia_coccinea_(Illustrationes_Florae_Novae_Hollandiae_plate_3) Florae Novae Hollandiae – Ferdinand, Bauer

While Brown and Bauer were making a collection pre-eminent collection in botany, zoologist Francois Peron and Charles Lesueur were doing the same in the field of zoology. On a scientific voyage to the Mauritius in 1800 by order of Napoleon, the drawing abilities of Lesueur, who had not been appointed as an artist, quickly became apparent in his drawings of fish and phosphorescent animals.

charles-alexandre_lesueur_museum_dhistoire_naturelle_ville_du_havre_4Scyphomeduse- Charles Lesueur

Sea-change rich and strange.

Confronted with problems presented by the multiformities of nature in the South Pacific, naturalists were finding it difficult to classify their materials according to the presuppositions of a great chain of Being, The three scientists whose efforts to establish organic evolution as a scientific history of life on earth themselves spent formative years as naturalists on scientific voyages to the South Pacific.

James Hooker, appointed naturalist to Ross’s Expedition to the South Pole in 1839, who greatly admired the work of Ferdinand Bauer, employed himself in the work at which Charles Lesueur had excelled, the dissection and drawing of tiny marine animals. In the course of his work he became convinced that his earlier belief in the immutability of species was false. ( B. Smith. P 315.)

The influence of the Pacific upon Charles Darwin’s other great friend, Thomas Huxley, was not such that it led directly to evolutionary theory, but his own work, as assistant naturalist aboard the Rattlesnake on a survey in tropical waters in 1846, led him to fundamental discoveries of the morphology of marine animals and the conclusion ‘that biological individuality was a process; that individuality was not to be expressed in static, but in dynamic terms.’ (B. Smith. P 315.)

Charles Darwin himself recorded how important was his voyage on the Beagle* in influencing the subsequent course of his life, of the parallel’s he discovered in South America’s fossil record and the nature of its living animals and plants that first intimated to him the organic evolutionary possibility of life on earth. Darwin’s later work in the Galapagos and research into coral islands involving exhaustive reading of the literature of Pacific voyages helped confirm his speculations. Darwin’s visit to Australia also promoted questioning, as revealed in a note in his journal during a trip across the Blue Mountains:

‘I had been lying on a sunny bank and was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of the country compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Two distinct creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each is complete.” ( In B.Smith. P314.)

Say, do not expect plain sailing when you put to sea.

An added thought:

Bertram Smith’s book was published just two years before Thomas Kuhn published his essay, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution.’ Not sure that Smith’s account of the long journey to evolutionary theory based on observation and detailed empiric studies fits Kuhn’s theory of paradigm containment and that midnight crisis ‘gestalt switch.’

* In the poop deck of the Beagle, adjacent to Darwin’s cabin, a library of four hundred books, books on sea voyages that included the voyages of Alexander von Humboldt and books on natural history and geology….Url Library on the Beagle.


Master and Commander.



All aboard fer yr next sea voyage, me hearties, Patrick O’Brian’s famous Aubrey-Maturin historical novels of naval battles and fortunes of war in the Napoleonic era, oh, and much, much more.

For a voyage with Commander Jack Aubrey in the various ships he commands in the Master and Commander series not only contains all the action and excitement you could hope for in a historical novel, but involvement in a fully realized world aboard a man of war of the period, weapons, food, rituals and manners, conversations, characters and relationships richly observed…You are there.

While Melville’s voyage of The Pequod explored the mysteries of the deep ocean and its largest inhabitants, O’Brian’s voyages traverse its surface. Suspense replaces mystery as Aubrey engages in battles against Britain’s traditional enemies and others. The focus is on the consequences of urgent decisions. At sea, you learn by your mistakes, feed back immediate. If you’re a commander mistakes may incur loss of authority, even mutiny, loss of a ship, court martial. If you’re crew, there’s falling overboard, drunken and other excesses, penalty of flogging according to the navy articles, even young midshipmen may be physically punished for misdemeanors. If you’re a surgeon, there’s loss of patients, multi-shades of individual angst, loss of professional regard by officers and crew.

