Review of The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Voyage to New England

The Nautilus: A Maritime Journal of Literature, History, and Culture,  (The Nautilus VII (Spring 2016): 115-118: published a review of my book: The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Voyage to New England (University of New England Press, 2015): the review, reproduced by permission, follows:

The Nautilus VII (Spring 2016) Copyright © 2016 by The Massachusetts Maritime Academy. All rights reserved.

The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Voyage to New England. By Russell M. Lawson. 248 pp. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2015. $29.95 cloth; $24.99 ebook. ISBN 978-1-61168-516-9 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-61168-717-0 (ebook).

When Captain John Smith published his work A Description of New England (1616) after escaping from pirates with only his life and the manuscript detailing his 1614 voyage to America, several people contributed panegyric verses to their “worthy” and “respected” friend’s volume. A typical sentiment praised Smith’s accomplishments and chided the jealousy that seemed to follow the captain: “That which we call the subject of all Storie, / Is Truth: which in this Worke of thine gives glorie / To all that thou has done. Then scorne the spight / Of Envie; that doth no man’s merit right.” Smith certainly had a penchant for self-aggrandizement, declaring any and all of England’s successes in the American colonies “but pigs of my own sowe” (174). This self-perception did not endear him to many of his contemporaries nor to historians long after his death, who continued to question the trustworthiness of his accounts of his adventures as late as the close of the nineteenth century. As Russell Lawson argues in The Sea Mark, more recent historians, who, like their predecessors have had nothing but Smith’s own nine published works on which to evaluate him, have not only debunked the naysayers, but showed “he was sometimes too honest for his own good” (xiii).
By the time Smith left London in March 1614 to explore the New England coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod, he was in his mid-thirties and had already served as a soldier in the Netherlands and the Balkans; been captured and sold as a slave in Istanbul (securing his freedom by strangling his master and escaping); joined a French pirate ship; and taken part, as a leader, in the Jamestown expedition in Virginia from 1607 to 1609. Within the context of this rich and varied life, Pocahontas seems but a footnote. Captain Smith’s entire life presents itself as a series of perils, close calls, betrayals, captivities (he lost his freedom a second time, for some months, to pirates), and thwarted goals. Lawson seeks to engage in a “humanist history” of Smith, following Montaigne’s belief in uncovering the historical past by “building a dialogue” with the dead (18). Focusing
on Capt. Smith’s expedition to New England with forty-five men in
two barks, memorialized in Smith’s book A Description of New England,
Lawson recounts not only Smith’s aspirations for colonization
in the new England, but his thwarted hopes later in life when bad
weather, pirates, lack of financial support, or a combination thereof
at various times seemed to conspire to defeat him.
The expedition to New England, with a base of operations on
Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, was meant to be “a brief
voyage of discovery by which to establish more solid plans for a
plantation, a self-sustaining fishing colony that would be a successful
vanguard of the English” (135). Unlike explorers who were intent
on discovering precious metals, Smith’s dreams were of fish—and
the bounty they could afford to the common man. In this land, Smith
saw the opportunity for a man, in Lawson’s words, “to find a place to
work, build, sweat, breathe, eat the product of one’s labor, live in the
results of one’s work, [and] glory in the unprepossessing enjoyment
of a simple life” denied to him in England (117). Having already
explored the Chesapeake and its tributaries, Smith now intended to
map the New England coast and find both good harbors and rich
fishing grounds. His explorations proved the existence of the abundant
sea life he had suspected: “He is a very bad fisher [who] cannot
kill in one day with his hooke and line, one, two, or three hundred
Cods” (119). With some initiative, “Here every man may be master
and owner of his own labor and land; or the greatest part in a small
time. If he have nothing but his hands, he may set up this trade;
and by industry quickly grow rich; spending but half that time well,
which in England we abuse in idleness, worse or as ill” (157).
The majority of the book’s chapters trace Smith’s voyage along the
New England coast, beginning with the expedition’s base on Monhegan
Island, where a majority of the men remained to fish, while
Smith and eight others travelled by shallop, first north to the Penobscot
Bay area, then south to the Sagadahoc [Kennebec], Smith’s Isles
[Isles of Shoals], Cape Tragabigzanda [Cape Ann], Massachusetts
and Plymouth bays, and Cape James [Cape Cod]. The expedition can
be deemed a success: Smith “explored the 44th to 41st degrees north
latitude,” saw “at least 40 . . . habitations” on the seacoast, communicated
with the Algonquian peoples he met on route, and “sounded
about 25 excellent Harbours” (136, 137). The expedition ended on
a sour note, however, when, Smith claims, one of the men, Capt.
Thomas Hunt, attempted to abscond with Smith’s maps and notes
“and so to leave me alone in a desolate Ile” (144). This same Hunt
later kidnapped Tisquantum, who had served as Smith’s interpreter
and guide and who would later escape and befriend the Pilgrims,
who knew him as Squanto. While Smith’s return voyage to England
was uneventful, his luck would reach a nadir in the ensuing years,
and he never returned to America to establish the fishing colony he
It seemed in 1615 that Smith’s dream would be realized, when
two ships set sail from Plymouth, England to found a fishing colony,
but the vessels encountered pirates three times before crossing the
Atlantic: First, the ships were beset by the pirate Fry off the coast
of Devon; while that encounter ended “amiably,” a second encounter,
with two French pirate ships off the Azores, required a dramatic
escape; finally, the pirates of the French ship Don de Dieu, with the
encouragement of duplicitous members of Smith’s expedition, took
Smith prisoner, while letting the others proceed on their voyage to
America. Held for months on the Don de Dieu while it plundered vessels
off the Azores, Smith managed to write A Description of New England
with quill, ink, and paper supplied by the corsairs. This “journal,
human history, natural history, promotional tract for self and
England, geographical essay, and apology for colonization” (156)
only made it to print by virtue of Smith’s intrepidity: Passed from
one pirate to another, he finally took his chances and escaped—with
nothing but his clothes and his manuscript—in a small boat in the
middle of a storm.
All of Smith’s further attempts to return to America came to
naught. Until his death in 1631, Smith continued to write of his explorations
and to lament his inability to carry out his colonizing dreams.
While sometimes “neare ridden to death in a ring of despaire” (xv),
Smith remained confident in his own capabilities. In A Description of
New England, he had written that “it is not the worke for every one,
to manage such an affaire as makes discoveries and plants a Colony.
It requires all the best parts of Art, Judgement, Courage, Honesty,
Constancy, Diligence, and Industrie, to do but neere well” (97-8). At
the end of his life, Smith reiterated his commitment and connection
to the new England, claiming “by that acquaintance I have with them
[New England and Virginia], I may call them my children; for they
have bin my wife, my hawks, my hounds, my cards, my dice, and in
total my best content” (174).
Champlain, Gosnold, Cabot, Verrazanno, Hakluyt, Frobisher.
Smith believed he belonged in this pantheon, and surely he does. The
Sea Mark reminds us of the intrepidity of these men—this man—who
if not fearlessly, then boldly crossed the sea to explore distant shores
and imagine what the New World could be.

Kathryn Mudgett is Editor of The Nautilus.

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