The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 2
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Chapter 2. At school and at sea
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AT SCHOOL AND AT SEA.
Young Flinders received his preparatory education at the Donington free school. This was an institution founded and endowed in 1718 by Thomas Cowley, who bequeathed property producing nowadays about 1200 pounds a year for the maintenance of a school and almshouses. It was to be open to the children of all the residents of Donington parish free of expense, and in addition there was a fund for paying premiums on the apprenticeship of boys.
At the age of twelve the lad was sent to the Horbling Grammar School, not many miles from his own home. It was under the direction of the Reverend John Shinglar. Here he remained three years. He was introduced to the Latin and Greek classics, and received the grounding of that mathematical knowledge which subsequently enabled him to master the science of navigation without a tutor. If to Mr. Shinglar's instruction was likewise due his ability to write good, sound, clear English, we who read his letters and published writings have cause to speak his schoolmaster's name with respect.
During his school days another book besides those prescribed in the curriculum came into his hands. He read Robinson Crusoe. It was to Defoe's undying tale of the stranded mariner that he attributed the awaking in his own mind of a passionate desire to sail in uncharted seas. This anecdote happens to be better authenticated than are many of those quoted to illustrate the youth of men of mark. Towards the end of Flinders' life the editor of the Naval Chronicle sent to him a series of questions, intending to found upon the answers a biographical sketch. One question was: "Juvenile or miscellaneous anecdotes illustrative of individual character?" The reply was: "Induced to go to sea against the wishes of friends from reading Robinson Crusoe."
The case, interesting as it is, has an exact parallel in the life of a famous French traveller, Rene Caille, who in 1828, after years of extraordinary effort and endurance, crossed Senegal, penetrated Central Africa, and was the first European to visit Timbuctoo. He also had read Defoe's masterpiece as a lad, and attributed to it the awaking in his breast of a yearning for adventure and discovery. "The reading of Robinson Crusoe," says a French historian, "made upon him a profound impression." "I burned to have adventures of my own," he wrote later; "I felt as I read that there was born within my heart the ambition to distinguish myself by some important discovery."
Here were astonishing results to follow from the vivid fiction of a gouty pamphleteer who wrote to catch the market and was hoisted into immortal fame by the effort: that his book should, like a spark falling on straw, fire the brains of a French shoemaker's apprentice and a Lincolnshire schoolboy, impelling each to a career crowded with adventure, and crowned with memorable achievements. There could hardly be better examples of the vitalising efficacy of fine literature.
A love of Robinson Crusoe remained with Flinders to the end. Only a fortnight before his death he wrote a note subscribing for a copy of a new edition of the book, with notes, then announced for publication. It must have been one of the last letters from his hand. Though out of its chronological order, it may be appropriately quoted here to connect it with the other references to the book which so profoundly influenced his life:
"Captain Flinders presents his compliments to the Hydrographer of the Naval Chronicle, and will thank him to insert his home in the list of subscribers in his new edition of Robinson Crusoe; he wishes also that the volume on delivery should have a neat, common binding, and be lettered.—London Street, July 5, 1814."
It seems clear that Flinders had promised himself the pleasure of re-reading in maturity the tale that had so delighted his youth. Had he lived to do so, he might well have underlined, as applicable to himself, a pair of those sententious observations with which Defoe essayed to give a sober purpose to his narrative. The first is his counsel of "invincible patience under the worst of misery, indefatigable application, and undaunted resolution under the greatest and most discouraging circumstances." The second is his wise remark that "the height of human wisdom is to bring our tempers down to our circumstances, and to make a great calm within under the weight of the greatest storm without." They were words which Flinders during strenuous years had good cause to translate into conduct.
The edition of the book to which he thus subscribed was undertaken largely on account of his acknowledgment of its effect upon his life. The author of the Naval Chronicle sketch of his career wrote in a footnote: "The biographer, also happening to understand that to the same cause the Navy is indebted for another of its ornaments, Admiral Sir Sydney Smythe, was in a great measure thereby led to give another reading to that charming story, and hence to adopt a plan for its republication, now almost at maturity;" and he commended the new issue especially "to all those engaged in the tuition of youth."