On land you may get away with fooling yourself or others, at sea feedback will take place. Think Ahab. Character, toughness and courage are needed to survive at sea. Prince of Denmark equivocation won’t work in battles with the elements, waves, wind, currents, or enemy ships.

The friendship of the two central characters in ‘Master and Commander’ begins with onshore in Minorca at a musicale soiree at the house of the Governor, where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin first meet, each biding time, each in impecunious circumstances, depending for relief on the arbitrary decisions of others. Lieutenant Aubrey is waiting orders to command his first ship, physician Maturin is waiting payment due for medical services.

The meeting begins badly when Aubrey, carried away by the music, beats time and is rebuked by the man seated next to him. ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’

Rather hurt, Aubrey contains his enthusiasm until once more he’s carried away by the music and feels an elbow jab in his ribs … ‘A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate, was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront; and what affront was graver than a blow?’ At the end of the concert, names and contact details are exchanged.

When Aubrey returns to his lodgings an official letter addressed to Captain Aubrey awaits him giving him command of His Majesty’s sloop Sophie. What a difference a day makes. The following day despite the malicious attempts of a particular admiral to foil his promotion, Jack Aubrey has his ship, though short in crew and lacking a ship’s surgeon. In the midst of his errands, he runs in to his enemy of the previous night:

‘Why there you are sir. I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music – are so unused to genteel company – that we grow carried away,’

‘My dear sir,’ cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, ‘you had every right to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life, – such unity, such fire. May I propose a cup of chocolate, or coffee? It would give me great pleasure.’

That evening over dinner at Jack Aubrey’s lodgings, Jack offers Stephen Maturin, physician and naturalist, the position of ship’s surgeon on the Sophie with opportunities to study wild life species on the voyage. Maturin accepts the post, the beginning of a long friendship between the two men and distinguished careers for both.

Anchors Away.

In the global adventures with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin we experience a sense of the times and life on board ship that is quite wonderful. O’Brian has made full use of naval records, maritime museum data, ships logs and letters, to create this world.

There’s the ritual of Aubrey taking command of his first ship, marines presenting arms, naming of the officers, the reading of his commission: ‘By the right Honorable Lord Keith’ … ending with ‘Hereof nor you nor anyone of you may fail as will answer at the contrary at your peril.’ On to the ship yard, conferring with niggardly wheeling and dealing, no problem to Jack, at sea since the age of twelve, he knows what he needs to overhaul the Sophie.

Later, in consultation with the purser, he’s presented with a heap of ship’s books, supplies, expenses, provisions received and returned … all requiring his signature. Noting a certain smoothness in the way the purser presents his balances, Aubrey fixes on a name in the muster book, ‘Rickett,’ the purser’s own name, no age beside the name, rating ‘able seaman,’ then ‘midshipman.’ ‘Yes, sir, my son, sir. Ha ha …’ an everyday fraud, but nevertheless illegal. The purser gets the message, no purser’s tricks with the books or else.

In The Mauritius Command, there’s a nice description of the lubberly part of the Boudicea’s crew becoming accustomed to the unchanging routine of ship life where all hands should be piped just before eight bells in the middle watch and sleepers start from their hammocks. Watch relays and numbers depend on space below deck, since naval regulations allot only fourteen inches width of sleeping space per man. Though this is not possible, with a third or more of the crew on watch at a time, those not on watch gain a few more inches sleeping space.

At eight bells in the forenoon watch all hands are piped to dinner, this dinner to consist of cheese and duff on Monday, two pounds of salt beef on Tuesday, dried peas and duff on Wednesday, one pound of salt pork on Thursday, dried peas and cheese on Friday, two more pounds of salt beef on Saturday, one pound of salt beef on Sunday and some treat such as figgy-dowdy pudding. Meals are accompanied by a daily pound of ship’s biscuit, dinner and supper followed by a pint of grog.

