Book review: “Half Moon” by Douglas Hunter

The book had been prominently displayed with a selection of others. One of the libraries I frequent had not only decided a summer vacation means people read hefty books. It also presumed people would be interested in travel guides and books about distant shores. So Douglas Hunter’s book “Half Moon” found itself among rough guides to Japan, Hawaii, the Seychelles and retold tales about scaling the Everest, or reaching the North or South Pole.

No idea why I picked “Half Moon”. It might have been its cover. Perhaps it was the “… and the voyage that redrew the map of …” blurb. Or perhaps it was because I was researching a bit of Delft VOC history and thought I might give this book a try.

Book Cover Half MoonIt was a lucky choice. For it turned out to mix history, adventure, biography with deductions, corrections of assumptions, as well as reinterpretation of facts. Stefan Zweig and others were put aside to finish this account within a week. Hunter describes in his introduction, how his subject got hold of him. Interested in Canadian history, he became fascinated with an astrolabe.

The astrolabe was supposed to belong to Samuel de Champlain. He supposedly lost it in 1613, while exploring northern Canada. Champlain was also on a kind of search and rescue mission. Rumours had reached him, natives might have found a white boy. The boy might be a survivor of a mutiny which took place on the “Discovery” about two years previous.

Chapter 28 of the book’s thirty, concerns this mutiny. This chapter and the last two deal with the aftermath of the “Half Moon” voyage. The book concludes with the story of the Henry Hudson memorial. Hudson and his voyage with the “Half Moon” in 1609 are the real subject of this book.

The first chapter starts on Tuesday, the first of September 1609 at a meeting in Amsterdam. The “board of directors” of the Amsterdam Chamber of the VOC meet. One of their ships, commanded by Englishman Henry Hudson, should have returned long ago.

Henry Hudson has an excellent reputation. He already made voyages with the English ship “Hopewell”, searching for a passage to China by sailing north past Scandinavia, then west. This is why the VOC contracted him and gave him their “Half Moon”.

Remember: it’s only slightly more than a century since earth went from flat to round. Most of the globe is still a totally blank spot: terra incognita. Which does not prevent learned men to speculate about terra incognita. Theories abound about possible short-cuts to all the wealth and riches of India, China and other Asian countries.

But with one in three men and one in five ships never returning from a voyage, are the “Half Moon” – or rather “Halve Maen” – and her crew a write-off? Should the Amsterdam Chamber have heeded other VOC Chambers? Hunter cites letters making clear these were against employing an Englishman and especially Henry Hudson.

Chapter two starts with a description of the same day … on board the “Half Moon”. Crew and ship are nowhere near where the Amsterdam VOC Board ordered them to go. Henry Hudson is searching a passage to Asia – but in exactly the opposite direction and places where his VOC contract ordered him to.

Hunter not only describes the events that make Henry Hudson “hijack” the “Half Moon”. In the 27 chapters dealing with its voyage, he also goes into contemporary theories about the North Pole and its climate, charts, ships, Hudson’s relations with other explorers, the Elizabethan as well as James I’s courts, as well as an awful lot more. All this background information is cleverly incorporated in the main story.

Hunter also takes time to describe the sad lot of the natives along the American coast. At least one tribe who welcomed the crew, became caught up in native wars. These, in combination with their land being “bought up” and European illnesses introduced, ensured the tribe was obliterated in about 25 years – after meeting the “Half Moon”. Other tribes would follow.

Using what documents are left of the “Half Moon” ‘s voyage, contemporary charts, letters and other historical documents, Hunter charts Hudson’s the possible route. He goes into what information Hudson might have used, where he got it from, how meetings and which motivated the man.

Most surprising is how ships made it to the other side of the Atlantic at all. Even when sighting land, these ships were lucky to be somewhere in the vicinity of wherever they presumed they were. Ships were still shockingly primitive. There is also the difficult business of “calculating” a ship’s place, speed, course. Imagine having to do all this without radar, GPS, longitude, latitude and everything we now take for granted.

After finishing the book, I’m still puzzled about the cat’s behaviour somewhere in front of the American coast. Hunter cites from Juet’s account: all of a sudden, the cat starts running from one end to the other end of the ship, looks overboard, then runs back again, looks overboard. This goes on for a while. What did it sense? There must have been something under or near the tiny ship no human spotted. Was it a whale, a shark, a giant squid?

Hunter not only cites from Juet’s account. Using VOC documents, he makes a case for the “Halve Maen” or “Half Moon” having been a different kind of ship than previously presumed. He explains about provisions, clothes, crew members and gives backgrounds of some. He also explains how the local coast changed from Hudson’s time to the present.

So this book is far more, than just an account of the voyage which put Manhattan on the map. It does contain technical details and information, but everything supports and never interferes with the story. This book is really an absorbing read. Nevertheless, a reader will put it down with a sigh of relief – to be living in the 21st century and not on board a “Hopewell”, “Halve Maen”, or “Discovery”!

“Half Moon, Henry Hudson and the voyage that redrew the map of the new world”, Douglas Hunter, pp 329, hard cover, Bloomsbury 2009


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