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Nathaniel Bishop
Voyage of the Paper Canoe

Voyage of the Paper Canoe
Nathaniel Bishop

Nathaniel H. Bishop

Voyage of the Paper Canoe / A Geographical Journey of 2500 miles, from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, during the years 1874-5


The author left Quebec, Dominion of Canada, July 4, 1874, with a single assistant, in a wooden canoe eighteen feet in length, bound for the Gulf of Mexico. It was his intention to follow the natural and artificial connecting watercourses of the continent in the most direct line southward to the gulf coast of Florida, making portages as seldom as possible, to show how few were the interruptions to a continuous water-way for vessels of light draught, from the chilly, foggy, and rocky regions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the north, to the semi-tropical waters of the great Southern Sea, the waves of which beat upon the sandy shores of the southernmost United States. Having proceeded about four hundred miles upon his voyage, the author reached Troy, on the Hudson River, New York state, where for several years E. Waters & Sons had been perfecting the construction of paper boats.

The advantages in using a boat of only fifty-eight pounds weight, the strength and durability of which had been well and satisfactorily tested, could not be questioned, and the author dismissed his assistant, and "paddled his own canoe" about two thousand miles to the end of the journey. Though frequently lost in the labyrinth of creeks and marshes which skirt the southern coast of his country, the author's difficulties were greatly lessened by the use of the valuable and elaborate charts of the United States Coast Survey Bureau, to the faithful executers of which he desires to give unqualified and grateful praise.

To an unknown wanderer among the creeks, rivers, and sounds of the coast, the courteous treatment of the Southern people was most gratifying. The author can only add to this expression an extract from his reply to the address of the Mayor of St. Mary's, Georgia, which city honored him with an ovation and presentation of flags after the completion of his voyage:

"Since my little paper canoe entered southern waters upon her geographical errand, – from the capes of the Delaware to your beautiful St. Mary's, – I have been deeply sensible of the value of Southern hospitality. The oystermen and fishermen living along the lonely beaches of the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia; the surfmen and light-house keepers of Albemarle, Pamplico, and Core sounds, in North Carolina; the ground-nut planters who inhabit the uplands that skirt the network of creeks, marshes, ponds, and sounds from Bogue Inlet to Cape Fear; the piny-woods people, lumbermen, and turpentine distillers on the little bluffs that jut into the fastnesses of the great swamps of the crooked Waccamaw River; the representatives of the once powerful rice-planting aristocracy of the Santee and Peedee rivers; the colored men of the beautiful sea-islands along the coast of Georgia; the Floridians living between the St. Mary's River and the Suwanee – the wild river of song; the islanders on the Gulf of Mexico where I terminated my long journey; – all have contributed to make the 'Voyage of the Paper Canoe' a success."

After returning from this paper-canoe voyage, the author embarked alone, December 2, 1875, in a cedar duck-boat twelve feet in length, from the head of the Ohio River, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and followed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers over two thousand miles to New Orleans, where he made a portage through that city eastwardly to Lake Pontchartrain, and rowed along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico six or seven hundred miles, to Cedar Keys, Florida, the terminus of his paper-canoe voyage.

While on these two voyages, the author rowed over five thousand miles, meeting with but one accident, the overturning of his canoe in Delaware Bay. He returned to his home with his boats in good condition, and his note-books, charts, &c., in an excellent state of preservation.

At the request of the "Board on behalf of the United States Executive Department" of the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, the paper canoe "Maria Theresa," and the cedar duck-boat "Centennial Republic," were deposited in the Smithsonian Department of the United States Government building, during the summer and fall of 1876.

The maps, which show the route followed by the paper canoe, have been drawn and engraved by contract at the United States Coast Survey Bureau, and are on a scale of 1/1.500,000. As the work is based on the results of actual surveys, these maps may be considered, for their size, the most complete of the United States coast ever presented to the public.

Much credit is due to Messrs. Waud and Merrill for the artistic results of their pencils, and to Messrs. John Andrew & Son for their skill in engraving the illustrations.

To the readers of the author's first book of travels, "The Pampas and Andes: a Thousand Miles' Walk across South America," which journey was undertaken when he was but seventeen years of age, the writer would say that their many kind and appreciative letters have prompted him to send forth this second book of travels – the "Voyage of the Paper Canoe."