Maturin is surprised to hear how much rum is consumed by the crew. When he learns from a gunner that an expired young crew member consumed a quart of grog at one sitting, Maturin proposes a watering down of the ration. ‘Oh dear me ‘says the gunner, ‘if they was to get a half a pint of three-water grog, we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right too.’

Battle Stations.

Life on board a Royal Navy brig in the period involved many battles. The battles Patrick O’Brian describes so dramatically are actual battles, carefully researched as to location, comparative advantages of rival ships and strategies adopted but in the novels O’Brian’s characters are slipped into the leading roles. ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey wins most of the battles, even his 14 4 pounders and 54 men against the superior force of the Spanish Cacafuego’s 32 guns and 319 men which establishes his reputation.. Luck plays only a small part in it. No sooner does Aubrey take on a new crew but he’s into daily gunnery practice, stop watch in hand. ‘Two minutes five … a not discreditable exercise.’

Here’s Captain Aubrey bound for New South Wales with an unexpected consignment of convicts on board in ‘Desolation Island,’ a tale of treachery, encounter with ice bergs entailing an enforced stay at Desolation Island, its wild life explored by Steven Maturin, and in the wild seas of the Roaring Forties the murderous pursuit of Aubrey’s 52 gun brig, Leopard, by Dutch 74 gun man of war, the Waakzaamheid.

That pursuit, it’ll make your hair stand on end. News of an enemy man of war’s presence in the vicinity prompts Aubrey to step up gunnery practice and set up his own deck cabin as an adaptable gunning station in case of a meeting. In the doldrums, despite heroic efforts by Maturin, Aubrey has lost one hundred and sixty crew members as well as most of the convicts to an outbreak of goal fever. When the two ships meet, short on man and fire power, Aubrey does his best to elude capture. Light winds that favour his smaller ship help at first. When the wind drops and the Waakzaamheid gains and attempts a moonlight boarding, the Leopards prompt response, firing grape shot at the boarding boats giving Aubrey time to escape.

Aubrey realizes this is a temporary respite. The Waakzaamheid’s captain knows where they are bound and the stormy waters of the Roaring Forties will be an advantage for the larger ship. At the next stage of the pursuit, a shock for Aubrey. There in his glass he sees the Dutch Captain, dressed in a black coat this time, looking straight at Aubrey. Aubrey wonders if the Dutchman lost a relative in their recent encounter, ‘His boy, perhaps, dear God forbid.’

No time to waste with the seventy-four only a few miles away, and now sailing in the wild Roaring Forties, Aubrey decides to strengthen Leonard’s masts with hawsers, bouse the massive cordage so that it could stand a most uncommon force – a mast lost in these seas was sure destruction. Taking all the crew to erect the hawsers and raise the top and main sails, the Leopard begins to outpace the Waakzaamheid, racing furiously over the heaving sea, both ships driven very hard. The first to lose an important spar or sail that night would lose the race. At eight bells, Jack set the inner jib. It might be the last chance to do so, ‘the ship was tearing through the sea at a rate he would never have believed possible, a rate that would have been impossible without those hawsers to the mastheads’

‘And now the extreme danger of sailing in a heavy swell became more and more apparent: in the troughs, the valleys between the waves the Leopard was almost becalmed, while the crest struck her, threatening to tear her sails from their bolt-ropes to carry away her masts, even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water.’

Here the Waakzaamheid, with her higher masts had an advantage and was now within a thousand yards and soon she began firing at the Leopard. Aubrey had never expected that the Dutchman would fire in this weather. Certainly the aim of warfare was the destruction of the enemy but in single-ship actions the idea of capture usually predominated. Aubrey had expected the seventy-four-pounder to hunt him down and take the Leopard when the weather moderated. In this sea there was no possibility of capture and any engagement and loss of a sail must mean the loss of all souls on board ship, ‘the Dutch Captain’s intent could only be to kill.’

