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Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman

Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman

by William Williams

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Long neglected as the first American novel, Mr. Penrose narrates the adventures of a British youth who flees an unhappy home life to seek his fortune on the high seas. Having learned the sailor’s trade, Penrose survives a series of nautical mishaps, only to be cast adrift on the Mosquito Coast. When rescue finally comes, Penrose refuses to abandon the new


Long neglected as the first American novel, Mr. Penrose narrates the adventures of a British youth who flees an unhappy home life to seek his fortune on the high seas. Having learned the sailor’s trade, Penrose survives a series of nautical mishaps, only to be cast adrift on the Mosquito Coast. When rescue finally comes, Penrose refuses to abandon the new home he has made among the Indians. Equal parts travel narrative, adventure tale, and natural history, the novel reflects on some of the most pressing moral and social issues of its time: imperialism, racial equality, religious freedom, and the nature of ethical, responsible government. Mr. Penrose contains the first unequivocal critique of slavery in a transatlantic novel and the most realistic portrayals of Native Americans in early American fiction. In the afterword to this paperback edition, Sarah Wadsworth imparts new research on the author and his career, shedding light on the novel’s subjects and timely themes, and situating Mr. Penrose at the forefront of the American literary canon.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This new paperback edition of Williams’s novel makes a significant contribution to early American literary and cultural studies. It is well suited to contribute to new scholarly trends, which are moving solidly in the direction of transatlantic study, colonialism, ecocriticism, and indigenous people studies." —Paul Gutjahr, Professor of English, Indiana University

Cristine Levenduski

"Sarah Wadsworth expertly positions Williams's novel to contribute to current transnational and postnational scholarship. In this timely edition, she demonstrates that including Mr. Penrose in the conversation about the earliest American novels helps to reveal the rich, complicated nature of their history." —Cristine Levenduski, Associate Professor of English, Emory University

Paul Gutjahr

"This new paperback edition of Williams’s novel makes a significant contribution to early American literary and cultural studies. It is well suited to contribute to new scholarly trends, which are moving solidly in the direction of transatlantic study, colonialism, ecocriticism, and indigenous people studies." —Paul Gutjahr, Professor of English, Indiana University

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Mr. Penrose

The Journal of Penrose, Seaman

By William Williams

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1969 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01052-0


If ever the following lines should reach my dear country the Reader is not to expect to meet with any persuasive Arguments to enforce belief or language to adorn the story, as the Author never recived more learning than what a common country school affords. In the first place I shall give the reader a faithful Narrative of every occurrence within my memory, from the day of my birth unto the time I first left my native shore to cross the Atlantic.

Lewellin Penrose is my name. I was born near Caerphilly in Glamorganshire, in the month of May anno dom. 1725. My father, who was a Sailor, was cast away in a Ship belonging to the city of Bristol called the Union Frigate, commanded by a certain Capt. Williams (who was his own countryman), in the great January storm at the Texel in Holland, where every soul perished of a fleet consisting of near 60 sail of Vessels, only one Dutch Dogger which lay without riding it safe the whole time.

My mother, being left a Widow with two children, (Viz) myself and a sister five years younger, after a time married a Schoolmaster and removed with him into Worcestershire, thence into Monmouthshire, and after that into Wales. This man, I may justly remark at least in my own opinion, proved the innocent or rather obstinate cause of many hardships I have since his days undergone, as I learnt a few years after of his death.

And pity it is that parents take such notice of their own Children's budding genius, speaking of them with such Adulation in their infancy; yet when a Youth becomes of an age capable of recieving an Education suitable to the talent the Almighty has bestowed upon him, Every delight shall be snatch'd from him at once, Because perhaps an Uncle, Cousin, or neighbour has acquired some little welth by this, that, or other calling. Now Jack must be placed under such a Master at once; as to the natural bent of the boy, such a thing becomes intirely out of the question as being by no means a competent judge of the matter.

This was truly my case. In short, nothing would suit but that I must be placed with a Lawyer, and that without the least inclination on my side.