    Lake George, Warren County, N. Y.,
    January 1, 1878.




WHILE on his passage to the ports of the St. Lawrence River, the mariner first sights the little island of St. Paul, situated in the waste of waters between Cape Ray, the southwestern point of Newfoundland on the north, and Cape North, the northeastern projection of Cape Breton Island on the south. Across this entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence from cape to cape is a distance of fifty-four nautical miles; and about twelve miles east-northeast from Cape North the island of St. Paul, with its three hills and two light-towers, rises from the sea with deep waters on every side.

This wide inlet into the gulf may be called the middle portal, for at the northern end of Newfoundland, between the great island and the coast of Labrador, another entrance exists, which is known as the Straits of Belle Isle, and is sometimes called "the shorter passage from England." Still to the south of the middle entrance is another and a very narrow one, known as the Gut of Canso, which separates the island of Cape Breton from Nova Scotia. Through this contracted thoroughfare the tides run with great force.

One hundred years ago, as the seaman approached the dangerous entrance of St. Paul, now brightened at night by its light-towers, his heart was cheered by the sight of immense flocks of a peculiar sea-fowl, now extinct. When he saw upon the water the Great Auk (Alca impennis), which he ignorantly called "a pengwin," he knew that land was near at hand, for while he met other species far out upon the broad Atlantic, the Great Auk, his "pengwin," kept near the coast. Not only was this now extinct bird his indicator of proximity to the land, but so strange were its habits, and so innocent was its nature, that it permitted itself to be captured by boat-loads; and thus were the ships re-victualled at little cost or trouble. Without any market-value a century ago, the Great Auk now, as a stuffed skin, represents a value of fifteen hundred dollars in gold. There are but seventy-two specimens of this bird in the museums of Europe and America, besides a few skeletons, and sixty-five of its eggs. It was called in ancient days Gare-fowl, and was the Geirfugl of the Icelander.

Captain Whitbourne, who wrote in the reign of James the First, quaintly said: "These Pengwins are as bigge as Geese, and flye not, for they have but a little short wing, and they multiply so infinitely upon a certain flat island that men drive them from thence upon a board into their boats by hundreds at a time, as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an admerable instrument for the sustenation of man."

In a copy of the English Pilot, "fourth book," published in 1761, which I presented to the library of the United States Coast Survey, is found this early description of this now extinct American bird: "They never go beyond the bank [Newfoundland] as others do, for they are always on it, or in it, several of them together, sometimes more but never less than two together. They are large fowls, about the size of a goose, a coal-black head and back, with a white belly and a milk-white spot under one of their eyes, which nature has ordered to be under their right eye."

Thus has the greed of the sailor and pot-hunter swept from the face of the earth an old pilot – a trusty aid to navigation. Now the light-house, the fog-gun, and the improved chart have taken the place of the extinct auk as aids to navigation, and the sailor of to-day sees the bright flashes of St. Paul's lights when nearly twenty miles at sea. Having passed the little isle, the ship enters the great Gulf of St. Lawrence, and passes the Magdalen Islands, shaping its course as wind and weather permit towards the dreaded, rocky coast of Anticosti. From the entrance of the gulf to the island of Anticosti the course to be followed is northwesterly about one hundred and thirty-five nautical miles. The island which divides an upper arm of the gulf into two wide channels is one hundred and twenty-three miles long, and from ten to thirty miles wide. Across the entrance of this great arm, or estuary, from the high cape of Gaspé on the southern shore of the mainland to Anticosti in the narrowest place, is a distance of about forty miles, and is called the South Channel. From the north side of the island and near its west end to the coast of Labrador the North Channel is fifteen miles wide. The passage from St. Paul to Anticosti is at times dangerous. Here is an area of strong currents, tempestuous winds, and dense fogs. When the wind is fair for an upward run, it is the wind which usually brings misty weather. Then, from the icy regions of the Arctic circle, from the Land of Desolation, come floating through the Straits of Belle Isle the dangerous bergs and ice-fields. Early in the spring these ice rafts are covered with colonies of seals which resort to them for the purpose of giving birth to their young. On these icy cradles, rocked by the restless waves, tens of thousands of young seals are nursed for a few days; then, answering the loud calls of their mothers, they accompany them into the briny deep, there to follow the promptings of their instincts. The loud roarings of the old seals on these ice rafts can be heard in a quiet night for several miles, and strike terror into the heart of the superstitious sailor who is ignorant of the origin of the tumult.

