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The Life of the Icelander Jón Ólafsson: Youghal

Author: Jón Olafsson

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Sir Richard Temple Lavinia Mary Anstey

Electronic file compiled by Beatrix Färber

Funded by University College, Cork, School of History

1. First draft, revised and corrected.

Extent of text: 5980 words


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  1. According to Blöndal there are 23 copies of the manuscript. He gives full details in his introduction to the Icelandic edition, p. xvii–xxx. A summary is given in vol. 1 of the English edition, vol. 58 of the Hakluyt Society, pp xxxiii–xxxiv.
    Icelandic Edition
  1. Sigfús Blöndal, Ævisaga Jóns Ólafssonar Indíafara samin af honum sjálfum (1661). Nú í fyrsta skifti gefin út af hinu Íslenska Bókmentafjelagi m. athugasemdum eptir Sigfús Blöndal (Kaupmannahöfn 1908-1909).
    Further Reading
  1. Eleanor Hull, Folklore of the British Isles (London 1928).
  2. Dorothea Townshend, The Life and Letters of the Great Earl of Cork (London 1904).
  3. Memoirs of Jon Olafsson, Icelander and traveller to India, 1622-1625, as written by himself, 1661: with the story of Mads Rasmussen, chaplain on the Perlen, 1623-1626, edited and translated by Inger Barnes. (Cambridge c. 1998).
  4. C. J. Woods, Travellers' accounts as source material for Irish historians (Dublin 2009).
    The edition used in the digital edition
  1. The Life of the Icelander Jón Ólafsson,Traveller to India ... Translated from the Icelandic edition of Sigfús Blöndal by Bertha S. Philpotts. vol. ii: Life and travels: Denmark, England, The Cape, Madagascar, Comoro Is., Coromandel Coast, Tranquebar, St Helena, Ascension Is., Ireland, Iceland, 1618–1679. Sir Richard Temple (ed), Lavinia Mary Anstey (ed), First edition [xxix + 290 pages] Hakluyt SocietyLondon (1931) . Series 2. , No. 58


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The present extract covers pages 220–234 of volume ii of Ólafsson's description.

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Created: (c. 1661)

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Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition: T620001-001

The Life of the Icelander Jón Ólafsson: Youghal: Author: Jón Olafsson



The next Sunday after Ascension Day1, about six of the clock, we saw land. It was an island close to the west of England which they call Sjörlis2. Great was the rejoicing on board, and all who lived and could speak gave thanks to God, and many of those who were sick dragged themselves on deck, though some of them had to return again to their beds. As night was at hand, the officers and those in authority thought it best to hold away from the land during the night, as shoals were to be expected. But the next morning the land had disappeared and a storm arose from the north-west which lasted eight days, during the which we lost our small and frail rudder, which in all but following winds had done us yeoman service.

Again we were come into sore straits, not knowing whether we were off France, England or Ireland, for all these countries lie close to each other, and all have red mud off their coasts on the sea bottom. When the north-west storm moderated the wind veered to the south-east. And about midnight the mates dropped the plummet overboard (as they frequently did) and found twenty-eight fathoms, and the sailors dropped the anchor and the yard was lowered to the bulwarks, but owing to the crew's weakness the sheets had perforce to dangle in the sea, there being but three men on their feet. My captain, Christoffer Boye, had now also taken to his bed, but for at least eight days before this, he crawled about on his knees.

Early one morning I heard the door of the cabin on the upper deck open (and heard no more) until someone came to me (I had lent my sleeping-place to my good friend Anders


Ólafsen). This was the Governor, Henrik Hess, who stood without and asked me if I could come to him. I said that I could do so if I might lean on him. And when I came out, he says that we are in great peril because we knew nought of where we were. I say we shall soon see land. He conducts me across the deck to the starboard side. It was squally weather with sunshine between the squalls. I tell him that I fancy that I see land over there where I point. He says no and offers to wager a rose noble against a dollar3, and gives me his hand upon it. Soon after the squall cleared away and the sun shone upon a fair wall on land. He left me and shouted, ‘Land! Land!’ clapping his hands, and all praised God with great rejoicings. And I was conducted down to the guns and fired fifteen shots, for the guns were already loaded4. Master Jóris, our first mate, said that it was Ireland, which lies twenty-nine sea-miles from England, washed all round by the sea5.

