Captain John Smith

The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text found at Google Books.

Judging by his autobiography, John Smith was a larger-than-life adventurer. Born in England, he left home as a young man, joined the military, fought bravely in Europe, was captured and sold as a slave, won the heart of a young woman who tried to help him, killed his enslaver, escaped slavery, fled across Europe (with the assistance of various other women), and returned home safely to England - - all this before the adventures in Virginia for which he is best known!

Autobiography was rare in John Smith's world, and his is among the first published in English. Although other of his books include details about his life, his True Travels is the most autobiographical of them. In combination with The Generall Historie of Virginia, it provides a complete history of his life up to the time of its publication. Note that he describes himself in the third person in the text (i.e. as he rather than I).

N.B. Spelling has been modernized here (as has punctuation and paragraphing to a limited degree). The headings and paragraph numbers provided are not part of the original document. Editorial explanations are in square brackets [ ]. The remaining text is Smith's.


Birth (about 1580) and Childhood
{1}He was borne in Willoughby in Lincolnshire, and a scholar in the two Free Schools of Alford and Louth. His father anciently descended from the ancient Smiths of Crudley in Lancashire, his mother from the Rickands at great Heck in Yorkshire. His parents dying when he was about thirteen years of age left him a competent means, which he not being capable to manage, little regarded; his mind being even then set upon brave adventures, sold his satchel, books, and all he had, intending secretly to get to Sea, but that his fathers death stayed him. But now the Guardians of his estate more regarding it than him, he had liberty enough, though no means, to get beyond the Sea.

{2}About the age of fifteen years he was bound an Apprentice to Mr. Thomas Sendatt of Linne, the greatest Merchant of all those parts; but because he would not presently send him to Sea, he never saw his master in eight years after. At last he found means to attend Mr. Perigrine Barty into France. . . , [but since Barty and his brother were only young men, they did not really need him. After a month or so] they sent him back again to his friends; who when he came from London they liberally gave him (but out of his own estate) ten shillings to be rid of him; such oft is the share of fatherless children. [Fortunately, the Barty brothers] gave him sufficient to return for England.

Learning to be a Soldier (through 1600)
{3}But [returning to England] was the least thought of his determination, for now being freely at liberty in Paris, growing acquainted with one Master David Hume, who making some use of his purse, gave [Smith] letters to [Hume's] friends in Scotland to prefer him to King James. Arriving at Roane, [Smith] better bethinks himself, seeing his money near spent. Down the river he went to Haver de grace, where he first began to learn the life of a soldier.

{4} Peace being concluded in France, he went with Captain Joseph Duxbury into the Low Countries, under whose colors having served three or four years, he took his journey for Scotland, to deliver his Letters. At Ancusau he embarked himself for Lethe, but as much danger as shipwreck and sickness could endure he had at the holy Isle in Northumberland near Barwicke: (being recovered) into Scotland he went to deliver his Letters. After much kind usage amongst those honest Scots at Ripweth and Broxmoth, but neither money nor means to make him a Courtier, he returned to Willoughby in Lincolnshire; where within a short time being glutted with too much company wherein he took small delight, he retired himself into a little woody pasture, a good way from any town, environed with many hundred acres of other woods: Here by a faire brook he built a pavilion of boughs, where only in his clothes he lay. His study was Machiavelli's Art of War, and Marcus Aurelius; his exercise a good horse with his lance and Ring; his food was thought to be more of venison than anything else; what he wanted his man brought him. The country wondering at such an hermit. His friends persuaded one Seignior Theodora Polaloga, Rider to Henry Earl of Lincoln, an excellent Horseman, and a noble Italian Gentleman, to insinuate into his woodish acquaintances, whose Languages and good discourse, and exercise of riding drew him to stay with him at Tattersall. Long these pleasures could not content him, but he returned again to the Low Countries.

{5}Thus when France and Netherlands had taught him to ride a Horse and use his Arms, with such rudiments of War, as his tender years in those martial schools could attain unto, he was desirous to see more of the world, and try his fortune against the Turks, both lamenting and repenting to have scene so many Christians slaughter one another.

Adventures in Europe
[The following summarizes Smith's many adventures that followed:

He fell in with some French con men, who stole his belongings. He wandered penniless, turning down offers from "Lady Collumber" and others to be his patrons. He came across one of the con men by chance, and an exciting sword fight ensued (which Smith won).

Smith rejoined men he had served with in France, and they traveled through Europe like tourists. While he was a passenger on a ship full of Roman Catholics, the weather turned bad, and they threw him overboard, fearful that having an English Protestant on board brought God's punishment on the ship.

