Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shelvocke, George

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SHELVOCKE, GEORGE (fl. 1690–1728), privateer, entered the navy, according to his own account, some time before 1690 (Voyage, &c., p. 26). He is said to have served under Benbow. From 1707 to 1713 he was purser of the Monck (Paybook of the Monck). He says in his ‘Voyage’ that he was a lieutenant in the navy, and this is confirmed by the unfriendly narrative of his shipmate, William Betagh, himself also an ex-purser in the navy. No passing certificate, however, can now be found, nor does his name appear in any existing list of lieutenants. Betagh says that in 1718, being destitute and on the point of starvation, he applied to a London merchant, whom he had formerly known, for relief, and that this merchant not only relieved him, but offered him the chief command of a couple of ships which were being fitted out to cruise against the Spaniards with a commission from the emperor. When, shortly afterwards, war was declared by England, the owners determined that their ships should sail under English colours; and as Shelvocke, by his disregard of orders and extravagant dealings at Ostend, had forfeited the confidence of the owners, they removed him from the chief command of the expedition, appointing one John Clipperton in his room, and to be captain of the Success, the larger ship, and Shelvocke, subordinate to Clipperton, to be captain of the smaller ship, the Speedwell of twenty-four guns and 106 men. The arrangement was ill-judged, for Shelvocke seems to have been as unfit for the second as for the first post; and conceiving a grudge against Clipperton, to have determined from the first that he would not work with him. The two ships sailed together from Plymouth on 13 Feb. 1718–19, but taking advantage of a gale of wind a few days later, Shelvocke separated from his consort, and by his delays in going to the appointed rendezvous at the Grand Canary, and afterwards at Juan Fernandez, did not fall in with her again for nearly two years. This, as a matter of fact, is substantiated by his own account. Betagh, who was engaged as ‘captain of marines’ on board the Speedwell, with a special order from the owners that he was to mess with the captain, describes Shelvocke as behaving at this time and through the whole voyage in a rude unofficer-like manner, more becoming a pirate than the captain of even a private ship of war. He was, he says, often drunk, quarrelsome, and abusive; and meeting with a Portuguese ship near the coast of Brazil, he hoisted an ambiguous ensign which made her captain believe he was a pirate, and extorted from him, as ransom, a large sum of money and a considerable quantity of valuable merchandise. At St. Catherine's, on the coast of Brazil, he waited for a couple of months, apparently to make sure of not falling in with the Success, which was, indeed, already past the Straits of Magellan; but, according to his own account, detained by the mutinous temper of his crew, the most unruly set of rascals he had known in his thirty years' service as ‘an officer,’ whom he only succeeded in bringing to order by the assistance of M. de la Jonquière, the future antagonist of Anson, but at this time on his way home from the Pacific in command of a French ship which had been in the Spanish service. The story, as told by Shelvocke, is utterly incredible, and is said by Betagh to be absolutely untrue.

In going round Cape Horn the Speedwell was driven as far south as latitude 61° 30′, and, the weather continuing very bad, an incident occurred which has been embalmed in literature by Coleridge in the ‘Ancient Mariner.’ Shelvocke's account of it is: ‘We all observed that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind since we were come to the southward of the Straits of Le Maire, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black albatross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, my second captain … imagining from his colour that it might be some ill-omen, after some fruitless attempts, at length shot the albatross, not doubting, perhaps, that we should have a fair wind after it’ (Shelvocke, pp. 72–3). Neither fair wind nor the poetic calm, however, followed. It was upwards of six weeks from the death of the albatross before they sighted the coast of Chili in latitude 47° 28′ south, and during the whole time ‘we had continual contrary winds and uncomfortable weather.’ Wordsworth, who had recently been reading Shelvocke's ‘Voyage,’ suggested the albatross incident to Coleridge in November 1797.

After dallying on the coast for a couple of months, Shelvocke at last went to Juan Fernandez, to find that Clipperton, after long waiting, had left it three months before. He now went down the coast capturing several small prizes, and among others a vessel of a hundred tons burden, ‘laden with cormorants' dung which the Spaniards call Guana, which is brought from the island of Iquique to cultivate the Agi or cod-pepper in the vale of Arica’ (ib. pp. 164, 171; Betagh, pp. 101). After sacking and burning Payta, and learning that two or three Spanish ships of war were on the coast, from which on two different occasions he had a narrow escape, Shelvocke resolved to go back to Juan Fernandez and wait for a more favourable opportunity. He anchored there on 11 May, but a fortnight later, in a fresh wind and heavy swell, the cable parted and the ship was thrown on shore, where she became a complete wreck. That this was not attended with much loss of life would seem to have been due to Shelvocke's presence of mind and good seamanship at a very critical time. The provisions were for the most part saved; but such treasure as had been collected was reported to be lost, being possibly secreted by Shelvocke, with the exception of eleven hundred dollars, which were divided among the crew as theirs by right of having saved them.