Frequently dense fogs cover the water, and while slowly moving along, guided only by the needle, a warning sound alarms the watchful master. Through the heavy mists comes the roar of breaking waters. He listens. The dull, swashy noise of waves meeting with resistance is now plainly heard. The atmosphere becomes suddenly chilled: it is the breath of the iceberg!

Then the shrill cry of "All hands on deck!" startles the watch below from the bunks. Anxiously now does the whole ship's company lean upon the weather-rail and peer out into the thick air with an earnestness born of terror. "Surely," says the master to his mate, "I am past the Magdalens, and still far from Anticosti, yet we have breakers; which way can we turn?" The riddle solves itself, for out of the gloom come whitened walls, beautiful but terrible to behold.

Those terror-stricken sailors watch the slowly moving berg as it drifts past their vessel, fearing that their own ship will be drawn towards it from the peculiar power of attraction they believe the iceberg to possess. And as they watch, against the icy base of the mountain in the sea the waves beat and break as if expending their forces upon a rocky shore. Down the furrowed sides of the disintegrating berg streamlets trickle, and miniature cascades leap, mingling their waters with the briny sea. The intruder slowly drifts out of sight, disappearing in the gloom, while the sailor thanks his lucky stars that he has rid himself of another danger. The ill-omened Anticosti, the graveyard of many seamen, is yet to be passed. The ship skirts along its southern shore, a coast destitute of bays or harbors of any kind, rock-bound and inhospitable.

Wrecks of vessels strew the rocky shores, and four light-houses warn the mariner of danger. Once past the island the ship is well within the estuary of the gulf into which the St. Lawrence River flows, contributing the waters of the great lakes of the continent to the sea. As the north coast is approached the superstitious sailor is again alarmed if, perchance, the compass-needle shows sympathy with some disturbing element, the cause of which he believes to exist in the mountains which rise along the shore. He repeats the stories of ancient skippers, of vessels having been lured out of their course by the deviation of the guiding-needle, which succumbed to the potent influence exerted in those hills of iron ore; heeding not the fact that the disturbing agent is the iron on board of his own ship, and not the magnetic oxide of the distant mines.

The ship being now within the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, must encounter many risks before she reaches the true mouth of the river, at the Bic Islands.

The shores along this arm of the gulf are wild and sombre. Rocky precipices frown upon the swift tidal current that rushes past their bases. A few small settlements of fishermen and pilots, like Metis, Father Point, and Rimousky, are discovered at long intervals along the coast.

In these St. Lawrence hamlets, and throughout Lower Canada, a patois is spoken which is unintelligible to the Londoner or Parisian; and these villagers, the descendants of the French colonists, may be said to be a people destitute of a written language, and strangers to a literature.

While holding a commission from Francis the First, king of France, Jacques Cartier discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, during his first voyage of exploration in the new world. He entered the gulf on St. Lawrence's day, in the spring of 1534, and named it in honor of the event. Cartier explored no farther to the west than about the mouth of the estuary which is divided by the island of Anticosti. It was during his second voyage, in the following year, that he discovered and explored the great river. Of the desolate shores of Labrador, on the north coast, he said, "It might as well as not be taken for the country assigned by God to Cain."

The distance from Quebec to Cape Gaspé, measured upon a course which a steamer would be compelled to take, is four hundred and seven statute miles. The ship first enters the current of the river St. Lawrence at the two Bic Islands, where it has a width of about twenty miles. By consulting most maps the reader will find that geographers carry the river nearly two hundred miles beyond its usual current. In fact, they appropriate the whole estuary, which, in places, is nearly one hundred miles in width, and call it a river – a river which lacks the characteristics of a river, the currents of which vary with the winds and tidal influences, and the waters of which are as salt as those of the briny deep.