One other anecdote of Flinders' boyhood has been preserved as a family tradition. It is that, while still a child, he was one day lost for some hours. He was ultimately found in the middle of one of the sea marshes, his pockets stuffed with pebbles, tracing the runlets of water, so that by following them up he might find out whence they came. Many boys might have done the same; but this particular boy, in that act of enquiry concerning geographical phenomena on a small scale, showed himself father to the man.
"Against the wish of friends," Flinders wrote, was his selection of a naval career. His father steadily but kindly opposed his desire, hoping that his son would adopt the medical profession. But young Matthew was not easily thwarted. The call of the sea was strong within him, and persistency was always a fibrous element in his character.The surgeon's house at Donington stood in the market square. It remained in existence till 1908, when it was demolished to give place to what is described as "a hideous new villa." It was a plain, square, one-story building with a small, low surgery built on to one side of it. Behind the door of the surgery hung a slate, upon which the elder Flinders was accustomed to write memoranda concerning appointments and cases. The lad, wishing to let his father know how keen was his desire to enter the Navy, and dreading a conversation on the subject—with probable reproaches, admonitions, warnings, and a general outburst of parental displeasure—made use of the surgeon's slate. He wrote upon it what he wanted his father to know, hung it on the nail, and left it there to tell its quiet story.
He got his way in the end, but not without discouragement from other quarters also. He had an uncle in the Navy, John Flinders, to whom he wrote asking for counsel. John's experience had not made him enamoured of his profession, and his reply was chilling. He pointed out that there was little chance of success without powerful interest. Promotion was slow and favouritism was rampant. He himself had served eleven years, and had not yet attained the rank of lieutenant, nor were his hopes of rising better than slender.
From the strictly professional point of view it was not unreasonable advice for the uncle to give. A student of the naval history of the period finds much to justify a discouraging attitude. Even the dazzling career of Nelson might have been frustrated by a long protracted minority had he not had a powerful hand to help him up the lower rungs of the ladder—the "interest" of Captain Suckling, his uncle, who in 1775 became Comptroller of the Navy, "a civil position, but one that carried with it power and consequently influence." Nelson became lieutenant after seven years' service, in 1777; but he owed his promotion to Suckling, who "was able to exert his influence in behalf of his relative by promptly securing for him not only his promotion to lieutenant, which many waited for long, but with it his commission, dated April 10, to the Lowestofte, a frigate of thirty-two guns."
That even conduct of singular merit, performed in the crisis of action, was not sufficient to secure advancement, is illustrated by a striking fact in the life of Sir John Hindmarsh, the first Governor of South Australia (1836). At the battle of the Nile, Hindmarsh, a midshipman of fourteen, was left in charge of the Bellerophon, all the other officers being killed or wounded. (It was upon this same vessel, as we shall see later, that Flinders had a taste of sea fighting). When the French line-of-battle ship L'Orient took fire she endangered the Bellerophon. The boy, with wonderful presence of mind, called up some hands, cut the cables, and was running the ship out of danger under a sprit sail, when Captain Darby came on deck from having his wounds dressed. Nelson, hearing of the incident, thanked young Hindmarsh before the ship's company, and afterwards gave him his commission in front of all hands, relating the story to them. "The sequel," writes Admiral Sir T.S. Pasley, who relates the facts in his Journal, "does not sound so well. Lord Nelson died in 1805, and Hindmarsh is a commander still, in 1830, not having been made one till June, 1814." A man with such a record certainly had to wait long before the sun of official favour shone upon him; and his later success was won, not in the navy, but as a colonial governor.
There was, then, much to make John Flinders believe that influence was a surer way to advancement than assiduous application or natural capacity. His own naval career did not turn out happily. A very few years afterwards he received his long-delayed promotion, served as lieutenant in the Cygnet, on the West Indies station, under Admiral Affleck, and died of yellow fever on board his ship in 1793.
