31 January 2010

The man behind the Ancient Mariner?

According to the Observer an author believes he has identified the sailor who was the base for Coleridge’s poem the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Robert Fowke traced the sailor back to his birthplace in the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, and has revealed the details of his extraordinary life in a book published this week.

Coleridge is thought to have come up with the idea of writing about a sailor who is becalmed at sea after shooting an albatross in 1797, while he was out walking with his friend William Wordsworth in the hills above his home in Nether Stowey, Somerset.

According to Mr Fowke: "Scholars have always known what gave Coleridge the idea for the poem, because Wordsworth said they had talked together about a book by Captain George Shelvocke during their walk, but nobody has ever taken up the story,"

Examining both Captain Shelvocke's A Voyage round the World by way of the Great South Sea (1726), and another seafaring volume by William Bettagh, Fowke has pieced together the life of the sailor, Simon Hatley, who is said to have shot down "a black albatross" while on board a ship called the Speedwell. "The more I discovered, the more exciting it was," said Fowke. "I knew Hatley was lost at sea and had then been picked up by a Spanish ship and taken to Lima, where I suspected he had become caught up in the Inquisition."

Finding an account that suggested Hatley was tortured in South America, Fowke travelled to Madrid to search through the Inquisition's official records. "Under the heading 'Spontaneous Conversion' I found at Number 11 a 'Simon Hatey' who was from 'Yudstock'. I thought that could be Woodstock, so I went to Oxfordshire and, sure enough, I found the birth of Simon Hatley in the local register for 1685."

Hatley sailed to the Pacific on two of the most dangerous voyages of the early 18th century. At one point, he was on a ship not only with Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor whose story inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but also with William Dampier, an adventurer and writer on whose work Jonathan Swift drew for Gulliver's Travels.

Hatley was on the crew of the Duke, which set out for South America on a voyage proposed by Dampier accompanied by a sister ship, the Duchess. At one point on this voyage of 1709, while Selkirk and Dampier were both together on board the Duchess, Hatley joined them. "Because these privateers were incredibly bureaucratic and suspicious and wrote down everything about their loot," explains Fowke, "they appointed Hatley as the 'plunder manager', to check that the two ships' crews were being honest with each other. So for one period they were all on board the same ship."

A Voyage round the World by way of the Great South Sea by Captain George Shelvocke, published in 1726, contains a passage that is likely to have given Coleridge the idea for his poem about the Ancient Mariner.

"We all observed that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind since we came into the southward of the streights of le Maire, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albatross, 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 which was always hovering near us, imagined, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen .... he, after some fruitless attempts, at length shot the Albatross, not doubting (perhaps) that we should have a fair wind after it ..."

This is utterly fascinating stuff (Yes I know I say those words a lot but I do earnestly believe it!). Given also that I am fascinated by Britain’s maritime history (but don’t ask me to scandalise the main topgallant and I couldn’t tie a bowline even if my life depended on it!). I certainly do feel a purchase coming on though


Anonymous said...

Avast shipmate! Lest ye be brought up by a round turn!

jams o donnell said...

Which I'm only saying. Don't ye top it the nob with me!

Ole Phat Stu said...

Avast, the sighs of the gruntfuttock seduced us all! ;-)

Unknown said...

Where do you dig this stuff up? :-) It's all very interesting, even to a non-Anglophile.

CherryPie said...

That is really interesting.

I have a book that has two versions of the Ancient Mariner in it. The earliest surviving version and the revised version.

Kay Dennison said...

One of my majors at university (yeah, I'm one of those double major nerds) was English and Coleridge was/is one of my favorite poets -- probably because my dad could recite it and did. Thanks for sharing this great info!
Now I have to go find my Oxford Book of British Poetry and re-read it.

Claude said...

Fascinating, Jams. My favourite line:
Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
Hope it never happens to us because of our foolish use of nature.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks everyone. Sometimes the papers have stuff of real interst in them!

Susan English Mason said...

The Real Ancient Mariner, by Robert Fowke is now on my library book list. LOL, in case I every get a breather from grad school, yikes. My son is getting a doctorate in literature so I will pass this gem on.

jams o donnell said...

It is truly fascinating eh Pouty