“On October the 9th, 1672, we set Sail, bearing our course due West, sometimes West and by South, and sometimes West-North-West, each traverse not exceeding Fifteen Leagues in Longitude. We thus continued doing about seven days: on the eighth day in the morning, we espyed a blue Cloud at West-South-West…”
— Richard Head (1674)
And likewise— The Western Wonder; or, O Brazeel, an inchanted island discovered with a relation of two ship-wracks in a dreadful sea-storm in that discovery. To which is added, a description of a place, called, Montecapernia, relating the nature of the people, their qualities, humours, fashions, religions, &c.
Am I the only one who suspects that Richard Head was getting paid by the word?
The 17th century was a time of voyage and discovery, and travelers’ reports were eagerly devoured by the English reading public. However, as we have seen, the 17th century was also a time of shams, a form of joking to which the travelogue lent itself very well. Side by side in the bookshops sat true accounts of fabulous discoveries in distant lands, and accounts of discoveries that were, literally, “fabulous”, and it took a very wary and analytical reader indeed to spot the difference. This situation was a source of great frustration to many who were genuinely interested in the geographical, anthropological and biological revelations of the age.
We’ve already taken a look at two forms of faux-travelogue, Henry Neville’s The Isle Of Pines and Richard Head’s The Floating Island. Although widely differing in their intentions and tone, these pamphlets are similar in that, not only do they use the travelogue as a framework for their satirical intentions, but they make little effort to disguise their true natures – although The Isle Of Pines, as we have seen, did fool some people for a time. Head’s follow-up to The Floating Island, The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel is, however, another matter. It purports to be a genuine account of a journey to a possibly mythical body located off the coast of Ireland.
As usual with Richard Head, it seems, the back-story to his writing is much more interesting than the writing itself. The island of Hy Brasil – or Hy Breasal, or Hy Breasil, or a dozen other variants – has a long history in Celtic folklore, and a strangely divided one. On one hand we have an account of the “Irish Atlantis”, a mist-shrouded land that only becomes visible once every seven years (and thus tying in with the persistent mythology of the “floating island”), a paradise where those lucky few able to reach land were loaded down with riches by its inhabitants; on the other, an apparently real land mass described by sailors for centuries, yet strangely elusive, defying the attempts of any number of explorers to land on it or even accurately to map its position. Nevertheless, belief that such an island did exist was strong during the 17th century, and indeed for centuries to come. It was not until the 1860s that the putative location of Hy Brasil was removed from British maritime charts once and for all. Small wonder, then, that when Richard Head wrote The Western Wonder in 1674, many of its readers accepted it as a true story without hesitation.
Head’s own presentation of Hy Brasil is a melding of both aspects of its mythology: a real island that yet has magical properties. The pamphlet opens with its unnamed narrator deploring the number of false reports in circulation, which make it so difficult for the truth to gain a foothold. However, he bravely soldiers on, briefly summarising what “the ancient Geographers” have had to say about “O-Brazeel” before recounting for us the various stories told to him personally, which sparked his interest in locating the island. One sailor, we hear, spied what was definitely a land mass, but despite sailing towards it for ten hours, never got any closer to it. Another was sailing towards it when, without warning, it suddenly began to move towards him (the “floating island” again) – coming so close to his boat that he could see upon the shore, Men of a prodigious stature, who as they mov’d, look’d like walking Oaks, as well as, Beasts of several shapes, and all so dreadful and horrid to look on. Terrified, the sailor turned his boat and tried to flee, but was engulfed by an impenetrable mist, which cleared following a tremendous lightning strike…and there was no longer an island to be seen.
A third sailor also approached the island, only to be caught in a tremendously violent storm. He immediately turned his boat away, but found that his compass was no longer working. Finally, an entire crew came suddenly upon a strange mist-bank which, clearing suddenly, left them almost upon the rocks surrounding an island. Their struggles to turn away were futile, and they had given themselves up for lost when the rocks seemed to drop away, their boat passing safely over their former location.
The narrator gathers more, similar stories, finally carrying them to, Some ingenious men of my acquaintance, who at first smiled at my fond Credulity…and endeavoured to jeer me out of my opinion. These acquaintances do more: they try to convince the narrator that believing in O-Brazeel is as ridiculous as believing that, There are multiplicity of Worlds, or that one wherein we live, had its matter and form from a confused conflux of Atoms.
The narrator is not dissuaded, however, and that night dreams of being carried off by a gigantic eagle and taken to an island where, A person of a lovely presence, and with an angelic countenance appears to him and acts as his guide. They are beset by devils and various horrible creatures, but the guide vanquishes their foes and leads the narrator to a seeming paradise on Earth, where, Men, Women and Children ascend out of the bowels of the earth…who were all naked, very white, and well-featur’d. To the narrator’s surprise, these people fall down and worship, A deform’d, ill-shapen thing that is clearly the Devil. His guide explains that the island is under the dominion of, The Prince of the Air, and has been for many years – but soon will be so no longer. At this, tremendous thunder and lightning sweep across the island. The eagle returns and carries the narrator safely home – where he wakes to the conviction that it is his destiny to be the one to set foot upon O-Brazeel and break any spells that lie upon it.
Fortunately, the narrator has a friend who just happens to have a fully fitted out, thirty ton vessel and nowhere to go. The two set out upon their voyage of discovery, and succeed in locating the “inchanted island”; but as they draw near, they suffer the fate of their predecessors. There is a tremendous crack of lightning, and the island disappears. The explorers wait out the night, and in the morning the island is visible again; but as they make another attempt to land, a storm of deadly magnitude breaks. The ship is tossed about for two full days, and then begins to take on water…
This opening stretch of The Western Wonder is easily the best and most enjoyable piece of Richard Head’s writing that I’ve read so far. Unfortunately, it’s downhill all the way from here, as Head first succumbs to temptation, or bad habit, and starts making puerile jokes in the middle of what ought to be a terrifying account of imminent death. Subsequently, the narrator and a few of the crew make it into the life-boat, and are eventually rescued by a crew of “Wallisians*”, whose own boat is then caught in the storm and driven onto rocks (the second of the “ship-wracks” of the subtitle). Everyone makes it to shore, and when the day breaks they find themselves in “Montecapernia” – which is either Ireland or Wales, I’m not entirely sure. However, given that Head – who was Irish – produces an unprovoked Welsh joke in The Floating Island, too, I’m going with the latter.
In either event, the rest of the pamphlet consists of an extended satire of “Montecapernia” and its people that is neither particularly clever nor particularly funny. I can only assume that a deal had been struck for a pamphlet of a particular length, and that not choosing (or not daring) to have his narrator land on the island, Head was forced to pad out his story another way; and in the end, the narrator’s account of life in “Montecapernia” is longer than the section about O-Brazeel. Reading this, you can understand how people might have believed in the truth of the first half of The Western Wonder, but at the same time, you’d think that the second half would have opened their eyes.
But—we’re not done with O-Brazeel just yet. It turns out I had my facts wrong a little earlier: in 1675, two pamphlets were released by different booksellers bearing the title O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island. One was indeed a reprint of The Floating Island under a new name; but the other was a new pamphlet, a follow-up to The Western Wonder. Which means, alas, that I haven’t quite shaken off Richard Head just yet (at least until I hit 1688) – and consequently, nor, my friends, have you.
[*I don’t know where Head got the term “Wallisians” from in 1674 – Wallis and Futuna wasn’t named until about a century later.]