John Flinders' letter, however, concluded with a piece of practical advice, in case his nephew should be undeterred by his opinion. He recommended the study of three works as a preparation for entering the Navy: Euclid, John Robertson's Elements of Navigation (first edition published in 1754) and Hamilton Moore's book on Navigation. Matthew disregarded the warning and took the practical advice. The books were procured and the young student plunged into their problems eagerly. The year devoted to their study in that quiet little fen town made him master of rather more than the elements of a science which enabled him to become one of the foremost discoverers and cartograhers of a continent. He probably also practised map-making with assiduity, for his charts are not only excellent as charts, but also singularly beautiful examples of scientific drawing.After a year of book-work Flinders felt capable of acquitting himself creditably at sea, if he could secure an opportunity. In those days entrance to the Royal Navy was generally secured by the nomination of a senior officer. There was no indispensable examination; no naval college course was necessary. The captain of a ship could take a youth on board to oblige his relatives, "or in return for the cancelling of a tradesman's bill." It so happened that a cousin of Flinders occupied the position of governess in the family of Captain Pasley (afterwards Admiral Sir Thomas Pasley) who at that time commanded H.M.S. Scipio. One of her pupils, Maria Pasley, developed into a young lady of decidedly vigorous character, as the following incident sufficiently shows. While her father was commander-in-chief at Plymouth, she was one day out in the Channel, beyond the Eddystone, in the Admiral's cutter. As the country was at war, she was courting danger; and in fact, the cutter was sighted by a French cruiser, which gave chase. But Miss Pasley declined to run away. She "popped at the Frenchman with the cutter's two brass guns." It was like blowing peas at an elephant; and she would undoubtedly have been captured, had not an English frigate seen the danger and put out to the rescue.
Flinders' cousin had interested herself in his studies and ambitions, and gave him some encouragement. She also spoke about him to Captain Pasley, who seems to have listened sympathetically. It interested him to hear of this boy studying navigation without a tutor up among the fens. "Send for him," said Pasley, "I should like to see what stuff he is made of, and whether he is worth making into a sailor."
Young Matthew, then in his fifteenth year, was accordingly invited to visit the Pasleys. In the later part of his life he used to relate with merriment, how he went, was asked to dine, and then pressed to stay till next day under the captain's roof. He had brought no night attire with him, not having expected to sleep at the house. When he was shown into his bedroom, his needs had apparently been anticipated; for there, folded up neatly upon the pillow, was a sleeping garment ready for use. He appreciated the consideration; but having attired himself for bed, he found himself enveloped in a frothy abundance of frills and fal-lals, lace at the wrists, lace round the neck, with flutters of ribbon here and there. When, at the breakfast table in the morning, he related how he had been rigged, there was a shriek of laughter from the young ladies; the simple explanation being that one of them had vacated her room to accommodate the visitor, and had forgotten to remove her nightdress.
The visit had more important consequences. Captain Pasley very soon saw that he had an exceptional lad before him, and at once put him on the Alert. He was entered as "lieutenant's servant" on October 23rd, 1789. He remained there for rather more than seven months, learning the practical part of a sailor's business. On May 17th, 1790, he was able to present himself to Captain Pasley on the Scipio at Chatham, as an aspirant of more than ordinary efficiency; and remained under his command until the next year, following him as a midshipman when he left the Scipio for the Bellerophon in July, 1790.
This famous ship, which carried 74 guns, and was launched in 1786, is chiefly known to history as the vessel upon which Napoleon surrendered to Captain Maitland on July 15th, 1815, after the Waterloo débacle. She took a prominent part in Nelson's great battles at the Nile and Trafalgar. But her end was pitifully ignoble. After a glorious and proud career, she was converted into a convict hulk and re-named the Captivity. A great prose master has reminded us, in words that glow upon his impassioned page, of the slight thought given by the practical English to the fate of another line-of-battle ship that had flown their colours in the stress of war. "Those sails that strained so full bent into the battle, that broad bow that struck the surf aside, enlarging silently in steadfast haste full front to the shot, those triple ports whose choirs of flame rang forth in their courses, into the fierce avenging monotone, which, when it died away, left no answering voice to rise any more upon the sea against the strength of England, those sides that were wet with the long runlets of English life-blood, like press-planks at vintage, gleaming goodly crimson down to the cast and clash of the washing foam, those pale masts that stayed themselves up against the war-ruin, shaking out their ensigns through the thunder, till sail and ensign drooped, steeped in the death-stilled pause of Andalusian air, burning with its witness clouds of human souls at rest—surely for these some sacred care might have been left in our thoughts, some quiet resting place amidst the lapse of English waters? Nay, not so, we have stern keepers to trust her glory to, the fire and the worm. Never more shall sunset lay golden robe on her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding. Perhaps, where the gate opens to some cottage garden, the tired traveller may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on its rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not answer nor know, that the night-dew lies deep in the war-rents of the wood of the old Teméraire."