My poor Mother always sided with her Husband, and thinking his advice the best gave me so many lectures day after day that I grew quite wearied out as I detested the Profession. And now I determined to follow the seas.

When they found me so averse they took another method with me, as thus. They came to a conscent that I should go a voyage, but this as I found afterward was only in view of weaning me. Now when I had been three or four small trips they again renewed their dissuasions. This only aggravated my mind, and as it was now War-time I entered into a new Scheem with a companion of mine. This young lad's name was Howell Gwynn, and to run away we were resolved. We conducted our affair so artfully that no soul knew or had the least dream of our elopement.

And here let me beg the kind Reader's permission to let fall a few tears, as it brings to remembrance a kind and tenderhearted Mother. Alas! to think now on the Wickedness of that act chills my blood. Notwithstanding it may be reasonably judged, the Ocean seldom softens the passions. I observe this here as a caution to any young Fellow who, if God so please, may come to read my singular story.

I say, then, having found means to convey our cloaths and other trifles away, with no more than four shillings in money, we very erly in the morning in the month of September in the year 1744 quitted the houses of our parents without the least remorse of conscience, to make the best of our way for Bristol. We took care to evade all enquiries, sleept in Barns and Stables, now and then asking for a piece of Bread and Cheese on the road saying that we had been cast away and to make our money hold out the longer. I shall observe one thing here. As we went through a Village called Pile a young fellow met us who was then returning from a Cruise, and advised us by all means to return back to our parents, he having been unsuccessful. But the reflections we thought to meet with should we so do determined us to proceed untill we got the whole length of the journey with three halfpence in store.

The first thing we did was to march to the Quay, where by chance we met with a young Fellow who was a kind of relation to me, and a Sailor also. He no doubt was pleased to find I had taken such a turn, and undertook to get us births. The City then swarmed with numbers of Privateers' men. My cousin took us to a Rendezvous on the Quay, the Sign of the White Lion and Horseshoe. We had not been long in the house before my companion Howell was persuaded to Enter, but as I had a greater mind to become a good Seaman than to commence Hero all at once I evaded all their temptations. This I was advised to by my kinsman, who observed that it would be better for me to take a trip with him to Ireland. Now as I was in a strange place without money I took my friend's advice. My companion Gwynn took his leave of me to go down to Hungroad, and from that day to this hour we never met more. I remain'd all the evening with my cousine, who I found to be a hearty cock and never flinched the Can of Grogg. Now I being in no way inclined to liquor left him in company and went upstairs to sleep on a rush-bottomed couch in the foreroom.

In the midst of my sleep I was roused with a most sad outcry of a boy, as I thought, under severe disciplin. This alarmed me much, as it was accompanied with most horrid imprecations from some man. Being but a Stranger in the house, and finding the man went downstairs I determined to make my best way down also in order to find out my relation. There was a small light gleem'd into my room. On I pushed, but as I went along the passage I heard a soft voice call to me, beging me to come into a room on my right hand. No sooner did I enter than I saw a charming creture standing stark naked before me. I was for passing on, but she laid hold on me and made me sit on the Bedside with her. She began to tell me that her husband the landlord had beat her most cruelly through a fit of drunken jealousy. No mortal was ever much more alarmed than me in that Scituation, as dreading her husband's return.

She shewed me the goosberry bush he had beaten her with, and indeed he had curried her to some purpose. Now it happened the candlestick fell down. This was a luckey stroke for me. I directly offered to go down and light it. To this she consented; but [I] took care not to go back with it. And well for me, perhaps, for shortly after the husband went up the stairs again and gave her the second part of the foregoing tune, and plaid it as well. I groped my way into the fore-parlour in order to rouse some of the snoring tars, but I might as well have spared the trouble; they were all so snugly moored in Sot's Bay that it was out of my power to trip one of their anchors. At last I ran foul of a man in the Entry, standing in his shirt. "Who are you, messmate?" said I.

"Oh, cousin," he cried, "is it you?"

"For God's sake, let us get out of this house," said I, "at any rate."

Shortly after this we heard the Watchman pass, when we took courage and hailed him.

"Go to sleep if you are all drunk," he said.

