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  • Woodes Rogers and the Boundary of Travel Facts
  • Jason H. Pearl

In A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712), Woodes Rogers casts doubt upon earlier descriptions of the Island of Juan Fernández and proclaims the truthfulness of his own description: "I shall not trouble the Reader with the Descriptions of this Island given by others, wherein there are many Falshoods; but the Truth of this I can attest from my own knowledge."1 Rogers makes a similar asseveration about Alexander Selkirk, though not before dismissing the accounts of earlier castaways on Juan Fernández: "Whatever there is in these Stories, this of Mr. Selkirk I know to be true."2 Such protestations of honesty are endemic to the genre of travel literature, yet they become increasingly prevalent—and urgent—around the end of the seventeenth century, when readers began doubting more and more seriously whether modern travelers were any more trustworthy than Aristotle, Pliny, or the other ancients they were currently then supplanting.3 Travelers were subject to shifting expectations: at first welcomed for their strange new information, they were soon distrusted precisely because their information was strange and new.4 If empiricist philosophy had empowered travelers to act as proxy observers, it also empowered readers at home to disbelieve everything that they themselves had not witnessed personally.5

At the same time, fiction writers were appropriating the conventions of fact for their own purposes, causing frustrated travelers to distinguish themselves [End Page 60] strenuously from those they referred to as mere writers of romance. Defoe, for instance, gives Robinson Crusoe (1719) many of the formal accoutrements of truth, claiming, through an editor, that his novel is a "just History of Fact," without even the "Appearance of Fiction in it."6 Actual travelers obsessed over this difference, often accusing one another of deviating from fact into fiction. Rogers grumbles, "'Tis . . . a particular Misfortune which attends Voyages to the South-Sea, that the Buccaneers, to set off their own Knight-Errantry, and to make themselves pass for Prodigies of Courage and Conduct, have given such romantick Accounts of their Adventures, and told such strange Stories" (xiv). Edward Cooke, a shipmate of Rogers, emphasizes the same dichotomy before presenting his own account of Selkirk:

It would be no difficult Matter to embellish a Narrative with many Romantick Incidents, to please the unthinking Part of Mankind, who swallow every Thing an artful Writer thinks fit to impose upon their Credulity, without any Regard to Truth or Probability. The judicious are not taken with such Trifles; their End in Reading, is Information; and they easily distinguish between Reality and Fiction.

(Voyage, 2.xix)

Of course, not all readers were as judicious as Rogers and Cooke would have liked, and not everyone could—or even wanted to—separate reality from fiction, but the difference was important to some readers and especially to travelers.

Recent scholarship on eighteenth-century travel literature has argued that the line between fact and fiction was, at least at first glance, either blurry or nonexistent. Percy G. Adams, who has given this topic more attention than anyone, has shown just how difficult it was to detect "travel lies," and in a broad study devoted to the influence of travel literature on the early novel, he catalogs thematic, structural, and stylistic similarities much too numerous to summarize here.7 Regarding Defoe, Adams states, "No other novelist . . . made such broad, such specific, such creative use of so many travel accounts," and about Defoe's use of the Selkirk story, he declares, "It seems obvious that Woodes Rogers's Selkirk . . . was the chief fountainhead for Defoe's novel."8 Michael McKeon, who also assigns travelers a key role in the formation of the novel, goes so far as to argue that "the conventions of imaginary and 'real' voyages were the same" (352). Likewise, Neil Rennie claims that "the border between factual and fictional voyages can be easily crossed and can even move," and for him, the parallel [End Page 61] stories of Selkirk and Crusoe are a prime example.9 According to Jonathan Lamb, the problem for travelers was that they had no reliable method of telling the truth: "First-person testimony was...


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