Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Full and Exact Relation": Sodomy, Authenticity, and Publication in the Narrative of the Marooned Dutchman

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Full and Exact Relation": Sodomy, Authenticity, and Publication in the Narrative of the Marooned Dutchman

Article excerpt

In May 1725, a Dutch sailor named Jan Svilt, having been caught kissing a cabin boy, was subjected to the water torture until he confessed to sodomitical acts. After his captain, Dirk van Kloop, along with a council of the ship's officers, condemned him to be marooned on Ascension Island, Svilt began to compose a journal in which he described his diet of birds and turtles, his search for water, his regret for his lustful desires, and the hellish apparitions that appeared to him during the night. Five months later, he died of thirst, and his body and journal were discovered by Captain Mawson of the British ship The Compton. His journal was taken to England and printed in 1730 as a twenty-page pamphlet, The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify'd. (1)

Such at least is the account offered by Lennard Davis in an article entitled "Criminal Statements: Homosexuality and Textuality in the Account of Jan Svilt." Davis, though skeptical about the authenticity of Svilt's journal, recognizes that the text is potentially an important document in the history of queer subjectivity, one that may preserve "the constitutive experience of queerness." (2) Because much of our current knowledge about eighteenth-century homosexuality is derived from court transcripts or hearsay about scandals, if the journal is factual it would be a valuable eighteenth-century artifact, a rare record of the dying months of a man convicted of sodomy. (3) Additionally, the Dutchman would provide a compelling counterpart to Alexander Selkirk, two genuine island solitaires separated by a decade from the 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe.

In its broadest sketches, the narrative is plausible. Eighteenth-century readers, especially those well versed in travel literature, would not have been surprised that a sailor had scribbled a journal on Ascension Island. They would have recognized the name of the island. They might have been struck by the captain's decision to punish sodomy with solitude. And they probably would have found plausible the Dutchman's hope "that some Ship or other would speedily come to my Deliverance," since French, English, and Dutch ships returning from the East Indies often stopped at Ascension In march of turtle meat to combat scurvy. (4) The most assiduous readers, moreover, might have known about an established tradition of depositing written testimony on the island. Landing there in 1673, the Dominican missionary Friar Domingo Navarette observed, "Those that sail this way are so curious, as to write Letters, put them into Bottles of thick Glass, and leave them in a safe place but visible, by which the next Comers have intelligence who is gone by, and what Voyage, Whether and Delays they had." (5) Navarette was echoed by Robert Everard, who wrote in 1693, "When we anchored, our captain went ashore in the pinnace to see if there was a letter left in a bottle in a hole in a rock near the landing-place, which every ship that comes to that place leaves there, the island being uninhabited: We took the bottle out of the hole and found thereby that the Kemthorne was the last ship that was there." (6) Similar comments were to appear throughout the eighteenth century, as Ascension became a more and more common stopping place.

On the other hand, the Dutchman's story might well be a hoax. As Duff Hart-Davis observes in his history of Ascension Island, there are only a few months during the year when turtles arrive at Ascension in great quantity, typically from December to June, so it is unlikely that the Dutchman would have found an abundance of them in late summer, as the pamphlet claims. Furthermore, given the frequency with which ships stopped on Ascension, the Dutchman must have been "exceedingly unlucky" that none stopped there during his five months. (7) And even if such details can be explained, there remain other unanswered questions. If there really was a journal, how do we know that it was written by a marooned sailor and not by earlier voyagers to be found by later ones? …

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