Weather Almanac for September 1999
CONNECTIONS: A STORM,
AN ISLAND, A PLAY, A PRINCESS
I have long been a fan of James Burke, author and educational television producer of the Connections Series. The main focus of Burke's work is to show the many connections among people, events and technology which at first appear unrelated until you look a little deeper. Many connections, particularly in the sciences, are very obvious, with each advance following on the heel of a previous discovery. But other advances are less so, as Burke delights to point out.
Earlier this year, for example, I found an interesting connection between tornado field researcher Howard Bluestein and tornado historian Tom Grazulis. Both had first become fascinated in tornadoes and weather by the devastating Worcester, Massachusetts tornado of 1953.
Last week a series of unrelated events uncovered a series of interesting connections that have resulted in this month's Almanac. I had spent much of the afternoon reading Hurricanes of the North Atlantic for review and turned to the hit movie Shakespeare in Love for my evening's entertainment. The ending of that movie linked me with my afternoon's reading. Some research brought in two additional connections to the mix.
Since September is the most active month for Atlantic hurricanes, there is the start to the links. What I will relate to you will show you that connections are everywhere, and weather often plays unsuspecting roles in altering life paths and events, even providing inspiration to artists. The piece focuses on a 1609 Atlantic hurricane which has direct connections to the founding of the British Colony of Bermuda, a popular work of William Shakespeare and the legendary story of the Native American princess Pocahontas.
The place is England; the date June 2, 1609. A ship, the Sea Venture captained by Christopher Newport disembarks from London, traveling down the Thames toward Plymouth, there to rendezvous with a small fleet of ships destined for the young British colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Aboard her are Admiral Sir George Somers and the Virginia Colony's Deputy Governor-Designate Sir Thomas Gates. Admiral Somers, a retired British naval hero, had been appointed to command the Third Supply" relief fleet to the struggling Jamestown Colony bringing needed provisions and additional settlers to Virginia. Captain Newport had served as admiral of the fleet of original Jamestown venture two years earlier. Gates was the first named of the grantees in the original charter (1606) of the London Company, which founded Virginia. The Sea Venture (also known in many recent accounts as the Sea Adventure) was in capable and experienced hands, and she would need them.
The small fleet of nine ships was crowded with 500-600 new settlers and much needed supplies for the young colony. By all accounts, it was the largest and most expensive deliberate colonization mission by any nation to date. But this was more than just a resupply force, it was a rescue mission for the floundering colony.
The Atlantic crossing appears to have been going well for the fleet during the first seven weeks of the voyage. Admiral Somers steered the convoy on a more direct northerly route to avoid the dangers of sailing through the Spanish-held West Indies. Then, about a week away from their expected landing in Virginia, the fleet sailed into disaster. What happen next has been well chronicled in the letters of two of the party sailing aboard the flagship Sea Venture, Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey. The latter wrote:
"The clouds gathering thick upon us, and the winds singing and whistling most unusually,... a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out the Northeast, 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 an hell of darkness, turned black upon us."
The great storm, an early season Atlantic hurricane, scattered the convoy across the ocean waters, battering them for nearly 36 hours with tempest and monstrous swells. "[W]indes and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them...The sea swelled above the Clouds and gave battle unto heaven."
Although damaged, seven of the original fleet survived the storm and managed to reach Jamestown a few days later. Upon reaching the colony they mourned the loss of many souls including, they believed, all aboard the pinnace Catch and their flagship Sea Venture. These vessels had been separated from the group and were feared lost at sea.
Indeed, the Catch did not survive the storm, lost with all hands. But the Sea Venture appeared to have had divine intervention at the time of greatest peril. According to Strachey, Admiral Somers viewed the sailor's good omen: St. Elmo's Fire dancing across the ship,
"...an apparition of a little round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height from the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud, tempting to settle as it were upon any of the four shrouds, and for three or four hours together, or rather more, half the night it kept with us, running sometimes along the mainyard to the very end, and then returning."
The storm and sea continued to punish the ship. Strachey observed:
"Once so huge a sea brake upon the poop and quarter upon us as it covered the ship from stern to stem like a garment or a vast cloud; it filled her brim full for a while within, from the hatches up to the spardeck. The source or confluence of water was so violent as it rushed and carried the helm-man from the helm and wrested the whipstaff out of his hand..."
The hurricane battered the Sea Venture mercilessly, eventually splitting the seams of the hull. As the sea water rushed in, the crew and passengers desperately threw cargo overboard to lighten the load. All seemed lost when they realized they had drifted between two reefs at the eastern end of a group of islands and, within reach of shore, were held fast between two rocks. The full ship's complement of 150 plus the ship's dog miraculously struggled ashore safely. The Sea Venture made landfall. And here is where our first connection is made.
Connection 1. Upon reaching the island, Admiral Somers claimed the land for the Crown of England. (The island group became know as Somers Islands). This isolated volcanic island group, which the charts called the Island of Devils, was heavily forested with cedars and palmettoes and populated only by birds and wild hogs. The latter were released there by the Spanish in hopes of providing emergency rations for passing vessels or shipwrecked crews (another interesting connection).
The shipwrecked settlers quickly began planning their escape. Their mission, after all, was the rescue of Jamestown. Although too damaged to be repaired, the Sea Venture, her rigging and planking supplemented by local red cedars, would give birth in the following months to two smaller vessels, the Deliverance and the Patience, built by the ship's company under the direction of Somers and Gates.
