American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TONQUIN. A ship of 269 tons built in New York City in 1807, the Ton- quin was commanded on its maiden voyage by Edmund Fanning,* who later gained fame through the publication of his journals. The vessel did not become a literary icon, however, until a later voyage. In September 1810 John Jacob Astor sent a party of men on the Tonquin to the mouth of the Columbia River to establish a trading post for his Pacific Fur Company. Under the command of Captain Jonathan Thorn, the ship arrived in March 1811; part of the company was left ashore at the new post, Astoria, and the ship continued north along the coast to Vancouver Island to trade. In July 1811 the Tonquin was captured by Northwest Coast* Indians, and a battle ensued during which the ship’s powder magazine was set alight. The vessel exploded, killing all on board.

The incident, the location of which is not clear, was first described in print by one of the men, Gabriel Franchere, who had remained at the Columbia River. Franchere’s book, Relation d’un Voyage ' la Cote du Nord- ouest de I’Amerique, was published in French in 1820 (Eng. trans., 1854). Franchere was especially critical of Thorn but described the whole enterprise as fraught with management problems and not well conceived or supported by Astor. Franchere’s shipmate Ross Cox told a similar story in his Adventures on the Columbia River (1831).

John Jacob Astor hired Washington Irving,* one of the most popular authors of the day, to write his version of the story, and Irving’s Astoria: Or Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains appeared in 1836. Irving got most of his information about the Tonquins voyage from Fran- chere and Cox, though he also had access to Astor's business records and correspondence between Astor and Thorn. Irving's account of the explosion of the Tonquin became a model for subsequent authors, and over the next several decades exploding ships were incorporated into a number of sea novels. Miles Wallingford, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s* Afloat and Ashore (1844), contemplates setting the magazine alight when his ship is captured on the Northwest Coast, and the explosion of the Jane Guy in Edgar Allan Poe’s* The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym* (1838) is influenced by the Tonquin tragedy.

Mary Malloy