Voyage of the Liberdade (1894)

by Joshua Slocum

Joshua Slocum addressed the reader as follows at the start of Voyage of the Liberdade:


THIS literary craft of mine, in its native model and rig, goes out laden with the facts of the strange happenings on a home afloat. Her constructor, a sailor for many years, could have put a whole cargo of salt, so to speak, in the little packet; but would not so wantonly intrude on this domain of longshore navigators. Could the author and constructor but box-haul, club-haul, tops'l-haul and catharpin like the briny sailors of the strand, ah me! – and hope to be forgiven!

Be the current against us, what matters it? Be it in our favour, we are carried hence, to what place or for what purpose? Our plan of the voyage is so insignificant that it matters little, maybe, whither we go, for the "grace of a day" is the same! Is it not a recognition of this which makes the old sailor happy, though in the storm; and hopeful even on a plank in mid-ocean? Surely it is this! for the spiritual beauty of the sea, absorbing man's soul, permits of no infidels on its boundless expanse.

Those two paragraphs are in many ways typical of Slocum, not least in their use of the English language, which is vigorous, poetic, and completely individual. He had left school at the age of eight to work on his father's farm, yet he was remarkably well-read (see, for example, Chapter XIV of this book), and on the basis of his reading during the long watches at sea, his family tradition of lay-preaching, and his experience of the sea and sailors around the world, he developed a literary style that carries the reader along in language that 'has a bone in its mouth'.

Until the Hart-Davis edition of Sailing Alone in 1947 included Voyage of the Liberdade the earlier book was little-known on this side of the Atlantic. Arthur Ransome, in his Introduction, stated that he knew of only two copies in England, one in the library of the Cruising Association, the other being in the that of the British Museum. He wrote:

Voyage of the Liberdade has not so spectacular a subject as Sailing Alone, but it has the same invaluable quality of gusto, the same direct power of letting the reader share the experiences it describes.

Voyage falls into two equally remarkable halves. The first (Chapters I to VIII) describes the series of appalling misfortunes which befell him as master and owner of the Aquidneck, and culminated in the wreck of the ship on the coast of Brazil and the destitution of Slocum and his family. With typical resolution and optimism he then set about building a sampan-like boat of original design which, with his wife and two sons, he sailed back to the USA, a deep-sea voyage of over five thousand miles. Of that second half Ransome wrote that it is "one of the best stories of a small-boat voyage that have ever been written", a judgment with which it is dificult to disagree, the sheer joy in sailing that it expresses gaining greatly from the contrast with the dark events from which the Slocums were escaping.

If Slocum did, as the final note in the book claims, donate the Liberdade to the Smithsonian in Washington, then that august Institution has managed to mislay her. Meanwhile efforts continue to build and sail a replica (see David Sinnett-Jones 'The building and voyages of the Liberdade', Junk Rig Association Newsletter 37, pp. 39-44).

Tim Johns

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