We then called through the keyhole and said: "Murder! Knock at the door, man!" He then called two more and they thundered at the street door. We then drew back into Sot's Bay when down came Mr. Bean, the furious Landlord, with the candle and opened the door. No sooner did he do it than out we pushed and insisted on their taking us off with them, as we greatly feared the fellow would murder his wife before morning light. This was about three o'clock. After this we marched the streets untill six, when we entered another house call'd the Champion of Wales. There we got breakfast and proceeded down to the Gibb where his boat lay. He took me down to Pill [Pile] next tide, where he purchased me a few articles.

The wind coming round to East, we stood down channel the next day and took in a load of coal at Neath, from whence we proceeded to Cork. On the passage I learnt that It was my cousin Bean had recieved the cause of his jealousy from, and that he had given him a fine basting before I awoke.

Now it happened as I was standing on the Quay on a day before the bow of the Vessell, a Man Siezed me by the hand, and clapping my thumb between his teeth threw me over his Shoulder and in this posture carried me into the next publick house, where he called for a quart of Ale on my head as a new Import. I was greatly amazed at the first, but some of our people following and laughing told me it was the custome among the porters. This man's name I well can remember was Billy Vane.

One Evening after this my cousin would need have me go on shore with him to look out for a Brute, as he used to call the ladies of pleasure. He was then in liquor; and remembring the Bristol adventure, Upon the whole I refused. He then began to upbraid me with what he had done for me, but as I dreaded the consiquences I persisted to remain on board. He then told me I might march on shore and shift for myself. He had not been gone above two hours when I left the Vessell and repaired on board a Snow bound for London. There I begged my passage for my work.

After my coming to London I directly entered on board A Privateer, having not one Shilling in the world. I followed it up, playing the same game as other Sailors do when on shore with prize money. After this time I was pressed and shifted from one to another untill I found means to make my escape, going under different names as it best suited my purpose. Thus I spent my time untill the year 1746.

I then ship'd myself on board an old Indiaman calld the Harrington, bound for Jamaica and at that time laying at the Red House, Deptford, one Hunter commander. With what little cash I had left I purchased some few Shirts and trowsers, a Jackket, Scotch Bonnet and a pair of Shoes, and a small seaman's Chest. After this the Ship fell down to Gravesend, from thence to the Downs, and there I experienced the first Thunder-Storm I had ever been in on the Salt water. The rain and wind was so violent off the shore that she was soon on her beem ends, as we were then getting under way. The flashes of lightning were so quick that I could scarcely keep my Eyes open, but it was of short continuance. After this we proceeded to Spithead, there to wait for the Convoy.

In three or four days we put to sea, being about a hundred Sail bound to different ports. Our Convoy was a Ship called the Old Chatham of 50 guns. Our Ship mounted 20 guns. With a letter of Marque we parted company in the Bay of Biscay and proceeded alone. Nothing of note happened on our passage except some of our maintopmen who, during the time we were at Exersize with the great guns, chanced to set the mizzen topmast staysail on fire as they were busy in the main top; but it was soon happily extinguished. Nevertheless it put all hands in a great hurry, as no misery can equal that of a Ship on fire in the main ocean.

After this we made the Islands of Antigua, Mountserrat, Nevis and St. Christopher's [St. Kitts], and passed between them. Here we spoke a French flag of truce. A few nights after, we ran in with the Isle of Vash on St. Domingo in a very dark night indeed, but saw it time enough so as to recieve no damage. The next day we came abrest of the White Horses on the Jamaica south shore. Here the Pilot came on bord, and we got safe into Port Royal. And here I shall observe that our first Captain did not go the Voyage with the ship, and a Certain Mr. William James, then chief mate, took the command at Spithead.

During our stay here Admiral Davers died; and as all the Ships in the harbour were firing minute guns on that occasion, when it came to our turn one of the guns on the larboard side discharged before its due time. I happened then to be standing on the gangway and saw a young fellow of the name of Palmer sinking. The blood flew from his head and arms like a spout, and a piece of his Scull I found in the main chains. This unhappy young man had been sponging the gun and left some of the old Cartridge on fire within, which on his ramming home another, it took fire and blew him to pieces, at the same time blasting the fingers of ye boatswain who at that time held them on the touch hole.

