Bibliography Texts

A Narrative of the Briton's Voyage …

John Shillibeer, R. M.

An excerpt (pp. 29-33) in which the author writes about the Briton's visit to Galápagos in 1814.

Having now completed the ships with water [at Isla Plata], we left the coast of America for the purpose of examining the group of Islands known by the name of the Gallipagos, and on the 25th July, arrived at Charles Island, and anchored in the harbour sufficiently commodious to contain a very considerable force. This Island is perfectly barren, and excepting the prickly pear tree, which grows to an immense size, and a few bushes along the beach, there is no appearance of the least vegetation. There are the craters of several old volcanoes, but I did not perceive the trace of any recent eruptions. Guanas we found here in great abundance, and notwithstanding their disgusting appearance, they were eaten by many of the sailors, who esteemed them as most delicious food. We found also a great many small birds resembling, but more dimunitive than the wood pigeon. They were so exceedingly tame, that many were taken without the least attempt to escape, and when a stone or stick was thrown, it was seldom they flew away, but remained until struck or killed. This island is often visited by great quantities of seals. We found but few tortoises and no water. Tarrying here one day, we proceeded to Chatham Island, which excepting a small isthmus, where the volcanoes have not extended their ravages, is a perfect body of black lava. Here we were fortunate in our search for tortoises, and took more than a hundred, among them were several weighing upwards of 370 lbs. Amongst the grass on the isthmus, we took some land tortoise. One of these creatures greatly exceeded the others in size, and as the progress this species make in growing, is particularly slow, I am led to conclude it to have been of a great age. From its having been taken at this island, the sailors whimsically bestowed on it the name of Lord Chatham. It soon lost its natural shyness, became much petted among the crew, and latterly, was in regular attendance in the galley at the hour of meals, when it partook of the ships allowance, and was fed by the men either out of their hands or some of their utensils; but notwithstanding every care was taken, its life could not be preserved in the excessive cold of a high southern latitude.§

§ The author's description of Charles Island and its wildlife does not agree with the present Isla Floreana (or Santa María). Charles Island is of course not “perfectly barren … with no appearance of the least vegetation.” There were also no iguanas here. Nor is Chatham Island (Isla San Cristóbal) “a perfect body of black lava.” The author may have these descriptions reversed, attributing to one island what he saw on the other. Given these and other discrepancies in his account, it's likely that Shillibeer prepared his manuscript after the voyage, and mixed up the details of his visit to the islands.

The author's sketch of Kicker Rock (“The Kicker Rocks”) appears here.

The Kicker rocks stand in the center of this anchorage, and have a most extraordinary appearance. In our search for water here as at Charles Island, we were unsuccessful.

At James's Island we found good anchorage, a considerable quantity of wood, and at the foot of an exceedingly high and remarkable mountain, a small stream of water, near which is the remains of the hut of an unfortunate Spaniard, who being inhumanly left by his companions, lingered out two years of melancholy solitude. Land tortoises are found here in great abundance, whose meat being very fine, we found it a great relief from salt provisions. The number of guanas we saw here, can alone be conceived; they had regular burrows, and were much more plentiful than I have ever seen rabbits in a preserve in this country. They are of a light red colour, about two to three feet long, and when pursued, do not, like those at Charles Island, take to the water. Among some green bushes near the beach, is the tomb of Lieutenant Cowen [sic, Cowan], of the United States Frigate, Essex, who fell in a duel with Mr. Gamble of that ship.§ That this unfortunate young man was much esteemed by his brother officers, is evident from the great respect they paid to his memory. The thermometer in the shade, (on board,) at 88°, and on shore, also in the shade, at 95°.

§ Lieutenant James Wilkie of HMS Briton jotted down a note in his copy of Shillibeer's book (now in the U. S. Naval Academy Library) that gives additional information about Cowan's grave:

On our arrival at this island, and before we anchored, a post was observed from the Briton on shore, with the form of an arm and hand at the top, the hand suspending a bottle, the finger pointing to the tomb of Lieut. Cowan.

   According to the ship's log, HMS Briton reached James Island from Chatham Island, sailing westward off the southern coast, then northward to the anchorage at James Bay. Wilkie's remark about seeing the post before reaching the anchorage suggests that the post was south of that anchorage.

Albermarle [sic] Island, the most extensive of this group, is nearly covered by the numerous volcanic erruptions, which appear to have recently taken place. It possesses no fresh water, but the numerous plants and shrubs would, to a botanist, be a source of infinite gratification. Many of those plants, and which are exceedingly beautiful, grow immediately from solid lumps of black lava, not having the least appearance of possessing any thing sufficiently nutritious, or at all calculated to support a shrub in so high a state of vegetation. I removed one on board, and although a very considerable quantity of the lava was taken with it, it died immediately. It had a leaf resembling velvet, and when broken, an abundance of milky juice of a strong astringent nature issued. This plant was very odorous. There are some small birds here, also lizards and grasshoppers, the latter are of great size as well as beauty.

Norborough [sic] Island, vies with the others in its dark, gloomy, and mountainous appearance. It is covered with volcanoes, and two were burning when we passed it. This Island does not possess fresh water, or vegetation. There is a very strong and continual current or indraft towards this group, which I suppose supplies the numerous volcanoes, with which they collectively abound.

Our examination of these Islands occupied us until the 4th of August, when we again put to sea, and after a short voyage arrived at the more pleasing, as well as interesting, group of the Marquesas.

. . . . .

[After visiting Port Anna Maria, Tahiti] We weighed anchor, and proceeded to the Island of Christiana, where we arrived on the 31st [of August, 1814] (next day) and anchored in a small bay to the eastward of Resolution Bay. … It was here one of Mr. Gamble's men, (Peter Swack [sic, Swook] joined us, who complained greatly of that gentleman's conduct, which he declared was the sole and only cause of his desertion. I do not imagine he entered on board the Briton with a view of serving against his country, but merely to ensure a passage back, his conduct during his stay on board was exemplary.§

§ Shillibeer does not reveal how he knew that Lt. Gamble was Cowan's assailant, but given his report of Private Swook's complaint about Gamble, it's likely that Swook was his informant.