In the switch back of enormous seas, in troughs before the green hill of water parts them, dead astern, the Waakzaamheid fires and Leonard returns fire. Aubrey operating the cabin nine-pounder is injured by a flying spar, then hears cheering. Through the shattered leadlights, as the Leopard reaches the crest of a wave, ‘he sees the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached too. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.’

‘My God, oh my God,’ Aubrey said,. ‘Six hundred men.’

Hair raising engagements with the enemy like the above make the Master and Commander novels the suspenseful reading that they are, but it is O’Brian’s skill in depicting character and human relationships that create the complex foundation on which the action is based. There’s the love interest, Aubrey in falls in love with the beautiful and gentle Sophie Williams, Maturin with her equally beautiful, witty but reckless cousin, Diane Villiers, but the books’ main focus is on the character realization and developing friendship of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

The Commander and the Surgeon.

The two men are very different. Jack, a large man physically, is optimistic, open hearted, too trusting onshore but a superb commander afloat, with an instinct for getting the best out of his crew and ships. Stephen, part Irish, part Catalan, is subtle and brilliant, a gifted physician who becomes the finest surgeon afloat. He’s a natural scientist who identifies new species, writing up his notes in a code he’s invented, but has to be helped aboard ship to avoid falling into the sea.

But there are characteristics that Aubrey and Maturin share. As well as their deep love of music, there’s the humour and enjoyment of word play, though Jack’s inordinate enjoyment of his own simple jokes, as someone remarked, is incommensurate to their wit. Stephen’s humour is more sardonic. There’s an amusing scene in ‘H.M.S.Surprise’ for example, where he walks into the captain’s cabin and finds his precious sloth sitting on Jacks lap, wearing a bemused expression and smelling of strong drink. Stephen exclaims; ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’

Other characteristics; Aubrey and Maturin both have courage and something of that enthusiast, non-petty quality characteristic of Ishmael. Maturin’s joy in the natural world, concern for his patients, Aubrey’s enthusiasm for everything naval and care of his officers and crew. Several times Aubrey dives into the sea to rescue a ship member and rescues Maturin in a daring raid ashore when Maturin is captured by the enemy. Later Maturin also rescues Aubrey. Lord Keith of the Admiralty recruits Maturin as a spy for his Catalan contacts and ability to speak the language. Refusing payment, Maturin becomes a spy because he hates Napoleon and tyranny. In Master and Commander he says to Jack Aubrey:

‘I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross the road to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind – it is my own truth alone –but man as part of a movement is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations or nationalism. The only feeling I have – for what they are – are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.’

The Friendship.

Their friendship: In ‘Post Captain,’ in an impecunious period between voyages, Aubrey and Maturin are holed up in a small cottage and practicing rigid economies:

‘They were looking after themselves and there was no greater proof of their friendship than the way their harmony withstood their very great differences in domestic behavior. In Jack’s opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic’d bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cosy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade.

Jack took off his coat, covered his waistcoat and breeches with an apron and carried the dishes into the scullery. ‘My plate and saucer will serve again,’ said Stephen. ‘I have blown upon them. I do wish, Jack, that you would leave that milk-saucepan alone. It is perfectly clean. What more sanitary, what more wholesome, than scalded milk.’

The subtlety of their relationship is revealed in scenes like this from ‘The Letter of Marque’ where they sit talking and Stephen picks out some notes on his cello. An astonished Aubrey asks him if it is the ‘Marseillaise.’ ‘It is not,’ he said. ‘It is, or rather it is meant to be, the Mozart piece that was no doubt lurking somewhere in the Frenchman’s mind when he wrote it. Yet something eludes me…’

‘Stephen, ‘cried Jack. ‘Not another note, I beg. I have it exactly, if only it don’t fly away. He whipped the cloth off his violin-case, turned roughly, and swept straight into the true line. After a while Stephen joined him, and when they were thoroughly satisfied they stopped, tuned very exactly, passed the rosin to each other and so returned to the direct statement, to variations upon it, inversions, embroideries, first one setting out on a flight of improvisation while the other filled in and then the other doing the same, playing on and on.’

