Sex, Slavery, and the Sea: The Adventures of Alonso (1775)

Daniel G. Payne (SUNY Oneonta)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 43-46).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

In 1775 a novel entitled The Adventures of Alonso: Containing Some Striking Anecdotes of the Present Prime Minister of Portugal was published by J.W. Bew in London. The author of the novel was identified as “a Native of Maryland, some Years resident in Lisbon.” The book received a few notices and reviews but was largely forgotten until 1941, when Robert H. Elias, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, published an article in the prestigious journal American Literature that made a case for the book as the first novel written by an American author — Thomas Atwood Digges of Warburton, Maryland. Subsequent research has substantiated Elias’s argument, however, The Adventures of Alonso remains largely forgotten, despite its likely status as the first American novel — and one that contains some rather spicy topics for its day at that. While there are understandable reasons for the book’s obscurity, largely having to do with its narrative defects, there are aspects of the novel that merit a second look and might well be of interest to modern literary critics and students.

The New York Public Library’s copy of the book (one of the few surviving first editions) that was examined by Elias had an intriguing clue to the book’s authorship — a handwritten notation after the authorial credit “By a Native of Maryland ...” that read “By Mr. Digges of Warburton in Maryland.” Elias’s research revealed that the likely author was Thomas Atwood Digges, basing his conclusion on historical and biographical links between the characters and narrative in the book and Digges’s own life. Prior to Elias’s discovery, the first American novel was widely considered to be The Power of Sympathy (Boston: 1789) by William Hill Brown, a rather dreary sentimental novel written in epistolary form that was, as the book’s preface indicates, “Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life.” If he was correct, Elias wrote, then The Adventures of Alonso was in fact the first novel written by an American although it was not published in the United States but in England.

Nearly thirty years later, Elias (now at Cornell University) working in conjunction with Michael H. Stanton of the University of Vermont found the external evidence that sealed the case for Digges’s authorship of The Adventures of Alonso. While editing Robert Southey’s letters for his doctoral dissertation, Stanton found a reference to Digges in Southey’s letters that corroborated Elias’s theory. In 1774 Southey referred to his mother’s half-sister, Elizabeth Tyler and an American suitor: “[Tyler] gave more encouragement than was prudent to an American Adventurer, who followed her to England. His name was Digges. If I am not mistaken he wrote a sort of novel called the Adventures of Authomathes, in which there is a story of a man endeavouring to smuggle diamonds from the Forbidden District in Brazil, — &I know that he was a mere adventurer, who afterwards acquired some dishonorable notoriety by his political intrigues during the American war” (Elias and Stanton 120).

Prior to the work of Elias and Stanton, where Digges was mentioned at all it was in the context of these “political intrigues” during the American Revolution, i.e., the labors he performed in the late 1770s on behalf of the American colonies then in revolt against England. He had ties to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington (whose estate was across the river from Digges’s Warburton), among other revolutionary war figures, and while in England during the war he offered his services to Franklin and swore allegiance to “the thirteen United States of America” (Elias 424). For a time, at least, Digges was well-regarded by Franklin, providing yeoman’s service to the rebellious colonies by providing for American prisoners held in Britain, helping prisoners to escape whenever possible, planting pro-American articles in the British press, and numerous other services. Unfortunately for Digges, another American sympathizer named William Hodgson raised questions about Digges’s handling of funds remitted to him to be used for the welfare of the American prisoners. Digges was unable to refute the claims, claiming that for reasons of security the papers that would prove his innocence had been hidden at locations distant from him. Many of these papers were later seized by the British government, depriving him of any chance to clear his name. Franklin, now convinced that Digges was a scoundrel, wrote “If such a Fellow is not damn’d, it is not worth while to keep a Devil” (Elias 426).

Digges may well indeed have been a bit of a scoundrel and a rogue, however, he was also a dedicated American patriot and he continued to provide valuable services and further evidence of his allegiance to the new {44} nation, despite a stint in debtor’s prison in Ireland that further tarnished his reputation. Digges at last returned to Maryland in 1799 (ten years after Franklin’s death), his reputation apparently restored, for he maintained friendships with many of the leading citizens of the new nation, including Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison.

Because The Adventures of Alonso is so little known, I will give more plot summary here than I normally would. Alonso is the only son of Señor Alvares, a wealthy Portuguese merchant situated in one of the principal seaside towns of that country. Alvares also has three daughters, and decides that the family would be best served by bringing up his son as a merchant like himself. Since Alvares’s connections in trade are primarily with the English, he sends his son to school in England when Alonso reaches the age of fifteen. After five years, his education completed, Alonso returns to Portugal to begin his career in business.

