A pirate’s life?

Oil painting of the HMS Resolution, a third-rate Royal Navy ship of the line, sailing in a gale, c. 1678 [by Willem van de Velde the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The HMS Resolution, a third-rate Royal Navy ship of the line, c. 1678 [by Willem van de Velde the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

A mysterious, unsigned, undated copy letter in the Clarendon family archive describes a sailor’s discovery of an inhabited island.

The mysteries are: who was the sailor, where was the island, and when was it “discovered”? But before all that: is this letter even real, or a fantasy?

A helpful, scrappy note that accompanies the letter, also unsigned and undated, makes a suggestion:

A letter written in Ld Cornbury’s hand but whether from a Mr. Ja[me]s Hyde son of the Chancellor who was a Sailor or who else does not appear

Lord Cornbury (d. 1753), who this note speculates is the copyist, was the son of Henry Hyde, 4th Earl of Clarendon (1st creation), and would have been the 5th Earl if he hadn’t died before his father, which made the Clarendon title temporarily extinct. I have to respectfully disagree with the note, however. I think the handwriting belongs to Thomas Villiers (1709-1786), who succeeded to the Clarendon title as the 1st Earl of Clarendon (2nd creation). If the identity of the copyist is not necessarily reliable then, what about the identity of the original author?

James Hyde (d. 1681) was the son of Edward Hyde, the original 1st Earl of Clarendon, who was Lord Chancellor to Charles II. James Hyde died aged only 31 and I haven’t yet been able to find evidence that he was a sailor but let’s assume that this is family knowledge and take the note-writer at his word. Early modern sailors started their careers extremely young, which means that if this really is a letter James Hyde wrote, it dates, roughly, to the 20 years between 1661 and 1681.

‘Honoured Father’, the letter begins:

You will no doubt be curious to hear particulars of the new Country we have lately discover’d […]

We embark’d on board the Dreadnought Captain Sharp Commander […] After a pretty difficult Voyage we came in sight of Land & coasted round the shore & found it to be an Island […] The Country was so cover’d with thick wood that we could make no judgment of it nor indeed was it easily accessible. We travelled pretty far into the island clearing our way […] but without meeting much as the trace of any Inhabitant till about the middle of the Island […] we found a Castle upon a very high Eminence. The Castle was all built of Wood of different kinds curiously inlaid one in the other & Furniture was partly made of straw & partly of Feathers which last as we afterwards found is what the Inhabitants are dressed with.

Who was Captain Sharp? Also a mystery. The possibility that he was Bartholomew Sharp, privateer, pirate and Pacific voyager, is tantalising, although it would be an unexpected career choice for James Hyde, the son of the Lord Chancellor of England. If it’s privateer/pirate Bartholomew Sharp, it could place this island somewhere around the coast of South America where he was active in the late 1670s. The Dreadnought, meanwhile, could be this Royal Navy third-rate ship of the line (like the HMS Resolution pictured above) that was in service in the 1660s-80s. It was just one of a series of HMS Dreadnoughts, but that lends some credence to the note writer’s guess that the letter is from this period. Iit would also mean, sadly, that the Captain Sharp of the letter is not the famous Bartholomew.

The mystery sailor moves on from describing the island to describing the people. He is, predictably, very interested in the sex lives of the inhabitants, and this is where a reader might just start to doubt that the letter is genuine. This island invader learned, perhaps, a little too much about the inhabitants’ marriage customs:

We learnt that the Inhabitants live entirely in the Woods, except when their Wives lye in if one may call them Wives for there is no marriage among these people but when in consequence of the acquaintance they make with each other in the woods Females prove pregnant then the Lover & the Lady travel […] and by their own skill erect their Castle in which She & her Children inhabit till such time as they can make their way in the world & then they leave her & she returns to her wild kind of Life & perhaps never sees them more nor Lives more in a house unless […] some new acquaintance in the Wood engages her in a new Family

The writer continues with a tragic story:

It is remarkable that these people are generally singing. They live upon Fruit & drink only Water. They did not offer to oppose our settling in their Island but would make no alliance with us & we found the reason of that was that several Friends of theirs trusting to the humanity of strangers had been made prisoners all their Lives & others put to death & torn piecemeal. They retir’d to their thickest Woods immediately upon our approach […] beside the inhumanity of the action we have no provocation to molest them.

So at least this tale doesn’t end with a bloody massacre, and hopefully not with an epidemic, either, although the prospects for these islanders were not good, as the sailor ends:

This is the short Account my time will allow me to send you. You will very shortly see the Captain’s Journal published at length by which it will appear how much this new discovered Island may contribute to the felicity of Great Britain.

A real letter from the Age of Discovery, or a colonial, literary fantasy? A mystery from the Clarendon collection.

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

4 thoughts on “A pirate’s life?

  1. Thank you for this, Barbara! It does seem either that James Hyde had a much narrower window to write this letter, or that the note-writer’s guess that it’s a copy of a James Hyde letter was incorrect, and it was written by a ‘who else’, or it’s a fake. If it’s genuine, and written by another member of the family and not a copy of a 3rd party’s account, it would, as you say, mean that there was another Hyde or Villiers sailor (or potentially an in-law, which widens the scope enormously!). I don’t know who that might be, but perhaps I’ll find out during the process of cataloguing these papers. More mysterious than ever!

  2. And some more, Charlotte. Despite the Earl of Clarendon’s writings and extensive collecion of papers, they contain very little about his family and he rarely mentions the children’s names. It is possible, however, to tease out a little about young James. Lady Hyde seems to have produced children over a twenty year period (and lost several of them), the last three being in 1657,1658 and 1659/60 (see the Calendar volumes). According to Alumni Oxoniensia, James Hyde, son of the Earl of Clarendon, matriculated at Magdalen Hall on 23 January 1674/5 at the age of 14. This puts James as the last born in 1659/60, making him ten years younger than the scant biographical sources about him suggest and only 22 when he drowned at sea.
    If you agree with these findings, it looks increasingly less likely that he was the original author of the letter. Was there another James Hyde in a later generation who was copying the account from a book or, as you suggested, is this a literary fantasy?

  3. This is wonderfully helpful, thank you so much. I’m glad that the note-writer got this right! Of course, he could still be wrong about who wrote the letter, but the fact that James Hyde really was a sailor makes it just a little more credible.

    It’s so awful that so many were lost when the Gloucester sank. What a terrible, terrible day at sea.

  4. What an entertaining and intriguing find!
    James Hyde was a sailor. On 11 April 1682 James Hyde, brother to the Earl of Clarendon was named second lieutenant to Sir John Berry, commander of the Gloucester (Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Charles II, volume 23). Within a few weeks on 4 or 5 May 1682, the Gloucester was lost at sea with 130 seamen and a ‘younger brother of Laurence Hyde’ ie the second Earl of Clarendon (Burnett’s History of My Own Time, volume 2 p. 326).
    I can’t help you with the Dreadnought, although she seems to have been in British waters during the 1670s, nor Captain Sharp, except that his journal was published but not until after 1682.

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