By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 19, 2009
A BRAVE VESSEL
The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown . . .
By Hobson Woodward
Viking. 268 pp. $25.95
The fierce storm that leaves a small band of travelers stranded on a magical island in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" -- the last of his great plays, probably written in 1610-11 -- was considerably more than a product of the playwright's fertile imagination. Though scholars have squabbled over its exact source, there is general agreement that it is based on the hurricane that caused the wreck of the ship Sea Venture on Bermuda in 1609, and that an account of this event composed by an aspiring writer named William Strachey was among Shakespeare's chief sources. As Hobson Woodward writes in "A Brave Vessel":
"The greatest writer of the English language was a bit of a literary pickpocket. Shakespeare was a voracious reader and extracted language and ideas from contemporary and classical literature alike. Such homage to the works of others was not only tolerated in Jacobean England, it was expected, and Shakespeare was a master. In his supremely creative mind, merely good language was made both accessible and profound for readers of his time and those of ages far beyond his own. The ability to select and transform language was one of Shakespeare's greatest gifts."
Woodward, associate editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, takes his title from lines spoken by the enchanting Miranda in Shakespeare's play: "O, I have suffered/With those that I saw suffer -- a brave vessel/Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,/Dash'd all to pieces." That is exactly what happened to the Sea Venture as, in the last week of July 1609, it was en route from England to the struggling settlement at Jamestown. It was the flagship in a convoy of eight vessels carrying several hundred people -- there were 153 aboard the Sea Venture -- recruited by the Virginia Company, which hoped "this new infusion of people and provisions would fortify their outpost in the New World."
The voyage proceeded without notable incident for two months until, a week's sail from Virginia, it encountered "a kind of storm that few English mariners had seen but many had heard about since Europeans began crossing the Atlantic -- a hurricano of the West Indies." Strachey, who had joined the expedition with plans to write a New World travelogue and thus establish his career, called it "a dreadful storm, and hideous . . . , which swelling and roaring as it were by fits, some hours with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven, which like a hell of darkness turned black upon us." Then, about two days into the storm, a huge wave picked up the ship, separated it from the convoy and left it awash. Only by heroic bailing were the crew and passengers able to keep it afloat, and only by exceptional seamanship and even more exceptional luck was the ship -- still afloat but wrecked beyond any possibility of repair -- steered into safe harbor on one of the islands of the Bermuda archipelago.
Miraculously, all 153 aboard survived an ordeal of almost indescribable horror, though many nearly died of fright. They landed with trepidation, as Bermuda was widely rumored to be "a bewitched place" known as the Devil's Island, but once on land they moved quickly to make the place habitable. They learned that the island's waters teemed with fish, most of them unknown to the English but mostly edible and many deliciously so. Soon, they had created "a tiny village that was well appointed beyond all expectation," largely because the crew had removed many valuable articles, "including mattresses and blankets, furniture, and chests filled with personal goods," from the abandoned ship. People settled in and made themselves at home. Predictably, there were complaints and even mutinies, but the group held together:
"The castaways had been on Bermuda for eight months. Despite the turmoil of the mutinies, they had managed to create an island community that by wilderness standards was remarkably prosperous. Castaway society was a version of English culture with its hard work and class conflict. The unusual elements of island existence, though, were almost all good -- swan spit roasted over a fire, bibby [homemade alcoholic drink] shared around a camp table, birds on the nest at Christmastime, and an existence remarkably free of disease. They had found a wonderful place, and many still did not want to leave."
They were concerned about the fate of the other ships, though, and the leaders of the expedition felt obliged to fulfill their commitment to the Virginia Company to reinforce the settlement at Jamestown. So they built two new ships: the Deliverance, which "with a keel of forty feet and a beam of nineteen . . . was a little under half the length of the Sea Venture," and the Patience, "with a keel of twenty-nine feet and a beam of just over fifteen." In the second week of May 1610 they set sail for Virginia, and arrived about 10 days later. The survivors of the rest of the colony greeted them with amazement, having long believed them to have been lost, and for their part the castaways themselves were in for a surprise: "When William Strachey and the other castaways came ashore at Jamestown . . . they had their first look at the settlement they had been told was a miniature England in the Virginia woodland. What they found instead was a band of skeletal people who had faced starvation while the castaways lived in ease and plenty on the Devil's Isle."
From this point the story of Jamestown is well known, and Woodward adds nothing new to our understanding of it. Once he moves along to Strachey's return to London in 1611 and his attendance at the new play by Shakespeare, which "featured a storm and a shipwreck on an enchanted island, much like the one he had just experienced himself," the narrative picks up again, but the most interesting and effective part of "A Brave Vessel" remains its account of the little community on Bermuda and its remarkable survival.
To which I cannot resist appending a personal note. Three paragraphs from the end of his narrative, Woodward mentions an "amateur diver" who found the wreckage of the Sea Venture in 1958. He identifies this person as "a descendant of Sea Venture passenger George Yardley." My eyes almost popped out of my head. At once I ran a search on my ancient and distant kinsman, George Yeardley (for that's how he spelled it), and was astonished to discover that he had indeed been aboard the Sea Venture and a castaway on Bermuda. I had known much else about him -- he was knighted in 1618, became the first colonial governor of Virginia and established a famous plantation on the James River called Flowerdew Hundred, the vestiges of which are now open to the public -- but somehow I had never known that he had helped inspire one of my favorites among all of Shakespeare's plays. That is something to crow about.