Daniel De Foe and Thomas Shepard

THE RELATIONS between Daniel De Foe and America are all very curious. Few Englishmen of his time were so well informed as he regarding our geography. This is true not only of South America, where, at the mouth of the Orinoco, he laid the scene of the first great American romance, but it is true of North America also. A large part of the Life of Colonel Jack, one of his best novels, describes the adventures of that hero as a bondsman in what is now the State of Virginia. So accurately is the geography of the story indicated that we can make out that the principal action goes on on plantations which occupied the site of the present cities of Georgetown and Washington. This story is the best account which we have of the condition of the white slaves of Virginia in the seventeenth century. De Foe introduces his own plan for the extinction of African slavery. This plan must be called Utopian, because it presumes on a degree of humanity among the white planters of that time which they never exhibited. It is worth notice, indeed, that De Foe’s two most remarkable heroes, Robinson Crusoe and Colonel Jack, should have been, one a slavetrader, and the other a slave. It is known that one of De Foe’s sons spent several years in North Carolina, and probably De Foe derived from him his intimate acquaintance with the customs of our Southern States.

It has also been observed that on the occasion of Robinson’s second voyage to his island, after he had transferred the unfortunate French sailors whom he had rescued from shipwreck to a bark on the banks of Newfoundland, he was tempted, in another similar exigency, to bear away to the coast of America for provisions. For this there proved to be no necessity : the more is the pity. He would have brought to Boston the news of Queen Anne’s death, and he would have had a chance to hear Mr. Willard preach from John xxi. 22, on man’s acquiescence in God’s disposal. If, at Judge Sewall’s hospitable board, Robinson Crusoe had met with Lemuel Gulliver, who is supposed to have been in these parts at about that time, there would have been the most fortunate meeting of Sewall, the most prosaic person in American fact, with Crusoe and Gulliver, the two most interesting characters in American and Australian fiction. But alas! history is too apt to fall short of its possibilities !

I have, however, lately observed that Robinson Crusoe had a closer connection than this “ might have been ” with our New England notables of the first generation. Reading, the other day, in the charming autobiography of Shepard — the Chrysostom of the first church of Cambridge — of that terrible shipwreck off Yarmouth, in which he and his were all but lost, as the ship was, I felt sure that the narrative was all familiar to me before. It was only to cross the room, and take down Robinson Crusoe, to find that here was the same shipwreck in which, in that same Yarmouth harbor, the runaway lad learned his first lesson of adventure. If the reader will compare the two narratives, he will be apt to think that De Foe had heard the story of the “ Windy Saturday ” in which Shepard’s ship went down, and that, with that iron-and-steel memory of his, he reproduced it in his account of Robinson’s first voyage. The details as to place, even, are the same. For a moment, I hoped to find that Robinson and our charming New England preacher held sweet counsel together in Yarmouth, or as they pulled at the oars. But sterner fate said, “ No.” For De Foe’s purposes required that Robinson should be shipwrecked some years after the day of the adventure of Thomas Shepard.

I have been tempted to print the two narratives in parallel columns, — as is the custom of newspapers, when they would grind any one to powder. But, in our case, we have no one to crush, and the reader will not object, perhaps, to turning backward and forward a little. Observe, then, that Robinson set sail in a ship which was passing southward along the English coast, through the Northern Sea, or German Ocean, and that Shepard, with his family, who had sailed from Harwich, was also seeking the English Channel. I copy Shepard first: —


“ So about the beginning of winter, we set sail. . . . And having gone some few leagues the wind stopped us, and so we cast anchor in a dangerous place, and in the morning the wind grew fierce . . . and drove us . . . full upon the sands, . . . and the ship was in great danger. But the Lord directed one of the seamen to cut some cable or rope, . . . and so she was turued about and beaten quite backward toward Yarmouth, quite out of our way. . . . The wind did drive us, . . . and gave us no place to anchor, until we came to Yarmouth Roads, an open place at sea, yet fit for anchorage. . . . Which when we had done, upon a Saturday morning, the Lord sent a most dreadful and terrible storm of wind from the West, so dreadful that . . . divers ships were cast away. One among the rest . . . came with us from New Castle, and he and all his men perished. But when the wind thus arose, our master cast all his anchors ; but the anchors broke and the ship drave toward the sands, where we could not but be cast away. Whereupon the master cries out that we were dead men, and thereupon the whole company go to pray. But the vessel drew so near to the sands that the master shot off two pieces of ordnance to the town [of Yarmouth] for help. The town perceived it, and thousands came upon the walls of Yarmouth, and looked upon us, and pitied us. . . .

