A Matavai Bay acrostic riddle

A Matavai Bay acrostic riddle
Who or what was Silvester?
8 March 2017

In checking a rare book dealer's catalogue of offerings recently, I fell upon a wonderful riddle in the Library's copy of the 1783 (second) edition of William Wade Ellis’ An authentic narrative of a voyage performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke, in His Majesty's ships Resolution and Discovery… — lurking behind an understated catalogue note that our “SR3 copy …. has an acrostic tipped onto front inside cover”.

Handwritten acrostic

Acrostic from the inside cover, http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn3581737

First thoughts were that these fugitive notes might be a tribute to one of the Tahitian chief Otoo's lovely sisters.

The race to publish

The Admiralty had firmly directed that all logs and voyager's journals kept on board James Cook's voyages were to be handed over at the end of the adventure. William Ellis’ An authentic Narrative ... is one of several so called “surreptitious” accounts that were produced from as early as 1771, prior to the publication of the official accounts (with Admiralty endorsement).

Ellis (1751-1785) joined the H.M.S. Discovery on 17 February 1779 as the surgeon's second mate and on 16 February 1779, transferred to the H.M.S. Resolution and served as a natural history draughsman alongside the official artist, John Webber (1752-1793). Not only do we have Ellis' text, but also some of his drawings in Library's collection.

Just like Ellis, accounts from other men who sailed with the celebrated navigator made it to press, including Anderson, Bayly, Burney, Elliott, Forster, Gilbert, Ledyard, Magra, Marra, Parkinson, Pickersgill, Rickman, Samwell, Sparrman, Wales, and Zimmermann. This was of course a contravention of Admiralty's orders but Ellis was in financial difficulty. There were consequences, and in Ellis' case, it was his fall from Sir Joseph Banks' favour. 

They are all now rare and coveted editions, and the personal annotations in this set may provide us with a tangible link with actual witnesses to the narratives as they unfolded.

Two books

The two volumes of William Ellis' work, http://nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn3581737

And so to the riddle ...

The Library's copy of Ellis' narrative is in two leather-bound volumes and on the front endpapers inside the first, we find a pencil note in a free and open hand: “at page 134 in this book is a true character of my Dear, Dear S------” . Then in reply, in a sometime halting and blotchy other inky hand, “Yes, and so is S------ you are very right ------W------ I perfectly agree with you in opinion------”.

The "W" (or Wm?), if expanded to William, offers a playful spoken rhyme — "you are very right William I perfectly agree with you in opinion" — as a direct comment back to Ellis. Or maybe the blanked leaders "------W------" are a vaguely disguised allusion to the author's full name, William Wade Ellis? The second hand does seem to have a strong resemblance to William Bligh's when you look at the digitised copy of his commentary on the Bounty mutineers. He seems fond of the word "perfectly" too when you read his logs but it may just been a common 18th century way of speech.

Enter the players!

On page 134 we find the crew landed in Otaheiti in August 1777 at Matavai Bay. The text mostly boasts the manly virtues of Otoo and his brothers, passing the three sisters as plain, with the youngest Terrara described as “a very agreeable lively girl”. Page 134 of volume two has the crew in Hawaii and speaks more of the Queen and her attendants visiting the ships.

Hand written inscription; printed text; portrait of Otoo

Inscription of the notes within the volume; Printed text from page 134; Portrait of Otoo by William Hodges, 1776, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135699230

Could we have here two voyagers from the H.M.S. Resolution or Discovery agreeing that "S------" was well-described and/or a bit of a one? Are earlier voyagers commenting on later observations, or subsequent voyagers agreeing to an earlier account? Maybe we are being offered evidence of a bonded friendship (Taio) between a European voyager and Otoo, or one his brothers?

The real word play is tucked inside volume two, which we have made out to read:


Since rhyming now is all the fashion
I own that I have got the passion
Like many of this scribling age
Vaunting many a handsome page
Ere they can pen a single line
Such as would make a poet shine
Tis not as with me as others find         }
Enough to gratify the mind                    }
Restrained by love so unconfined       }

As a plain acrostic, “SILVESTER” is spelt out by the first letters of each line but who or what is that referring to? Surely not a Germanic reference St. Sylvester’s day or new years eve?

The leading S is a nice cross-reference "S" in the inscriptions inside first volume, and the rhyme links back to the ink inscription.

The bracketed emphasis placed upon the last three lines also make me wonder if "T.E.R." is in any way significant – personal initials perhaps? It could just be a short form of Terrara’s name, a reference to a nubile nymph with the pet name “Silvester”, or a reference to Terrara's wildness (bearing in mind that the male name, Silvester is from a Roman one meaning "of the forest" and Latin, silva = "of the woodland").  Might the Discovery's mariners Philip Woodfield or Simon/Simeon Woodruff have a part to play in all of this?

The inscriptions could be from anyone really but the pencil note suggests perhaps someone who was on board the H.M.S. Endeavour, Resolution or Discovery (even Ellis himself). Or any of the many other English ships calling at Tahiti within the lifetimes of Otoo and his siblings, for example the crews of Captains Samuel Wallis' on the H.M.S. Dolphin, Edward Edwards on the H.M.S. Pandora, William Bligh on H.M.S. Bounty, the Lady Penrhyn with John Watts (1755-1801) from Cook's third voyage onboard, or George Vancouver's H.M.S. Discovery and tender Chatham.

Just as the pleading telestich reads (if we take the riddle to be a double acrostic) there is still so much more we simply need to know!

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Perhaps a reference to Rear Admiral Philip Carteret (1733-1796), lieutenant on the Dolphin and his affection for Mary-Rachel Silvester (1741–1815) who he married?
Thanks for that suggestion EER. Another possibility could be a reference to George Dixon (1748-1795) who served as an armorer on the 'Discovery', and prior to his adventures with Cook, started to train asa a silversmith. Dixon is said to have forged a friendship with Ellis and helped him with the identification of birds. The inscription on page 134 may be a note from Dixon's wife or some other admirer? So many unanswered questions ...