No. 6.—Bonsecours: Voyages of the Ancients


GUILLAUME DE BONSECOURS, a learned monk who never traveled more than a few miles beyond the walls of the town by whose name we know him, wrote his lively and scholarly account of ancient sea voyages with the help of the excellent library at Bonsecours Abbey. Beginning with Noah’s youth as a sailor, not mentioned in Scripture but well developed in rabbinical lore, he carried on through Solomon’s fleets and the voyages of the Phoenicians, to Greek and Roman explorations of India, Britain, and Africa.

By all accounts the book itself was interesting enough; but the history of the unique autograph manuscript is far more interesting, and this is the topic that chiefly concerns us.

Bonsecours left his papers to his ne’er-do-well nephew, who promptly pawned them. The manuscript was soon sold to the captain of the Joli Raton, a trading ship that sailed from Bonsecours shortly afterward. Unfortunately, a strong gale sank the ship its first day out; but the captain’s strongbox, including the manuscript, was recovered some weeks later by the admiral of a Spanish fleet on its way to conquer the tiny earldom of Deira.

Against all odds, the rickety Deiran fleet defeated the Spanish, capturing their flagship, the Lepanto, and sending the rest to the bottom of the sea. The Lepanto thus passed into the hands of the Deirans, along with the admiral and all his possessions, among them Bonsecours’ Voyages. This the Deiran captain read with rapt attention, until the ship suddenly struck a rock off the Deiran coast and sank with astonishing rapidity. The crew swam and waded ashore, the captain still carrying the manuscript, which suffered a little from the water but remained intact and legible.

We next hear of the Voyages on board the Wife of Bath, which sank in the Channel during a light drizzle; then on the Sanctimonious, which foundered in shallow water off the Cornish coast. The captain of the Helen of Troyes read the book with much interest, and his ship made it to port without incident; but while the cargo was being unloaded, a double-manual virginal came loose from its tackle and fell on his head, killing him instantly. The manuscript passed into the hands of Sir Francis Parke, captain of the Hegemony, which, after abnormally high spring floods, became infamous as the only ship in the fleet ever to sink in drydock. The book was finally taken by Sir John M—— on board the celebrated Leviathan, where it was presumed lost in the general catastrophe which overtook that ill-fated expedition. Sir John did, however, make copious extracts from the work in his journals, and these extracts have given us our only means of assessing its character.

That was the last documented sighting of the manuscript, but there have been persistent rumors that the book did in fact survive the wreck of the Leviathan. Through the centuries, rumors have placed the book aboard one or another ship at various times. Within the last hundred years, three such rumors have placed the manuscript aboard the liner Lusitania, the airship Shenandoah, and the supertanker Valdez. But none of these sightings have been confirmed by hard evidence, and it is safest to regard the book as lost.