Tag Archives: sharks

Henry Fielding on his way to Lisbon (including the adventure of a kitten at sea)

I read Henry Fielding’s Journey to Lisbon on a whim before we ourselves traveled to Lisbon, and became ever more annoyed with this wealthy, incredibly crochety old man. I expected better from the author of Tom Jones, the founder of the Bow Street Runners. I yearned only to know of the city I have so looked forward to visiting, but this book is entirely and very tediously about getting there. Forget about that saying that it is not the destination but the journey.

Of travel writing, Fielding says

To make a traveler an agreeable companion to a man of sense, it is necessary, not only that he should have seen much, but that he should have overlooked much of what he hath seen.

I shall lay down only one general rule; which I believe to be of universal truth between relator and hearer, as it is between author and reader; this is, that the latter never forgive any observation of the former which doth not convey some knowledge that they are sensible they could not possibly have attained of themselves.

I suppose the difficulties of traveling as a privileged male in the early 1750s while suffering from gout, asthma and cirhosis of the liver would be entirely new knowledge to me, but surely given his expectations of readership, he has written his rule only to immediately break it.

But this story was most wonderful:

A most tragical incident fell out this day at sea. While the ship was under sail, but making as will appear no great way, a kitten, one of four of the feline inhabitants of the cabin, fell from the window into the water: an alarm was immediately given to the captain, who was then upon deck, and received it with utmost concern and many bitter oaths. He immediately gave orders to the steersman in favor of the poor thing, as he called it; the sails were instantly slackened, and all hands, as the phrase is, employed to recover the poor animal. I was, I own, extremely surprised at all this; less indeed at the captain’s extreme tenderness than at his conceiving any possibility of success; for if puss had had nine thousand instead of nine lives, I concluded they had been all lost. The boatswain, however, had more sanguine hopes, for, having stripped himself of his jacket, breeches, and shirt, he leaped boldly into the water, and to my great astonishment in a few minutes returned to the ship, bearing the motionless animal in his mouth. Nor was this, I observed, a matter of such great difficulty as it appeared to my ignorance, and possibly may seem to that of my fresh-water reader. The kitten was now exposed to air and sun on the deck, where its life, of which it retained no symptoms, was despaired of by all. The captain’s humanity, if I may so call it, did not so totally destroy his philosophy as to make him yield himself up to affliction on this melancholy occasion. Having felt his loss like a man, he resolved to show he could bear it like one; and, having declared he had rather have lost a cask of rum or brandy, betook himself to threshing at backgammon with the Portuguese friar, in which innocent amusement they had passed about two-thirds of their time. But as I have, perhaps, a little too wantonly endeavored to raise the tender passions of my readers in this narrative, I should think myself unpardonable if I concluded it without giving them the satisfaction of hearing that the kitten at last recovered, to the great joy of the good captain, but to the great disappointment of some of the sailors, who asserted that the drowning a cat was the very surest way of raising a favorable wind; a supposition of which, though we have heard several plausible accounts, we will not presume to assign the true original reason.

The other highlight of the voyage, of actual interest to me, was the story of the great shark, who tried to take a side of beef

together with a great iron crook on which it was hung, and by which he was dragged into the ship. I should scarce have mentioned the catching this shark, though so exactly conformable to the rules and practice of voyage-writing, had it not been for a strange circumstance that attended it. This was the recovery of the stolen beef out of the shark’s maw, where it lay unchewed and undigested, and whence, being conveyed into the pot, the flesh, and the thief that had stolen it, joined together in furnishing variety to the ship’s crew.

That is cool.

Fielding definitely includes quite a bit of old-rich-man ranting about the laziness of the poor, particularly sailors, and a bit of political economy. Rich coming from a man waited on hand and foot and continually describing the extreme lengths to which he demands those who serve him go to provide for his own comfort. He was winched in and out of boats, sent for numerous doctors and dentists from numerous towns as they travelled down the Thames, complained endlessly about the quality of food, bedding, service. Was constantly demanding the boat stop so he could buy some more provisions. He writes this:

I at first intended only to convey a hint to those who are alone capable of applying the remedy, though they are the last to whom the notice of those evils would occur, without some such monitor as myself, who am forced to travel about the world in the form of a passenger. I cannot but say I heartily wish our governors would attentively consider this method of fixing the price of labor, and by that means of compelling the poor to work, since the due execution of such powers will, I apprehend, be found the true and only means of making them useful, and of advancing trade from its present visibly declining state to the height to which Sir William Petty, in his Political Arithmetic, thinks it capable of being carried.

As if any decline in trade were the fault of the poor.

I find the early barriers to movement and travel quite interesting — Fielding obviously had no fear he wouldn’t be allowed in to Portugal, but he definitely had to jump some hoops, essentially a quarantine. He writes:

it is here a capital offense to assist any person in going on shore from a foreign vessel before it hath been examined, and every person in it viewed by the magistrates of health, as they are called,

And he gives a sense of the first view of it when approached from the sea.

Wednesday.— Lisbon, before which we now lay at anchor, is said to be built on the same number of hills with old Rome; but these do not all appear to the water; on the contrary, one sees from thence one vast high hill and rock, with buildings arising above one another, and that in so steep and almost perpendicular a manner, that they all seem to have but one foundation. As the houses, convents, churches, &c., are large, and all built with white stone, they look very beautiful at a distance; but as you approach nearer, and find them to want every kind of ornament, all idea of beauty vanishes at once. While I was surveying the prospect of this city, which bears so little resemblance to any other that I have ever seen…

It ends here, with his disgust for this beautiful city, unlike any he has seen before.

About seven in the evening I got into a chaise on shore, and was driven through the nastiest city in the world, though at the same time one of the most populous, to a kind of coffee-house, which is very pleasantly situated on the brow of a hill, about a mile from the city, and hath a very fine prospect of the river Tajo from Lisbon to the sea. Here we regaled ourselves with a good supper, for which we were as well charged as if the bill had been made on the Bath-road, between Newbury and London.

Born 1707, he died in 1754. He wasn’t, in fact, very old at all. When visiting the Pessoa museum we chanced across another English cemetery — much bigger than the one on Vis. It is a reminder built into cenotaphs and monuments of the close trading relationships between England and Portugal in previous ages of empire. We wandered in, as you do. The first thing to meet our eyes was a big sign pointing to Henry Fielding’s tomb, and I suddenly realised that he had died here…


It might have made this a bit more poignant in retrospect, but… no. Really I just love the story of the shark and the kitten. Another memento mori from the cemetary might be in order though.