Sunday, May 20, 2012

'Stranger things in the world, than are to be seen between London and Staines': in America with John Josselyn

Page from 'New England's Rarities' showing the "beautiful leaved pirola"

I recently had to mark some student papers, and one favoured question among them was a chance to write about Defoe’s use of the journal form in Robinson Crusoe. This, if not interesting in itself, made me interested to find a non fictional journal of two voyages across the Atlantic, John Josselyn’s An account of two voyages to New-England (1674). It gives details of two trips to New England and back, for lengthy stays in the country, in 1638-39 and 1663-71.

Josselyn’s publication was intended to win him an invitation to join the Royal Society. That august body could have fanciful and credulous moments, but even they had to draw a line somewhere, and Josselyn was disappointed. The interest of his book is, in the end, that it is a record of average sentiments, middling insight, the small bulwarks an average nature erects against the overwhelming nature of new experiences. Yes, he does try to order his observations, with sections given over to the natural history of New England, to the native inhabitants, to key dates in the colony’s existence. But a truer record of confusion, incomprehension, alarm, and rough-and-ready strategies for coping emerges.

The book is in many, many places, deplorable. Josselyn’s responses to what he witnessed, heard, and did, are so limited, and often brutal, that the book becomes, in its deplorable way, funny. I was recurrently reminded of Michael Green’s half-forgotten classic of prose comedy, Squire Haggard’s Journal ,
as secure prejudices and a very strong stomach enable Josselyn to cope complacently with his fellow creatures being horribly treated (“they speed not so well as the waggish lad at Cape-porpus, who baited his hooks with the drown'd Negro's buttocks”), and an insalubrious or alarming extistence in early New England.

The colonists arriving are, to be frank, a poxy lot:
3rd May “and now a Servant of one of the passengers sickned of the small pox.”
day 14 “Now was Scilly 50 leagues off, and now many of the passengers fall sick of the small Pox and Calenture.”
“The Two and twentieth, another passenger dyed of a Consumption”

The voyage they are on is mediated through literature. Here’s whale in a battle with a swordfish and a ‘Flailfish’:
“the other was further off, about a league from the Ship, fighting with the Sword-fish, and the Flailfish, whose stroakes with a fin that growes upon her back like a flail, upon the back of the Whale, we heard with amazement.”

This is surely a yarn derived from whatever source it was that Donne used for the same unlikely encounter in his Metempsycosis.

They see an ‘enchanted island’: “June the first day in the afternoon, very thick foggie weather, we sailed by an inchanted Island, saw a great deal of filth and rubbish floating by the Ship, heard Cawdimawdies, Sea-gulls and Crowes, (Birds that alwayes frequent the shoar) but could see nothing by reason of the mist: towards Sunset, when we were past the Island, it cleared up.”

Icebergs, when they see them, could with equal likeliness have foxes or devils moving on them. Notice that even as he reports a possible sighting of devils, Josselyn also records how cold the air was while they were in proximity to the berg. What he undoubtedly experienced gets mixed up with things he may or may not have seen:
“The Fourteenth day of June, very foggie weather, we sailed by an Island of Ice (which lay on the Star-board side) three leagues in length, mountain high, in form of land, with Bayes and Capes like high clift land, and a River pouring off it into the Sea. We saw likewise two or three Foxes, or Devils skipping upon it. These Islands of Ice are congealed in the North, and brought down in the spring-time with the Current to the banks on this side New-found-land, and there stopt, where they dissolve at last to water … Here it was as cold as in the middle of January in England, and so continued till we were some leagues beyond it.”
Once he arrives for the first time in new England, the local news immediately imparted to him is of the birth of a monstrous child to a Quaker woman. Josselyn is interested in examples of inter-breeding and miscegenation. Mrs Dyer’s malformed baby makes him think of a story he heard, and the explanation he credited about the piglet with some apparently human features. One can see what he thought of the poor Quaker woman; Josselyn, a man who thinks of himself as having some medical expertise, imagines that bestiality can lead to offspring:

“The Thirtieth day of September, I went ashore upon Noddles-Island … the next day a grave and sober person described the Monster to me, that was born at Boston of one Mrs. Dyer a great Sectarie, the Nine and twentieth of June, it was (it should seem) without a head, but having horns like a Beast, and ears, scales on a rough skin like a fish  called a Thornback, legs and claws like a Hawke, and in other respects as a Woman-child.
I have read that at Bruxels, Anno 1564, a sow brought forth six pigs, the first whereof (for the last in generating is alwayes in bruit beasts the first brought forth) had the head, face, arms and legs of a man, but the whole trunck of the body from the neck, was of a swine, a sodomitical monster is more like the mother than the father in the organs of the vegetative soul.

