A Shaksperian Research: by the Author of the Sketchbook
In the course of a voyage home from England, our ship had been struggling, for two or three weeks, with perverse headwinds, and a stormy sea. It was in the month of May, yet the weather had at times a wintry sharpness, and it was apprehended that we were in the neighborhood of floating islands of ice, which at that season of the year drift out of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and sometimes occasion the wreck of noble ships.
Wearied out by the continued opposition of the elements, our captain at length bore away to the south, in hopes of catching the expiring breath of the trade-winds, and making what is called the southern passage. A few days wrought, as it were, a magical “sea change” in every thing around us. We seemed to emerge into a different world. The late dark and angry sea, lashed up into roaring and swashing surges, became calm and sunny; the rude winds died away; and gradually a light breeze sprang up directly aft, filling out every sail, and wafting us smoothly along on an even keel. The air softened into a bland and delightful temperature. Dolphins began to play about us; the nautilus came floating by, like a fairy ship, with its mimic sail and rainbow tints; and flying-fish, from time to time, made their short excursive flights, and occasionally fell upon the deck. The cloaks and overcoats in which we had hitherto wrapped ourselves, and moped about the vessel, were thrown aside; for a summer warmth had succeeded to the late wintry chills. Sails were stretched as awnings over the quarter-deck, to protect us from the mid-day sun. Under these we lounged away the day, in luxurious indolence, musing, with half-shut eyes, upon the quiet ocean. The night was scarcely less beautiful than the day. The rising moon sent a quivering column of silver along the undulating surface of the deep, and, gradually climbing the heaven, lit up our towering top-sails and swelling main-sails, and spread a pale, mysterious light around. As our ship made her whispering way through this dreamy world of waters, every boisterous sound on board was charmed to silence; and the low whistle, or drowsy song of a sailor from the forecastle, or the tinkling of a guitar, and the soft warbling of a female voice from the quarter-deck, seemed to derive a witching melody from the scene and hour. I was reminded of Oberon’s exquisite description of music and moonlight on the ocean:
Indeed, I was in the very mood to conjure up all the imaginary beings with which poetry has peopled old ocean, and almost ready to fancy I heard the distant song of the mermaid, or the mellow shell of the triton, and to picture to myself Neptune and Amphitrite with all their pageant sweeping along the dim horizon.
A day or two of such fanciful voyaging brought us in sight of the Bermudas, which first looked like mere summer clouds, peering above the quiet ocean. All day we glided along in sight of them, with just wind enough to fill our sails; and never did land appear more lovely. They were clad in emerald verdure, beneath the serenest of skies: not an angry wave broke upon their quiet shores, and small fishing craft, riding on the crystal waves, seemed as if hung in air. It was such a scene that Fletcher pictured to himself, when he extolled the halcyon lot of the fisherman:
In contemplating these beautiful islands, and the peaceful sea around them, I could hardly realize that these were the “still vexed Bermoothes” of Shakspeare, once the dread of mariners, and infamous in the narratives of the early discoverers, for the dangers and disasters which beset them. Such, however, was the case; and the islands derived additional interest in my eyes, from fancying that I could trace in their early history, and in the superstitious notions connected with them, some of the elements of Shakspeare’s wild and beautiful drama of The Tempest. I shall take the liberty of citing a few historical facts, in support of this idea, which may claim some additional attention from the American reader, as being connected with the first settlement of Virginia.
At the time when Shakspeare was in the fulness of his talent, and seizing upon everything that could furnish aliment to his imagination, the colonization of Virginia was a favorite object of enterprise among people of condition in England, and several of the courtiers of the court of Queen Elizabeth were personally engaged in it. In the year 1609 a noble armament of nine ships and five hundred men sailed for the relief of the colony. It was commanded by Sir George Somers, as admiral, a gallant and generous gentleman, above sixty years of age, and possessed of an ample fortune, yet still bent upon hardy enterprise, and ambitious of signalizing himself in the service of his country.
On board of his flag-ship, the Sea-Vulture, sailed also Sir Thomas Gates, lieutenant-general of the colony. The voyage was long and boisterous. On the twenty-fifth of July, the admiral’s ship was separated from the rest, in a hurricane. For several days she was driven about at the mercy of the elements, and so strained and racked, that her seams yawned open, and her hold was half filled with water. The storm subsided, but left her a mere foundering wreck. The crew stood in the hold to their waists in water, vainly endeavoring to bail her with kettles, buckets, and other vessels. The leaks rapidly gained on them, while their strength was as rapidly declining. They lost all hope of keeping the ship afloat, until they should reach the American coast; and wearied with fruitless toil, determined, in their despair, to give up all farther attempt, shut down the hatches, and abandon themselves to Providence. Some, who had spirituous liquors, or “comfortable waters,” as the old record quaintly terms them, brought them forth, and shared them with their comrades, and they all drank a sad farewell to one another, as men who were soon to part company in this world.