But even the decline of might and dignity into decrepitude and oblivion described in that luminous passage is less pathetic than the conversion of the glorious Bellerophon, with her untarnished traditions of historic victories, into a hulk for the punishment of rascals, and the changing of her unsullied name to an alias significant only of shame.
During this preliminary period Flinders learnt the way about a ship and acquired instruction in the mechanism of seamanship, but there was as yet no opportunity to obtain deep-water experience. He was transferred to the Dictator for a brief period, but as he neither mentions the captain nor alludes to any other circumstance connected therewith, it was probably a mere temporary turnover or guardship rating not to lose any time of service.
His first chance of learning something about the width of the world and the wonder of its remote places came in 1791, when he went to sea under the command of a very remarkable man. William Bligh had sailed with James Cook on his third and fatal voyage of discovery, 1776 to 1780. He was twenty-three years of age when he was selected by that sagacious leader as one of those young officers who "under my direction could be usefully employed in constructing charts, in taking views of the coasts and headlands near which we should pass, and in drawing plans of the bays and harbours in which we should anchor;" for Cook recognised that constant attention to these duties was "wholly requisite if he would render our discoveries profitable to future navigators."
Bligh's name appears frequently in Cook's Journal, and is also mentioned in King's excellent narrative of the conclusion of the voyage after Cook's murder. He was master of the Resolution, and was on several occasions entrusted with tasks of some consequence: as for instance on first reaching Hawaii, when Cook sent him ashore to look for fresh water, and again at Kealakeakura Bay (January 16, 1779) when he reported that he had found good anchorage and fresh water "in a situation admirable to come at." It was a fatal discovery, for on the white sands of that bay, a month later (February 14), the great British seaman fell, speared by the savages.
On each of Cook's voyages a call had been made at Tahiti in the Society group. Bligh no doubt heard much about the charms of the place before he first saw it himself. He was destined to have his own name associated with it in a highly romantic and adventurous manner. The idyllic beauty of the life of the Tahitians, their amiable and seductive characteristics, the warm suavity of the climate, the profusion of food and drink to be enjoyed on the island with the smallest conceivable amount of exertion, made the place stand out in all the narratives of Cook's expeditions like a green-and-golden gem set in a turquoise sea, a lotos-land "in which it seemed always afternoon," a paradise where love and plenty reigned and care and toil were not. George Forster, the German naturalist who accompanied Cook on his second voyage, wrote of the men as "models of masculine beauty," whose perfect proportions would have satisfied the eye of Phidias or Praxiteles; of the women as beings whose "unaffected smiles and a wish to please ensure them mutual esteem and love;" and of the life they led as being diversified between bathing in cool streams, reposing under tufted trees, feeding on luscious fruits, telling tales, and playing the flute. In fact, Forster declared, they "resembled the happy, indolent people whom Ulysses found in Phaeacia, and could apply the poet's lines to themselves with peculiar propriety:
'To dress, to dance, to sing our sole delight, The feast or bath by day, and love by night.'"
"The bread-tree, which without the ploughshare yields The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields, And bakes its unadulterated loaves Without a furnace in unpurchased groves, And flings off famine from its fertile breast, A priceless market for the gathering guest."
"The breadfruit, as we call it, grows on a large tree as big and as tall as our largest apple trees. It hath a spreading head full of branches and dark leaves. The fruit grows on the boughs like apples; it is as big as a penny loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel. The natives of this island (Suam) use it for bread. They gather it when full-grown; then they bake it in an oven, which scorcheth the rind and makes it black; but they scrape off the outside black crust and there remains a tender thin crust and the inside is soft, tender and white, like the crumb of a penny loaf. There is neither seed nor stone in the inside, but all is of a pure substance like bread; it must be eaten new, for if it is kept above twenty-four hours it becomes dry and eats harsh and chokey; but 'tis very pleasant before it is too stale."
