In late September of 1719, the British privateer ship Speedwell was cruising near Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America. The ship faced weeks of foul weather. Thick fog prevented her crew from using the sun to calculate their position, and driving winds threatened to wreck the ship on icebergs or rocky coastlines. The intense cold claimed the life of a crewman named William Camell, who fell into the water and drowned when his hands and fingers became too numb to hold onto the rigging. In gloomy spirits, the crew remarked that it had been more than a week since they had seen any living thing besides themselves, apart from:
“… a disconsolate black Albitross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin’d from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. That which, I suppose, induced him the more to encourage his superstition, was the continued series of contrary tempestuous winds, which had oppress’d us ever since we had got into this sea. But be that as it would, he, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albitross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it.”
In 1726, George Shelvocke, captain of the Speedwell, published his account of the Voyage round the world by way of the great South Sea, including this evocative scene. In the autumn of 1797, this passage caught the attention of William Wordsworth, who pointed it out to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was at that time contemplating a poem incorporating gothic imagery and metaphysical overtones.
The poem required that the central character commit some crime which would bring down upon his head a spectral persecution, and Wordsworth suggested that the killing of an albatross might serve that purpose. The next year, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was published as the first poem in Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge that is now hailed as the beginning of the Romantic movement in literature.
While the shooting of the albatross is now the most famous moment in Shelvocke’s 468-page monograph, it is far from the only noteworthy episode. On 25 May 1720, the Speedwell was wrecked and the crew marooned for five months on an uninhabited island. Some years earlier, Alexander Selkirk had achieved fame for surviving four years in solitude on an island in the south seas, one of the sources of inspiration for Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Shelvocke’s description of the wreck of the Speedwell and the subsequent construction of a new 20 ton boat out of its remains captured the public imagination. The book also contains one of the earliest depictions of the natives of Baja California, and mentions the discovery of gold in California and the abundance and economic potential of guano in Peru more than a hundred years before their rediscovery and exploitation in the 19th century.
Not included in Shelvocke’s book is the legal battle that followed his return to England in 1722, which portrays him in a less flattering light. The Speedwell was originally intended to accompany a larger ship, the Success, under the command of John Clipperton (who had served under Captain Dampier). Early on in the voyage, the Speedwell became separated from the Success, and instead of travelling to an agreed-upon rendezvous, Shelvocke struck out on his own, attacking a Portuguese ship along the way. On arriving in back in England, Shelvocke was immediately charged by the ship’s owners with piracy and embezzlement for having withheld large quantities of plunder from the privateering expedition. In his preface to the Voyage, Shelvocke acknowledges that “the unavoidable misfortunes I encounter’d with, gave room for some to censure my conduct in my share of the Expedition; from whence several scandalous and unjust aspersions have been thrown upon me,” and that his design in publishing his account of the voyage was partially to clear his own name.
Much of the evidence against Shelvocke came from William Betagh, a member of the crew of the Speedwell who published his own account, entitled Voyage Round the World, in 1728. Betagh depicts Shelvocke as a Machiavellian villain who conspired to defraud the ship’s owners of the bulk of their profit, cause the death or capture of those who opposed him, and lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of his victims. Betagh himself was captured by the Spanish early in the voyage, however, and consequently much of his testimony is hearsay.
In 1757, George Shelvocke’s son released a second edition of the Voyage round the world by way of the great South Sea. He made extensive corrections to the text in an attempt to vindicate his father from the charges of embezzlement and piracy, and this editions is now considered by some to be textually superior to the first. Cardiff University holds copies of both editions: the 1726 first edition in the Salisbury Collection, and the 1757 second edition in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection.