O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island

“This story seems very fabulous, yet the Letter is come to a known Merchant, and from a good hand in France, so that I thought fit to mention it, it may be that there may be some mistake in the number of the Leagues, as also of the exact point of the Compass, from Cape Finis Terre; I shall enquire more particularly about it. Some English here suppose it may be the Island of Brasile which have been so oft sought for, Southwest from Ireland, if true, we shall hear further about it.”
— Abraham Keek (Henry Neville) (1668)

“As for the Island of Pines it self, which caused me to Write this Relation, I suppose it is a thing so strange as will hardly be credited by some, although perhaps knowing persons, especially considering our last age being so full of Discoveries, that this Place should lie Dormant for so long a space of time; Others I know, such Nullifidians as will believe nothing but what they see, applying that Proverb unto us, ‘That Travelors may lye by authority’. But Sir, in writing to you, I question not but to give Credence, you knowing my disposition so hateful to divulge Falsities.”
— Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten (Henry Neville) (1668)

“New Discoveries of late, are as much admired as Miracles of old, and as difficultly believed, notwithstanding the variety of apparent proofs which demonstrate their undoubted Veracity; and without question this Incredulity proceeds from no other cause, than the abuse of Belief, occasioned by such monstrous Fictions as the Isle of Pines, A New World in the Moon, with the like Lunatick Stories, by which the credulous World hath been misguided into a Faith wholly preposterously erroneous and ridiculous.”
— Richard Head (1675)

In 1675, Richard Head followed the publication of The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel with O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island: Being a perfect relation of the late discovery and wonderful dis-inchantment of an island on the north of Ireland: With an account of the riches and commodities thereof. Communicated by a letter from London-derry to a friend in London. This nine-page pamphlet consists of a single letter supposedly written by a man called William Hamilton, and sent from Londonderry on 14th March, 1674, to his cousin in England. Hamilton begins by thanking his cousin for the news of the death of “that Arch-Pirate Captain Cusacke“, then proceeds to repay the favour with an account of the true and final discovery of “that long-talk’t-of island O-Brazile.”

What follows is an oddly straightforward account of clearly magical (or at least, demonic) events. Hamilton admits that he had never believed the stories of O-Brazile: “Yet I lookt upon it as a perfect Romance, and many times laught the Reporters to scorn: Though many Sober, and Religious persons, would constantly affirm, That in bright days, (especially in Summer-time) they could perfectly see a very large absolute Island; but, after long looking at it, it would disappear.

(We may recall that in The Western Wonder, the narrator and his crew search for O-Brazile to the south-west of Ireland; in O-Brazile, the peripatetic land mass is found off the north coast. That “floating island” again.)

Recently, however, a certain Captain John Nisbet had succeeded in discovering the truth of the mysterious island. Nisbet was carrying a cargo of French goods back to Ireland when his ship became lost in an impenetrable mist, which vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving the ship close to unfamiliar land. Dropping anchor, Nisbet and most of his crew went ashore, where they saw animals of all sorts and an old castle, but no sign of human life, although they approached the castle and called out. Night falling, the men built a fire, and were warming themselves when the most appalling sound suddenly swept across the island – emanating, as it seemed, from the castle. Terrified, the men hurried back to their ship, but could not sail away, as the tide was out.

The next morning, to their amazement, the crew saw three men standing upon the shore, who persuaded them to come back onto the island. There they learned that this was indeed the legendary O-Brazile, which had been, A Receptacle of Furies, made (to Mortals) unserviceable, and invisible; and that when Nesbit and his men were calling at the castle, its inhabitants, By the malicious, diabolical Art, of a great Necromancer, had been tyrannically shut up [with] neither power to answer any that spoke to them, nor free themselves from imprisonment. However, the crew had indavertently lifted the curse upon the island when, Fire was indeed kindled upon the Island by some good Christians. The terrifying noises heard by the men signalled the permanent departure of the island’s demonic inhabitants.

Hamilton concludes his report by relating how Nesbit and his men, having been richly rewarded by the grateful residents of O-Brazile, returned to Ireland with their story; how others had since set out to find the island, now that it was stationary and visible; and that he, Hamilton, had heard the tale from Nesbit himself.

Short and to the point, O-Brazile differs from much of Richard Head’s writing by not straying from its main theme, and by maintaining a serious tone. We can understand how it could have been taken for a true account upon its first publication, far more so than The Western Wonder; although time, of course, would eventually have exposed it as yet another hoax. And it is as a hoax that O-Brazile is most interesting, not just in light of the culture of hoaxing that prevailed at this time, but with respect to one very particular hoax that we have already examined.