Forty-two weeks after the storm had tossed the company onto the reef, two ships departed for Virginia. A few of the original 150 company had died during the period including a young woman, whose now-famous husband we shall meet later. Two members of the party were left behind. One of whom, Christopher Carter was to become the first permanent resident of the new settlement, living on the island until his death.
In 1612 at Sir George Somers' recommendation, a new venture company, a subsidiary of the Virginia Company, was formed to finance and manage the colonization of this Atlantic island group. Sixty settlers set sail and arrived on the island on July 11th, the first permanent settlers of the new colony of Bermuda. Today, the official crest of Bermuda features an image of the Sea Venture battling the great tempest to commemorate the circumstances of the island's founding.
"On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise
of thunder and lightning heard."
Connection 2. If I haven't given you enough hints already, the connection between the 1609 hurricane and William Shakespeare is through his play The Tempest. Many Shakespearean scholars believe that he found the inspiration for that play in the accounts of the storm, shipwreck and survival written by Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey.
Not much is known of Silvester Jourdain. He appears to have been a merchant and had an association with Admiral Somers. His account, Discovery of the Bermudas otherwise Called the Isle of Devils' published in late 1610 upon his return with Gates to England, spun a tale of shipwreck and survival that quickly caught the imagination of Londoners eager for a good and positive story from the New World.
William Strachey was a middle-aged man of thirty-seven who had failed to gain a diplomatic post before he signed on to go to the Virginia Colony. Upon reaching Virginia, he sent first-hand accounts back to England of the Sea Venture's story in a letter dated July 15, 1610 and titled True Repertory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, upon and from the ilands of the Bermudas, his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that colony. He was to briefly serve as the Colonial Secretary of Virginia upon the untimely death of the incumbent and remained in there until the autumn of 1611.
Some historians believe that Strachey's original full report of the incident was critical of the Virginia Company and thus its publication was repressed to avoid jeopardizing funding for the Virginia venture. In 1625, an account of the adventure was published posthumously under his name in Samuel Purchas' Purchas, his Pilgrimes.
However, leaks and rumours of the original letter's contents circulated in the palace corridors and local taverns, and it is likely that copies were distributed around the city. Strachey was known to the playwrights and poets of the day who frequented the drinking establishments of London. Some say that he knew Shakespeare personally. Thus, a copy of the original letter may have fallen into the Shakespeare's hands.
The similarities in wording between The Tempest and Strachey's work are very strong in places, and the stories have amazing parallels in their details. For example, compare Strachey's description of St. Elmo's Fire given above with this passage from The Tempest:
...now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement: sometime I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join. (Tempest, I.ii.196-201)
Coincidence or adaptation of material from another source? Although the scholars continue to debate the issue, we will never know for sure how much of the Sea Venture's saga is contained in The Tempest.
Connection 3. Finally, remember that young woman who died on Bermuda? She was pregnant on the voyage and died of complications during childbirth; the child, a daughter, died as well. The bereaved husband/father was none other than John Rolfe. Rolfe would settle in the Virginia Colony, and establish the English tobacco-growing industry in Virginia. He also took a wife from among the local Native Americans, a princess named Pocahontas.
In the spring of 1616, Rolfe briefly returned to England with his wife and young son. Pocahontas became a valuable marketing aid for the Virginia Company. But the climate and urban conditions of London did not agree with her and her health suffered. She took ill and died at age 22 just before she and Rolfe were to sail back to Virginia.
The proposed Connections are completed. But there are further connections in our tale.
Admiral Somers returned almost immediately to Bermuda aboard the Patience in an attempt to bring more of the island's abundant food resources back to Jamestown. But unfortunately, he died there in late 1610, and his nephew, Matthew returned to England with his body rather than to Jamestown with the added provisions. Somers' heart, however, was buried on the island, his dying wish. St George's Parish, Bermuda is named in his memory and honor.
Then in 1958, a 45-foot section of the Sea Venture's keel and some artifacts were discovered by Virginia-born Edmund Downing who was diving in the suspected spot of the wreck near Fort St Catherine. On the 350th anniversary of the wreck, the Bermuda Government contracted for the area to be salvaged. However, a mistake in dating the cannons halted further work until 1978. At this time a more detailed archeological survey was done. Much of the collection can be seen at the Bermuda Maritime Museum, and the wreck site is on the recommended list for visiting divers.
Bermuda has continued its long history with hurricanes. In 1906, Bermuda began telegraphing the US Weather Signal Service warnings of approaching tropical storms. And from 1947 to 1963, the US Air Force Hurricane Hunters flew their reconnaissance flights from Kindley Air Force Base. Fifty-eight hurricanes have made direct hits on the Bermudas since 1600, including Hurricane Arlene in 1963; Luis and Felix in 1995.
Learn More About Hurricanes From These Relevant Books
Chosen by The Weather Doctor
- Sheets, Bob and Jack Williams: Hurricane Watch : Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth, 2001, Vintage Books; ISBN: 037570390X.
- Zebrowski, Ernest Jr and Judith A. Howard: Category 5: The Story of Camille Lessons Unlearned from America's Most Violent Hurricane, 2005, ISBN 0472115251, Hardcover, 304 pages.
- Deblieu, Jan: Wind : How the Flow of Air has Shaped Life, Myth, and the Land, 1998, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-395-78033-0.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, THE WEATHER DOCTOR,
September 1, 1999
The Weather Doctor's Weather Almanac Connections: A Storm, An Island, A Play, A Princess
©1999, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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