Fate intervenes, however, and Alvares’s plans for his son’s future are dashed when Alonso is introduced to a friend of his eldest sister. The friend, Donna Eugenia de Miranda, is “a person of great beauty,” and — unfortunately for the two young lovers — married to Don Pedro, a much older, politically powerful, and jealous man. Alonso persuades Eugenia to abandon her husband and run away with him. Before leaving, however, Alonso raises a considerable sum of money on his father’s credit and Eugenia takes with her all of her jewels and trinkets of value. They stay briefly in Portugal, where Eugenia disguises herself as a young man; the two lovers then flee to Spain, where they hope they will be beyond the reach of the furious Don Pedro. When they get to Madrid they are stunned to find that Don Pedro is now in Spain, and is in command of a regiment of soldiers. They hastily flee Madrid and when they arrive in Marseilles they are now nearly penniless, but Alonso learns that an old schoolmate of his from England named Pacheco is now a wealthy merchant in Cadiz, so he and Eugenia (still disguised as a man) board a ship bound for that city.

Pacheco warmly greets his old friend Alonso upon his arrival in Cadiz, and brings Alonso up to date on what has transpired at home during his absence. While Alonso has been away, his mother has died and his father has angrily disowned him. Alonso decides to return to Portugal while Eugenia remains safely ensconced in a convent; from there he plans to sail to the New World to seek his fortune. While on board ship a friendly acquaintance suggests that he travel to the Portuguese colony in South America (Brazil) where fortunes are being made in the gold mines of the “forbidden district.” Upon arriving in Brazil Alonso soon finds employment as an overseer in the royal diamond mines. In the mining operations, all large diamonds belong to the crown and the smaller ones belong to the company that holds the mining contract from the crown. All the mineworkers (most of which are African slaves) are carefully observed by the officers of the king and those of the contractor to make sure none of the diamonds are misappropriated, but a Negro slave who has successfully smuggled out three large diamonds sells them to Alonso for a small quantity of gold dust. The diamonds are worth a fortune, so Alonso leaves the mining district, concealing them in a hollowed-out walking stick. When he reaches the capital, however, seeking transport home, a Portuguese officer searches Alonso and the diamonds are discovered. Alonso is thrown in prison, but instead of turning them in, the officer absconds with the diamonds. Without any evidence of his crime, Alonso is eventually released. Penniless again, Alonso works for a time on an English trading vessel plying the West Indies — and is making a very good living as a merchant/smuggler until their ship is spotted by a Spanish warship. After a furious battle at sea, Alonso and his mates scuttle their ship and flee into the Central American wilderness, where they finally succeed in working their way to Panama. Alonso boards a ship to Cadiz, but bad luck strikes again when they are attacked by a Moorish ship; after a desperate defense, Alonso (who is wounded in the battle) and the rest of the passengers and crew are captured and sold into slavery in Barbary on the north coast of Africa.

Alonso is sold to Aldalid, a wealthy man who “was one of those characters which are to be met with in that country, who, being palled with the enjoyment of women, sought for pleasure in the abandoned prostitution of his own sex” (77). Alonso resists the amorous advances of Aldalid, threatening his master with violence if he persists. The enraged Aldalid has Alonso seized and brought to be tried before the Cadi, but — in a rather improbable plot twist — he is rescued from certain death by the very same officer who had stolen his diamonds in Brazil. The officer greets Alonso affectionately (if not quite as affectionately as Aldalid) and his testimony regarding Aldalid’s sexual advances, which the Muslim judges find abhorrent, results in Alonso’s acquittal. The officer then assists in Alonso’s return to Portugal, where he arrives to find that after his long absence, Eugenia’s husband, Don Pedro has died — but alas, poor Eugenia (for while staying with the sisters of the convent she has experienced an attack of religiously-induced induced guilt and chastity) has also died. Alonso’s father, however, forgives his prodigal son, and Alonso is welcomed back to the family and inherits his father’s great wealth upon his passing — thereby, presumably giving us a happy ending, as {45} Alonso is now a man of great wealth who has eluded not only slavery and social disgrace but the restrictive embrace of marriage as well.