In this moment of extremity, the worthy admiral, who kept sleepless watch from the high stern of the vessel, gave the thrilling cry of “land!” All rushed on deck, in a frenzy of joy, and nothing now was to be seen or heard on board, but the transports of men who felt as if rescued from the grave. It is true the land in sight would not, in ordinary circumstances, have inspired much self-gratulation. It could be nothing else but the group of islands called after their discoverer, one Juan Bermudas, a Spaniard, but stigmatized among the mariners of those days as “the islands of devils!” “For the islands of the Bermudas,” says the old narrative of this voyage, “as every man knoweth that hath heard or read of them, were never inhabited by any Christian or heathen people, but were ever esteemed and reputed a most prodigious and inchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, stormes, and foul weather, which made every navigator and mariner to avoide them, as Scylla and Charybdis, or as they would shun the Divell himself.”1
Sir George Somers and his tempest-tossed comrades, however, hailed them with rapture, as if they had been a terrestrial paradise. Every sail was spread, and every exertion made to urge the foundering ship to land. Before long, she struck upon a rock. Fortunately, the late stormy winds had subsided, and there was no surf. A swelling wave lifted her from off the rock, and bore her to another; and thus she was borne on from rock to rock, until she remained wedged between two, as firmly as if set upon the stocks. The boats were immediately lowered, and, though the shore was above a mile distant, the whole crew were landed in safety.
Every one had now his task assigned him. Some made all haste to unload the ship, before she should go to pieces; some constructed wigwams of palmetto leaves, and others ranged the island in quest of wood and water. To their surprise and joy, they found it far different from the desolate and frightful place they had been taught, by seamen’s stories, to expect. It was well-wooded and fertile; there were birds of various kinds, and herds of swine roaming about, the progeny of a number that had swam ashore, in former years, from a Spanish wreck. The island abounded with turtle, and great quantities of their eggs were to be found among the rocks. The bays and inlets were full of fish; so tame, that if any one stepped into the water, they would throng around him. Sir George Somers, in a little while, caught enough with hook and line to furnish a meal to his whole ship’s company. Some of them were so large, that two were as much as a man could carry. Crawfish, also, were taken in abundance. The air was soft and salubrious, and the sky beautifully serene. Waller, in his “Summer Islands,” has given us a faithful picture of the climate:
We may imagine the feelings of the shipwrecked marines on finding themselves cast by stormy seas upon so happy a coast; where abundance was to be had without labor; where what in other climes constituted the costly luxuries of the rich, were within every man’s reach; and where life promised to be a mere holiday. Many of the common sailors, especially, declared they desired no better lot than to pass the rest of their lives on this favored island.
The commanders, however, were not so ready to console themselves with mere physical comforts, for the severance from the enjoyment of cultivated life, and all the objects of honorable ambition. Despairing of the arrival of any chance ship on these shunned and dreaded islands, they fitted out the long-boat, making a deck of the ship’s hatches, and having manned her with eight picked men, despatched her, under the command of an able and hardy mariner, named Raven, to proceed to Virginia, and procure shipping to be sent to their relief.
While waiting in anxious idleness for the arrival of the looked-for aid, dissensions arose between Sir George Somers and Sir Thomas Gates, originating, very probably, in jealousy of the lead which the nautical experience and professional station of the admiral gave him in the present emergency. Each commander, of course, had his adherents: these dissensions ripened into a complete schism; and this handful of shipwrecked men, thus thrown together, on an uninhabited island, separated into two parties, and lived asunder in bitter feud, as men rendered fickle by prosperity instead of being brought into brotherhood by a common calamity.
Weeks and months elapsed, without bringing the looked-for aid from Virginia, though that colony was within but a few days’ sail. Fears were now entertained that the long-boat had been either swallowed up in the sea, or wrecked on some savage coast; one or other of which most probably was the case, as nothing was ever heard of Raven and his comrades.
