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A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's "The Tempest"by Hobson Woodward
Synopses & Reviews
A gripping tale of shipwreck and survival that changed the fate of the colonies and enriched our literary legacy
In 1609, aspiring writer William Strachey set sail aboard the Sea Venture, bound for the New World. Caught in a hurricane, the ship separated from its fleet and wrecked on uninhabited Bermuda, a bountiful island paradise its passengers would inhabit for nearly a year before reaching their intended destination, the famine-stricken colony of Jamestown. Strachey's meticulous account of the wreck, the castaways' time on Bermuda, and their arrival in a devastated Jamestown was read by his contemporaries and remains among the most vivid writings of the early colonial period. Following the life of this ordinary man, Hobson Woodward tells one of the neglected but defining stories of America's founding.
Strachey had literary aspirations and sought to capitalize on his epic experience, but his writings did not bring him the acclaim he sought. Only in the hands of another William would his tale of the wreck and its aftermath make history as The Tempest. A Brave Vessel is the fascinating account of a near-miss in the settling of Virginia, the true story behind one of Shakespeare's great plays, and the tragedy of the man who failed as an author but who contributed to the creation of a masterpiece.
"In this well-written and expertly paced work of popular scholarship, Woodward, an associate editor of the Adams papers, tells the story of William Strachey, an aspiring poet whose chronicle of a disastrous sea voyage and its aftermath had a profound influence on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Strachey is a fine figure for historical resurrection — he was good friends with John Donne and a passenger on pioneering journeys to the New World, which eventually brought him, aboard the Sea Venture, to Bermuda and the infant Jamestown colony in Virginia. Woodward draws heavily on Strachey's written narrative, often to marvelous effect. This is particularly true of the dramatic storm scenes, in which the entire crew of the Sea Venture nearly perished. Through Strachey, Woodward tells of the conflicts that divided the crew after making landfall in Bermuda and the hardships of replenishing a starving Jamestown's supplies. The heart of the book is Woodward's recreation of Strachey's viewing of The Tempest, which affords the author the opportunity to catalogue the narrative and linguistic parallels between the Sea Venture's travails and the play — fascinating fodder for the committed Shakespearean source hunter. Maps. (July 13)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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. Jonathan Yardley can be reached at yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A gripping tale of shipwreck and survival, "A Brave Vessel" is the fascinating account of a near-miss in the settling of Virginia, the true story behind Shakespeare's "The Tempest," and the tragedy of the man who failed as an author but who contributed to the creation of a masterpiece.
A riveting historical narrative (Nathaniel Philbrick), "A Brave Vessel" tells the story of William Strachey, an aspiring poet whose chronicle of a disastrous sea voyage and its aftermath had a profound influence on Shakespeare's writing of "The Tempest."
"At once a penetrating work of literary analysis and a riveting historical narrative." -Nathaniel Philbrick
Merging maritime adventure and early colonial history, A Brave Vessel charts a little-known chapter of the past that offers a window on the inspiration for one of Shakespeare's greatest works. In 1609, aspiring writer William Strachey set sail for the New World aboard the Sea Venture, only to wreck on the shores of Bermuda. Strachey's meticulous account of the tragedy, the castaways' time in Bermuda, and their arrival in a devastated Jamestown, remains among the most vivid writings of the early colonial period. Though Strachey had literary aspirations, only in the hands of another William would his tale make history as The Tempest-a fascinating connection across time and literature that Hobson Woodward brings vividly to life.
About the Author
Hobson Woodward is associate editor of the Adam Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He lives near Boston.
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