Photos of selected individual letters are posted here, for the enjoyment of
the public. Not all of these epistles are in such excellent condition, as
those shown here are the best surviving examples of the set. Nevertheless,
the mere fact that these documents are made of paper and have survived over
three hundred years is simply astounding. The text of the letter follows the
photo. Included here below are photos of the first and third letters,
chronologically, and the transcribed text of the first seven letters. Note
the differing hand showing the use of the services of various scribes to
convey the messages to the loved one at home; this points up the illiterate
condition of the sailor, typical of his time.
August 15th, 1692
Dearest Darling Jenny-bird,
My Love. My Heart. I cannot tell ye how much it pains to think of ye. The
press-gang that apprehended me on the Lammas Eve, not a week before we was
to wed, has taken the soul from me, and placed a vast path of water between
us. The past fortnight has been one of gloom and sorrow for me. Would I was
a better swimmer.
I shouldst never gone with yer brothers to the wharfside taverns, but
ajudged it a reasonable thing at the time. I should have known it would be
bad luck, takin' the ale before the Lammas bread. No proper respect, and
paid dear I have. The one consolation is that George seemed to have got
free, and ye are not completely bereft of manly support in this bleak time.
But then, he'd not supped his ale, so the bad luck paid him no heed.
Forgive me, I beg you. Wait for me, I beg you. I'll find a way back to ye,
Your hopeful bridegroom,
scrivened by the hand of Ships Steward Edwin Randolph
September 28th, 1692
My Dearest Darling Jenny-bird,
This benighted ship has been sent to the Atlantic crossing, and I begin to
lose faith that I will ever see yer glowing chestnut curls again, or touch
yer hand in my own.
Much of the crew is taken with the ague. The bilges fill continually, and
the shipworms are very troublesome. My hands bleed from the work, never a
chance to mend.
I pray to see your shining eyes again, and imagine I lie at your side, every
night as I retire to my hammock. I beg you this great boon, be not already
wed upon my return? Or if you are, then grant me one kiss and a sturdy
Little hope remains me.
Your erstwhile betrothéd,
written by the hand of Ships Steward Edwin Randolph
November 2nd, 1692
Bostontown, Massachussetts Colony
My Dearest Darling Jenny,
I send this to ye from the scrivener's shop in the port of Bostontown. The
Chetsworth survived a brutal crossing, and a full score of hands lost
to illness that swept her on the journey. I fell ill as well, but recovered
By this time, you must have given up waiting for my return. But in the event
that you remain unwed, I would beg you, yet again, to stay away from that
villainous cad, John White. Even did he sire the bairn ye carry, ye deserve
a better man than he. Better no man at all, and the child nameless, than a
man who has already lost his soul to the demon of drink.
Though in honesty, these past weeks and months have shown me much of the
manner in which whiskey appeals.
News of the continued Great Plague reached our ears here. I pray to Mary and
all the Saints for yer safety and health. We overwinter in the harbour here,
and shall not be returning before the babe's birth. May the Benevolent Deity
Joshamee Gibbs, seaman.
Master Everard D. Kinnion, scrivener
March 22nd, 1693
Dearest Darling Jenny,
I hope this letter finds ye in health and, if I count the moons correct, the
new child as well. Have ye chosen a name for the bairn? Harold is still my
preference, for a boy, strong Saxon that I hope he be.
Of course, ye likely have a husband to choose his name. No sense in
believing ye wouldst wait this long, comely and crafty as ye be. Or perhaps
the bairn is a lass.
I have been promoted to Able Bodied Seaman, by virtue of having survived the
winter in this desolate, frozen backwater. The rations are all rotten, and
the rum is running low, so the additional sixpence, twice quarterly, will
serve most welcome. I know ye hate them so, but to save my cheeks from
frost, I've grown my whiskers. The lads what shaved all winter, some have
lost patches of nose or lip. I flatter myself, you would prefer a whole man.
The ice in the harbour is brok'd and thawing, and we set sail as soon as the
new topsail yards are hung. We've taken on some new lads, one name of Cotton
who knows his letters, and has bid fair to learn me some. You shall see here
my first attempt with proper pen and ink.
Your ever-willing servant,
Joshamee Gibbs ABS
Master Everard D. Kinnion, scrivenor
May 1, 1693
Blessed May to ye, Darling Jenny,
Do ye recall the Maying, this year past? Do ye recall the kiss I gave ye? Ye
had tiny roses in yer hair, and the blush of yer cheek bid fair outshine the
sun. Yer last Maying as a Maid, and this yer first as a Mother. I think of
ye often, and ask the Mother of our Lord to watch over ye, and keep ye safe.