Here, in the mouth of the river, at the Bics, secure anchorage for vessels may be found; but below, in the estuary, for a distance of more than two hundred and forty-five miles, to Gaspé, there is but one port of refuge, that of Seven Islands, on the north coast.

As the ship ascends the river from Bic Islands, a passage of about one hundred and sixty statute miles to Quebec, she struggles against a strong current. Picturesque islands and little villages, such as St. André, St. Anne, St. Rogue, St. Jean, and St. Thomas, relieve the monotony. But very different is the winter aspect of this river, when closed to navigation by ice from November until spring. Of the many tributaries which give strength to the current of the St. Lawrence and contribute to its glory, the Saguenay River with its remarkable scenery is counted one of the wonders of our continent. It joins the great river from the north shore, about one hundred and thirty-four statute miles below Quebec. Upon the left bank, at its mouth, nestles the little village of Tadousac, the summer retreat of the governor-general of the Dominion of Canada.

American history claims for the Roman Catholic church of this settlement an age second only to that of the old Spanish cathedral at St. Augustine, Florida. For three hundred years the storms of winter have beaten upon its walls, but it stands a silent yet eloquent monument of the pious zeal of the ancient Fathers, who came to conquer Satan in the wilderness of a new world. The Saguenay has become the "Mecca" of northern tourists, ever attracting them with its wild and fascinating scenery. Capes Eternity and Trinity guard the entrance to Eternity Bay. The first towers sublimely to a height of eighteen hundred feet, the other is only a little lower. A visit to this mysterious river, with its deep, dark waters and picturesque views, will repay the traveller for the discomforts of a long and expensive journey.

Where the turbulent current of the Saguenay mingles angrily with that of the St. Lawrence, there may be seen disporting in the waves the white whale of aquariums, which is not a whale at all, but a true porpoise (Delphinopterus catodon, as he is now called by naturalists), having teeth in the jaws, and being destitute of the fringed bone of the whalebone whales. This interesting creature is very abundant in the Arctic Ocean on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides, and has its southern limits in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, although one is occasionally seen in the Bay of Fundy, and it is reported to have been observed about Cape Cod, on the Massachusetts coast.

As the ship nears the first great port of the St. Lawrence River, the large and well cultivated island of Orleans is passed, and the bold fortifications of Quebec, high up on the face of Point Diamond, and flanked by the houses of the French city, break upon the vision of the mariner. To the right, and below the city, which Champlain founded, and in which his unknown ashes repose, are the beautiful Falls of Montmorency, gleaming in all the whiteness of their falling waters and mists, like the bridal veil of a giantess. The vessel has safely made her passage, and now comes to anchor in the Basin of Quebec. The sails are furled, and the heart of the sailor is merry, for the many dangers which beset the ship while approaching and entering the great water-way of the continent are now over.




THE canoe traveller can ascend the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario, avoiding the rapids and shoals by making use of seven canals of a total length of forty-seven miles. He may then skirt the shores of Lake Ontario, and enter Lake Erie by the canal which passes around the celebrated Falls of Niagara. From the last great inland sea he can visit lakes Huron, Michigan, and, with the assistance of a short canal, the grandest of all, Superior. When he has reached the town of Duluth, at the southwestern end of Superior, which is the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, our traveller will have paddled (following the contours of the land) over two thousand miles from salt water into the American continent without having been compelled to make a portage with his little craft. Let him now make his first portage westward, over the railroad one hundred and fifteen miles from Duluth, to the crossing of the Mississippi River at Brainerd, and launch his boat on the Father of Waters, which he may descend with but few interruptions to below the Falls of St. Anthony, at Minneapolis; or, if he will take his boat by rail from Duluth, one hundred and fifty-five miles, to St. Paul, he can launch his canoe, and follow the steamboat to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the longest, and may be called the canoeist's western route to the great Southern Sea. In St. Louis County, Minnesota, the water from "Seven Beaver Lakes" flows south-southwest, and joins the Flood-Wood River; there taking an easterly course towards Duluth, it empties into Lake Superior. This is the St. Louis River, the first tributary of the mighty St. Lawrence system. From the head waters of the St. Louis to the mouth of the St. Lawrence at Bic Islands, where it enters the great estuary, the length of this great water system, including the great Lakes, is about two thousand miles. The area thus drained by the St. Lawrence River is nearly six millions of square miles. The largest craft can ascend it to Quebec, and smaller ones to Montreal; above which city, navigation being impeded by rapids, the seven canals before mentioned have been constructed that vessels may avoid this danger while voyaging to Lake Ontario.