He managed to swim to a deserted island, from which he was soon rescued. He joined up with his rescuers and traveled around the Mediterranean. The ship he joined was attacked, and an exciting battle ensued. They won the battle and filled their hold with spoils from the other ship.

After spending more time as a tourist in European cities, he joined the Austrian army to fight against the Turks. He took part in various engagements, including one in which his horse was shot from under him. The Austrians and their allies besieged a city held by the Turks, resulting in a stalemate with 15,000 casualties on each side.

{6}The Christians (as Smith identifies them)] spent near a month in entrenching themselves, and raising their mounts to plant their batteries; which slow proceedings the Turks oft derided, that the ordnance were at pawn, and how they grew fat for want of exercise, and fearing lest they should depart ere they could assault their City, sent this Challenge to any Captain in the Army.

{7}That to delight the Ladies, who did long to see some court-like pastime, the [Turkish] Lord Turbashaw did defy any [Christian] Captain, that had the command of a Company, who durst combat with him for his head: The matter being discussed, it was accepted, but so many questions grew for the undertaking, it was decided by lots, which fell upon Captain Smith. . . .

{8}Truce being made for that time, the Rampiers all beset with fair Dames and men in arms, the Christians in Battalio; Turbashaw with a noise of Howboyes entered the fields well mounted and armed; on his shoulders were fixed a pair of great wings, compacted of eagle's feathers within a ridge of silver, richly garnished with gold and precious stones, a Janizary before him, bearing his Lance, on each side another leading his horse; where long he stayed not, ere Smith with a noise of Trumpets, only a Page bearing his Lance, passing by him with a courteous salute, took his ground with such good success, that at the sound of the charge, he passed the Turk through the sight of his Beaver [through the faceplate of his helmet], face, head, and all, that he fell dead to the ground, where [Smith,] alighting and unbracing his Helmet, cut off his head, and the Turks took his body; and so [Smith] returned without any hurt at all. The head he presented to [a general in the Christian Army] who kindly accepted it; and with joy to the whole Army he was generally welcomed.

{9}The death of [the Turkish] Captain so swelled in the heart of one Grualgo, his vowed friend, as, rather enraged with madness than choler, he directed a particular challenge to the conqueror, to regain his friends head, or lose his own, with his horse and armor for advantage, which according to his desire, was the next day undertaken: as before, upon the sound of the Trumpets, their Lances flew in pieces upon a clear passage; but the Turk was near unhorsed. Their pistols was the next, which marked Smith upon the placard; but the next shot the Turk was so wounded in the left arm, that being not able to rule his horse, and defend himself, he was thrown to the ground; and so bruised with the fall, that he lost his head, as his friend before him; with his horse and Armor; but his body and his rich apparel was sent back to the Town.

{10}[The stalemate continued, and Smith and his fellow soldiers had little to do.] To delude time, Smith, with so many incontradictible persuading reasons, obtained leave that the Ladies might know he was not so much enamored of their servants' heads, but if any Turk of their rank would come to the place of combat to redeem them, should have his also upon the like conditions, if he could win it.

{11}The challenge presently was accepted by Bonny Mulgro. The next day both the Champions entering the field as before, each discharging their pistol having no Lances, but such martial weapons as the defendant appointed, no hurt was done; their Battle axes was the next, whose piercing bils made sometime the one, sometime the other to have scarce sense to keep their saddles, specially the Christian received such a blow that he lost his Battle axe, and failed not much to have fallen after it, whereat the supposing conquering Turk, had a great shout from the Rampiers. The Turk prosecuted his advantage to the uttermost of his power; yet the other, what by the readiness of his horse, and his judgement and dexterity in such a business, beyond all mens expectation, by Gods assistance, not only avoided the Turk's violence, but having drawn his Falchion, pierced the Turk so under the Culets [armor protecting the buttocks] through back and body, that although he alighted from his horse, he stood not long ere he lost his head, as the rest had done.

{12} This good success gave such great encouragement to the whole army, that with a guard of six thousand, three spare horses, before each a Turk's head upon a Lance, [Smith] was conducted to the General's Pavilion with his presents. [General Mozes Szekely] received both him and them with as much respect as the occasion deserved, embracing him in his arms, gave him a fair horse richly furnished, and a scimitar and belt worth three hundred ducats. . . .

