PROBABLE? POSSIBLE? IMPROBABLE? IMPOSSIBLE?
Historical research has often been likened to doing a complex jigsaw with an undisclosed number of pieces missing and no picture on the box. There is then the question of deciding if what evidence there is, is biased and to what extent a judgement based upon it can be considered probable, possible, improbable or impossible. (Surely the instinctive steps we al take when reading a newspaper or watching a television broadcast?) Take for instance the following story
INKLE AND YARICO.
16th June 1647, Mr. Thomas Inkle son of a wealthy London Merchant and brought up not to look beyond profit and loss in anything, set sail in the good ship ‘Achilles’ for the West Indies. There he would make his fortune buying and selling.
Running short of provisions, the Achilles was forced to put into a creek on mainland America in search of fresh supplies. A landing party including young 20 year old Thomas Inkle waded ashore, unaware that they were being watched by a large band of Native Americans.
Having imprudently advanced too far into the thick forest, the English were attacked and nearly all slaughtered by the Indians. Inkle managed to escape by running deep into the woodland. Finally exhausted, he just flung himself down on the ground to recover.
He was not alone. Standing over him was a beautiful, naked Indian princess. Never having seen a European before, let alone one clad from head to foot, she promptly fell in love with him and he with her. Wishing to keep Inkle safe from her own people, the girl took him to a cave where he could hide while she undertook to bring him food and water.
Over the next few months as the two young lovers grew closer they developed as language between them. Thomas thus discovered that her name was Yarico, the daughter of a chief and soon swore that he would like to take her back to London as his wife. He made this a solemn promise and told her of all the wonderful things he would buy her.
Then it happened. Yarico sighted a ship off the coast. Sending signals by day she attracted a rescue party and led Thomas to his fellow countrymen through secret forest paths.
Learning that the vessel was bound for the slave markets of Barbados, he became thoughtful and all he began to see in Yarico was the time and money he had lost while hiding from her people. How was he to explain away his bride to his family? Did he need to?
On landing and true to his upbringing, Thomas Inkle promptly sold Yarico as a slave to a Barbadian merchant.
In trying to get him to change his mind and stand by his promises the poor girl told Inkle she was pregnant by him.
Inkle’s reaction? To marry her as promised? To support her and his child and take both to England?
He promptly doubled the price he had been asking for her from the purchaser!
A sad tale and one I have just written but if I give you its provenance how reliable was it as my source of evidence? If proved genuine, would the sources make it more or less dishonourable?
I first encountered it in Volume 1, number 11 of “The Spectator Papers” written of Sir Richard Steele and published March 13, 1711.
On further research I discovered that Steele, in turn, had based his account on that of Richard Ligon, Gent., in his “A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (sic) in 1673. I next discovered that this was but the second edition, the first having appeared in 1657, within but 10 years of young Inkle’s shameful treatment of Yarico.
So did Ligon invent the story to sex up his book bearing in mind that the small British community on Barbados at the time would have detected a fabrication at once? Was the story widely known at the time but apocryphal-the 1650’s equivalent of our “did you hear about the woman who dried her poodle in her microwave? Alternatively did the events really happen as detailed? If so, all of them or some of them? Is there any other evidence to support Richard Ligons’s account? For sure Inkle would have felt no shame in letting it be known any more than the slave traders on the island.
So then, your view of Inkle and Yarico?
What does the available evidence suggest about the story… probably true, possibly true, improbable, impossible?
Does it matter anyway?
1. A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes. By Richard Ligon, Gent., 1673. First Edition 1657
Spectator papers #11, March 13, 1711.
Sir Richard Steele.