The Isle of Aves

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“But any man of sense,” I said, “would remember that the eyes are doubly confused from two different causes, both in passing from light to darkness and from darkness to light; and believing that the same things happen with regard to the soul also, whenever he sees a soul confused and unable to discern anything he would not just laugh carelessly; he would examine if it had come out of a more brilliant life and if it were darkened by the strangeness; or whether it had come out of greater ignorance into a more brilliant light, and if it were dazzled with the brighter illumination.”
Plato, The Republic, Book VII

I

A letter from Captain Lemuel Gulliver to his cousin Captain William Dampier

Captain Will Dampier, since I sent you last
My best advice to order and recast
The notes and papers, relative to your New
Voyage Around the World, the book which you
Are not delivered of, I write to say
That my own Travels are launched, and till they weigh,
I have employed the time in reading yours
With no less attention than applause.
Its sober, factual narrative, I confess,
Convinced me that I should attempt no less;
And yet, may I be bold to say, the aim
That prompts us each to write is not the same.
Among the buccaneers with whom you serve,
If I mistake not, mainly to observe
What creatures crowd the land or cram the sea,
Your bent being Natural Philosophy;
Men and the laws both human and divine
That shape their actions and their ends are mine.
Of course as sea-farers we share besides
A common interest in wind and tides;
Your purposes in this with mine agree
To advance and further knowledge of the sea.
Yet from this point our separate aims diverge
So much that I have one request to urge,
Which is to send me the original
Text of a narrative which, I recall,
I read among the papers I had here
Of a tale told you by a privateer
On the Isle of Aves, where you had been
To mend your rigging, refit and careen.
You took it down, it seems from his own lips,
Of how the Count d’Estrée there lost his ships;
So lively a tale that I could scarcely wait
To read your censures on mankind and Fate
When in due course your volume first appeared.
But, knowing your temper, sir, ’twas as I feared.
I was most disappointed, I must own:
A bald epitome of the facts alone,
Omitting the vivid colours, I recollect,
Which your original led me to expect;
As though you grudged to waste so many words
From your long catalogue of the island’s birds.
Boobies and noddies! Can you be so blind
To man’s own proper study of mankind?
But I’ll not rail on—As you are my friend,
Oblige me, Cousin, once again and lend
Those papers, if by chance they may survive
And you shall find me grateful while I live.
Waiting your favour, I remain, good Sir,
Ever your servant,
Lemuel Gulliver.

II

Captain William Dampier to Captain Lemuel Gulliver, lately returned from his Fourth Voyage

Cousin Captain Lemuel, your request to hand;
The papers too, herewith at your command,
And may I add that I rejoice to hear
You safe returned at last? A privateer
From the South Seas, with whom I spoke of late,
One of your mutineers, described your fate.
Marooned defenceless on a desert coast.
Your friends here had long given you up for lost.
Strange tales are spread abroad since you came home,
Some saying your hardships turned your wits, and some
Your jests of talking horses quite at odds
With tribes more beastly than the Hodmadods,
Whom, having seen myself, I can attest
From those New Holland affords, at least no jest.
As for those buccaneers that used you so,
I hesitate to plead for them, although
For years myself was of their company.
Blood-thirsty, ruthless ruffians, I agree,
For the most part, insatiable for gold,
Treacherous, cruel, yet may I be so bold
To say they number some honest men and true
And that they have their code of honour too,
Which is enforced and recognized by most,
And this they call the Custom of the Coast?
Courage and loyalty above all they prize
And death and deadliest wounds alike despise;
And some more gently bred with them you find,
Bear books and read them—one who comes to mind
Of whom I heard my comrade Ringrose speak,
Read daily his New Testament in Greek;
Another that on our march to Panama
Studied Plato in the intervals of war,
While I wrote up my journals day by day
And kept them safely—with his Plato too—
Sealed up in a large segment of bamboo
—Philosophy and Science in one box,
An allegory your late epistle unlocks—
You, Cousin, with moral philosophy obsessed,
And I by natural science no less possessed,
Reveal, though neither claims to be a sage,
The paradigm and paradox of our age.
Yours to assert, if anybody can,
The eternal mores of the rights of man,
Mine to collect the facts, by patient search
Of claims young Science may make against old Church.
Who shall prevail I know not, I admit.
Magna est veritas et praevalebit
Laugh at my boobies, Cousin, if you will,
I am for facts and observation still
And, till we meet, as yet I hope we may,
Defer such matters till that wished for day.
Meanwhile, for the reports your spirit craves,
Those wild events upon the Isle of Aves,
My tale was but the summary of the words
Of an old salt told on that isle of birds,
Sitting with others round a drift-wood fire.
The full account, here sent at your desire,
Was not, as you suppose, his actual speech.
We sat by night above a windy beach;
I wrote next day from memory, this report,
Suppressing the oaths with which men of this sort
Unconsciously embellish whate’er they say
And some cant terms no more in use today