Enslavement by the Turks (1602-1603)
{13}[Later, Smith was part of a "dismal battle."] In this bloody field, near 30,000 lay, some headless, armless and legless, all cut and mangled. . . . But Smith among the slaughtered dead bodies, and many a gasping soul, with toil and wounds lay groaning among the rest, till being found by the Pillagers he was able to live, and perceiving by his armor & habit, his ransom might be better to them, than his death, they led him prisoner with many others; well they used him till his wounds were cured, and at Axopolis they were all sold for slaves, like beasts in a marketplace, where every merchant, viewing their limbs and wounds, caused other slaves to struggle with them, to try their strength. He fell to the share of Bashaw Bogall, who sent him forthwith to Adrinopolis, so for Constantinople to his fair mistress for a slave. By twenty and twenty chained by the necks, they marched in the to this great City, where they were delivered to their several Masters, and he to the young Charatza Tragabigzanda.

[Note that "Charatza Tragabigzanda" is a phrase in the local language, not a name. It means "the girl from Trebizond." In other words, as Smith was trying to communicate with his owners, he could have asked someone "what's that girl's name?"; they might have answered "She's the girl from Trebizond." Some scholars see this as evidence that Smith was accurately reporting what happened to him as he understood it.]

{14}This Noble Gentlewoman took sometime occasion to shew him to some friends, or rather to speak with him, because she could speak Italian, would feign herself sick when she should go to the Banians, or weep over the graves, to know how Bogall took him prisoner; and if he were, as the Bashaw writ to her, a Bohemian Lord conquered by his hand, as he had many others, which ere long he would present her, whose ransoms should adorn her with the glory of his conquests.

{15}But when she heard him protest he knew no such matter, nor ever saw Bogall till he bought him at Axopolis, and that he was an Englishman, only by his adventures made a Captain in those countries. To try the truth, she found means to find out many could speak English, French, Dutch, and Italian, to whom relating most part of these former passages he thought necessary, which they so honestly reported to her, she took (as it seemed) much compassion on him, but having no use for him, lest her mother should sell him, she sent him to her brother, the Tymor Bashaw of Nalbrits, in the country of Cambria, a Province in Tartaria. . . .

{16}To her unkind brother, this kind lady writ so much for his good usage, that he half suspected, as much as she intended; for she told him, he should there but sojourn to learn the language, and what it was to be a Turk, till time made her master of herself. But the Tymor her brother, diverted all this to the worst of cruelty, for within an hour after his arrival, he caused his Drub-man [interpreter] to strip him naked, and shave his head and beard so bare as his hand, a great ring of iron, with a long stalk bowed like a sickle, riveted about his neck. . . . There were many more Christian slaves, and near a hundred Forsades [galley slaves] of Turks and Moors, and he being the last, was slave of slaves to them all. Among these slavish fortunes there was no great choice; for the best was so bad, a dog could hardly have lived to endure, and yet for all their pains and labor, no more regarded than a beast.

{17}All the hope he had ever to be delivered from this thralldom, was only the love of Tragabigzanda, who surely was ignorant of his bad usage; for although he had often debated the matter with some Christians, that had been there a long time slaves, they could not find how to make an escape, by any reason or possibility; but God beyond man's expectation of imagination helpeth his servants, when they least think of help, as it happened to him. So long he lived in this miserable estate, as he became a thresher at a grange in a great field, more than a league from the Tymor's house. The [Tymor] as he oft used to visit his granges, visited him, and took occasion so to beat, spurn, and revile him, that forgetting all reason, [Smith] beat out the Tymor's brains with his threshing bat, for they have no flails. And seeing his estate could be no worse than it was, clothed himself in [the Tymor's] clothes, hid his body under the straw, filled his knapsack with corn, shut the doors, mounted his horse, and ran into the desert at all adventure. Two or three days thus fearfully wandering he knew not wither, and well it was he met not any to ask the way; being even as taking leave of this miserable world, God did direct him to the great way or Castragan, as they call it, which doth cross these large territories. . . .

{18}Sixteen days he traveled in this fear and torment [because he knew he could easily be captured and returned to his owner -- the iron ring he wore was marked with a symbol designating his owner. Finally,] he arrived at Ecopolis, upon the river Don, a garrison for the Muscovites. The governor after due examination of those his hard events, took off his irons, and so kindly used him, he thought himself new risen from death, and the good lady Callamata, largely supplied all his wants. . . .

{19}In Transylvania he found so many goods friends, that but to see, and rejoice himself (after all those encounters) in his native country, he would ever hardly have left them. . . . Being thus glutted with content and near drowned with joy, he [went in search of Prince Sigismundus,] who gave him his pass, intimating the service he had done, and the honors he had received, with fifteen hundred ducats of gold to repair his losses.

[That money allowed him to travel some more through Europe, making tourist stops at various famous places. He had more adventures there and in northern Africa before returning to England.]

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