Thursday, 24 April 2014

Part II: Captain Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea and Around the World

Captain Edward Cooke embarked on a marauding voyage around the world that began in 1708 and lasted three years. The voyage was made up of two ships sent out by Bristol merchants. Cooke commanded the ship called the Duchess, whilst William Dampier, a renowned seafarer who completed three circumnavigations in his lifetime, commanded the Duke with Woodes Rogers. Cooke’s account of the voyage was published in two volumes, titled A Voyage to the South Sea and Around the World Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711, copies of which are held in Worcester Cathedral library.

After travelling from Bristol to the Coast of Brazil, then onto Peru and the Galapagos Islands, the Duke and Duchess continued Northwards from Panama along the northern part of South America. Cooke describes how this area of land was divided into “the Tierre Firme, or the continent, the next to the Equinoctial, being the very narrow Isthmus, or neck of land, which joins the North and South parts of that vast part of the world, next Veragua, then Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Vera Paz, Chippa, Soconusco, Tabasco, Yucatan, Guaxaca, Tlascala, Or Los Angeles, Mexico, properly so call’d, Mechoaca, Panuco, Xalisco, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, New Biscay, Culiacan, Cinaloa, the vast province of New Mexico, and the Island of California.” (p. 835)
Cooke gives a short summary of each of the places but devotes most time to describing the layout and customs of the peoples of Mexico City. Cooke uses the account of the Italian traveller Gemelli  Careri who visited Mexico City over a decade earlier in 1693. Cooke (quoting Gemelli) describes Mexico favourably: “The plan of it is square with long, wide, and well pav’d streets, lying east, west, north and south, in straight lines, like a chess board. Few cities in Italy exceed it for beautiful structures and none come near it for fine women”.

The below map was created by Gemelli and is taken from another travel book from Worcester Cathedral library, Harris’ Collection of Voyages and Travels (1745). It shows Mexico City as Gemelli and Cooke encountered it in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The twentieth century has seen the city of Mexico rapidly expand westward and, since 1900 its population has increased from 500,000 to over 8 million. Today the lakes of Chalco (South of the Lake of Mexico), Xal and Nuebo are covered by the sprawling city. As the map is hydrographical it is mainly concerned with recording the lakes and waterways surrounding Mexico City. Yet from it we can nonetheless get an impression of how “five causeways half a league long, lead into the city, which has neither walls nor gates".

Photograph of a "hydrographicall draught of Mexico as it lies in its lakes", Harris' Collection of Voyages and Travels, Vol. IV (1745), p.487. Image copyright the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral, U.K. (2014).
Like all travel accounts, we cannot be certain of the statistics that Cooke records about Mexico City’s population and he is often very opinionated. He claims that around one million live in the city itself and that of this figure a large proportion of people were racially mixed, “the greater number blacks and mulattos” (Cooke, p. 396). Cooke’s statement simplifies the complex and extremely diverse social demography of Mexico City in this period. African slaves had begun to be imported into New Spain because the introduction of the New Laws in the seventeenth century prohibited the enslavement of the indigenous peoples. Between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Mexico became increasingly ethnically diverse and there were many groups of mixed-racial identity created from the blending of European, African, and Indian cultures.

Mexico City was also surrounded by smaller towns or pueblos (as seen on the map) that were made-up almost entirely of Indians. If you want to learn more about the demography of Mexico City in this period this link provides a good overview and some useful statistical historic research

Cooke’s figure of five million indigenous people living in the towns surrounding Mexico city is undoubtedly inaccurate. In the seventeenth century, the indigenous population had begun to recover from small pox and other infections and the number of Indigenous people had increased by as much as 30% throughout the later seventeenth century; Cooke’s figure probably exaggerates the population growth. Many of Cooke’s observations are, however, accurate. For example, he notes how brass coinage was not used in Mexico at this time, only silver. He also comments that in the city’s markets, you can trade the cacao bean as a form of currency. He says that “in the market cacao nuts pass for honey in the buying of Herbs, 60 or 80 of them passing for a Royal, as the Price of those nuts is higher or lower”. Cacao beans along with textiles were transported into the city during this period from southern Mexico and were eagerly sought after.

After his description of Mexico City, Cooke talks of Acapulco which he is altogether less impressed by! He complains that the conditions are “very unhealthy from November till May because then there falls no ran, and therefore is hotter in January than Italy in the Dog-Days.” (Cooke p. 397). He also complains that there is a lack of inns for travellers to stay in, stating that “Spanish Merchants, as soon as the Ships from Manila and Peru are discharg’d, all retire to oher places”. Acapulco was a busy port in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was where all the major goods from China and the Philippines were brought to by ship and then transported onwards to Mexico City by the Manila galleons. The city was predominantly made-up of African migrants and slaves, who worked at the port.

Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea and Around the World Perform’d in the Years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711 is a useful and engaging read for anyone who is interested in the history of Mexico and surrounding countries (Guatamala, Panama and so on). It gives an idea of how one English traveller perceived these places in the early 1700s. As I have suggested, however, we should not necessarily take everything Cooke records as fact. Cooke often relies heavily on the accounts of voyagers that have gone before him and can also be prone to using hyperbole (because he wants readers to find his travels exciting). One can also be frustrated over the amount of time Cooke spends relaying the history of each place, much narrative is concerned with past events instead of present circumstances. This said, there are some very detailed descriptions of the silver mines and other aspects of local economies.
After venturing along the neck of land connecting Northern and Southern America, Cooke and his group departed from the “island” of California to return for England on January 10 1709. After they reached the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) their journey to Texel (North Holland) took three months and seventeen days.  

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