Me and Cotton and Mahon and Maher all been keeping watch together, for nigh
on a month now, and we're tight as fleas. 'Tis a joy to have boon mates,
We thought to be in Portsmouth or Southhampton, by this date, but the winds
turned foul, and drove us along the Spanish coast. There we met the devil
himself, in the form of a French privateer, and the Bâtard chased us down
the coast, past the straights, and on to Africa. We had no fair turn of the
wind to save us, and had to tear flat out, just to save our skins, and the
tax monies in the hold. Gibraltar beckoned close, but never on a tack useful
to our escape. We lost our pursuer eventually, only to find ourselves
Thus, here I sit on the decking, telling Cotton me words for ye, becalmed
within sight of the darker lands. Though they look no darker than England,
or rather a good bit brighter than any sight but Dover on a cloudless day.
Cotton teaches me more of my letters, in the slow hours of duty. Water is
running low, and rationed. The heat is hardly bearable, just as the cold of
Boston-town was nigh unworldly.
I have no notion when we might make London, now. No notion at all. My heart
has not forgotten you, nor my arms, nor my lips. This May Day, I think of
you more than even my habitual frequent pining.
Your Ever-faithful Beau,
writ by my hand, J. Cotton.
May 18, 1693
Our winds have finally returned, praise God, but rations have run quite low,
such that we have been forced to put in to shore, to a heathen port name of
Dakar just north of Guinea Portugee. Captain Francklyn has had to deplete
the tax monies somewhat to resupply the crew, who bid fair mutinous at the
prospect of an upwind tack to England with the rum ration gone, and nought
but maggoty bread for three days.
The Capt. is now in the unhandy position of returning to Portsmouth with
less gold than was recorded having left Bostontown, which the crown can
hardly tolerate. At the advice of the steward, and in part because the hold
lies mostly empty, we've taken on a cargo of blackamoor slaves, for trade to
the West Indies. I shall be seeing the Caribbee, sweet bird! What shall I
bring home, that would please you?
Some of these Negroes are truckulent and brutish. One fellow in particular,
burly youngster not much more than a lad, but with the fresh scars of a
warrior on him already, seems to blaze a beacon of hate at us, at every
turn. Most are more docile, though, having seen the lash in use.
The burly young fellow makes gestures like drumming in the air, frequently.
Mahon, who has got more curiosity than sense, keeps pestering the chap,
trying to get him to speak. He only makes those pounding motions of his, and
says "BATA" to us.
We've no proper manacles aboard, save a few pairs in the brig, and so must
tie the cargo with ropes alone. I cannot think but that this may end badly.
Pray for our safe delivery of this freight of goods.
Your Roving Lad on the Sea,
by my hand, J. Cotton.
NB: This letter is written on sheets of cured, de-haired goatskin, and
far more deteriorated than the other letters of this series. It is also one
of the very few which runs over a single page; this one lasts past three and
into a fourth. This is in part due to the larger script necessitated by the
rougher writing surface.
July 7th, 1693
My Dear Jenny,
We have come to British territory again, at last! I have hope that these
three letters I have to post you, may at last come to your hand, though I
myself may still be delayed in perpetuity. Captain Francklyn died of the
festering of an old wound, in the crossing from Africa, and Acting Captain
Hamlyn put us in to Barbados to offload the cargo and gain news of the
We had given the name "Bo'sun" to the burly drummer-boy, the one who was
always pounding his fists as if it was his task to beat us all to quarters.
He had settled some in the crossing, and had come to be quite a favorite
among the crew, despite his fearsome scarred aspect, his smile was always
broad and ready. Mahon thought him likely a simpleton, but I saw crafty
intent in those dark eyes' false docility.
I was proved right, when we gained harbour at Barbados, and "Bo'sun"
promptly stole a knife, slashed his own bonds, killed three of the crew in
vicious meleé, and two of those on the dock as well. He then managed to take
a small fishing boat, and sail out of the harbour, eluding all pursuit and
even musket fire and swivel guns from our own deck. The cannons were unready
for action, and were only brought to bear after the little vessel vanished
around the headland.
I believe he smiled directly at me, as he departed, though I have no notion
as to why. Perhaps because I stepped back and didn't fire my flintlock, as
he dashed past me. I told my tale to the lieutenant later, that I had no
powder at the time.
Captain Hamlyn has been instructed to send the Tax Monies with a faster and
better armed ship than the Chetsworth, for urgent return to the
coffers of the King. Apparently, even the exalted crown has trouble with his
creditors. We are to replace the Martinet in posting to Jamaican
ports, and protect sugar trade there.
No sailor could do otherwise than relish a posting to the source of all the
rum in the navy. My regret, however, is that I cannot be on a ship returning
to you, your arms, your eyes. It has been a year. One year less three days,
when I found you crying behind the house, and explained your difficulty. One
year less three days from the day I asked to be your husband, and one year
less thirteen since you gave your assent, and your brothers and mother
toasted my good health, by your side.
Every night as the sun sets, I pray God you live.
Every morn as the sun rises, I pray God to hold you again. Just once.
Your affectionate and humble servant,
by my hand, J. Cotton.