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British curator uncovers rape confession -- 300 years on
Illustrations in Edward Barlow's Journal. p.71. © National Maritime Museum, London.

LONDON.- A British curator has uncovered explicit evidence of a rape confessed to and then covered up in the journal of a British sailor from the 17th century.

Edward Barlow's name means little to most people but a great deal to scholars who try to picture the lives of ordinary seamen behind Britain's emergence as a maritime power.

Farmer's son Barlow spent nine years chronicling his adventures and quest to rise through the ranks to captain his own ship.

He began writing while captive in the Dutch East Indies in 1671 and his journal originally included a remarkable moment of candour discovered by a curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Barlow had a sexual encounter with a servant named Mary Symons that he admitted was "much against her will".

"Indeed she was asleep but being gotten into the bed I could not easily be persuaded out again, and I confess that I did more than what was lawful or civil," he wrote.

But Barlow was apparently tormented by what he had done.

He returned from one of his voyages to find Symons "weeping most pitifully and saying she was undone".

Barlow then married her -- and looked again at what he wrote.

Senior museum curator Roberth Blyth said it appeared that Barlow later decided to rewrite the passage on a separate sheet that he pasted over the original script.

He did it so masterfully that it fooled generations of historians who studied his work to understand the experience of lower-class sailors.

Barlow's new account only noted mysteriously that he married the servant "having had a little more than ordinary familiarity with her".

What caused Barlow's change of heart or prompted the original admission is a mystery that holds a tantalising clue about the social mores of the time.

"I think morally, if you wanted a religious viewpoint on it, rape would have been deemed unacceptable," Blyth told AFP.

"In terms of day to day life, I think it would be surprisingly common."

Barlow's demons did not keep him from creating a journal that shapes what historians know about how sailors lived at home and at sea.

His life ended at sea when a ship he ultimately captained got wrecked in 1706.

© Agence France-Presse

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