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The Great Shippe

March 2023
2min read

There is currently a great deal of interest in the “Bermuda Triangle,” a stretch of water off the Atlantic coast, where, we are told, ships disappear without a trace and all manner of eerie things take place. While this speculation is in the air it might be appropriate to mention a spectacular maritime mystery that allegedly vexed the inhabitants of the New Haven Colony in the seventeenth century. The story is taken from an undated issue of the New Haven Colony Historical Society’s Journal .

By the middle of the i64o’s the colony had suffered a series of commercial reverses, and the New Haven merchants were anxious to recoup their losses. One obvious way to do this was to sail trading vessels directly to England, rather than having to ship merchandise by way of Massachusetts Bay. But this required large ships, and no single merchant could afford to build one. However, in i645 the leading men of the town formed a company and bought a big vessel that was apparently built in Rhode Island and could carry a hundred and fifty tons of cargo. Other merchants then formed a second company, the Company of Merchants of New Haven, and hired the ship from the first company for a trading voyage to England. In the end nearly everyone in the town had a stake in the enterprise.

The name of the ship has been lost, although some sources indicate that she was called the Fellowship . The old records, however, mention her only as the “great shippe.” When she sailed into New Haven Harbor, the town turned out to inspect her, and the sailors in the crowd didn’t like what they saw. A Mr. Lamberton, who was made the captain, thought her a “cranky” vessel likely to capsize in a heavy sea. Nevertheless he started at once to make the boat seaworthy. By winter the job was done and the hold filled with everything the New Haven citizenry could find to sell: lumber, hides, peas, wheat, and beaver skins. The Great Shippe sailed in January of 1646. A three-mile channel had to be hacked through the ice before the ship could clear the frozen harbor, but at length the vessel stood out for the open sea, bearing the fortunes of the colony with her (above right).

The next summer brought ships from England but no word of Captain Lamberton or his vessel. Autumn came, and most people despaired of seeing the ship again. Hope disappeared entirely during the following winter, and then, in the summer of 1647. an extraordinary thing happened. During the afternoon of a warm June day a thunderstorm rumbled over the town of New Haven. Soon afterward, about an hour before sunset, the Great Shippe appeared at the mouth of the harbor, borne on a cloud. There was no mistaking this apparition; witnesses saw Captain Lamberton standing on the deck pointing out to sea with his sword. The ship drove silently on toward the town, running before a phantom wind, until suddenly her topmasts blew away, her masts pitched overboard, and her hull capsized and sank into a sea of mist and cloud. The townspeople were stunned by the vision, and their minister, a Mr. Davenport, offered them the barren Puritan comfort that God had sent the spectral vessel to show how their friends were lost at sea (below).

The Great Shippe never returned, and the financial disaster of her loss nearly put the New Haven Colony out of business. It was years before the inhabitants again enjoyed the prosperity they had once known and longer than that before they forgot the ship in the clouds.

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