Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Drury, Robert (fl.1729)

DRURY, ROBERT (fl. 1729), traveller, born in London 24 July 1687, was the son of a tavern-keeper, ‘well known and esteemed for keeping that noted house called “The King's Head,” or otherwise distinguished by the name of the “Beef Stake House.”’ ‘Notwithstanding all the education my father bestowed on me, I could not be brought to think of any art, science, trade, business, or profession of any kind whatsoever, but going to sea.’ His father at last consented to let him undertake an East India voyage, and on 19 Feb. 1701 Drury embarked for Bengal in the Degrave Indiaman. The outward voyage was uneventful, but in setting out on her return the vessel ran aground in the river, and upon getting to sea was found to have sprung a leak, which increased to such an extent that it was necessary to run her ashore off the coast of Androy (called by Drury Anterndrœa), the most southern province of Madagascar. The majority of the crew got safe to land, and were at first kindly treated by the native chief, who was highly gratified at the advent of so many white men, whom he expected to be of service to him in his wars. The Englishmen naturally objected, and conceived and executed a plan for seizing the chief's person, and detaining him as a hostage until they should have reached the territory of another petty prince, who was understood to be friendly to white men. The undertaking, ably conceived, was miserably carried out; the Englishmen, continually pursued and harassed, were enticed into surrendering their captive, and having thus parted with their only security were eventually massacred by the natives upon the very border of the friendly territory. Two or three boys were alone spared, of whom Drury was one. He was assigned as a slave to the most barbarous of the nobles of the district, and for some time underwent great hardship, and was in frequent danger of life and limb from his master's brutality. Gradually his condition improved, he obtained a cottage and plot of ground, married a native wife, took part in the civil broils of the inhabitants, and at length found means to escape to a neighbouring chieftain, who protected him. His purpose was to go still further northward to the province which he calls Feraingher (Firenana), beyond the great river Oneghaloye, which he understood to be frequently visited by European ships. He succeeded in escaping, and made his way through a vast uninhabited forest, subsisting on roots and honey and the wild cattle he killed by the way, and crossing the Oneghaloye by help of a float, in great danger from alligators. He found that ships had ceased to visit Feraingher, which was ruined by war, and owed his deliverance to what seemed at first a most untoward event, his capture by the invading and plundering Sakalavas, at this day, next to the Hovas, the leading people in Madagascar. After some cruel disappointments in endeavours to communicate with his countrymen, who occasionally visited the coast, he contrived to convey news of his existence and his condition to his father, who commissioned a ship's captain to ransom him, and he was eventually permitted to depart, after fifteen years' residence on the island.

It is painful, though only what might be expected, to learn that Drury returned to Madagascar in the character of a slave trader, buying slaves to sell again in the Virginia plantations. He appears, however, to have made but one voyage. He afterwards became porter at the India House, and is related by Mr. Duncombe to have had a house in or near Lincoln's Inn Fields, and to have diverted visitors by exhibiting the Madagascar method of hurling javelins in the then unenclosed space. The time of his death is unknown. He died after 1729, when his travels were first published, and before 1743, when in a second edition of his book he was stated to be dead.

Drury's narrative, published in 1729, stands in the very first rank of books of travel and adventure. He had the good fortune to fall in with a most able editor whose identity has never transpired, but who has been conjectured to be Defoe. His theological views, however, are unlike Defoe's, and he implies, with whatever truth, that he has been on the coast of Guinea. Whoever he was, he was content merely to abridge Drury's artless story and fit it for general reading. Either he or Drury, or both, possessed an eminent dramatic faculty, and great power of bringing scenes and persons vividly before the eye. Drury's religious controversies with the natives are most humorously recounted, and the characters of the various petty chiefs and their wars are a better illustration of a Homeric state of society than most commentaries on the ‘Iliad.’ The editor betrays a certain bias in one respect; he is evidently a believer in natural religion, as distinguished from revelation, and he involuntarily represents the people of Madagascar as more pious, moral, and innocent than is quite consistent with fact, superior as they really are to most uncivilised nations. In every other point the truth of Drury's narrative has been entirely corroborated, so far as the case admits, by the knowledge since acquired of other parts of the island. The wild and remote district where his lot was cast has hardly been visited since his time, and will be the last portion of Madagascar to be explored.

Later editions of Drury's travels appeared in 1743, 1808, and 1826, the last being vol. v. of the series of autobiographies published by Hunt & Clarke.

[Drury's Madagascar, or Journal during Fifteen Years' Captivity on that Island.]

R. G.