Thursday, 13 March 2008

Sailors, The Girls of St. Helena and a little bad Poetry

When it was known that Napoleon was going to be exiled on St. Helena there was some curiosity in France about this unknown island. Michel has produced an extract from a piece produced in 1815 to satisfy that curiosity.

Below is a fairly loose translation of part of it. One might almost say that it provides a typically Gallic view. Certainly some must have thought that Napoleon had landed on his feet!

The capital or Valley of the Chapel presents a most picturesque and entertaining spectacle when a ship arrives in port. From all the hills and valleys come all the inhabitants of both sexes to see the new arrivals and to sell their wares. All the houses in the town, and even those which have spread between the trees further up the valley, are transformed into cafes and hostelries serving excellent punch and providing hospitality to the sailors. For several days there is only food, dancing and other entertainment. It is a great joy for one of these houses if it can find some pretty girls, because then all the sailors will come and spend a lot of money. These girls are charming sights when they appear on the hills in their white aprons. They are even more attractive and well turned out whilst the ships are in port; but as soon as the ships have gone the scene changes: they know how to climb on the rocks and to descend barefoot as easily as if they had never worn shoes.
There is only one bad thing about the situation of the Saint Helenans : that is to be exposed to the oppression of the Governor

- Description de l’île Sainte-Hélène, séjour destiné à Napoléon Bonaparte, publié à Paris en 1815.

A Sailor's View of the Delights of St. Helena

Over 25 years later an American sailor on a whaling ship, having been at sea for many months, was also very attracted by the girls of St. Helena, and soon fell in love:

Strolling down the principal street, I spied a young lady seated at the window of a handsome private residence, very intently engaged with her needle. ... I unconsciously gazed at her with an earnestness that she might have mistaken for rudeness, had she noticed it. She was really a most beautiful girl, with jet-black hair, a clear white skin, and a killing witchery in the exquisitely-rounded outline of her form. ...

"Od rot it!" shouted the captain, out of all patience at my want of taste in preferring the sight of a pretty girl to a good meal; "come along! Never mind that 'ere gal's skylights; they won't do you no good. My old doxy at home is a grand sight a snugger craft.

After tea we had quite a musical party at Mr. Carroll's, composed of the family and several agreeable and fascinating young ladies of their acquaintance. It was indescribably delightful to an adventurer like myself, who had been over a year among Portuguese boors, during which time I had enjoyed no other change of company than the American consul's assistants at Zanzibar, and the Arabs and Africans at Madagascar and Johanna. We had duets on the piano, songs, conversational recreations, and all the pleasures of a social soiree.

Last Sight of St Helena and Thoughts about Miss Legg

Slowly and mournfully the dark shadows of night were stealing over the island. I sat upon the taffrail and gazed upon it, as it grew more indistinct each moment. Now it was but a dark mass of rocks, with a rugged outline; now, an undefined object, half hidden in the darkening twilight; now the eye could scarcely recognize it in the depths of the gloom. Thoughts of the few happy hours I had spent there; of all I had seen and experienced within so short a period; the genuine hospitality of the warm-hearted strangers who had been so kind to me; the associations connected with this desolate spot, awoke within me many emotions of regret, and vague, melancholy reflections on the fleeting triumphs of ambition.

That night, inspired by visions of the beauty of a young lady to whom I had been introduced on the island, I went below, and perpetrated, for the first time in my life, a desperate attempt at poetry. ...

Lines on Miss L——gg.

To the sweet little valley of Jamestown I came,
Ne'er dreaming with danger 'twas fraught;
After whaling a year, oh, I tell it with shame,
On the pin-hook of love I got caught.
Long years in my heart this misfortune will rankle,
And the reason you'll notice, I beg;
While others, from taste, fall in love with an ankle,
Too fondly I loved a whole L——gg

- Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne, N.Y. 1846

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