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Filing Cabinet - Jamestown

William Strachey's Eyewitness Account of the Wreck of The Sea Venture

An excerpt from William Strachey's
"True repertory of the wreck and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, July 15, 1610” (pub. 1625, in Purchas His Pilgrimes, Part Four, Book Nine, Chapter Six)
It is likely that manuscripts of this letter were circulating prior to 1625

Excellent Lady,

Know that upon Friday late in the evening we brake groundout of the sound of Plymouth, our whole fleet then consisting of seven good ships and two pinnaces, all which from the said second of June unto the twenty-three of July kept in friendly consort together, not a whole watch at any time losing the sight each of other. . . . We had followed this course so long as now we were within seven or eight days at the most, by Captain Newport’s reckoning, of making Cape Henry upon the coast of Virginia, when on Saint James his day, July 24, being Monday, preparing for no less than all the black night before—theclouds gathering thick upon us, and the winds singing and whistling most unusuallyl, which made us to cast off our pinnace, towing the same until then astern—adreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out of 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, so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and fear use to overrun the troubled and overmastered senses of all, which, taken up with amazement, the ears lay so sensible to the terrible cries and murmurs of the winds and distraction of our company, as who was most armed and best prepared was not a little shaken.  For surely (noble lady) as death comes not so sudden nor apparent, so he comes not so elvish and painful to men, especially even then in health and perfect habitudes of body, as at sea; who comes at no time so welcome but our frailty (so weak is the hold of hope in miserable demonstrations of danger) it makes guilty of many contrary changes and conflicts.  For indeed death is accompanied at no time nor place with circumstances every way so uncapable of particularities of goodness and inward comforts as at sea.  For it is most true there ariseth commonly no such unmerciful tempest, compound of so many contrary and diverse nations, but that it worketh upon the whole frame of the body, and most loathsomely affecteth all the powers thereof.  And the manner of the sickness it lays upon the body, being so unsufferable, gives not the mind any free and quiet time to use her judgment and empire.  Which makes the poet say,

            Hostiam uxores puerique caecos
            Sentient motus orientis  Haedi &
            Aequoris nigri fremitum & tremendtes
                        verbere ripas

            For four and twenty hours the storm in a restless tumult had blown so exceedingly as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence. Yet did we still find it not only more terrible but more constant, fury added to fury, and one storm urging a second more outrageous than the former, whether it so wrought upon our fears or indeed met with new forces.

            Sometimes strikes in our ship amongs women and passengers not used to such hurly and discomforts made us look one upon the other with troubled hearts and panting bosoms, our clamors drown’d in the winds, and the winds in thunder.  Prayers might well be in the heart and lips, but drowned in the outcries of the officers, nothing heard that could give comfort, nothing seen that might encourage hope.  It is impossible for me, had I the voice of Stentor, and expression of as many tongues as his throat of voices, to express the outcries and miseries, not languishing but wasting his spirits and art, constant to his own principles, but not prevailing.

            Our sails, wound up, lay without their use.  And if any time we bore but a hillock, or half forecourse, to guide her before the sea, six and sometimes eight men were not enough to hold the whipstaff in the steerage and the tiller below in the gunner room, by which may be imagined the strength of the storm in which the sea swelled above the clouds and gave battle unto heaven.
            It could not be said to rain. The waters like whole rivers did flood in the air.  And this I did still observe that whereas upon the land when a storm hath poured itself forth once in drifts of rain, the wind, as beaten down and vanquished therewith, not long after endureth.  Here the glut of water, as if throttling the wind erewhile, was no sooner a little emptied and qualified but instantly the winds, as having gotten their mouths now free and at liberty, spake more loud, and grew more tumultuous and malignant.  What shall I say?  Winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them.  For mine own part, I had been in some storms before. . . Yet all that I had ever suffered gathered together might not hold comparison with this.  There was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.