As for sexual relations between different human races, Josselyn gives us a moment of pure Nathanial Hawthorne:
“An English woman suffering an Indian to have carnal knowledge of her, had an Indian cut out exactly in red cloth sewed upon her right Arm, and enjoined to wear it twelve months.”
She was relatively lucky. Josselyn reports the 1646 codes of laws:
“For being drunk, they either whip or impose a fine of Five shillings; so for swearing and cursing, or boring through the tongue with a hot Iron.
For kissing a woman in the street, though in way of civil salute, whipping or a fine.
For Single fornication, whipping or a fine.
For Adultery, put to death, and so for Witchcraft.”
Because he rejects no story that came his way, Josselyn tells us what happened if absconding lovers arrived in New England. Rank was no refuge:
“Sir Christopher Gardiner descended of the house of Gardiner Bishop of Winchester, Knighted at Jerusalem of the Sepulcher, arrived in New-England with a comely young woman his Concubine, settled himself in the Bay of Massachusets, was rigidly used by the Magistrates, and by the Magistrates of New-Plimouth to which place he retired.”
Even though he spent long periods in New England, Josselyn clearly continued to regard the established settlers as ‘they’ and ‘them’, a different people.
Among these early Americans, Josselyn is always ready to try his hand at a cure. Snakes plague this American Eden, but all things were, naturally, created for use, and so here’s a possible first example of the virtues of snake oil: “The fat of a Rattle-snake is very Soveraign for frozen limbs, bruises, lameness by falls, Aches, Sprains. The heart of a Rattle-snake dried and pulverized and drunk with wine or beer is an approved remedy against the biting and venom of a Rattle-snake.” The snake’s heart as remedy for its own poison: that’s such a typical piece of early modern thinking!

The sea and the rivers swarmed with fish. When his first voyage arrived off the Grand Banks, it happened to be a Sunday. The sailors fish for the voracious and easily-taken cod, but the Puritans on board, though hungry, will not partake of the fish they have just seen taken on the Sabbath:
“The Sixteenth day we sounded, and found 35 fathom water, upon the bank of New-found-land, we cast our our hooks for Cod-fish, thick foggie weather, the Cod being taken on a Sunday morning, the Sectaries aboard threw those their servants took into the Sea again, although they wanted fresh victuals, but the Sailers were not so nice.”

Huge lobsters abound, salmon swarm. Josselyn has a typical note about what to do with trout: “Trouts there be good store in every brook, ordinarily two and twenty inches long, their grease is good for the Piles and clifts.” The OED says that ‘clefts’ were chapped skin: just rub some trout fat on your face!

New England also swarmed with insect life, and Josselyn is good on these details of how it was to live there in the early days: “Likewise there be infinite numbers of Tikes hanging upon the bushes in summer time that will cleave to a mans garments and creep into his Breeches eating themselves in a short time into the very flesh of a man. I have seen the stockins of those that have gone through the woods covered with them.
The Countrey is strangely incommodated with flyes, which the English call Musketaes, they are like our gnats, they will sting so fiercely in summer as to make the faces of the English swell'd and scabby, as if the small pox for the first year.”

I have read somewhere – was it in Peter Watson’s The Great Divide? -  that European settlers took the earth worm with them to America, not deliberately, but mixed in the soil of seedlings. I found this astonishing, but Josselyn does seem to report that the familiar worm was not among the native fauna: “The Earth-worm, these are very rare and as small as a horse hair.”

Josselyn also published an account of the wildlife of New England, New-England's rarities discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country (1672). Here in this work, he repudiates those who had scoffed at his reports of the size of the moose, that “Monster of superfluity.” He speaks of a tamed beaver, that would run up and down the streets of Boston, before returning to its new home.

So, John Josselyn’s America, so full of hazards, so full of living things, peopled by devil-worshippers and cannibals, but still a kind of Eden: “ 'Tis true, the Countrie hath no Bonerets, or Tartarlambs, no glittering coloured Tulips; but here you have the American Mary Gold, the Earth-nut bearing a princely Flower, the beautiful leaved Pirola, the honied Colibry, &c. They are generally of (somewhat) a more masculine virtue, than any of the same species in England, but not in so terrible a degree, as to be mischievous or ineffectual to our English bodies.”

But, above all, it’s a land where anything might be true. I will leave off with the haunting anecdote he picked up from a Mr Foxwell. Now, the context here is definitely one in which men are trying to top one another’s stories. ‘Mr Mitten’ has just been telling a yard about a ‘Triton or Merman’. After this, “The next story was told by Mr. Foxwell, now living in the province of Main, who having been to the Eastward in a Shallop, as far as Cape-Ann … in his return was overtaken by the night, and fearing to land upon the barbarous shore, he put off a little further to Sea; about midnight they were wakened with a loud voice from the shore, calling upon “Foxwell!  Foxwell! come ashore”, two or three times: upon the Sands they saw a great fire, and Men and Women hand-in-hand dancing round about it in a ring, after an hour or two they vanished, and as soon as the day appeared, Foxwell puts into a small Cove, it being about three quarters floud, and traces along the shore, where he found the footing of Men, Women and Children shod with shoes; and an infinite number of brands-ends thrown up by the water, but neither Indian nor English could he meet with on the shore, nor in the woods; these with many other stories they told me, the credit whereof I will neither impeach nor enforce, but shall satisfie my self, and I hope the Reader hereof, with the saying of a wise, learned and honourable Knight, that there are many stranger things in the world, than are to be seen between London and Staines.”

(It’s Sir Walter Ralegh’s History of the World, of course, that he refers to.)

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