6 December 2012
An Informative Poem About Early America
“The Sotweed Factor” or “A Voyage to Maryland” is a historical satirical poem. A satire is: “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues” (Oxford English Dictionary). Of course at the time it was written, the poem was addressing contemporary issues; the issues which the poem addresses are no longer contemporary, but it can show a useful perspective on voyaging to America, as it gives a humorous, but still realistic, point of view. This poem retains much of the historical information concerning America, but offers a somewhat humorous account of the history. The rhymed poetic style and humor make it interesting and entertaining which makes the poem read more like fiction than the nonfiction account it really is.
“The Sotweed Factor” or “A Voyage to Maryland” was written by Ebenezer Cooke. Cooke was born in England (Barrett). He lived solely in England until around the age of 27. Cooke’s father had preceded him in coming to America (Richards). His father had purchased land in Maryland, and when Cooke was around 27, his father passed away (Barrett). Upon his death, Cooke’s father left his land in Maryland to his son and daughter who still lived in England (Barrett). When Cooke heard of his inheritance, he went to Maryland to receive it (Barrett). In addition to receiving his inheritance, Cooke was also leaving England to escape some debts that he owed that he didn’t want to have to repay (Richards). Cooke’s plan was to go to the new world and become a tobacco agent (Richards). When he sets out on his journey to Maryland, Cooke is surprised by the many misfortunes that greet him along the way. Cooke is significantly unhappy in Maryland for numerous reasons, and so, he keeps his residence in both England and Maryland, travelling between the two as he pleased (Barrett). As a writer and a man of the law, Cooke used his education to document his voyage in what he thought would be the most effective way. “The Sotweed Factor” is about Cooke’s journey to Maryland and what he finds when he gets there. The poem was originally published in 1708 in England (Barrett). There is still some debate as to whether Cooke wrote the poem after his first trip in 1694, or if he wrote it later, closer to the actual publication date (Richards).
Whether he wrote it after his first voyage or not, from the beginning of “The Sotweed Factor,” it is clear that, in contrast to many voyagers travelling to the New World, Cooke is leaving England unwillingly: “With heavy heart, concern'd that I/ Was forc'd my Native soil to fly” (Cooke 5-6). He doesn’t want to leave, but because he can’t pay his debts, he has to. This is where his unfortunate events begin. After his hesitancy to leave his homeland, Cooke’s outlook doesn’t improve during the voyage: To Mary-Landour ship was bound/Where we arriv'd in dreadful Pain/ Shock'd by the Terrours of the Main/For full three Months, our wavering Boat/Did thro' the surley Ocean float” (Cooke 11-15). This passage from the poem shows the pains of a long journey. Cooke’s voyage had proved as disappointing to him as having to leave England did.
Once Cooke arrived at the new world, he immediately begins making fun of the people there: This is important because it explores the differences in lifestyles and luxuries between England and the New World. Cooke states: “In Shirts and Drawers of Scotch-clothBlue/With neither Stockings, Hat, nor Shooe/These SOTWEED Planters Crowd the Shoar” (Cooke 25-27). The people here look ridiculous to him, because they do not have the nice, luxurious clothing like the people from England are accustomed to. Instead they have had to try to make do with what was available to them. Cooke goes on making fun of the food that they offer him: “In wooden Dishes grac'd the board/ With Homine and Syder-pap, saying that even dogs would be hesitant to eat it. Cooke’s actions and words show that he has no real desire to be in the new world, and also that he wants nothing to do with it. He wants no part of its clothes, food, or anything else it has to offer.
After his initial mocking of the people in the new world, Cooke encounters many hardships that come along with a new, undeveloped territory. This information is also useful in a more complete understanding of the early American colonies because it reveals the culture shock of going from a well-developed, civilized land, to a place that is only beginning to be cultivated. Although Cooke keeps the rhymed poetic form, he manages to tell a complete story of many hardships that he faces in this new place. Upon first arrival, he speaks of not having a place to sleep, and being accused of being an escaped slave (Cooke 83-89). He finds this very insulting and rude. His difficult encounters go on to include other rude behaviors and bad manners. So much so that he believes even the people who were formerly from a civilized country are now closer to the savages in behavior than they are to being proper and civilized (Cooke 695-703).
Cooke’s hardships continue in many other areas. One is dealing with the local wild life. The issue with wildlife in the New World is important because Cooke’s inexperience with wildlife shows how urbanized London was at this time. Since Cooke was from London, he was not accustomed to seeing or hearing wild creatures running around freely. As a result, he finds the encounters with the wild life strange and bothersome. He mentions many unpleasant interactions with the wild life in the new world. One of those encounters is with a pack of wolves who are howling after him, and Cooke is frightened that they will eat him (Cooke 71-74). Another encounter is with a rattlesnake. He hears the rattlesnake hissing nearby and climbs a tree to escape from it (Cooke 21-25). Unfortunately, while he is in the tree escaping the rattlesnake bite, he is forced into another unpleasant wild life encounter with mosquitoes (Cooke 230-232). Cooke also complains about the croaking of the frogs in the new world. He said: “A Noise might move their Wooden King/I stuff'd my ears with Cotten white/ For fear of being deaf out-right” (Cooke 215-217). Obviously this is an example of Cooke’s humor in addition to one of his complaints about the local wildlife, because frogs croaking isn’t likely to make anyone go deaf, but it was an annoyance to him nonetheless.