Howbeit this was not all.  It pleased God to bring a greater affliction yet upon us, for in the beginning of the storm we had received likewise a mighty leak, and the ship in every joint almost having spewed out her oakum before we were aware (a casualty more desperate than any other that a voyage by sea draweth with it) was grown five foot suddenly deep with water above her ballast, and we almost drowned within whilest we sat looking when to perish from above.  This imparting no less terror than danger ran through the whole ship with much fright and amazement, startled and turned the blood, and took down the braves of the most hardy mariner of them all, insomuch as he that before happily felt not the sorrow of others now began to sorrow for himself when he saw such a pont of water so suddenly broken in, and which he knew could not without present avoiding but instantly sink him, so as joining only for his own sake, not yet worth the saving in the public safety.

            There might be seen master, master’s mate, boatswain, quartermaster, coopers, carpenters, and who not with candles in their hands, creeping along the ribs viewing the sides, searching every corner and listening in every place, if they could hear the water run.  Many a weeping leak was this way found and hastily stop”d, and at length one in the gunner room made up with I know not how many pieces of beef. But all was to no purpose:  The leak (if it were but one) which drunk in our greatest seas and took in our destruction fastest could not then be found, nor ever was, by any labor, counsel, or search.  The waters still increasing, and the pumps going, which at length choked with bringing up whole and continual biscuit—and indeed all we had, ten thousand weight—it was conceived as likely that the leak might be sprung in the bread room, whereupon the carpenter went down and rip”d up all the room, but could not find it so.

            I am not able to give unto Your Ladyship every man’s thought in this perplexity to which we were now brought; but to me this leakage appeared as a wound given to men that were before dead.  The Lord knoweth I had as little hope as desire of life in the storm, and in this it went beyond my will because beyond my reason why we should labor to preserve life. Yet we did, either because so dear are a few ling’ring hours of life in all mankind or that our Christian knowledges taught us how much we owed to the rites of nature, as bound not to be false to ourselves, or to neglect the means of our own preservation, the most despairful things amongst men being matters of no wonder nor moment with Him who is the rich foundation and admirable essence of all mercy.
            Our governor, upon the Tuesday morning (at what time by such who had been below in the hold the leak was first discovered) had caused the whole company—about one hundred and forty, besides women—to be equally divided into three partys, and opening the ship in three places:  under the forecastle, in the waist, and hard by the bittake—appointed each man where to attend; and thereunto every man came duly upon his watch, took the bucket or pump for one hour, and rested another.  Then men might be seen to labor (I may well say) for life, and the better sort, even our governor and and admiral themselves, not refusing their turn, and to spell each the other to give example to other.  The common sort stripped naked as men in galleys the easier both to hold out, and to shrink from under the salt water, which continually leapt in among them, kept their eyes waking and their hands working, with tired bodies and wasted spirits, three days and four nights destitute of outward comfort and desperate of any deliverance, testifying how mutually willing they were yet by labor to keep each other from drowning, albeit each one drowned whilest he labored.

            Once, so huge a sea brake upon the poop and quarter upon us as it covered our ship from stern to stern.  Like a garment or a vast cloud, it filled her brim full for a while within from the hatches up to the spar deck.  This source or confluence of water was so violent as it rush’d and carried the helm-man from the helm, and wrested the whipstaff out of his hand, which so flew from side to side that when he would have seized the same again, it so tossed him from starboard to larboard as it was God’s mercy it had not split him.  It so beat him from his hold, and so bruised him, as a fresh man, hazarding in by chance, fell fair with it, and by main strength bearing somewhat up, made good his place, and with much clamor encouraged and called upon others, who gave her now up rent in pieces and absolutely lost.

            Our governor was at this time below at the capstan, both by his speech and authority heartening every man unto his labor.  It struck him from the place where he sat and groveled him, and all us about him on our faces, beating together with our breaths all thought from our bosoms else than that we were now sinking.  For my part, I thought her already in the bottom of the sea, and I have heard him say, wading out of the flood thereof, all his ambition was but to climb up above hatches to die in aperto coelo, and in the company of his old friends.  It so stun’d the ship in her full pace that she stirred no more than if she had been caught in a net or than as if the fabulous remora had stuck to her forecastle.  Yet, without bearing one inch of sail, even then she was making her way nine or ten leagues in a watch.  One thing, it is not without his wonder whether it were the fear of death in so great a storm or that it pleased God to be gracious unto us:  There was not a passenger, gentleman or other, after he began to stir and labor but was able to relieve his fellow and make good his course.  And it is most true such as in all their lifetimes had never done hours’ work before (their minds now helping their bodies) were able twice forty-eight hours together to toil with the best.

