The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VII. The Literature of Travel, 1700–1900

§ 1. William Dampier

A CHAPTER on the literature of travel must treat of widely different things, and should open with some attempt at definition. The phrase “literature of travel” suggests, in the first instance, such books as Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, Kinglake’s Eothen, Borrow’s Bible in Spain, Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes, Stevenson’s Inland Voyage—books in which the personality and literary power of the writer count for more than his theme, books which need not treat of anything new, but merely of something sufficiently unusual to provide an interesting topic for a writer who, in any case, would be interesting. The travels described in such narratives need not be historical or intrinsically notable. Their value rather lies in this, that they provide a topic for literature. Their writers are known rather as authors than as travellers. But such books are, relatively, few. Most writers on travel are remembered as travellers rather than as authors, and the value of their works lies not so much in revealing the personality and literary power of the writer as in successfully describing his journeys and discoveries. “No one expects literature in a book of travel,” says Mary Kingsley. Countless printed pages record the travels and discoveries of two centuries. This chapter can only be kept within reasonable limits by recognising that the literature of travel and the written records of travel are not the same thing. The present purpose is to mention such books only as can claim to belong to literature. Any general definition would be difficult, since every work must be judged by its own merits, and the best books possess an individuality which refuses to be reduced to categories. Moreover, established repute must be taken into account: for any work which stands as the monument of a great achievement, apart from purely technical or scientific matter, has won a place in literature.

Yet, in general, there are two qualifications. In the first place, one who writes about travel should have something of the born traveller in him, something of the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses or Browning’s Waring. “Whatever we do, let us not sit still; there’s time enough for that when we lose the use of our legs.” So writes a notable traveller, now little read, E. D. Clarke; and, again, “The joy I feel in the prospect of visiting the countries within the Arctic is not to be expressed.” Secondly, the author must write in the same vein, so that the narrative shall itself reflect the spirit and passion of travel which possesses the writer.

In a travel-book, viewed as literature, accuracy is no merit, unless the style and character of the work enjoin accuracy. Thus, in Dampier’s Journals or Cook’s Narrative or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, since the very nature and purpose of these books stamp them as faithful records, any flaw in accuracy would be a literary flaw. But, in reading Borrow’s Bible in Spain, one of the finest travel-books ever written, no one pauses to ask whether every page depicts actual occurrences exactly as they happened. For Borrow, catching the very spirit of the picaresque romance, gives a truer picture of Spain than any accurate description could offer. He views and depicts the country in the light of his own sympathetic genius.

In books of discovery, since they are, in some sort, scientific histories, accuracy is demanded; yet, even in this kind, there are exceptions—for example, Bruce’s Travels in Abyssinia. Here, the veteran hero, telling his story years after the event, views through the magnifying haze of memory, illuminated by a picturesque and transparent personal vanity, the fantastic and exotic melodrama in which he had played a part. It matters little if his narrative was coloured by his dreams. He has painted for us the true Abyssinia as no one else could have done.

William Dampier, sailor, logwood-cutter, buccaneer or pirate, privateer and explorer, may be regarded as the pioneer of modern travellers. At two-and-twenty, he became under-manager of a Jamaica estate; but soon wandered away to trade, to logwood-cutting in Yucatan and to buccaneering. For seven years (1679–86), he served under various pirate-captains along the Spanish Main and in the Pacific, and then spent five adventurous years (1686–91) wandering homewards from California by the East Indies and the Cape. After publishing narratives of his voyages, he was sent by the admiralty as commander of an exploring expedition to New Holland (Australia). His ship foundered “through perfect age” at Ascension on the homeward voyage. Dampier was afterwards tried by court-martial for cruelty to his lieutenant, was found guilty and declared unfit to command a king’s ship. However, he soon sailed in command of two privateers to the South sea (1703–7) upon a voyage diversified by mutinies, desertions and disruption. In 1708–11, Dampier served as pilot to the privateer Woodes Rogers.

Dampier’s experiences as logwood-cutter and pirate supply the best part of his writings. This common seaman, serving before the mast in a pirate-ship, writes with a curious gentleness and sympathy and in vigorous, dignified, expressive prose. A born wanderer and observer, he describes with quaint and picturesque fidelity seas, coasts, people, plants and animals. His observations on peoples, customs and trade have a distinct historical value.

  • All the Indians that I have been acquainted with who are under the Spaniards seem to be more melancholy than other Indians that are free; and at these public meetings when they are in the greatest of their jollity, their mirth seems to be rather forced than real. Their songs are very melancholy and doleful, so is their music; but whether it be natural to the Indians to be thus melancholy or the effect of their slavery, I am not certain. But I have always been prone to believe that they are then only condoling their misfortunes, the loss of their country and liberties, while although those that are now living do not know nor remember what it was to be free, yet there seems to be a deep impression in their thoughts of the slavery which the Spaniards have brought them under, increased probably by some traditions of their ancient freedom.
  • He thus describes a piratical episode in Nicaragua:

  • The next morning the Spaniards killed one of our tired men. He was a stout old grey-headed man, aged about eighty-four, who had served under Oliver in the time of the Irish Rebellion; after which he was at Jamaica, and had followed privateering ever since. He would not accept of the offer our men made him to tarry ashore, but said he would venture as far as the best of them; and when surrounded by the Spaniards he refused to take quarter, but discharged his gun amongst them, keeping a pistol still charged; so they shot him dead at a distance. His name was Swan. He was a very merry hearty old man, and always used to declare he would never take quarter.