In addition to these bothersome issues Cooke had with the local wild life, were other grievances he had with the people there. Included in those grievances was theft, as he was a victim of it. Someone stole many of his belongings from him while he slept (Cooke 444-447). In addition to theft, he also was unfortunate enough to encounter a Quaker con-artist. The Quaker refused to pay the debts he owed to Cooke, and at last ran away (Cooke 613-618). When Cooke tried to take the Quaker to court to get what he was owed, the court system also proved unprofitable for Cooke (Cooke 635-655). After this last unfortunate event, Cooke disliked the new world more than ever. These events are important because Cooke was also a thief himself since he was running away from debts he owed in England. The fact that Cooke was frustrated with others committing the same crime that he was guilty of adds even more humor to the poem. By writing a satire, Cooke was trying to point out some of the flaws in the New World that he felt needed to be resolved, but one of the grievances that frustrated him the most was one that he is guilty of himself.
“The Sotweed Factor” is a unique work for several reasons. One reason is, as mentioned above, it is a satire. As a satirical poem, “The Sotweed Factor” is meant to criticize and ridicule the irony of certain issues in a humorous way. This feature makes the poem unique, because a historical satire is less common than other more serious types of literature from the colonial U.S. With Cooke’s first-hand experience, the text shows some of the real hardships and challenges of coming to the new world, but it shows it from a more interesting and entertaining perspective.
Another thing that makes “The Sotweed Factor” unique is its view on religion. Most historical accounts about the founding of America present the pursuit of religious freedom to worship God as they desired as the main purpose of their endeavors. However, Cooke presents a new idea in “The Sotweed Factor.” He compares the acts of the English settlers to the rebellious acts of Cain in the Bible. Cooke suggests that the English settler’s actions against England, their brothers, were no different than Cain’s murderous actions against his brother Abel. An article titled “Ebenezer Cooke” states: “Cooke is using the reference of brother turning against brother to imply that Maryland patriots have turned away from England” (Barrett). This suggestion is a very different view than what most accounts offer. In contrast to their claims to be in search of God’s will, Cooke suggests that by establishing a new colony in competition with England, they are running from God. The reason this viewpoint is different from what most people are accustomed to from early America is because the New England works are more common than the works from Maryland. This alternative view could be valuable in a more complete understanding the settlement of early America.
In addition to the differing views on religion, Cooke also presents many accounts of hardships in early America from a new perspective. This is no longer a man who is trying to see every hardship concerning the new country as a providence of God, but rather an annoying and unnecessary trial. Cooke has no desire to convince anyone that God is responsible for all the bad things that happen to him. In contrast, he thinks all these unfortunate events have been caused by people leaving God’s will in search of new things. Reading this text offers many contrasts to the history of early America. As most works originating from the New England area have the same general ideas and beliefs, including texts from Maryland offers a broader perspective on the colonization of America. These differing opinions can also be important in understanding early America more completely.
Additional information on “Sotweed Factor” and on Ebenezer Cooke, can be found on a few helpful university websites. These websites offer a lot of historical information both on the satire and on the author. The actual poem itself is found on the Early America’s Digital Archive website http://mith.umd.edu/eada/html/display.php?docs=cooke_sotweed.xml&action=show. Other historical information can be found on the poem and author at a few other websites, which are: The University of North Carolina at Pembroke http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/canam/cooke.htm, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (but prepared for Old Dominion University) http://mith.umd.edu//summit/Proceedings/Richards.htm, and Lawyers and Poetry http://myweb.wvnet.edu/~jelkins/lp-2001/cooke.html. This poem is not only interesting, but it is also important in showing new perspectives on early America; which is why it should be included in the canon of American literature.
Barrett, Tammy. Ebenezer Cook[e]. University of North Carolina at Pembroke, 1998. Web. 25 September 2012.
Cooke, Ebenezer. Sotweed Factor; or, a Voyage to Maryland. Early Americas Digital Archive, 1707. Web. 25 September 2012.
“Ebenezer Cooke.” Strangers to us all. Lawyers and Poetry, n.d. Web. 25 September 2012.
Richards, Jeffrey H.. Ibero/Anglo Early American Conference. Old Dominion University. May 2002. Web. 25 September 2012.
“Satire.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 2012. Web.