And I could read on and on … Happy I am that I am only halfway through the journey and several more of Patrick O’Brian’s master series still await me. I could almost wish that this particular voyage might never end.




Fer Judith C.


Ocean Reveries.

If yer happen ter have accompanied me in my Serf Under_ground, minnow voyages of discovery, yer may have noticed a few ocean references, a serf’s fascination with harbours ‘n such, a fateful attraction seems I share with quite a few other land lubbers.

Says Ishmael in the opening chapter of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, ‘Moby Dick’:

‘Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? – Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousand upon thousand of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against spikes, some seated upon the pier-heads, some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging as if striving to get a better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they do here?’

What do they there watching the water come ashore? Why they wish to embrace the Mysteries and escape the narrow certainties of life on shore, they wish to put to sea.

Here’s Ishmael again:

‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses; and bringing up at the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking peoples’ hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.’

And if you can’t take to the ship, what’s the next best thing? Why it’s read the great stories about the sea, none greater than Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick, Ahab’s hunt for the white whale, and Patrick O’Brien’s grand historical fiction, ‘Master and Commander’ series, set in the Napoleonic era sea battles between England and France.

So let’s begin our great ocean circumnavigation of the globe with Captain Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale. But if you happen to think Melville’s focus is this narrow quest, think again. Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ is so much more, the theme of whales and whaling a metaphor for the mystery of life itself, its glory and the terror, no less. For while the fanatical commander of The Pequod may drive the action, the action is enlarged by the book’s master narrator, Ishmael-Melville.


‘Moby Dick’ begins with a catalogue of extracts from the Bible, Pliny, Shakespeare, Milton and on to Nantucket whalers. Its narrative encompasses sermons, descriptions of the hunt and other experiences transmuted and transcribed through Ishmael’s expansive sensibility.

Says Ishmael, in the chapter, ‘The Fossil Whale’:

‘Give me a condor’s quill. Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an ink-stand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere thought of penning my thoughts of this leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with the outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past present and to come with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole earth, not excluding its suburbs.’

Mysteries and More.

There are the mysteries. Sailing in the Azores, south of St Helena, mysterious midnight sightings of the ‘spirit-spout’ of a distant whale:

‘It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night, a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god, uprising from the sea.’

And there are the glories. Travelling the long and narrow peninsular of Malacca, The Pequod sees on the horizon a semi-circle of whale jets up-playing and sparkling in the mid-day air. Coming closer the whalers find a great multitude of sperm whales herding as a continuous semi circle. When three boats are set down from The Pequod and approach the whales, they begin to display irresolution and consternation, swimming hither, thither and in ever expanding circles, Ishmael observes that had these leviathans been a flock of sheep pursued by three fierce wolves, they could not have evinced more dismay.

Gliding between two whales Ishmael’s boat enters the inner-most centre of the shoal:

‘We were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks in the heart of every commotion. And still in the distracted distance we beheld the tumults of the outer concentric circles, and saw successive pods of whales, eight or ten in each, swiftly going round and round like multiplied spans of horses in a ring; and so close shoulder to shoulder, that a Titanic circus-rider might have easily over-arched the middles ones, and so have gone round on their backs.’

With no chance to escape from this inner centre, Ishmael’s boat must wait for a breach in the living wall. And as they wait, becalmed, they are visited by young whales, evincing a wondrous fearlessness or perhaps a still becalmed panic:

‘Like household dogs they came sniffing around us, right up to our gun whales and touching them.; till it almost seemed that some spell had domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads, Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance…’

Gazing over the side of the boat another wondrous world beneath the surface:

‘For suspended in these watery vaults, floated the forms of nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girths seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and yet while drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; – even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight.’