When The Adventures of Alonso was published in 1775, the biggest question raised by the reviews seems to have been whether it was fact or fiction. The reviewers who actually attempted to critique the book often pointed out the dullness of the “striking anecdotes” regarding the prime minister of Portugal, and the Monthly Review called the lengthy political discursions (most of which transpire while Alonso is on board ship) to be “dull and tedious ... [the book] will be read without emotion and forgotten as soon as it is laid aside” (cited in Elias, 430). In a nutshell this statement conveys why the book sank into obscurity shortly after publication and remained there undisturbed at the bottom of the literary deeps until Elias refloated it in 1941. To be as succinct as possible, the book is simply not very good. The political discussions that Alonso has with his companions on board ship are long, dull, and even to Digges’s contemporary readers seemed gratuitous, as the administration of Pombal, the Prime Minister of Portugal, was not a particularly compelling topic for British or American readers. As Elias points out, the novel was translated into German in 1787 under the title Alonzo’s Abenteur, and on the basis of one surviving review, which proclaimed “Welch ein Nonsense!” [what nonsense is this!”], was not received with any more enthusiasm in Germany. “Nonetheless,” says Elias, “Adventures of Alonso was apparently the first novel by a citizen of the United States, and, not only that, it was the first American novel to be translated. In terms of priority, its value can scarcely be denied” (Elias 434).

So — other than the fact that it may well be the first American novel, is The Adventures of Alonso noteworthy? One scholar exploring American Hispanism in the 1950s thought so, mentioning, albeit briefly, the novel in a pair of articles appearing in Hispania, a refereed journal published by the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. In “The Beginning of American Hispanism, 1770-1830” (1954), Frederick S. Stimson argues that the Hispanic influence on North American literature had long been underappreciated, and he pointed to The Adventures of Alonso as one of the few cases in early American literature where the “local color” of Latin America was used effectively, because Digges was one of the few writers who actually had firsthand knowledge of the region (484). As something of an aside, Stimson cites a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his nephew in 1787 where Jefferson advised him to study Spanish: “Bestow great attention on this, and endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain and Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition” (487). It is entirely possible that Jefferson’s acquaintance with Digges contributed to what has proven to be a prescient observation.

In 1957 Stimson published another article on American Hispanism entitled “Spanish Inspiration in the First American Adventure Stories’ that also appeared in Hispania. Stimson once again noted Digges’s use of “unusually accurate local color” in The Adventures of Alonso, attributing this to the fact that Digges spent many years in Spain and Portugal (66). In his conclusion to the article, Stimson writes:

Today the majority of North America’s first adventure novels seem of questionable literary value, of very slightly more than soap opera quality, but they undoubtedly reveal the tastes and interests of the period and should be judged accordingly. As one authority has observed: “If a literature is the expression of the mind and emotions of a community, a record of its ideas, our definition of literary value must be broad enough to include not only artistic masterpieces but other documents which show what we as a people have and have not thought” (68).

While few modern scholars other than Elias, Stanton, and Stimson have examined The Adventures of Alonso in the fifty years since its literary exhumation, Stimson’s comment regarding the value of early literary works shedding light on the “tastes and interests of the period” seems pertinent to the potential value of reexamining Digges’s novel, so in conclusion I would like to just lightly touch upon some of the possible value of The Adventures of Alonso in this respect. First, given contemporary interest in sexual mores, gender identification, etc. the novel has a number of intriguing aspects, including the marital infidelity of Eugenia, her cross-dressing in an attempt to escape detection when she and Alonso flee Portugal, and Aldalid’s same sex attraction to Alonso. Second, the differences between the European Alonso and his Muslim “hosts” when he is sold into slavery offer a third, Islamic, side to the Protestant/Catholic divide touched on in this novel. As it is, The Adventures of Alonso is one of only a very few early American novels to feature a Roman Catholic character. There is also an intriguing cultural dimension in the mining operations of the Brazilian “Forbidden District” where African slavery is utilized and the irony of Alonso, a well-born European, being himself captured and sold into slavery in North Africa. Digges does not examine this irony fully, but it is there nonetheless. Finally, the novel is relevant to this conference’s topic — literature of the sea. There is no doubt that Cooper’s sea novels are better, and those of Melville are much better — still, The Adventures of Alonso is an early {46} example of seafaring literature and for that reason if nothing else it is noteworthy — in terms of literary aesthetics, perhaps, only footnoteworthy, but a strangely entertaining footnote nonetheless.

Works Cited

  • Brown, William Hill. The Power of Sympathy. Boston: Isaiah Thomas, 1789.
  • Digges, Thomas Attwood. The Adventures of Alonso: Containing Some Striking Anecdotes of the Present Prime Minister of Portugal . London: J.W. Bew, 1775. Reprint: New York: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1943.
  • Digges, Thomas Attwood. Letters of Thomas Attwood Digges (1742-1821). Robert H. Elias and Eugene D. Finch, eds. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1982.
  • Elias, Robert H. “The First American Novel.” American Literature Vol. 12 No 4 (January 1941) 419-434.
  • Stimson, Frederick S. “The Beginning of American Hispanism, 1770-1830” Hispania, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Dec. 1954) 482-489.
  • Stimson, Frederick S. “Spanish Inspiration in the First American Adventure Stories.” Hispania, Vol. 40, No. 1 (March 1957) 66-69.