Beware the Sea Haggis

Deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress is a letter about the Sea Haggis and a voyage to the colony of Virginia in 1684.

It was written in 1688 to the members of the English Royal Society, who presumably had asked for a description of the writer’s travels in the New World.  Below, you will find the highlights of his trip.

John Clayton was a young man in 1684 when he made his way to Virginia.¹ He was a newly minted Anglican priest who liked to pickle birds.  During the long voyage to Virginia, he had his first encounter with jellyfish:

In the Sea I saw many little things which the Seamen call Carvels; they are like a Jelly, or Starch that is made with a cast of Blue in it; they Swim like a small Sheeps Bladder² above the Water, downwards there are long fibrous Strings, some whereof I have found near half a Yard long…

When we were one Day becalm’d, getting some to make Observations thereof, the sportful People rub’d it on one anothers Hands and Faces, and where it touch’d it would make it look very Red, and make it smart worse than a Nettle.³

Let’s rewind.  I’m imagining this scenario, which is more or less Sailor Boys Gone Wild, 1684 edition, wherein some mischievous sailor grabs a jellyfish and begins whipping the tentacles around like Indiana Jones’ whip. This explanation is frankly a lot more plausible than one man telling another “Hey, you know what would be fun?  Pressing this unknown monster’s appendages to our faces.  What could go wrong bro?”4

Clayton also describes a brush with disaster on the high seas, when, alone in the Atlantic, their ship the Judith began to take on water from an unknown leak.  After days of fruitless searching, the Captain turns to Clayton for help before the ship sinks.  Clayton’s solution is perfection: he fashions an ear trumpet, and together Clayton and Captain Trim wander the ship listening for clues, like a deaf, seafaring Holmes and Watson.  The leak is quickly found and patched, and the journey continues safely to Virginia.

Later, the sailors tell Clayton that they will smell the pine trees from Virginia long before they will see land.  Clayton is skeptical.  I don’t blame him.5

After arrival in Virginia, Clayton learns that the new colony is a deathtrap.  Everyone suffers from bloody diarrhea.  Poorly made chimneys explode.  They are terrorized by lightning, which is happening on a scale completely unknown to the English.  They are accustomed to lightning perhaps once a year in England.  In Virginia, it appears often, striking down colonists, animals, and homes.

Nonetheless, Clayton doesn’t seem too bothered by the high mortality – except when his neighbors confiscate and destroy his dead bird collection.  It seems his friends thought his own brush with illness would be fatal, and took the opportunity to clean out his house… which was full of smelly dead animal specimens.  He apologizes to the Royal Society profusely for not sending them better quality dead birds.

I Had indeed begun once whilst I was in that Country to have made a Collection of the Birds, but falling sick of the Griping of the Guts, some of them for want of care corrupted, which made them fling others away that I had thoroughly cured; for I was past taking care of them my self, there remaining but small hopes of my Life.6

Strangely, Clayton makes no mention of slavery, and only little mention of the natives.  He explains how they hunt deer (with elaborate crowns made of tree boughs), and describes an effective remedy for venomous snake bite (applying a tourniquet and cauterizing the bite), but his only discussion of friction with the colonists is an offhand comment about horses.  While discussing which animals are native or non-native to North America, he mentions that a few of the horses have wandered off and gone wild.  He worries that the Pamunkey have obtained some of these wild horses – weapons he perceives as more dangerous than guns.

The Indians have not yet learnt to ride, only the King of Pomonkie had got three or four Horses for his own Saddle and an Attendant, which I think should in no wise be indulged, for I look on the allowing them Horses much more dangerous than even Guns and Powder.

John Clayton returned home to England in 1686.  I presume with a very small bird collection.

Sources & Notes:

¹ Bond, Edward L. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “John Clayton (1656 or 1657–1725).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2018.

² Beware the sea haggis!!

³ A letter from Mr. John Clayton, rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire, to the Royal Society, May 12, 1688. Giving an account of several observables in Virginia, and in his voyage thither, more particularly concerning the air.

4 Only this would be in 1686 English, which is probably more like “And thereupon, with Great Concentration, I did introduce the mighty carvel nettle to his face, and BOY DID THAT STING.”

5 If you saw a bunch of dummies whip each other with jellyfish stingers for the fun of it, you might be skeptical too.

6 I can see it now: “The preacher is sick.  This is our chance to get rid of all those seagull mummies.  DO IT NOW AGNES GO!”

Extra Note:  I know Clayton’s letters were about Jamestown and not Virginia Beach – however, the landscape and experience for the colonists in either place would have been substantially the same.  Besides, where else would I find a colonial story about floating sheep bladders and seagull mummies?

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