It so happened that a man had gone out of that town we saw, and which was called Johel or Jochel6, and of no set purpose but just for his pleasure, had walked out on a point which looks eastwards. This man saw us and heard the shots (though we were far from land, fully two sea-miles); and he hastened back to the town and before its chief men, and said that he had seen a large vessel out to sea, and that it was continually firing shots, and he added that he thought its rigging was very small. Whereat the harbour-pilots were ordered to seek out who these men might be. There were two of them, William and Robert7.


At once they started from land, each in his herring-buss8, and it was a race between them which should get to our vessel first, for they thought that whichever did so might reckon on a high reward. The weather was fickle and squally and we could see no more than that they were like to capsize, until one of them gave up, so saving both himself and his fellow, although he had to return almost to shore again with no profit. The first shouted to us and asked us how we fared and what ship we were. We told him with all clearness what it behooved him to know, and that it was our desire that the vessel might be brought into harbour.

He offered himself for the task and demanded a token and pledge from the chief man on board, that we would take none other than himself, and the profit which accrued therefrom he declared to be granted him by God, who had given him the good fortune to be the first to come out to us, we being in need of much aid. Captain Sixt Jakobson, the true captain of the Pearl, forthwith handed over to him his purse of red velvet with his gold signet ring attached, as a pledge of the agreement. And when everything had been done on both sides as agreed upon, this pledge was to be handed back to the captain.

Now things were come to that pass on board, as has been mentioned before, that men died daily, and nearly all were bedridden, so that none could help the other nor even give a drink the one to the other. So the moaning of helplessness and misery was heard everywhere among us, both on account of hunger and disease. Neither of the two pilots9 had any victuals on board their vessels or busses, save that one crew


had a raw cod, not yet cleaned, and this was at once cooked and portioned out among a hundred and seventeen men; and I got its shoulder-bone with a little of the flesh clinging to it, the which I chewed, bone and all.

The two crews of these pilots, and the pilots themselves, got our boat lowered with the assistance of some of our people, to whom it was a great effort. Then they lowered my captain, Christoffer Boye, down into our boat by a rope, he sitting in a chair, also the minister and those who were not able to help themselves. And when my captain, Christoffer Boye, had got into the boat, I gazed supplicatingly after him, and called out to him and begged him to bear me in mind, if he and I both lived, that I might come ashore as soon as possible. He waved to me with a kerchief and promised that, if he should survive, I should be conveyed to land at the first opportunity. And at parting, when they were about to be conveyed ashore, each party bade the other a loving farewell, leaving our next meeting in the hands and to the will of God.

Two of our people died while rowing to land and two more at table on shore, as they tasted fresh victuals. They were lovingly received in Johel10, and given many kinds of food and precious drinks. My captain, Christoffer Boye, lived two nights, and then died, and was given an honourable funeral and burial, costing 300 dollars11. A great iron bell which had not been rung for thirteen years was used on his funeral day, as a last honour and token of esteem, together with other fitting ceremonies. I was not ashore when these things happened.

The same night as our boat went ashore from the ship, it was sent back again by the highest in the town of Johel with a plenty of drink and victuals, viz. two whole oxen, twelve sheep slaughtered, twelve barrels of strong beer, two casks of biscuits and two of hard ship's bread of rye; one cask of butter, three casks of wine, one of which was of French brandy, another of Spanish wine and the third of French


mass-wine12. There were also new plates, wheat, two kinds of salt, vinegar, jugs and vessels, also herbs and wholesome green foods, also many kinds of distilled wine13, and tobacco. With the boat came a few of our people who had been ashore, together with the English14 who had been hired in the town to row.

And the next day a hundred men were taken and chosen at the town hall to be both watchmen and guardians of our ship and goods while sickness was so rife among our own people, and until the vessel could be got into harbour. These hundred men swore an oath on their souls and bodies that all their conduct, while their watch should last, should be honest and upright, without any false dealing. And further, that if a shot were heard from our vessel, even when they were ashore, they should make all haste out to her.

