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George Shelvocke

Captain George Shelvocke (1675-1742) was an English privateer who wrote a famous 1723 book based on his exploits.

Born into a farming family in Shropshire he joined the Royal Navy when he was 15. During two long wars with France and Spain he rose through the ranks to become sailing master and finally second lieutenant of a flagship serving under Admiral John Benbow in the West Indies. However, when war with France ended in 1713 he was beached without even half-pay support. When he was commissioned as captain of the ship Speedwell, he was living in poverty.

Alongside the Success, captained by John Clipperton, the Speedwell was involved in a 1719 expedition to loot Spanish ships and settlements along the west coast of South America. The English had just declared war with Spain, the 'War of the Quadruple Alliance', and the ships carried letters of marque, which gave them official permission to wage war on the Spanish and to keep the profits. Shelvocke broke away from Clipperton shortly after leaving British waters and appears to have avoided contact as much as possible for the rest of the voyage.

On 25 May 1720 the Speedwell was wrecked, perhaps deliberately, on Selkirk Island, now re-named Robinson Crusoe Island by the Chilean authorities. Shelvocke and his crew were marooned for five months but managed to rebuild a 20-ton boat using some timber from the wreck plus new timber from the island. Leaving the island in October, they transferred into their first prize, renamed the Happy Return, and resumed their journey. They then made their way up the west coast of South America from present-day Chile to Baja California soon transferring to a series of captured enemy vessels. He then sailed for Macao before returning to England.

In England he was arrested on charges of piracy at the instigation of the principal shareholders of the voyage, though he was acquitted shortly after for want of evidence. The shareholders suspected, probably with reason, that he had failed to let them know about a significant proportion of the loot from the voyage and planned to keep it for himself and some other members of his crew. In this he probably succeeded. The events portrayed in his book were disputed by a number of critics, in particular by his Captain of Marines, one William Betagh. Shelvocke nevertheless went on to re-establish his reputation and died on 30 November 1742 at the age of 67 years, a fairly wealthy man.

In his book, Captain Shelvocke stated that his Second mate, Simon Hatley, shot a black albatross while they were rounding the Cape Horn and this episode in his book served to inspire the central image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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