“ So our master not knowing what to do, it pleased the Lord, that there was one Mr. Cook, a drunken fellow . . . an instrument to save all our lives. For he persuaded the master to cut down his mainmast. The master was unwilling to do it. . . . At last Cook calls for hatchets; he tells the master, ‘ If you be a man, save the lives of your passengers, cut down your mainmast,’ And so, when the mast was gone, the master had one little anchor left, and cast it out. But the ship was driven toward the sand still. ... So the master professed he had done what he could, and desired us to go to prayer. Immediately after prayer the wind began to abate and the ship stayed. . . . And so we rode it out, . . . and upon the Sabbath-day morning boats came to our vessel, . . . and my dear wife and child went in the first boat.”

Thus far Shepard. I have materially abridged his account, my wish being to show simply the passages which nearly resemble Robinson’s. But I think I have omitted nothing which contradicts it. Two such witnesses are not to be expected to persevere in the same order, or with the same observations, all the time. Here is Robinson Crusoe’s account: —


“ The ship was no sooner got out of the Humber, but the wind began to blow and the sea to rise in a most frightful manner. . . . I expected every wave to swallow us up. . . . The sixth day we came into Yarmouth Roads. . . . Here we were obliged to come to anchor, and here we lay . . . during which time many ships from Newcastle came into the same roads. . . . Our men were unconcerned, not apprehensive of danger, but the eighth day [after arrival], in the morning, the wind increased, and we had all hands at work to strike our topmasts. ... By noon the sea went very high indeed, and our ship rode forecastle in, shipped several seas, . . . and we thought once or twice that our anchor had come home. . . . By this time it blew a terrible storm. I heard the master say softly to himself, ‘ Lord, be merciful to us, — we shall all be lost,’ . . . and the like. . . . I was dreadfully frighted. ... I got out of my cabin and looked out: . . . the sea ran mountains high; . . . two ships had cut their masts by the board, and our men cried out that a ship which rid about a mile ahead was foundered. . . . Towards evening the mate and boatswain begged the master of our ship to let them cut away the foremast, which he was very unwilling to do ; but the boatswain protesting to him that if he did not the ship would founder, he consented, — and when they had cut away this mast . . . they were obliged to cut the mainmast away, too. . . . The storm was so violent that I saw what is not often seen, the master, the boatswain, and some others at their prayers, and expecting every moment when the ship would go to the bottom. . . . The master . . . ordered to fire a gun as a signal of distress . . . and a light ship . . . ventured a boat out to help us. . . . We were not more than a quarter of an hour out of our ship, but we saw her sink. We could see a great many people running along the shore, to assist us when we should come near. ... At Cromer we landed and walked afterwards to Yarmouth, where as unfortunate men we were treated with great humanity, as well by the magistrates of the town, who assigned us good quarters, as by particular merchants and owners.” Of course one shipwreck is, to a certain extent, like another shipwreck. But here are some striking resemblances in detail. In each case, after a first detention, the vessel takes refuge in Yarmouth Roads, and anchors. In each case they suppose they are then in safety, and other vessels join them, seeking the same shelter. In each case a heavy gale strikes them in the morning, — westerly in one, southwesterly in the other; both ships lie at all their anchors, and both ships drag their anchors. In each case the master is then heard to say that they are lost, and from each ship they see a Newcastle ship founder. In each case the master is unwilling to cut away the mast, but is compelled to do so by the protest of another. In each case the master goes to prayer, “ which is not often seen.” In each case he fires a gun as a signal of distress, and in each case they see the people on the shore, who are watching them. In each case they are landed from the ship in boats not their own, and, as I understand it, the ship, in each case, sinks soon after.

The most remarkable differences which I observe are that in Robinson Crusoe’s ship the foremast is carried away, and carries the mainmast with it ; while in Shepard’s case the mainmast is carried away. The drunken fellow who persuades the captain to cut down the mast is a passenger, bred to the sea, in Shepard ; in Robinson, he is a boatswain of the ship. Robinson Crusoe’s ship had but four passengers, and Shepard’s had two hundred. But these are such variations as would have come into tradition in eighty-five years, or as a novelist might make for his purpose. My theory is that De Foe had heard the story of the “ Windy Saturday,” and the Sunday which followed it, from some one who was in the ship with Shepard, and that he was glad to work the detail into his story.

Edward Everett Hale.