Fact and fiction

Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719
Robinson Crusoe, from the first edition 1719; Defoe’s novel is partly based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, marooned from 1704 to 1709

Robert Carse The Castaways:
A Narrative History of Some Survivors from the Dangers of the Sea

Ronald Whiting & Wheaton 1967 (1966)

I don’t usually start reviews with a biographical note, but since I knew nothing about Robert Carse I felt it was only fair to find out what constrained him to write this rather curious narrative history. I discovered that he was a pulp fiction author whose first effort was published in 1928, with stories appearing frequently in Argosy magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Born in 1902 (he died in 1971) he became a sailor on the Great Lakes at seventeen, later becoming chief mate at sea. Having extensively sailed the world’s ocean he then embarked on a career as a maritime historian: it’s said that Carse claimed to have spent half of his life on water, and must have spent the other half writing about it, some of his work drawing on his experiences as a merchant seaman during the war.

With a back catalogue of short stories, serials, articles and books, both fiction and non-fiction, Carse’s output was aimed variously at children and adults. Thus The Castaways could as easily appeal to young adults as to older readers. His nine chapters include nine men who went ashore in foreign parts and one woman, and they include stories ranging from the Tudor period to the 19th century. With such a wide experience of seafaring and of being published Carse should have come up with a Narrative History that both impresses and convinces. But I found that this was a tantalising and not totally satisfying read.

After a Foreword mentioning St Paul shipwrecked on Malta, the Spanish Armada seamen stranded on the Scottish and Irish coasts and sailors on the treasure ships wrecked off Bermuda, Carse starts his history proper with Alexander (‘Sawney’) Selkirk, best known as the model for Defoe’s fictional figure of Robinson Crusoe. Also from the 18th century is William Dampier who, coincidentally, met Selkirk when the latter was rescued after being marooned on Juan Fernandez Island; in the course of several voyages Dampier explored lands such as New  Guinea and parts of the coast of Australia.

Many of the sailors Carse discusses were British privateers, that is, pirates in all but name through being legitimised by the government to prey on the shipping of Britain’s enemies. Job Hortop was one such, a Tudor seaman under John Hawkins, who was captured in Mexico and spent time in Spanish galleys. Contemporary with Hortop were Francis Sparry and Goodwin (the latter had just the one name) who were left in the Orinoco region to befriend the local Indians and scout for the mythical El Dorado; Goodwin in fact ‘went native’, only reluctantly returning to England after several years.

One of the few non-Brits that Carse includes was Willem Barents, from Friesland in the Netherlands, focusing on his brave but fruitless attempt at the end of the 16th century to find a Northeast passage to China and the Spice Islands; at least he gave his name to the Barents Sea in the Arctic above Norway and Russia. On the other side of the world was John Byron, grandfather of Lord Byron, who survived shipwreck and other vicissitudes off the west coast of South America in the mid 18th century. Herman Melville’s experiences living in Polynesia also appear, a real-life ‘castaway’ who’s better known to the general public from his classic Moby Dick. We also hear of the co-formulator of the theory of evolution, the Welshman Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent years of research in the Amazon jungles and around the Malay archipelago. Finally, Carse draws attention to the only woman mentioned here, Mary Bryant from Cornwall, who after escaping from the Australian penal colony near Botany Bay in Australia was eventually captured on Timor before many tragic adventures brought her back to her native shores.

I did find this a fascinating read, giving background information on some characters I’d heard of and others utterly unknown to me, as well as a clear idea of the daunting situations many found themselves in after volunteering to serve at sea. Where I was less happy was in the style that Carse adopted to tell their stories. Many passages in his accounts were composed of short choppy sentences with no great literary pretensions:

“Melville was twenty-two. He was not prepared to spend any more time aboard Achushnet. He studied the shore and planned exactly how he would reach it, and what he would do once he was free from the ship.”

Happily these are intermingled with descriptions — sometimes poetic — which attested to his wide experience and intimate acquaintance with sea-going, much of it under sail. However he, as a marine historian, also adopted an approach which I would characterise as a Reader’s Digest house style, full of imaginatively reconstructed dialogue and action which, while vivid, inevitably blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. In early 20th-century popular writing this might just be acceptable, but by strict historical standards it’s a little less than honest. There is no discussion either of how reliable his basic material is (of the twenty-five titles in his bibliography just six are obviously from primary sources); nor is there any acknowledgement of possible factual distortion in, for example, Melville’s narrative of his time on Typee (Tai Pī) or reconstructed sequences in Job Hortop’s recollection of the decades spent as a prisoner in Mexico and Spain.

But as easy-to-read adventure stories these work well, with a narrative arc that extends from departure through severe privation to eventual return. The privations were real enough, multiplied many times for all those mariners who sailed in the great voyages of exploration and, sadly, exploitation. As an introduction to those three centuries of sea-based activity it does its job splendidly, and since this is a narrative history of the survivors (spelt, oddly, ‘survivers’ on my edition’s title page) we know that they were the lucky ones.

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9 thoughts on “Fact and fiction

  1. I always find the idea of these survivors extraordinary, though perhaps the people in those days were more suited to it as most would know how to hunt, light fires, defend themselves where most modern westerners are devoid of such skills.

    Sounds like a book to be read for entertainment value or as a jumping off point into the world of castaways rather than to use for research.
    Most definitely boys own adventure stuff 🙂

    1. Yes, very much Boy’s Own — which I suppose many of the old Reader’s Digest articles (especially those digested books at the end of each issue) in effect were — you know, individuals getting through the most formidable odds, ain’t human endurance and willpower incredible.

      My mother used to have loads of RDs lying around when I was a kid, which I devoured for the jokes, mainly, and Increase Your Word Power quizzes. (I nearly typed “My mother used to have loads of RDs when I was a kid lying around …” but I suppose that was true as well!)

      I also remember being given copies of Boy’s Own when I was young (I see it was published from 1879 until 1967) but even then I could tell it was largely imperialistic in tone and often dismissive of non-whites, which even then I found distasteful, to say the least. As for hunting, lighting fires and so on, these were all things being in the Scouts was supposed in inculcate, but I was rubbish at it all …

      1. Haha! You don’t want to get yourself in a castaway situation then? I’ve always said, come the Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll be the undead fodder at the back, as those lean and wily survivors sprint for high ground / a bunker / police station etc etc. What’s that joke? You don’t have to be able to outrun a lion, you just have to be able to outrun your companions. Well, running’ never been my thing …

        My parents always had RDs delivered too and I remember the Increase Your Word Power too – and the jokes of course. I remember reading some of their condensed books (nice faux leather and gold lettered hard backs) which is just such and apalling idea to me now!

        1. It was a really awkward moment when my mother offered me her collection of RD condensed books — I had to mumble something about having too many books already. Perhaps they would now come in handy for building a wall against all those zombies?!

          1. Haha! No, I wouldn’t want them on my shelves either. 🙂 They would be great against the zombies, though I think better as missiles than a wall, as long as your aim’s true and you can hit them in the head 🙂

    1. I acquired it when it was withdrawn and offered for sale at my local library nearly a half-century ago, since when I had only read the Selkirk account at the same time as I read a condensed version of Robinson Crusoe. In my feeble attempt at decluttering I felt it was high time this volume, with its ‘vellichor’ scent wafting along the shelves, was recycled. To answer your query, it was indeed an unknown unknown, as such retired library books tend to be when you rummage through the eclectic works on offer after their withdrawal from the library shelves!

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