For it so happened that at that time a notorious and much hated robber and freebooter (as they are called) was constantly cruising in those waters, and often used violence against merchants and honest sailors, causing them terror by his robberies, murders and manslayings. His name was Captain Compan15, a man of low birth and a Fleming by race16. He had seven ships under his command and offered odds to many, as had recently happened at that time, when in the Spanish Main he offered battle to thirty-two vessels all in one company, of the kind which ply to Spain, and of which but few have as many as twelve guns. By such-like deeds he maintained himself for many years. He had a wife and children in Holland. He was a man of much experience, surpassing all others both at sea and in drinking-bouts, and much practised in navigation. The High Stater, States and Governors


of Holland17 had written a gracious letter to this man, urging him to desist from this evil life and mend his ways utterly, and they offered him the highest command at sea in Holland, with some kind of privileges. With this letter was sent a loving appeal from his lawful wife; but all this impressed him not a whit, for he well knew how much their advice and offer were worth, and the daily condemnation of his conscience told him how little he was worthy of them; and therefore he would not risk the venture. His drummer, by name Cornelis, had sickened of scurvy on this man's own ship, and been put ashore, and he came to us in Johel in Ireland and was tended with us. Later, he came with the Pearl to Denmark. He told us much about him and clearly described to us all his ways at sea and on land, how he had psalms and prayers sung both evening and morning, and other such Christian customs, and yet lived in his piracy and execrable crimes18.


Now I must tell how, when the provisions had come out to the ship, and we were to taste fresh victuals that night, our steward gave each of us leave to choose whatever he desired to partake of first, whether of food or drink. Some asked for bread, others for cheese, and some for eggs, until the meal could be prepared. I asked for one drink of ale. And when I had taken near half a pint I handed what was left in the pint-pot back to the steward, and I was helped up on deck and forward to the beak, and I wound a rope round each wrist and placed myself on the stool, and for nearly a whole round of the clock I had no consciousness of myself, nor knew what went on around me, until I returned to my full senses. It seemed to me then as if I had been relieved of the burden as of a whole mountain, and as if God had given me a new life. When I came below decks again to my comrades, the stewards and others were startled to see me alive, and declared that in truth they had supposed that I was lying somewhere dead. While I was away two others had died. And soon after my good friend Erik Lange died, and also good old Niels Geertsen. Thus, from the time we sailed from India until we had made harbour in Ireland, we lost thirty-five of our best people, amongst them the mate Jakob, Niels Geertsen, his first assistant, with his stepson Andreas; Master William the surgeon, one of the two sailmakers, and our master-gunner, Soren Knabstrup, a very violent man.


It was near eight days before a rudder of deal was made, which served for the occasion, to bring the ship into harbour at spring-tide. For we had to wait for that, as three shallows lay right across the harbour mouth19, where the entrance was, and over each were moored barrels to serve as buoys. It was one day before we got our great vessel into harbour — her draught, with cargo, was twenty-two feet, across the upper deck she measured seven fathoms, and seven fathoms also from the quarterdeck to the sea; forty fathoms from stem to stern and forty fathoms from the highest point of the mast to the sea20 — that we saw two large vessels about a sea-mile to seaward of us, but to them we seemed to lie off the shore. Instantly a shot was fired and the hundred sworn men came with all speed, according to their oath, to defend us. But by the grace of the blessed God these vessels held off. It was Captain Compan21, and he was greatly vexed that we had escaped from his clutches by such a chance, when he learnt later of our situation.

On the Saturday before the festival of Whitsuntide22, about the ninth hour of the morning, which is about the time we break our fast in Iceland, all these men being on board with us, and many of the chief men of the town of Johel, through the faithful guidance of the pilot who had first reached us, and for the sum agreed upon, we were manoeuvred and towed


over the sand bar23, without any damage to ship or cargo, to an anchorage close under the town, as good as a man could possibly wish for himself. All the time we were sailing in, every mother's child in the town stood at the very edge of the sea, both on the town side and on the opposite side of the estuary. It seemed to us a most excellent pleasant place, and a fair countryside wherever one looked.

Ireland is a good, fertile and fair land of corn and cattle, so that at that time seventeen hundred live oxen were sent to England as tribute every year. For this special ships are used, which they call meat-ships24. There is also much other slaughtered meat, which is conveyed to England almost daily. An ox is there worth four dollars, a sheep one dollar. But such fat sheep I have never seen anywhere25.