III

We left Bon-Airey as my log records,
Bent to careen upon the Isle of Birds,
A little island not four miles long and wide
Less than a half, most overflown with tide
At the high water; but the South is free,
With banks of coral thrown up by the sea
Where at their leisure the privateers careen.
We found two camps of them and pitched between.
Looking across the reef from that high ground,
We sat and supped and passed the bottle round
And asked our neighbours, who had joined us there,
What wrecks were those we saw and whose they were.
“The Count d’Estrée’s,” said one, “who by mischance
Was lost, sent hither by the King of France
To capture Curaçao and, to his grief
Led his whole fleet by night upon the reef;
For having struck, he fired his guns to tell
The squadron at his back all was not well.
But they mistook his signal for a hail
To aid him in a fight, crowded on sail
Following his main-top light, of course to pile
Upon the reef within a close half-mile.
One of two privateers with the French fleet,
Ours fouled the coral to make our wreck complete.
But without loss we got our gear on shore,
Set up our camp and watched a day or more,
Since, in mild weather, their ships continued whole
Whether the French would warp them from the shoal.
But they like madmen would not wait the tide,
Took to their boats or sprang clean overside.
Some perished in the main against the reef,
Even in the calm lagoon some came to grief,
And those who got ashore, unused to keep
Hardship at bay, perished like rotten sheep.
Next came a gale. The reef was quick to make
White water; the great ships began to break
With many still aboard. We privateers,
Used to such accidents, broke out in cheers
And rushed down to the strand to seize such goods,
Washed from the wrecks, as drifted in in floods:
Brandy and wine in hogsheads, a great store,
And pork aplenty, which we wanted more.
Though much was stoved against the rocks, at least
We salvaged more for a continued feast,
Which lasted us three weeks, from dawn to dark
Revelling half-seas-over, till a barque
Put in from Hispaniola, took us off.
But most I mind one ship wedged in a trough
Of coral which two days had stood there sound,
The last to split of those that ran aground,
On the third morning, lifted by the seas,
Which then ran high, and luffing by degrees,
Her after-part o’erhung the reef and broke
Clean as if cleft by lightning at a stroke
And drifted towards us foundering as it came.
You would have thought her sent to make us game,
For all the deck which wallowed to and fro
Was full of men, some dancing heel-and-toe,
All singing, swearing, tippling, quarrelling drunk,
One praying, others in dejection sunk,
And two at dice, one venturing to protest,
The other drew and shot him through the breast.
One crazed and clinging half-way up the mast
Hailed us with insane laughter as they passed;
And two entwined upon the poop above,
Young naked creatures making frantic love,
Had as their bed tarpaulins and a sail.
Their clumsy trials at coupling, male with male,
Revealed them innocent; their ecstatic air
Witnessed the urgency of their despair.
Employing the untried urging of their blood
To forestall death in the best way they could.
And, with the natural vigour of their age,
One bout scarce done, they would once more engage.
So with its passengers, the stricken ship
Passed through the reef, caught in a turbulent rip
Where she broke up and vanished from our eyes
Accompanied by wild oaths and drunken cries.
Lord, how we laughed! I heard one rover say,
‘God help us! It’s as good as any play!’
So we made merry like true freebooting men.
Ben saw the sport with me; what say you Ben?”
His fellow Ben—he was that scholar-tar
Read Plato on our march to Panama—
Sat a while silent, staring at the coals
As though he read the fate there of the souls
Cast away on that day of gale and flood,
Then said, “I saw it, but was in no mood
To laugh at such a sight; nor would I say
That we were like spectators at a play,
But, watching things inevitable and grave,
We saw ourselves there perish in the wave.
Like Plato’s fable of the cave, we all
Sat watching our own shadows on the wall,
An audience bound, insensible and blind
To what was thrown up by the fire behind.”
“Have done, Ben! Off upon that course again?
Your Plato’s, sure, a maggot of the brain.
Watching the French drown—they deserved it too,
So shiftless and unseamanlike a crew—
We watched ourselves? Whatever could you mean?
They were no buccaneers, nor could have been.”
“I mean just this,” the old man shook his head,
“All, but ourselves who saw them, now are dead;
The most part lost like them at sea, and some
From wounds, foul whores or strong Jamaica rum.
The Buccaneers by now are in decline,
And we, Ned, near the last of the old line.
Prizes grow fewer and new laws are made;
We grow respectable and turn to trade.
Nay more, Ned, in that drunken crew I find
A parable for the life of all mankind:
Deluded and insensible of the wreck
We dance and riot on a foundering deck.
Who knows, we may do well, while we have room,
Since nothing can avert the common doom
And those young midshipmen whose latest breath
Was spent in rapture in defiance of death,
Of all recourses chosen by the rest
Theirs was perhaps most enviable and best,
Though, as I am a Christian man, such love
I cannot bring my conscience to approve
And, though it was at one time, it appears,
Common enough among the buccaneers,
Yet it was countenanced in antiquity.
Plato did not condemn it nor do I.”

IV

Cousin, you see I keep my word to you:
You have your matter and moralizing too!
Profit by both when next you put to sea;
Plain fact, I own, is good enough for me.
Your servant and well-wisher,
W. D.

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