From the remains of the Speedwell they were able to build and rig a small vessel of about twenty tons, in which, on 6 Oct. 1720, they sailed from Juan Fernandez, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to seize some larger ship, they captured the Jesu Maria of two hundred tons burden, which the Spaniards offered to ransom for sixteen thousand dollars. Under the circumstances, however, the ship was of more value than any ransom, and the Spaniards were dismissed in the little bark which was given to them. Shelvocke and his crew then went north, and at the Isle of Quibo fell in with the Success, from which they had separated in the chops of the Channel nearly two years before. Clipperton was much displeased with Shelvocke's conduct, and wished to suspend him from the command, but was obliged to forbear as it seemed doubtful whether, after the loss of the Speedwell, he had any authority over him. He called him, however, to account for the owners' property, and having examined his statement, refused to associate with him unless he and his crew delivered up the money which they had, illegally as he maintained, divided among them. As they refused to do this, the ships separated the next day, Clipperton very unwillingly supplying the Jesu Maria with a couple of guns and some stores of which she was in need. The Success shortly afterwards went to China, and, being found unseaworthy, was sold at Macao. Clipperton and his men then divided their booty, which, after putting on one side the owners' moiety of 6,000l., gave 419 dollars to each able seaman, and 6,285 dollars, being fifteen shares, to Clipperton. The 6,000l. was put on board a homeward-bound Portuguese ship, which was accidentally burnt at Rio de Janeiro, and not more than 1,800l. was saved for the owners. Clipperton went home in a merchant ship, but died in Ireland a few days after his arrival.

Shelvocke, meantime, at Sonsonate, captured a fine ship of three hundred tons, named the Santa Familia; and when informed by the governor that peace had been concluded, he hurriedly put to sea with his prize. On 15 May 1721 he captured another ship named La Concepcion, laden with stores, and having on board more than a hundred thousand dollars in coin. According to Shelvocke's account, he closed with her because he wanted a pilot, the Concepcion fired on him as soon as he hoisted English colours, and he was obliged to fight in self-defense; and a declaration to this effect he compelled the officers and passengers to sign before he allowed them to depart in their ship, from which he first removed all that was valuable to the Santa Familia. He now thought it time to return to England, and, going north to California, filled up with water at a place he calls Puerto Seguro, where he noted that the soil was richly auriferous, and conjectured that very probably ‘this country abounds in metals of all sorts’ (Voyage, p. 401). It is not a little curious that in the account of this disorderly, semipiratical voyage mention should have been made of the gold of California and the guano of Peru a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty years before their modern discovery. On 18 Aug. 1721 the Santa Familia sailed for China, and on 11 Nov. anchored at Macao. Thence she went up the river to Whampoa, where, after paying harbour dues to the amount—as stated— of 2,000l., the ship was sold for 700l.. There can be no doubt that it was a fraudulent arrangement between Shelvocke and the Chinese officials. According to the accounts kept by the steward, the prize-money was then divided among the crew, each able seaman receiving 1,887 dollars and Shelvocke 11,325; in addition to which 10,032 were not accounted for, nor yet Shelvocke's share of the 2,000l. said to have been paid as harbour dues. Altogether, it was said, Shelvocke made not less than 7,000l. out of the voyage.

He returned to England in the Cadogan, East Indiaman, and landed at Dover on 30 July 1722. On arriving in London he was arrested on two charges of piracy; first for plundering the Portuguese ship on the coast of Brazil, and, secondly, for seizing the Santa Familia. The capture of the Concepcion does not seem to have been mentioned; and on the actual charges he was acquitted for want of legal evidence. He was also charged by the owners with defrauding them, but found means to escape from the king's bench prison and to fly the country. In 1726 he published ‘A Voyage round the World, by the Way of the Great South Sea, performed in the years 1719, 20, 21, 22 …’ (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1757), an interesting and amusing narrative, but not to be implicitly trusted. In 1728 Betagh published ‘A Voyage round the World, being an Account of a remarkable Enterprise begun in the year 1719 …’ which puts a very different colour on many incidents of the voyage, and in many respects appears more worthy of credit. It is, however, written with much ill-will, and its statements as to Shelvocke's conduct must be received with caution. According to it, Shelvocke was still in hiding abroad in 1728.

A son, George, who accompanied his father on the voyage, translated in 1729 Simienowicz's ‘Great Art of Artillery,’ fol.; in 1736 contributed to the ‘Universal History,’ fol.; and in 1757 edited a new edition of his father's voyage. From 1742 until his death in 1760 he was secretary to the general post office (Gent. Mag. 1760, p. 154).

[All the accounts of the voyage are based on Shelvocke's own narrative, and on Betagh's. Condensed accounts are given by Harris, Kerr, and others; the best is in Burney's Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea, iv. 520–53.]

J. K. L.