When our pilot began to sail to the harbour, he bade all the people fall on their knees in prayer, and ask God for favourable progress and a good ending to the task begun. And afterwards, when the prayers had been said, he commanded that every man should be silent and should utter no word until the vessel had cleared the shallows, and that we should stand by the bulwarks on either side. All the which was duly observed, so that the man who stood at the helm should not be disturbed, and should hear no word save only those uttered by the pilot. And when he had slipped over the innermost bar the pilot and all on board gave a great shout of joy, and then all that great concourse on shore shouted too, as though with one voice, each removing his hat from his head. After all those on board had given humble thanks to Almighty God, with praise for His mercy vouchsafed to us, in that we had made harbour without mishap, the guns were fired off, and so also in the castle on land26 — trumpets blown, drums


beaten amid general rejoicings, and we were landed on the fair sands, where a great multitude had assembled.

An excellent woman, Elizabeth, married to a sea-captain named William Giaeers27, came up to me, after she had scanned us all, and took me by the hand and considered me for a while, asking me my name and whence I was. And when I had answered her fully she asked if I would not go with her to her home and confide myself to her nursing and care. I said that I would thankfully and willingly accept her offer. So she led me away by the hand, as a mother leads her beloved child, and my comrades gazed after us. When I entered her house she bade me welcome to all it contained, and to all she could do for me, and she set before me fresh victuals and good ale, carving for me herself. She told me that the right hand of her late lamented father had suffered the same injury as mine, and that it was the memory of his sufferings which had urged her to benefit me, when she saw me. She asked my leave to seek out another of our people, so that the two of us might enjoy the same tendance. She left me, and came back with our steward Peter Frandsen, and she had us under her maternal care and tendance for full eleven weeks.

Now I must tell how the captain of the Pearl, Sixt Jacobsen, was vexed with the five of us who refused to lie with the multitude of fifty-two men who lay in one sick-house, and all bedridden; and therefore he threatened that we must pay for ourselves, and not one penny would he expend for us, saying we had flouted his offer and the loving care of the Company28, wherein he spoke not truth, for we thought at first that each would find lodgings and landlord for himself, wherever he could. These were the five men: the minister Master Matthias, the steward Peter, Christian Johansen, Anders Ólafsen


and I Jón Ólafsson. Thus quickly did I come to miss my dear friend, as it were my father, Captain Christoffer Boye, who was now asleep in God.

The inhabitants strove to show us all honour, most of the better folk in the neighbourhood visiting us and our ship in their pitifulness and compassion, and bringing us something fresh and useful for nourishment, many kinds of wine and herbs. Among them, moreover, was a great number of the nobility, men and women, both English and Irish, noble matrons and maidens, who showed great courtesy and condescension, bidding God be praised, in that He had delivered us and sent us thither out of such dangers and perils of the sea. All prayed for our recovery, that each of us might return safe and sound to his own country, and find his friends again, when we departed. Further, there visited us the noble Count of Cork, the highest of the three counts who had governance and authority over Ireland at that time29, on behalf of the King of England, Carolus Stuart30. He was termed the President31, and he came with his excellent spouse and their two children, one son and one daughter32, and they gave three Jacobus33 to us, the ship's crew, which is reckoned at twelve dollars, for drink, and to make merry with. It was seldom that we did not have visits from strangers every day, and these gave us money, so that we daily feasted with music and great merriment.

This count invited the half of our people to be entertained at his home in Cork, which we humbly and thankfully


accepted, whereupon he bade us follow him. And when we reached the castle we were nobly feasted with meat and drink and entertained with other excellent things, with all hospitality and consideration for three days and three nights, after which we travelled back to the place where our vessel lay.34 But on the road, as we travelled back, the Irish country folk kindled great fires on high mountains every night, with much dancing round the fires by great multitudes both of men and women, with junketings and merrymaking. This is the old custom of the Irish people, which they have observed from the most ancient times, maintaining that all goes better with them if they continue it, than if they should let it drop. This is, as it were, their faith, and though the English have tried to wean them from the custom, and sternly forbidden it, the Irish have obstinately refused to give up their fires and dances, which have become the custom and habit of the countryside35. All this the Irish displayed to us in their


friendship as we were returning to our ship. And on our return our officers despatched home to Denmark the two gentlemen who had been passengers on board36, to advise His Majesty and the Company of the damage we had suffered, and to see to other matters which we needed to arrange for, as for instance, the conveying of our letters to kinsfolk and friends.