The southern and shorter coast route to the gulf leaves the great river at the Acadian town of Sorel, where the quiet Richelieu flows into the St. Lawrence River. Of the two long routes offered me I selected the southern, leaving the other to be traversed at some future time. To follow the contours of rivers, bays, and sounds, a voyage of at least twenty-five hundred miles was before me. It was my intention to explore the connecting watercourses southward, without making a single portage, as far as Cape Henlopen, a sandy headland at the entrance of Delaware Bay; there, by making short portages from one watercourse to another, to navigate along the interior of the Atlantic coast to the St. Mary's River, which is a dividing line between Georgia and Florida. From the Atlantic coast of southern Georgia, I proposed to cross the peninsula of Florida by way of the St. Mary's River, to Okefenokee Swamp; thence, by portage, to the Suwanee River, and by descending that stream (the boundary line of a geographical division – eastern and middle Florida), to reach the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which was to be the terminal point of my canoe journey. Charts, maps, and sea-faring men had informed me that about twenty-three hundred miles of the trip could be made upon land-locked waters, but about two hundred miles of voyaging must be done upon the open Atlantic Ocean.

As I now write, I smilingly remember how erroneous were my advisers; for, while prosecuting my voyage, I was but once upon the open sea, and then through mistake and for only a few minutes. Had I then known that I could have followed the whole route in a small boat upon strictly interior waters, I should have paddled from the Basin of Quebec in the light paper canoe which I afterwards adopted at Troy, and which carried me alone in safety two thousand miles to the warm regions of the Gulf of Mexico. The counsels of old seamen had influenced me to adopt a large wooden clinker-built, decked canoe, eighteen feet long, forty-five inches beam, and twenty-four inches depth of hold, which weighed, with oars, rudder, mast and sail, above three hundred pounds. The Mayeta was built by an excellent workman, Mr. J. S. Lamson, at Bordentown, New Jersey. The boat was sharp at each end, and the lines from amidships to stem, and from amidships to sternpost, were alike. She possessed that essential characteristic of seaworthiness, abundant sheer. The deck was pierced for a cockpit in the centre, which was six feet long and surrounded by a high combing to keep out water. The builder had done his best to make the Mayeta serve for rowing and sailing – a most difficult combination, and one not usually successful.

On the morning of July 4, 1874, I entered the Basin of Quebec with my wooden canoe and my waterman, one David Bodfish, a "shoreman" of New Jersey. After weeks of preparation and weary travel by rail and by water, we had steamed up the Gulf and the River of St. Lawrence to this our most northern point of departure. We viewed the frowning heights upon which was perched the city of Quebec with unalloyed pleasure, and eagerly scrambled up the high banks to see the interesting old city. The tide, which rises at the city piers eighteen feet in the spring, during the neaps reaches only thirteen feet. Late in the afternoon the incoming tide promised to assist us in ascending the river, the downward current of which runs with torrent-like velocity, and with a depth abreast the city of from sixteen to twenty fathoms. Against this current powerful steamers run one hundred and eighty miles up the river to Montreal in eighteen hours, and descend in fourteen hours, including two hours' stoppages at Sorel and Three Rivers. At six o'clock p. m. we pushed off into the river, which is about two-thirds of a mile wide at this point, and commenced our voyage; but fierce gusts of wind arose and drove us to the shelter of Mr. Hamilton's lumber-yard on the opposite shore, where we passed the night, sleeping comfortably upon cushions which we spread on the narrow floor of the boat. Sunday was to be spent in camp; but when dawn appeared we were not allowed to build a fire on the lumber pier, and were forced to ascend the St. Lawrence in quest of a retired spot above the landing of St. Croix, on the right bank of the river. The tide had been a high one when we beached our boat at the foot of a bluff. Two hours later the receding tide left us a quarter of a mile from the current. The river was fully two miles wide at this point, and so powerful was its current that steamers anchored in it were obliged to keep their wheels slowly revolving to ease the strain on their anchors. Early on Monday morning we beheld with consternation that the tide did not reach our boat, and by dint of hard labor we constructed a railroad from a neighboring fence, and moved the Mayeta on rollers upon it over the mud and the projecting reef of rocks some five hundred feet to the water, then embarking, rowed close along the shore to avoid the current. A deep fog settled down upon us, and we were driven to camp again on the left bank, where a cataract tumbled over the rocks fifty or more feet. Tuesday was a sunny day, but the usual head wind greeted us. The water would rise along-shore on the flood three hours before the downward current was checked in the channel of the river. We could not place any dependence in the regularity of the tides, as strong winds and freshets in the tributaries influence them. Earlier in the season, as a writer remarks, "until the upland waters have all run down, and the great rivers have discharged the freshets caused by thawing of the snows in the spring of the year, this current, in spite of tides, will always run down." To the uninitiated the spectacle is a curious one, of the flood tide rising and swelling the waters of a great river some eight to ten feet, while the current at the surface is rapidly descending the course of the stream.

