Privateering as an Investment Strategy
(Hint: The Only Yields are Literary)
By: Gerry Scott
A friend’s generous and thoughtful gift of a print depicting a late 17th century sailing ship led me to consider what I might contribute to his site by way of a thank you. Since the site deals with thoughts on art, jazz, and investments, and frequently discusses books that deal with those subjects, I thought bringing his readers’ attention to three books on the unlikely union of high-seas adventure in pursuit of wealth and English literature might be appropriate.
In the early 18th century there was a great deal of interest in England in the possibility of reaping financial reward from trade with what was then known as the South Sea, on the model of the success of British trade with the East Indies. At the time the South Sea comprised the southern Pacific Ocean that washed upon the shores of South and Central America from Tierra del Fuego (and Cape Horn) as far north as California. While there was indeed wealth to be made in trade with the region, there was a major flaw in the scheme for British investors in that it overlooked the strict proprietary interest the Spanish Crown maintained over its colonies. So, despite the formation of the South Sea Company along the lines of the Honorable East India Company, and the extraordinary investment in it that ultimately led to the financially disastrous “South Sea Bubble,” it was highly unlikely that there would be much financial gain for British investors in the company’s stock.
There was, however, another tried and true way for loyal Britons to reap financial rewards from Spain’s colonies on the South Sea. This method was known as privateering, in which a civilian ship captain would outfit a vessel as a warship, similar to that shown in the print, and sail it on behalf of the British government against the sovereign’s foes, seizing enemy merchant ships and plundering them along the way. While this might sound like piracy, it was made perfectly legal by the ship captain obtaining a Letter of Marque from his government. It was a plan that adventurous English sea dogs had followed since the days of Sir Francis Drake.
It was this second scheme of investment that a group of London merchants decided to follow when they banded together and outfitted two vessels as privateers, the Speedwell, and the Success. The resulting voyage of the Speedwell was to ultimately play a role in the creation of one of the best-known English narrative poems of the 19th century, while the voyage of the Success would present a brief moment in time, only recently discovered, when history and literature intersect in an extraordinary way. Each of the three books dealing with these vessels has a role to play in recounting the events.
Of the three, the account written by one of the privateer captains is especially engaging. A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World by George Shelvocke has been reissued in the Seafarer’s Voices series by Seaforth Publishing. If you are unfamiliar with the series but are interested in accounts of life at sea told by those who lived it, then this series is well worth your notice. Each volume is an abridged and edited version of the original, with footnotes and a useful introduction. Vincent McInerney, who served in the merchant marine and worked for the BBC, provides the notes and introduction to Shelvocke’s account.
Shelvocke, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before undertaking his privateering voyage, originally published his account in 1726, four years after his 1719-1722 voyage. He did so largely to counter legal charges (including piracy, ironically) brought against him by the Gentlemen Adventurers after his return to England, and to refute the character assassination job done against him by the former commander of marines aboard the Speedwell, William Betagh, who had published an account the previous year.
Shelvocke’s work is an interesting tale of lashing storms, a troublesome and untrustworthy crew, outlandish battles fought at sea and ashore, great privation and near starvation, and even a shipwreck on a deserted island, the same island that Alexander Selkirk – the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – inhabited. But Shelvocke’s work is more than an adventure story, for he takes pains to include descriptive passages of the things he has seen that address natural history, anthropology, and geography, helping to place him in the category of the literary gentleman-scholar and appealing to Europe’s keen interest in reading travel literature describing the wider world at the time.
What gains Shelvocke’s real contribution to literature, however, is a brief passage in which he records that while rounding Cape Horn, his second in command, Simon Hatley, in a melancholy fit, shot a solitary albatross that has been accompanying them for several days. Some seventy years later, William Wordsworth was reading Shelvocke’s book at precisely the time that his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and was in need of a deed that would render the protagonist of his poem cursed.
The second book of the three is The Speedwell Voyage by Kenneth Poolman, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II and went on to work for the BBC. Poolman blends Shelvocke’s narrative with that of the antagonistic Betagh and the journal of George Taylor, Chief Mate aboard the Success to give a fuller account of the voyages of the two vessels. While the differences in the interpretation of events between Shelvocke and Betagh, as each strives to tarnish the other’s image as much as possible, is unresolved, the harrowing stories of both vessels make interesting reading. Additional insight is also given to the curious relationship, or lack thereof, between Shelvocke and the commander of the Success, Captain Clipperton, who may likely have been unhinged.
The third book to deal with the voyage is The Real Ancient Mariner, Pirates and Poesy on the South Sea by Robert Fawke. The author has set himself the task of trying to flesh out the life and career of Simon Hatley, Shelvocke’s melancholy second in command who gains his place in history by potting the unfortunate albatross looking for companionship in desolate seas. And, remarkably, he succeeds in putting quite a bit of flesh on Hatley’s bones. In doing so, he casts a wider historical net describing earlier voyages, the privateering literature of the day, and discovering, along the way, that during the brief time that the Speedwell and the Success cruised in company, Hatley was aboard the Success to represent Speedwell’s interests and so were the models for two other literary characters, Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, and William Dampier, whom Jonathan Swift used as inspiration for his Gulliver.
For interesting nautical reading with a literary flair, these three books each pay dividends.
|As a longtime fan of Jim Nutt, I’ve much enjoyed seeing some of his earlier works, but it was his recent portraits that literally took my breath away.|
One of the more memorable exhibits of the new millennium was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2011. Essentially a retrospective of the painter Jim Nutt, it was the first public showing of his work in about a decade. As a longtime fan of Nutt, and as much as I enjoyed seeing some of the earlier works again, it was his recent portraits that literally took my breath away.
