Friday, October 3, 2008

Destroying manuscripts: Captain David Porter

Captain David Porter was a famous American naval commander, the only American commander to sail against the British in the Pacific Ocean during the War of 1812. After success in the Atlantic, he exceeded his authority by choosing to round Cape Horn, ultimately capturing more than a dozen British whalers and doing damage to British shipping estimated at more than half a million pounds. Porter even illegally annexed Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas. He was later blockaded at Valparaiso, and forced to surrender. Nonetheless, when he eventually returned home he was hailed a hero and went on to have a lengthy and controversial career in the Americas.

What’s interesting here, however, is that Porter always intended to sail into the Pacific, and was anxious that some of his crew might have guessed his intentions and leaked their suspicions in letters or journals. Hence this note, which appeared in the 1815 edition of his voyages:

“Prior to the pilots leaving us, I caused him to deliver into my possession all letters which might have been given him by the crew, apprehensive that, from some accidental cause, they might become possessed of a knowledge of our destination; they all however contained only conjectures, except one, the writer of which asserted, as he stated from good authority, that we were bound on the coast of Africa: as come of their conjectures were not far from being correct, I thought I best to destroy the whole of them, and forbid the pilot’s taking any more without my consent. To the officers who were desirous of writing to their friends, I enjoined particularly not to mention the movements of the ship in any way.”

It’s not insignificant, in this regard, to point out that it is thought his book was suppressed when it was first published.

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