Finding that the wind usually rose and fell with the sun, we now made it a rule to anchor our boat during most of the day and pull against the current at night. The moon and the bright auroral lights made this task an agreeable one. Then, too, we had Coggia's comet speeding through the northern heavens, awakening many an odd conjecture in the mind of my old salt.

In this high latitude day dawned before three o'clock, and the twilight lingered so long that we could read the fine print of a newspaper without effort at a quarter to nine o'clock p. m. The lofty shores that surrounded us at Quebec gradually decreased in elevation, and the tides affected the river less and less as we approached Three Rivers, where they seemed to cease altogether. We reached the great lumber station of Three Rivers, which is located on the left bank of the St. Lawrence, on Friday evening, and moved our canoe into quiet waters near the entrance of Lake of St. Peter. Rain squalls kept us close under our hatch-cloth till eleven o'clock a. m. on Saturday, when, the wind being fair, we determined to make an attempt to reach Sorel, which would afford us a pleasant camping-ground for Sunday.

Lake of St. Peter is a shoal sheet of water twenty-two miles long and nearly eight miles wide, a bad place to cross in a small boat in windy weather. We set our sail and sped merrily on, but the tempest pressed us sorely, compelling us to take in our sail and scud under bare poles until one o'clock, when we double-reefed and set the sail. We now flew over the short and swashy seas as blast after blast struck our little craft. At three o'clock the wind slackened, permitting us to shake out our reefs and crowd on all sail. A labyrinth of islands closed the lake at its western end, and we looked with anxiety to find among them an opening through which we might pass into the river St. Lawrence again. At five o'clock the wind veered to the north, with squalls increasing in intensity. We steered for a low, grassy island, which seemed to separate us from the river. The wind was not free enough to permit us to weather it, so we decided to beach the boat and escape the furious tempest. But when we struck the marshy island we kept moving on through the rushes that covered it, and fairly sailed over its submerged soil into the broad water on the other side. Bodfish earnestly advised the propriety of anchoring here for the night, saying, "It is too rough to go on;" but the temptation held out by the proximity to Sorel determined me to take the risk and drive on. Again we bounded out upon rough water, with the screeching tempest upon us. David took the tiller, while I sat upon the weather-rail to steady the boat. The Mayeta was now to be put to a severe test; she was to cross seas that could easily trip a boat of her size; but the wooden canoe was worthy of her builder, and flew like an affrighted bird over the foaming waves across the broad water, to the shelter of a wooded, half submerged island, out of which rose, on piles, a little light-house. Under this lee we crept along in safety. The sail was furled, never to be used in storm again. The wind went down with the sinking sun, and a delightful calm favored us for our row up the narrowing river, eight miles to the place of destination.

Soon after nine o'clock we came upon the Acadian town, Sorel, with its bright lights cheerily flashing out upon us as we rowed past its river front. The prow of our canoe was now pointed southward toward the goal of our ambition, the great Mexican Gulf; and we were about to ascend that historic stream, the lovely Richelieu, upon whose gentle current, two hundred and sixty-six years before, Champlain had ascended to the noble lake which bears his name, and up which the missionary Jogues had been carried an unwilling captive to bondage and to torture.