Ishmael observes one of the babies, some fourteen feet long, seemed hardly a day old:

‘He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarcely recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule, where, head to tail, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar’s bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby’s ears newly arrived from foreign parts.’

And thus within circle upon circle these inscrutable creatures at the centre indulge in all peaceful concernments. Meanwhile a wounded whale, carrying half of a harpoon line along with it, in the extraordinary agony of his wound is dashing around in the revolving circle:

‘that by one of the unimaginable accidents of the fishery, this whale had become entangled in the harpoon-line that he had towed; he had also run away with the cutting -spade in him; and while the free end of the rope attached to that weapon, had permanently caught in the coils of the harpoon-line around his tail, the cutting tool itself had worked loose from his flesh. So that tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing with his flexible tail, and tossing the keen spade about him, wounding and murdering his own comrades.’

Then the entire herd of whales came tumbling upon the inner centre ‘as if to pile themselves up in one common mountain.’ Calm is transformed into horror.

The Expanded Self.

The reader experiences scenes like the above from Melville’s chapter, ‘The Grand Amada,’ through the expansive intelligence of Ishmael, always making connections between things and at the same time discerning differences.

In the Wordsworth Classics edition of ‘Moby Dick,’ there’s an insightful introduction by David Herd in which he explores the writing process of Ishmael-Melville:

‘Generous enthusiasm’ is the key. ‘Enthusiasm,’ one of Emerson’s favorite words, ‘in which any man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other,’ Melville calls it ‘the all feeling.’ But Ishmael is no naïve Emerson. Seated at the masthead on a summer’s day, he warns of the dangerous complacency of living too fully in the moment:

‘There is no life in thee, now, except the rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek, you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists.’

For Ishmael, enthusiasm does not mean the disappearing self but the expanded self, for Ishmael, like Melville himself, feeds on reading, his narrative expanding, growing in stature with the texts he takes on. As he says in his chapter, ‘Cetology,’ I have swum through libraries and sailed through oceans,’ and observes David Herd, ‘with the enthusiasm of the autodidact,’ David Herd observes, Ishmael ‘ thinks of himself, and would think of his reader, as contemporaries of the ancients.’

‘Oh! The metempsychosis!’ says Ishmael. ‘Oh! Pythagorus, that in bright Greece two thousand years ago, did die, so good and wise so mild; I sailed with thee along the Peruvian coast last voyage – and foolish as I am, taught thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!’

Melville’s opening ‘Extracts’ suggest what Melville has learned in the composition of Moby Dick writing with his books around him, but indicate also something of the enthusiasm, of reading pushed out as writing and transmuted into something else, that Ishmael-Melville is sharing with his reader.

‘… if we begin the book with an image of the writer or narrator as a antiquarian (accumulating books on his favorite subject), as we read, we soon understand that the extracts enfold a much more noble, generous enthusiasm. Melville, after all is not just a collector but a reader, and not just a reader but someone who reads to write.’

Herd makes a comparison with Robert Burton, anatomist of melancholy who says of his relation to the writers he has used and learned from, ‘The matter is theirs most part, and yet mine, (which Seneca approves),yet it becomes something different in its new setting.’

What Melville shows through his narrator, Ishmael, says Herd, ‘is that reinvention or self-expansion is an effect of going to the library. Ishmael never stops changing throughout the novel, displaying not the integrity of a conventional character, but the capacity for growth of a curious mind.’

I’d say, that between Ahab, the single-minded enthusiast and Ishmael the generous enthusiast, there hovers a Descartian void. Ishmael is able to tell Ahad’s story, Ahab could never tell Ishmaels’. Ahab is unable to deal with uncertainty and is horrified by any form of exchange, Ishmael can accept complexities and is able to appreciate what it means to live in what he calls ‘a joint-stock world.’