By Dampier, who in the course of his astonishing career had consumed many strange things—who found shark's flesh "good entertainment," and roast opossum "sweet wholesome meat"—toleration in the matter of things edible was carried to the point of latitudinarianism. We never find Dampier squeamish about anything which anybody else could eat with relish. To him, naturally, the first taste of breadfruit was pleasing. But Cook was more critical. "The natives seldom make a meal without it," he said, "though to us the taste was as disagreeable as that of a pickled olive generally is the first time it is eaten." That opinion, perhaps, accords with the common experience of neophytes in tropical gastronomy. But new sensations in the matter of food are not always to be depended on. Sir Joseph Banks disliked bananas when he first tasted them.
The immense popularity of Cook's voyages spread afar the fame of breadfruit as an article of food. Certain West Indian planters were of opinion that it would be advantageous to establish the trees on their islands and to encourage the consumption of the fruit by their slaves. Not only was it considered that the use of breadfruit would cheapen the cost of the slaves' living, but—a consideration that weighed both with the planters and the British Government in view of existing relations with the United States—it was also believed that it would "lessen the dependence of the sugar islands on North America for food and necessaries."
The planters petitioned the Government to fit out an expedition to transplant trees from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Sir Joseph Banks strongly supported them, and Lord Hood, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was sympathetic. In August, 1787, Lieutenant Bligh was appointed to the command of the Bounty, was directed to sail to the Society Islands, to take on board "as many trees and plants as may be thought necessary," and to transplant them to British possessions in the West Indies.
The vessel sailed, with two skilled gardeners on board to superintend the selection and treatment of the plants. Tahiti was duly reached, and the business of the expedition was taken in hand. One thousand and fifteen fine trees were chosen and carefully stowed. But the comfortable indolence, the luxuriant abundance, the genial climate, the happy hospitality of the handsome islanders, and their easy freedom from compunction in reference to restraints imposed by law and custom in Europe, had a demoralising effect upon the crew of the Bounty. A stay of twenty-three weeks at the island sufficed to subvert discipline and to persuade some of Bligh's sailors that life in Tahiti was far preferable to service in the King's Navy under the rule of a severe and exacting commander.
When the Bounty left Tahiti on April 14, 1787, reluctance plucked at the heart of many of the crew. The morning light lay tenderly upon the plumes of the palms, and a light wind filled the sails of the ship as she glided out of harbour. As the lazy lapping wash of the waters against the low outer fringe of coral was lost to the ear, the Bounty breasted the deep ocean; and as the distinguishable features of green tree, white sand, brown earth, and grey rock faded out of vision, wrapped in a haze of blue, till at last the only pronounced characteristic of the island standing up against the sky and sea was the cap of Point Venus at the northern extremity—the departure must have seemed to some like that of Tannhauser from the enchanted mountain, except that the legendary hero was glad to make his return to the normal world, whereas all of Bligh's company were not. For them, westward, whither they were bound,
"There gaped the gate Whereby lost souls back to the cold earth went."
On April 28 the Bounty was sailing towards Tofoa, another of the Society Islands. Just before sunrise on the following morning Bligh was aroused from sleep, seized and bound in his cabin by a band of mutineers, led out by the master's mate, Fletcher Christian, and, with eighteen companions, dropped into a launch and bidden to depart. The followers of Christian were three midshipmen and twenty-five petty officers and sailors. They turned the head of the Bounty back towards their island paradise; and as they sailed away, the mariners in the tossing little boat heard them calling "Hurrah for Tahiti!"
The frail craft in which the nineteen loyalists were compelled to attempt to traverse thousands of miles of ocean, where the navigation is perhaps the most intricate in the world, was but 23 feet long by 6 feet 9 inches broad and 2 feet 9 inches deep. Their provisions consisted of 150 pounds of bread, 16 pieces of pork, each about two pounds in weight, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, and 28 gallons of water. With this scanty stock of nourishment, in so small a boat, Bligh and his companions covered 3618 miles, crossing the western Pacific, sailing through Torres Strait, and ultimately reaching Timor.