Each party now set to work to build a vessel for itself out of the cedar with which the island abounded. The wreck of the Sea-Vulture furnished rigging, and various other articles; but they had no iron for bolts, and other fastenings; and for want of pitch and tar, they payed the seams of their vessels with lime and turtle’s oil, which soon dried, and became as hard as stone.
On the tenth of May, 1610, they set sail, having been about nine months on the island. They reached Virginia without farther accident, but found the colony in great distress for provisions. The account they gave of the abundance that reigned in the Bermudas, and especially of the herds of swine that roamed the island, determined Lord Delaware, the governor of Virginia, to send thither for supplies. Sir George Somers, with his wonted promptness and generosity, offered to undertake what was still considered a dangerous voyage. Accordingly, on the nineteenth of June, he set sail, in his own cedar vessel of thirty tons, accompanied by another small vessel, commanded by Captain Argall.
The gallant Somers was doomed again to be tempest-tossed. His companion vessel was soon driven back to port, but he kept the sea; and, as usual, remained at his post on deck, in all weathers. His voyage was long and boisterous, and the fatigues and exposures which he underwent, were too much for a frame impaired by age, and by previous hardships. He arrived at Bermudas completely exhausted and broken down.
His nephew, Captain Mathew Somers, attended him in his illness with affectionate assiduity. Finding his end approaching, the veteran called his men together, and exhorted them to be true to the interests of Virginia; to procure provisions with all possible despatch, and hasten back to the relief of the colony.
With this dying charge, he gave up the ghost, leaving us nephew and crew overwhelmed with grief and consternation. Their first thought was to pay honor to his remains. Opening the body, they took out the heart and entrails, and buried them, erecting a cross over the grave. They then embalmed the body, and set sail with it for England; thus, while paying empty honors to their deceased commander, neglecting his earnest wish and dying injunction, that they should return with relief to Virginia.
The little bark arrived safely at Whitechurch, in Dorsetshire, with its melancholy freight. The body of the worthy Somers was interred with the military honors due to a brave soldier, and many volleys were fired over his grave. The Bermudas have since received the name of the Somer Islands, as a tribute to his memory.
The accounts given by Captain Mathew Somers and his crew of the delightful climate, and the great beauty, fertility, and abundance of these islands, excited the zeal of enthusiasts, and the cupidity of speculators, and a plan was set on foot to colonize them. The Virginia company sold their right to the islands to one hundred and twenty of their own members, who erected themselves into a distinct corporation, under the name of the “Somer Island Society;” and Mr. Richard More was sent out, in 1612, as governor, with sixty men, to found a colony: and this leads me to the second branch of this research.
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At the time that Sir George Somers was preparing to launch his cedar-built bark, and sail for Virginia, there were three culprits among his men, who had been guilty of capital offences. One of them was shot; the others, named Christopher Carter and Edward Waters, escaped. Waters, indeed, made a very narrow escape, for he had actually been tied to a tree to be executed, but cut the rope with a knife, which he had concealed about his person, and fled to the woods, where he was joined by Carter. These two worthies kept themselves concealed in the secret parts of the island, until the departure of the two vessels. When Sir George Somers revisited the island, in quest of supplies for the Virginia colony, these culprits hovered about the landing-place, and succeeded in persuading another seaman, named Edward Chard, to join them, giving him the most seductive pictures of the ease and abundance in which they revelled.
When the bark that bore Sir George’s body to England had faded from the watery horizon, these three vagabonds walked forth in their majesty and might, the lords and sole inhabitants of these islands. For a time their little commonwealth went on prosperously and happily. They built a house, sowed corn, and the seeds of various fruits; and having plenty of hogs, wild fowl, and fish of all kinds, with turtle in abundance, carried on their tripartite sovereignty with great harmony and much feasting. All kingdoms, however, are doomed to revolution, convulsion, or decay; and so it fared with the empire of the three kings of Bermuda, albeit they were monarchs without subjects. In an evil hour, in their search after turtle, among the fissures of the rocks, they came upon a great treasure of ambergris, which had been cast on shore by the ocean. Beside a number of pieces of smaller dimensions, there was one great mass, the largest that had ever been known, weighing eighty pounds, and which of itself, according to the market value of ambergris in those days, was worth about nine or ten thousand pounds!
From that moment, the happiness and harmony of the three kings of Bermuda were gone for ever. While poor devils, with nothing to share but the common blessings of the island, which administered to present enjoyment, but had nothing of convertible value, they were loving and united: but here was actual wealth, which would make them rich men, whenever they could transport it to a market.