A voyage with master narrator, Ishmael and single-minded commander, Captain Ahab, a sea-trip like no other …


MORE THOUGHTS ON … An Addendum On Love.


                          Raphael's 'Angels'

Serfs like me think those gods don’t know much about love, sweet love in all its subtleties. Human love is an emotion asperger gods jest don’t get. Fer them its capture and retreat, a war game that captivates fallible earthlings too. But those complex humans, why some of them relate in ways the gods don’t dream of. Hear sweet love expressed in human poetry and song.

Schubert ‘Impatience.’  ‘Thine is my heart, and shall be thine, alone, for ever.’

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see;
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin.

Fragile, fraught love betwixt the sexes, maternal love and brotherly, sometimes almost other-worldly, who can explain it, who can tell yer why, fools give yer reasons, wise men nevah try…

Brotherly love? Says Michel de Montaigne, regardin’ his friendship and love fer Steven de la Boitie: ‘If a man urge me to tell wherefore I loved him, I feele it cannot be expressed but by answering, ‘Because it was he, because it was myselfe.’

Romantic love? ‘Tis mysterious … :

Somewhere I have never traveled.
gladly beyond

Somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

e e cummings.

Here’s rich metaphor fer adult love in ‘The Silken Tent,’ ‘loosely bound by countless silken ties,’graceful acceptance of responsibilities with love.

The Silken Tent.

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all the ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe nought to any single cord,
But strictly held by none is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Robert Frost.

Always serious territory with W.H, Auden.


Lay your sleeping head my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rock
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreadful cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but not from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless.
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden.

And how can yer have a selection of verses about emotions without a sonnet by the bard?

Sonnet 29.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I myself am in love with the river god,
the silver perturbations on the surface
that disturb the river’s opacity, the
mysterious depths of cool indifference.

Say,how about you?



Whom the gods …

We envy the gods their longevity,
not recognizing that they envy us.
Envy the heightened drama of existence
that comes with knowledge of life’s brevity
– over before you know it,
– got to have something to show for it,
serious ambition, love, and dynasty,
creativity, can’t just sit around
like gods on Olympus clouds, dreaming
up low tricks to play on us below.

Those gods! Can’t keep their jealous eyes off us,
entertain themselves by fooling us,
mortals existing just for their sport.
Stuff of Greek tragedy, they have to fill
all those tomorrows and tomorrows
of eternity with something, theatre
of the absurd. Sometimes they even come down
to earth, like goddam randy Zeus, making
more mischief, more mayhem via god children,
like Herakles, son of Zeus, whom Hera makes mad
so that he kills his wife and children in
a frenzy. And then there’s Helen, daughter of Zeus.
Time to bring on the Trojan Wars.


Sophocles: Chorus from Antigone.

Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these
Is man, who rides the ocean and takes his way
Through the deeps, through wind-swept valleys of perilous seas
That surge and sway.

He is master of ageless Earth, to his own will bending
The immortal mother of gods by the sweat of his brow,
As year succeeds to year, with toil unending
Of mule and plough.

He is lord of all things living; birds of the air,
Beasts of the field, all creatures of sea and land
He taketh, cunning to capture and ensnare
With sleight of hand;

Hunting the savage beast from the upland rocks,
Taming the mountain monarch in his lair,
Teaching the wild horse and the roaming ox’
His yoke to bear.

The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain
He learnt; found out the laws of living together
In cities, building him shelters against the rain
And wintry weather.

There is nothing beyond his power. His subtlety
Meeteth all chance, all danger conquereth.
For every ill he found a remedy,
Save only death.


William Butler Yeats: Long-Legged Fly.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if you move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practice a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on the scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make,
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.


Archibald MacLeish: You Andrew Marvell.*

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night.

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthly chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow.

And strange at Echbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change.

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass.

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on.

And deep on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light in the sea
And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …

* Reference to Andrew Marvell’s Poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress.’


Oh Ozymandias!

Well that’s all, folks …