Islands of ice, 1638

Adventures in the Atlantic

(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)

The wind took us a stayes with a gust, rain, thunder and lightning, and now a Servant of one of the passengers sickned of the small pox…

This week’s Histories is really just a scene-setter for the next couple of weeks, as I explore the intriguing writings of a 17th century traveller. This week we’re following him as he sets out – I’ll be coming back to some of his more peculiar adventures and discoveries.

Enter John Josselyn (c.1608–c.1700?). We know little of Josselyn’s life. He appears to have been born in Essex around 1608, his father being Sir Thomas Josselyn, who managed his estates badly and was serially impecunious. John’s range of reference in his writings suggests he was well educated, and trained as a physician. He was particularly versed in botany.

John’s elder brother Henry (1606–1683 – he spelled his surname Jocelyn) was at Cambridge University in 1623 and in 1631 became an agent for the Council of New England, a business focused on colonisation created by Sir Ferdinando Gorges (who never went to New England himself, despite being declared its ‘Lord Governor’ by Charles I in 1635). Henry travelled across the Atlantic and settled in what is now Scarborough, Maine.

John and his elderly father set sail to visit Henry in 1638. It was an eventful voyage, as we’ll see shortly, plagued by disease and storms. They stayed for around 15 months before returning to Britain. But 24 years later (in 1663), John returned to New England, and spent several years there. In 1671 he published an account of the region’s flora and fauna called New England’s Rarities, and its positive reception prompted him to publish An Account of Two Voyages to New-England in 1674.1 This week, I’m dipping into his shorter first voyage, the account being taken from his own journal of the trip. This part of his narrative is generally quite terse, but has some enjoyable details, and certainly gives a flavour of the dangers of long sea voyages.

ANNO Dom. 1638. April the 26th being Thursday, I came to Gravesend and went aboard the New Supply, alias, the Nicholas of London, a Ship of good force, of 300 Tuns burden, carrying 20 Sacre and Minion [small cannons], man’d with 48 Sailers, the Master Robert Taylor, the Merchant or undertaker Mr. Edward Tinge, with 164 Passengers men, women and children.

At Gravesend I began my Journal, from whence we departed on the 26. of April, about Six of the clock at night, and went down into the Hope.

The 27. being Fryday, we set sail out of the Hope…

The 28. we twined into the Downs… Here we had good store of Flounders from the Fishermen, new taken out of the Sea and living, which being readily gutted, were fry’d while they were warm; me thoughts I never tasted of a delicater Fish in all my life before.

The Third of May being Ascension day, in the afternoon… we past Sandwich in the Hope, Sandown-Castle, Deal, So we steered away for Doniesse [i.e. Dungeness in Kent], from thence we steered S. W. ½ S. for the Beachie [Head], about one of the clock at night the wind took us a stayes with a gust, rain, thunder and lightning, and now a Servant of one of the passengers sickned of the small pox.

The Fifth day… we were becalmed from 7 of the clock in the morning, till 12 of the clock at noon, where we took good store of Whitings, and half a score Gurnets, this afternoon an infinite number of Porpisces shewed themselves above water round about the Ship, as far as we could kenn, the night proved tempestuous with much lightning and thunder…

The Eighth day, one Boremans man a passenger was duck’d at the main yards arm (for being drunk with his Masters strong waters which he stole) thrice… Two mighty Whales we now saw, the one spouted water through two great holes in her head into the Air a great height, and making a great noise with pussing and blowing…; the other was further off, about a league from the Ship, fighting with the Sword-fish, and the Flailfish [probably a ray], whose stroakes with a fin that growes upon her back like a flail, upon the back of the Whale, we heard with amazement: when presently some more than half as far again we spied a spout from above, it came pouring down like a River of water… In the afternoon the Mariners struck a Porpisce, called also a Marsovius or Sea-hogg, with an harping Iron, and hoisted her aboard, they cut some of it into thin pieces, and fryed, it tasts like rusty Bacon, or hung Beef, if not worse; but the Liver boiled and soused sometime in Vinegar is more grateful to the pallat. About 8 of the clock at night, a flame settled upon the main mast, it was about the bigness of a great Candle, and is called by our Seamen St. Elmes fire, it comes before a storm, and is commonly thought to be a Spirit…

The Ninth day, about two of the clock in the afternoon, we found the head of our main mast close to the cap twisted and shivered, and we presently after found the foretop-mast crackt a little above the cap… and about two of the clock in the morning 7 new long Boat oars brake away from our Star-board quarter with a horrid crack.

The Twelfth day being Whitsunday… the partie that was sick of the small pox now dyed, whom we buried in the Sea, tying a bullet (as the manner is) to his neck, and another to his leggs, turned him out at a Port-hole, giving fire to a great Gun. In the afternoon one Martin Ivy a stripling, servant to Captain Thomas Cammock was whipt naked at the Cap-stern, with a Cat with Nine tails, for filching 9 great Lemmons out of the Chirurgeons Cabbin, which he eat rinds and all in less than an hours time.…

The Thirteenth day we took a Sharke, a great one, and hoisted him aboard with his two Companions (for there is never a Sharke, but hath a mate or two) that is the Pilot fish or Pilgrim, which lay upon his back close to a long finn; the other fish (some what bigger than the Pilot) about two foot long, called a Remora, it hath no scales and sticks close for the Sharkes belly… The Seamen divided the Sharke into quarters, and made more quarter about it than the Purser, when he makes five quarters of an Oxe, and after they had cooked him, he proved very rough Grain’d, not worthy of wholesome preferment; but in the afternoon we took store of Bonitoes, or Spanish Dolphins, a fish about the size of a large Mackarel, beautified with admirable varietie of glittering colours in the water, and was excellent food.

The Fourteenth day we spake with a Plimouth man (about dinner time) bound for New-found-land, who having gone up west-ward sprang a leak, and now bore back for Plimouth. Now was Silly [i.e. the Isles of Scilly] 50 leagues off, and now many of the passengers fall sick of the small Pox and Calenture [fever]

[A month passes as they finally leave British waters and head towards Newfoundland; on the way, there are more deaths from smallpox and consumption (tuberculosis).]

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; by that time we had sailed half way by it, we met with a French Pickeroon [pirate ship]. Here it was as cold as in the middle of January in England, and so continued till we were some leagues beyond it.

The Nine and twentieth day, sounded at night, and found 120 fathome water, the head of the Ship struck against a rock; At 4 of the clock we descryed two sail bound for New-found-land, and so for the Streights, they told us of a general Earth-quake in New-England, of the Birth of a Monster at Boston, in the Massachusets-Bay a mortality, and now we are two leagues off Cape Ann…

John set foot on land at ‘Noddles Island’ (now part of East Boston) on 10th July. Before recounting some of his American adventures, he devotes several pages to describing the provisions one needs for a sea voyage and their costs. He describes the standard provisions as “Beef or Porke, Fish, Butter, Cheese, Pease, Pottage, Water-gruel, Bisket, and six shilling Beer” and even details clothing and medicinal herbs. Having got his land legs back, John went to Boston, where he met the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Next week, strange encounters on land…


The Internet Archive has a scan of the first edition here, and there have been various transcriptions, the first in 1833.