Adieu the delights of the island! They now became flat and insipid. Each pictured to himself the consequence he might now aspire to, in civilized life, could he once get there with this mass of ambergris. No longer a poor Jack Tar, frolicking in the low taveriis of Wapping, he might roll through London in his coach, and perchance arrive, like Whittington, at the dignity of Lord Mayor.
With riches came envy and covetousness. Each was now for assuming the supreme power, and getting the monopoly of the ambergris. A civil war at length broke out: Chard and Waters defied each other to mortal combat, and the kingdom of the Bermudas was on the point of being deluged with royal blood. Fortunately, Carter took no part in the bloody feud. Ambition might have made him view it with secret exultation; for if either or both of his brother potentates were slain in the conflict, he would be a gainer in purse and ambergris. But he dreaded to be left alone in this uninhabited island, and to find himself the monarch of a solitude: so he secretly purloined and hid the weapons of the belligerent rivals, who, having no means of carrying on the war, gradually cooled down into a sullen armistice.
The arrival of Governor More, with an overpowering force of sixty men, put an end to the empire. He took possession of the kingdom, in the name of the Somer Island Company, and forthwith proceeded to make a settlement. The three kings tacitly relinquished their sway, but stood up stoutly for their treasure. It was determined, however, that they had been fitted out at the expense, and employed in the service, of the Virginia Company; that they had found the ambergis while in the service of that company, and on that company’s land; that the ambergis, therefore, belonged to that company, or rather to the Somer Island Company, in consequence of their recent purchase of the island, and all their appurtenances. Having thus legally established their right, and being moreover able to back it by might, the company laid the lion’s paw upon the spoil; and nothing more remains on historic record of the Three Kings of Bermuda, and their treasure of ambergris.
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The reader will now determine whether I am more extravagant than most of the commentators on Shakspeare, in my surmise that the story of Sir George Somers’ shipwreck, and the subsequent occurrences that took place on the uninhabited island, may have furnished the bard with some of the elements of his drama of the Tempest. The tidings of the shipwreck, and of the incidents connected with it, reached England not long before the production of this drama, and made a great sensation there. A narrative of the whole matter, from which most of the foregoing particulars are extracted, was published at the time in London, in a pamphlet form, and could not fail to be eagerly perused by Shakspeare, and to make a vivid impression on his fancy. His expression, in the Tempest, of “the still vext Bermoothes,” accords exactly with the storm-beaten character of those islands. The enchantments, too, with which he has clothed the island of Prospero, may they not be traced to the wild and superstitious notions entertained about the Bermudas? I have already cited two passages from a pamphlet published at the time, showing that they were esteemed “a most prodigious and inchanted place,” and the “habitation of divells;” and another pamphlet, published shortly afterward, observes: “And whereas it is reported that this land of the Barmudas, with the islands about, (which are many, at least a hundred,) are inchanted and kept with evil and wicked spirits, it is a most idle and false report.”2
The description, too, given in the same pamphlets, of the real beauty and fertility of the Bermudas, and of their serene and happy climate, so opposite to the dangerous and inhospitable character with which they had been stigmatized, accords with the eulogium of Sebastian on the island of Prospero:
“Though this island seem to be desert, uninhabitable, and almost inaccessible, it must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance. The air breathes upon us here most sweetly. Here is every thing advantageous to life. How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!”
I think too, in the exulting consciousness of ease, security, and abundance felt by the late tempest-tossed mariners, while revelling in the plenteousness of the island, and their inclination to remain there, released from the labors, the cares, and the artificial restraints of civilized life, I can see something of the golden commonwealth of honest Gonzalo:
But above all, in the three fugitive vagabonds who remained in possession of the island of Bermuda, on the departure of their comrades, and in their squabbles about supremacy, on the finding of their treasure, I see typified Sebastian, Trinculo, and their worthy companion Caliban:
I do not mean to hold up the incidents and characters in the narrative and in the play as parallel, or as being strikingly similar: neither would I insinuate that the narrative suggested the play; I would only suppose that Shakspeare, being occupied about that time on the drama of the Tempest, the main story of which, I believe, is of Italian origin, had many of the fanciful ideas of it suggested to his mind by the shipwreck of Sir George Somers on the “still vext Bermothes,” and by the popular superstitions connected with these islands, and suddenly put in circulation by that event.
1. A Plaine Description of the Barmudas.
2. “Newes from the Barmudas;” 1612.