About the latter end of November, having our full lading in, we set sail for London; but the Almighty was pleased to frustrate our intentions and to disperse us in a wonderful manner. We beat to windward for several days to little purpose. At length we carried away our foretopmast, top and all; two of our hands went overboard with it but saved their lives.

Our Commander then proposed to bear away for Blewfields to repair our damages. After we had got up a new top and topmast we put to sea and bore away for the Gulph of Florida. Some time after this on a blustery night we had like to have ran on shore on the Isle of Pines; however, we wore her and stood off again. From this time the weather proved very hazy with small rains, and in this sort it continued untill Christmas Eve. Every Mess was now busy in making Puddings, but alas, now began the prelude to our future troubles.

A Sqall arose about the second watch, and all hands were call'd out. It blew for about half an hour; after this we jog'd on under an easy sail untill break of day. Little did I think at the time that would prove so fatal a Christmas day to me.

Our chief mate, Mr. Ramage, shortly after he came on deck spied a Sail right ahead of us. Directly all hands were call'd to quarters as she was laying too not two miles from us. Just as this happened we discovered the Moro Castle quite plain under our lee. Now as the Enemy was stern too we could not judge of her force; nor did she seem to take the least notice of us, and as we were in no kind of fear about her we stood on. Shortly after this as we came abreast of her we plainly percieved her to be a Ship of force. She then bore down into our wake, hoisted Spanish Colours, and began to fire several random shott at us. Directly we ran out two stern chases, and crouded all the Sail we could; but in a short time after away went our Maintop Gallant mast, and as she then gained on us fast our Captain ordered the Ensigne to be haled down.

The Ship we struck to was a Spanish Man of War, and called El Fuerto, mounting 50 guns commanded by One Capt. Mahony, a good-natur'd old Irishman. We were carried into the Havannah, and there our Crew was divided on board of two Men of War (Viz) The Dragon and Conqustador. So that I well remember my Christmas dinner was changed from plumb pudding to Horse beans and poor Jerked beef.

In this place we remain'd prisoners and had the grief and mortification to see Flags of truce come in and go out every day, it being a practice in those times For Flags to visit the Spaniards from N. America Laden with flour and other articles; and this was supported through the sneeking contrivance of their bringing and taking away one or two prisoners at a time that by this low cunning the game might last the longer, while hundreds of His Majesties loyall Subjects were detained to labour at the Moro Castle in the abject condition of carrying Stones to repair their enemies fortifications against their will.

Our Employment on board of those two ships was picking of Ochum, pumping ship, hoisting in their water, and the like. We had our Birth alotted between two great guns on the lower deck. It was then proposed by the elders of our brotherhood in Captivity to form a set of Laws among ourselves, as well for our better keeping peace as not to anoy the Enemy. We in the first place concluded never to mention the word Spaniard but to substitute that of Hoopstick in its stead. By this means we could talk freely about them at all times as none of them understood English. Another law was strictly to observe the hours of 10 in the morning and 4 in the Evening for the ridding of the Vermin with which we greatly abounded. This law was so strictly observed that if any one was found to transgress he was directly brought to the gun where he recieved a good copping, alias ten and a puss on his posteriours with a Barrel Stave.


Excerpted from Mr. Penrose by William Williams. Copyright © 1969 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William Williams (1727-1791) was a professional painter and landscape artist who tutored a young Benjamin West. Williams primarily resided in Philadelphia and New York and is thought to have written Mr. Penrose shortly before the Revolutionary War.

David Howard Dickason (1907-1974) was Professor of English at Indiana University and a specialist in American literature. He discovered William Williams's original manuscript at Indiana University's Lilly Library.

Sarah Wadsworth is Associate Professor of English at Marquette University. She is author of In the Company of Books: Literature and Its "Classes" in Nineteenth-Century America and (with Wayne A. Wiegand) of Right Here I See My Own Books: The Woman's Building Library at the World's Columbian Exposition.

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