We know already that Richard Head had few scruples about borrowing from other writers – and that “borrowing” is putting it mildly – but what he did in O-Brazile is something a bit more subtle. As the 17th century wore on, and hoaxes began to pile upon hoaxes, there was an increasing tendency for the writers concerned to wink at each other, and at the more savvy of their readers: the clues to a piece of writing being a hoax were often there if you knew where to look. Mentioning another hoax by name and in opprobrius terms was a particularly popular touch.

Typically, the author of such a work would start by declaring the truth of his tale, and then decry all those wretched hoaxers who made it so hard for honest men to be believed. Another common tactic would be to have the story told by a third party, usually a merchant or a sailor, someone too “plain-spoken” and “uneducated” to make up a fabulous story. A piece of supporting evidence, separate from the main narrative, was often provided.

These are exactly Henry Neville’s tactics in The Isle Of Pines, as we have seen. The account of Van Sloetten, in which he apologises for the bluntness of his language, Being more a Seaman than a Scholler, is framed by the letter of Abraham Keek, a Dutch merchant of good repute. Van Sloetten shakes his head over the, Nullifidians as will believe nothing but what they see; while Keek, agreeing that the story of the Isle of Pines is fabulous, nevertheless gives it credence because, The Letter is come to a known Merchant, and from a good hand in France.

In terms of both fame and financial return, The Isle Of Pines was one of the most successful of the literary hoaxes, even if its cover was soon blown (as its author intended, of course). It became, in effect, the yardstick by which other such hoaxes were measured. O-Brazile is interesting in this context for two reasons: first, the actual mention of “the Island of Brasile” in The Isle Of Pines, which could even have given Richard Head the idea for a hoax of his own; and second, the fact that Head pinched Henry Neville’s framing device, initially publishing The Western Wonder, with its account of a failed landing upon the island, and then following up with O-Brazile, in which apparently reputable sources declare the mystery solved. In the latter, Head also adds to the credibility of his story by beginning it with a reference to a real and well-known event, the death of the Irish pirate George Cusack in 1674.

Both of these pamphlets shake their heads sadly over those despicable hoaxes so prevalent in the marketplace (one bemoans the sceptiscism, the other the gullibility, of the reading public), before asserting their own truth. Yet in O-Brazile, at least, there is a clear sign that this, too, is a hoax, in the shape of Head’s direct mention of The Isle Of Pines, here stigmatised as a “Lunatick Story” and a “monstrous Fiction”; to the cognoscenti, this would have been the literary equivalent of a broad grin.

And yet it seems that Head’s stories were believed – or at least debated. As Kate Loveman points out, early in 1675, according to his diary, Robert Hooke met Francis Lodwick at Garraway’s Coffee House in London, where the two natural philosophers discussed “O.Brazill and longitude”. Unfortunately, we don’t know what those two inquiring minds had to say about Richard Head’s accounts of the discovery of the elusive island. In all probability – “Oh, bollocks.”

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5 Responses to “O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island”

  1. I think the idea of Huy Brazeal (Huy = Hy = Haut = O?) was a legend of fairly long standing. (And perhaps based on Plato; WIkipedia’s “On maps, the island was shown as being circular, often with a central strait or river running east-west across its diameter” sounds remarkably like Plato’s Atlantis.)

    I very much enjoyed a rubbishing-of-the-competition of a rather different sort: a book on the last days of Hitler, meticulously researched, which demolishes all the various theories about the possibility of his escape… but doesn’t apply the same logical tools to the author’s own theory (that Hitler’s double died in the bunker, and Hitler himself was shot down anonymously in a railway yard on the outskirts of Berlin).

  2. Oh, it was, certainly: there’s three distinct threads of the “history” of Hy Brasil [Sic. 🙂 ], one where it is Plato’s Atlantis, one where it is a mythical island purely in its own right, and one where it is a real island that people have trouble finding for some reason. Head would certainly have known about it before, but I think its mention in such a successful work as The Isle Of Pines might have given him the idea to exploit its very uncertainty.

    I was going to you ask you on what grounds your author thinks Hitler was shot down anonymously in a railway yard, but I’m kind of enjoying the thought of that scenario being conjured up out of thin air, so maybe I won’t.

  3. I don’t remember the exact details – this was ten-ish years ago – but he felt very strongly about it and had assembled what I can only call a multilayered tissue of various contemporary accounts in support of his theory.

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