            During all this time, the heavens look’d so black upon us that it was not possible the elevation of the Pole might be observed, not a star by night, not sunbeam by day was to be seen.  Only upon the Thursday night, Sir George Summers, being upon the watch, had an apparition of a little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon 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 main yard to the very end, and then returning; at which Sir George Summers called divers about him and showed them the same, who observed it with much wonder and carefulness.  But upon a sudden, towards the morning watch, they lost the sight of it and knew not what way it made.
            The superstitious seamen make many constructions of this sea fire, which nevertheless is unusual in storms.  The same it may be which the Grecians were wont in the Mediterranean to call “Castor and Pollux,” of which, if only one appeared without the other, they took it for an evil sign of great tempest.  The Italians, and such who lie open to the Adriatic and Tyrrhene Sea, call it a “sacred body” (corpo sancto).  The Spaniards call it Saint Elmo, and have an authentic and miraculous legend for it.  Be it what it will, we laid other foundations of safety or ruin than in the rising or falling of it.  Could it have served us now miraculously to have taken our height by, it might have stricken amazement and a reverence in our devotions, according to the due of a miracle.  But it did not light us any whit the more to our known way, who ran now as do hoodwinked men at all adventures, sometimes north and northeast, then north and by west, and in an instant again varying two or three points, and sometimes half the compass.
            East and by south we steered away, as much as we could to bear upright, which was no small carefulness nor pain to do, albeit we much unrigged our ship, threw overboard much luggage, many a trunk and chest (in which I suffered no mean loss), and staved many a but of beer, hogsheads of oil, cider, wine, and vingegar, and heaved away all our ordnance on the starboard side, and had now purposed to have cut down the mainmast the more to lighten her, so we were much spent, and our men so weary as their strengths together failed them with their hearts, having travailed now from Tuesday til Friday morning, day and night, without either sleep or food.  For the leakage taking up all the hold, we could neither come by beer nor fresh water; fire we could keep none in the cookroom to dress any meat, and carefulness, grief, and our turn at the pump or bukcket were sufficient to hold sleep from our eyes.

            And surely, madam, it is most true there was not any hour (a matter of admiration) all these days in which we freed not twelve hundred barricoes of water, the least whereof contained six gallons, and some eight, besides three deep pumps continually going, two beneath at the capstan and the other above in the half deck, and at each pump four thousand strokes at the least in a watch, so as I may well say every four hours we quitted one hundred tons of water.  And from Tuesday noon till Friday noon, we bailed and pumped two thousand ton, and yet, do what we could, when our ship held least in her (After Tuesday night second watch) she bore ten foot deep, at which stay our extreme working kept her one [for] eight glasses, forbearance whereof had instantly sunk us.  And it being now Friday, the fourth morning, it wanted little but that there had been a general determination to have shut up hatches, and commending our sinful souls to God, committed the ship to the mercy of the sea. Surely that night we must have done it, and that night had we then perished.
            But see the goodness and sweet introduction of better hope by our merciful God given unto us:  Sir George Summers, when no man dreamed of such happiness, had discovered and cried LAND!  Indeed the morning, now three quarters spent, had won little clearness from the days before, and it being better surveyed, th very trees were seen to move with the wind upon the shore side.  Whereupon our governor commanded the helm-man to bear up.  The boatswain sounding at the first found it thirteen fathom, and when we stood a little in, seven fathom; and presently heaving his lead the third time had ground at four fathom.  And by this we had got her within a mile under the southeast point of the land, where we had somewhat smooth water.  But having no hope to save her by coming to an anchor in the same, we were enforced to run her ashore as near the land as we could, which brought us within three quarters of a mile offshore; and by the mercy of God unto us, making out our boats, we had ere night brought all our men, women, and children, about the number of one hundred and fifty, safety into the island.

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