- Historic Sites
The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
Let us follow the poetic Strachey for a bit: “The cloudes gathering thicke upon us, and the windes singing and whistling most unusually … a dreadfull storme and hideous began to blow from out the northeast, which, swelling and roaring as it were by fits, some houres with more violence than others, at length did beate all light from Heaven; which, like a hell of darkenesse turned black upon us, so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and feare overrunne the troubled and overmastered senses of all…”
For two days the storm blew in so great a tumult that they could not imagine it getting any worse. Yet still it came, “not onely more terrible, but more constant, fury added to fury, and one storme urging a second more outrageous than the former… nothing was heard that could give comfort, nothing seene that might encourage hope.”
The sails lay bound and useless on deck; any attempt to raise so much as foresail sent the vessel wallowing out of control. “The sea swelled above the clouds,” said Strachey, “and gave battel unto Heaven.” A huge wave broke over the decks, enveloping the vessel “like a garment or a vast cloud.” Water poured down the hatches with such violence that the whipstaff was torn from the helmsman’s hands, swung wildly from side to side, and sent him sprawling. Others seized the damaged gear, but six to eight men were not enough to hold the ship to her course.
The “Devils’ Isles” had been feared by seamen since the Spaniards discovered them a century before.
“A greater affliction” was soon visited upon the vessel. From almost every joint, the ship “spued out her okam” so that water rose swiftly in the hold. Terror “turned the bloud” of even the bravest mariners. Soon all the seamen, candles in hand, were creeping along the ribs of the vessel, searching every corner and listening for the sound of running water. “Many a weeping leake was this way found, and hastily stopt,” the open ruptures stuffed with strips of beef or whatever was available. “But all was to no purpose; the leake (if it were but one) which drunke in our greatest seas and took in our destruction fastest, could not then be found, nor ever was, by any labor, counsel, or search.” Governor Gates assigned every man to take a turn working the plunger or passing the buckets, while water gushed in from the gunner room and food locker, the pumps having got clogged with wet biscuit. Strachey remarked on the way the “better sorts” and the “common sorts” worked together, gentlemen like Yardley and Hamor, Bagwell and Graves and himself, side by side with ordinary passengers, like Hopkins and Blount and Eason and Jones, who had never stood so close to quality. For three days and four nights they labored as the ship rolled and groaned, “testifying how mutually willing they were yet by labor to keep each other from drowning, albeit each one drowned whilst he labored.”
All the while, Admiral Somers kept watch on the poop, without sleep or food, directing the steersman as best he could, although, under the shrouded skies, there was no gleam of sun or star to help determine the ship’s bearing. One night Somers “had an apparition of a little, round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height from the main mast and shooting from shroud to shroud… running sometimes along the main yard to the very end and returning. ” Strachey’s description of St. Elmo’s Fire was inspiration for Shakespeare’s airy spirit, Ariel, whose antics were depicted as “now on the beak,/Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin;… on the topmast,/The yards, and bosprit would I flame distinctly, then meet and join…”
The bilge continued to deepen, and Somers ordered the ship lightened. Passenger trunks, the heavy main-deck cannon, barrels of beer, and hogsheads of oil and cider all went over the side. The seamen turned to cut down the masts but were so exhausted they could hardly wield their axes. Some abandoned hope then and fell down to await the end “wherever they chanced first to sit or lie.” Others, “having some good and comfortable waters in the ship, fetched them and drunk one to the other, taking their last leave one of the other,” and apparently got soundly drunk.
In the haze of dawn the admiral saw a dark line on the horizon. It was land; an indistinct shore only a few miles off and closing fast. The passengers stared and started to bail again. As dawn broke they saw rolling hills and delicate fernlike trees bending in the wind and, beneath them, sharp crags and treacherous white water. The helmsman bore up. The boatswain heaved his lead and called the soundings. It was just four fathoms and there were outcroppings of dark coral ahead. Somers guided the ship through the shoals until she rose, ruptured, and fell to lodge fast between huge rocks.
The longboats were put out and rowed ashore. By nightfall all one hundred and fifty passengers were safe on the land.