That Bligh was somewhat deficient in tact and sympathy in handling men, cross-grained, harsh, and obstinate, is probably true. His language was often lurid, he lavished foul epithets upon his crew, and he was not reluctant to follow terms of abuse by vigorous chastisement. He called Christian a "damned hound," some of the men "scoundrels, thieves and rascals," and he met a respectful remonstrance with the retort: "You damned infernal scoundrels, I'll make you eat grass or anything you can catch before I have done with you." Naval officers of the period were not addicted to addressing their men in the manner of a lady with a pet canary. Had Bligh's language been the head and front of his offending, he would hardly have shocked an eighteenth century fo'c'sle. But his disposition does not seem to have bound men to him. He generated dislike. Nevertheless it is credible that the explanation which he gave goes far to explain the mutiny. He held that the real cause was a species of sensuous intoxication which had corrupted his crew.
"The women of Tahiti," Bligh wrote, "are handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility, and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and loved. The chiefs were so much attached to our people that they rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made them promises of large possessions. Under these and other attendant circumstances equally desirable, it is perhaps not so much to be wondered at, though scarcely possible to have been foreseen, that a set of sailors, many of them void of connections, should be led away; especially when in addition to such powerful inducements they imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty on one of the finest islands in the world, where they need not labour, and where the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived. … Had their mutiny been occasioned by any grievance, either real or imaginary, I must have discovered symptoms of their discontent, which would have put me on my guard; but the case was far otherwise. Christian in particular I was on the most friendly terms with; that very day he was engaged to have dined with me; and the preceding night he excused himself from supping with me on pretence of being unwell, for which I felt concerned, having no suspicions of his integrity and honour."
Support is given to Bligh's explanation by a statement alleged to have been made by Fletcher Christian a few years later, the genuineness of which, however, is open to serious question. If it could be accepted, Christian acquitted his commander of having contributed to the mutiny by harsh conduct. He ascribed the occurrence "to the strong predilection we had contracted for living in Tahiti, where, exclusive of the happy disposition of the inhabitants, the mildness of the climate, and the fertility of the soil, we had formed certain tender connections which banished the remembrance of old England from our breasts." The weight of evidence justifies the belief that Bligh, though a sailor of unequivocal skill and dauntless courage, was an unlikeable man, and that aversion to service under him was a factor contributing to the mutiny which cannot be explained away.
Bligh is the connecting link between Cook and Flinders. Bligh learned under Cook to experience the thrilling pleasure of discovery and to pursue in that direction in a scientific spirit. Flinders learnt the same lesson under Bligh, and bettered the instruction. Cook is the first great scientific navigator whose name is associated with the construction of the map of Australia; so much can be said without disparagement of the adventurous Dutchmen who pieced together the outline of the western and northern coasts. Flinders was the second; and Bligh, pupil of the one and teacher of the other, deserves a better fate than to be remembered chiefly as a sinister figure in two historic mutinies, that of the Bounty, and that which ended his governorship of New South Wales in 1808. Much worse men have done much worse things than he, have less that is brave, honourable, enterprising and original to their credit, and yet are remembered without ignominy. It is said by Hooker: "as oftentimes the vices of wicked men do cause other their commendable virtues to be abhorred, so the honour of great men's virtues is easily a cloak to their errors." Bligh fell short of being a great man, but neither was he a bad man; and the merit of his achievements, both as a navigator and amid the shock of battle (especially at Copenhagen in 1801, under Nelson), must not be overlooked, even though stern history will not permit his errors to be cloaked.
Notwithstanding the failure of the Bounty expedition, Sir Joseph Banks pressed upon the Government the desirableness of transplanting breadfruit trees to the West Indies. He also proved a staunch friend to Bligh. The result was that the Admiralty resolved to equip a second enterprise for the same purpose, and to entrust the command of it to the same officer.
We may now follow the fortunes of Matthew Flinders under the tutelage of this energetic captain.
- Gaffarel, La Politique coloniale en France, (1908) p. 34.
- Vol. XXXII (1814).
- Mahan, Life of Nelson ( edit. of 1899), pp. 13-14.)
- Masefield's Sea Life in Nelson's Time (1905) gives a good account of the practice.
- Naval Chronicle (1814).
- Cook's Voyages edition of 1821 5 page 92.
- Bryan Edwards History of the British West Indies (1819) 1. xl.