Comparatively intimate in scale, and most accompanied by an original pencil preparatory drawing, the work is masterful. Layers and layers of color applied in ways that created both striking textural patterns and an inner luminosity. These life-size portraits of women could easily be dismissed as a “slicker” version of earlier work where faces and figures are distorted to an extreme that is regularly described as grotesque. But the colors and patterns serve to provide focal points that make the imagery playful rather than malicious. Regrettably, the handsome and competently printed catalog just can’t do these portraits justice.
Recently spending time looking at a book of the handful of known paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and glancing up at work of Jim Nutt above my desk, I was reminded of the other show I saw on that spring day in Chicago. Pure serendipity, and the kind of coincidence that keeps life interesting, earlier that same day I had wandered through a show at the Art Institute of Chicago with medieval art that included, to my absolute delight and surprise, a small Madonna and child by Leonardo Da Vinci known as Virgin with Yarnspinner. It was the first time this work had been on public display since being purchased by a private collector in the early 1970’s. Even a background reminiscent of the Mona Lisa but poorly executed by assistants, could not diminish the power of the two figures. I was intrigued by the similarities between the Da Vinci and the Nutt portraits, including the bizarre foreshortening on the face of the child, and the luminosity of the Madonna’s face.
When I later shared my observation of the similarities between his portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci, Nutt disagreed. I defended my idea by explaining that I stood enthralled for so long while staring at the Yarnspinner a museum guard warily inquired, “is everything okay?”. The same evening found me at the CAM show where the similarities of the many portraits by Nutt with the Yarnspinner seemed so obvious. After a brief back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.
|It was while reading Belzoni’s description of his work at Ybsambul (now Abu Simbel) that I was first reminded of Borges’ story of the immortal one.|
Among the best stories that Jorge Luis Borges wrote is a particular favorite of mine, The Immortal. Originally published 1947, it was subsequently reprinted to a wider audience in the first edition of El Aleph in 1949. It is possible that the current state of literary criticism and analysis regarding this work is at best incomplete, and possibly irrelevant.
Whether this narrative is about the reputed author Marcus Flaminius Rufus, the book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, or someone else who has achieved temporary immortality may not matter. Of the many observations discussed in the Postscript of The Immortal, most significant is likely, “He infers from these intrusions or thefts that the whole document is apocryphal.” In point of fact, it is not.
Recently, a friend and noted Egyptologist acquired all of the plates – with original watercolor – that accompanied 1820, 1821 and 1822 versions of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s narrative of his time in Egypt. Handsomely rebound by the Cairo bookbinder Mr. Fahti (who has worked magic on many antiquarian volumes in my personal collection) I took advantage of our friendship to borrow both the enormous plate volume (measuring 40 inches by 24 inches when open, with fold-out plates) as well a first edition of the more practically sized text volume.
Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter at Ammon by G. Belzoni was first published by John Murray, Albemarle-Street, in 1820. The copy temporarily sitting on my desk once belonged to the collection of Keith C. Seele, responsible for the successful completion of the first UNESCO project in the early 1960’s – moving the enormous temple of Abu Simbel out of harm’s way prior to the completion of the Aswan High Dam (see obituary; Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 32, January-April 1973).
It was while reading Belzoni’s description of his work at Ybsambul (now Abu Simbel) that I was first reminded of Borges’ story of the immortal one. Later, descriptions of abandoned temples, references to troglodytes and feral people living in pits led me to open my copy of Labyrinths and read, yet again, The Immortal. Which in turn led me to reread chapters in Narrative. Which in turn… Finally tiring of this dizzying cycle, the unmistakable similarities between these two works led me to write this brief note.
Belzoni notes in his Preface that his career was made in Thebes. Marcus Flaminius Rufus notes that his fate was sealed in Thebes. Mysterious peoples, the desert and protagonists unable to manage their fate appear in both Narrative and The Immortal. Beset by antagonists and problems both fearful and often fanciful, the only thing immortal in either of these tales is the past.
That a fantastic story conceived by a proud Argentinian during the 1940’s was heavily influenced by a boastful description of work undertaken by an Italian with British sympathies in Egypt during the 1810’s is obvious.
This short note is inspired by the fact that Sol LeWitt died in April 2007, and since then exhibits of work created after his death continue to occasionally pop-up.
“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” LeWitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most insightful expression of what his conceptual artwork was about; the idea, not the object. Further, LeWitt was widely known for his (even now!) use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume LeWitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-wall. This notion of the artwork itself, not being the point, dogged LeWitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of conceptual no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to LeWitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.
|Sol LeWitt art should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. LeWitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color, and inventiveness that Giotto would have certainly enjoyed.|
LeWitt’s process of seeking every combination of a series served among other things, to ensure that he had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. LeWitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use a phrase attributed to many but best expressed by Jorge Luis Borges, LeWitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” Sol LeWitt, 1973|
For reasons most people will not understand, I’m excited about a little work recently added to my collection of ephemera by the artist Sol LeWitt. Part of the reason this work resonates more than many others is due to the evolution of my goals as a collector. More than other items, many of which frankly offer more pleasing aesthetics, this drawing exemplifies the ideas that draw me to the artist. And to LeWitt’s stated goals as an artist.
The pencil sketch was likely the original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber Gallery in March 1986. I have the invitation to that particular show, and now the working drawing for a signature piece from the exhibit. Further, Lewitt was meticulous in documenting his output, and in a catalog of wall drawings published in 1989, this work can be clearly identified as #472. Its most unique attribute is that it was gray – no colors were used, even for the background. As with so many of the wall drawings designed for specific exhibitions, the assumption was that the work would eventually be painted over, as was the case here. My research has not yet – and may never – come up with a photo of the actual painting.
|From early on in his professional career, Lewitt emphasized that the idea was more important than the final artifact – painting, sculpture, wall drawing, etc…|