THE GREAT SOUTH SEA by Glyndwr Williams


English Voyages and Encounters, 1570-1750
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 An intriguing and elegant history of European adventures, real and otherwise, in the South Seas during the 16th to 18th centuries, from Williams (History/Univ. of London). For all his references and scouring research, Williams is a spritely writer with a fine dry humor. During the period covered, English wanderings into the waters of the Pacific were primarily predatory ventures, intent on Spanish treasure. But, cautions Williams, this ``study of English enterprise in the South Sea is, to some extent, a study of credulity,'' for not only did much secrecy shroud these journeys, but there was also much ostentatious display, many efforts to put heroic faces on expeditions gone bad, and plenty of purely imaginary voyages. In an effort to peel away the fanciful veneer laid upon the accounts of these early forays, Williams combed theoretical tracts, draft plans, journals and documents, and the narratives themselves, then set them in the context of the political intrigues and social and literary currents--French, Dutch, Spanish, as well as English--of the time, with which he has a wide-ranging familiarity. Drake's fruitful circumnavigation aboard the Golden Hind is Williams's launching point; then he moves on to that underworld of maritime skullduggery, the ``violent, disputatious, anarchic'' doings of the buccaneers, be they royally commissioned or freebooters. Particular attention is paid to William Dampier's extraordinary rovings and his wildly popular books full of natural history, customs, adventure, and commercial speculations (Dampier presaged the more empire-specific, scientifically curious period after 1750). Williams covers the admittedly well-turned ground surrounding the utopian and satirical literature based on the Pacific exploits (e.g., framing castaways as allegorical comments on English society) and closes the book with Anson's epoch-ending capture of the silver-laden Spanish galleon Covadonga. High scholarship on Europe's early gleanings in the Pacific, clever in its gleaning between the lines and a delight to read. (42 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-300-07244-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1997