American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BLATCHFORD, JOHN (1762-1794). John Blatchford’s account of his voyages is one of the more extraordinary sea narratives from the American Revolution. First published in 1788 and soon republished in at least half a dozen other editions, Blatchford’s Narrative of Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of John Blatchford relates his experiences from 1777, when he sailed out of Boston as a fifteen-year-old cabin boy on an American privateer, to 1783, when he returned to his father’s house on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. During the six years of his absence, Blatchford journeyed throughout the world, including Nova Scotia, the West Indies, England, France, Spain, Gibraltar, and even Java and Sumatra. His travels, however, were not of his own volition. Just a month after shipping out on the Hancock, Blatchford was taken as a prisoner on 8 July 1777, when his ship surrendered to two British warships. A nautical microcosm of the Revolution, the Narrative relates Blatchford’s persistent efforts to regain his freedom while held by the British.

Blatchford was first taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was imprisoned with the rest of his crew but was soon pressed into service on board a British warship and cruised to Antigua, New York, and Philadelphia before returning to Halifax. When put ashore, he attempted escape and in the ensuing struggle killed a guard. Sent to England to stand trial, he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. Instead of being returned to Halifax, however, Blatchford was put on board an Indiaman of the East India Company and sent to Sumatra, where he arrived in June 1780. First pressed into service as a common soldier, he was soon sent into the pepper gardens and forced to pick peppers from morning till night because of his obstinacy.

Blatchford and two other Americans ran off into the jungle but were soon recaptured. All three were condemned to death; Blatchford and one other were pardoned and escaped again in December 1780. Halfway through their 800-mile journey, Blatchford’s companion died after eating poisoned fruit, leaving Blatchford to wander alone along the coast. He eventually fell into a delirium, but a native woman helped him reach the Dutch settlement. More than half of the roughly twenty-five-page text focuses on Blatchford’s Sumatran experiences, particularly his arduous journey along the coast.

There were actually two Blatchfords, the historical figure and the literary character. The former left his home in 1777 to become a cabin boy on an American privateer and returned six years later to settle down as a coastal trader and fisherman. While on a voyage to Port-au-Prince, he died in 1794, leaving a widow and three children. The latter was created for a popular audience out of the materials provided by the former. Although some American prisoners were indeed sent to the East Indies, Blatchford’s ordeal in Sumatra was obviously embellished. More important than separating fact from fiction are the basic literary facts in the text’s print history. Blatchford and his unknown writer carefully combined elements from both sea narratives and Revolutionary prisoner-of-war accounts to create a text designed to appeal to readers of the new nation.

Daniel E. Williams