Thursday, September 08, 2011

Losing hope on the Hope-well: two more supernatural sea stories

I have a lecture to give during the coming term on ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. After the witch on the ship ‘Recovery’, this inclined me to find more supernatural goings-on at sea. Two more follow: immediately below, I have transcribed a full text of a brief pamphlet from the very end of the 17th century. Then follows the EEBO transcript (slightly edited) of another. I make brief comment on both.

First, Strange and wonderful news being a true, tho' sad relation of six sea-men (Belonging to the Margaret of Boston,) who sold themselves to the devil, and were invisibly carry’d away. Like the 1691 story of Elizabeth Masters, we are looking at ready-made substance for coffee house chat: the pamphlet is really aimed at getting the curious to go and see the fuller evidence on display in Lloyd’s coffee house.

The pamphlet has a brief preamble:

“Though this following Relation contains matter of very great Wonder and Amazement; nevertheless it comes to our Hands, confirm’d by that sufficient testimony, that we offer it to the Reader as a Narrative of unquestion’d Truth and Reputation.

By a Letter from Barbadoes, of the 23 of July last, written by a Person of Worth and Credit, in that island, we have this relation, viz., That the Margaret from Boston, the [illeg.], of December 95 bound to Berbadoes, in their Passage one of the saylers at the Helm call’d to the Master of the Vessel, and told him, That he could steer no longer. The Master asking the reason, he replyed, That he was not well; and for that cause quitted his Post; the Master taking the Helm, the said sailor further declared, That there stood a Spirit by the Binnacle, that accus’d him of killing a Woman; a fault which the Spirit had falsly charg’d him with; for he had never committed any such unmanly Crime in his Life. The Spirit, he said, further told him, that all the Ships Company had sign’d an Agreement with the Divel, which was us’d as an argument for him to do the same.

The next day the Fellow fell into strange Deleriums, and talk’d of wonderful Accidents that would befall the Ship; which were look’d upon as nothing but the wild Notions of his craz’d senses, the Chimera’s of Frenzy. Particularly he said, That the Spirit had brought a boat to fetch him away; with other ridiculous idle discourse of the same Nature.

Upon the 17th of January in the Latitude of 19 about 9 at Night, a small white Cloud arose, without any rain, or extraordinary Wind, which presently falling upon the ship pressed her down with that strange and supernatural Weight and force that the hatches flew out, and the whole Ship was under Water, by which unhappy Accident, the Boy was wash’d off and drowned.

But to begin the more miraculous part of my Narrative, the Ship continued under water for eleven Weeks; a thing that struck (as may be well imagin’d) an extraordinary Consternation and Confusion through the Marriners, from several strange Arguments of their Astonishment. First, that the ship should be wholly immerged under water, and yet not sunk downright to the bottom. Secondly, that tho’ they were apparently thus intirely under water, yet the Ship was not wholly filled with Water, but that they had Air enough to breath in, by which means they continued alive; feeding all this while, upon raw meat, and fresh Fish which came swimming over the Vessel, and several of which they Caught and Eat. Their lodging was on Boards placed athwart the Rail near the Taffrel covered with a Sail. The Men were always wet which, in so long a time, made an impression upon them that their flesh on their bodies was galled and raw.

But what was the most dismal part of all, Six of the Ship’s Crew upon the sinking of the Vessel under water, were frighted with Infernal Spirits; and about 12 the first Night were carried away invisibly, leaving no more then 4 persons alive behind them; which indeed gave some little Credit to what the afore mentioned Sailor at the helm had declared in his Deleriums.

After this 11 weeks Immurement these wondrous watry Walls, for so I may justly call it, the Ship recovered itself above the Water again, and the first Land they could discover was the Island Dissiado, which, with so few hands left, they could not fetch up, by reason of a strong Northern Current that bore against’em. The next was Grand-Terra, where they met with the same Disapointment: but on the 5th of April they run themselves on Shore upon Guardelupo; where the French treated them very kindly, not as prisoners, but as Men in Distress.

The names of the three Seamen left alive are William Davis Master (a Man very well known in London among the Berbadoes Merchants), William Cadner, and William Bywater. Not only the Original Letter, and the whole Relation, at large; is to be seen at Mr Lloyd’s coffee-house in Lumbard-Street, but likewise several Persons are to be heard of, and spoken withal upon the Exchange, in Attestation of the whole Truth herein declared.

The reverend Mr Baxter, in his Treatise of Spirits, says, That tho’ Hurricanes and tempests have natural causes, yet there is great reason to think they are managed by Spirits. In confirmation whereof, he relates some notable instances of his own particular Deliverances from the Fury of most boisterous Whirlewinds; namely, when the Reapers in Evesham Vale were Hurt, Writhen, and One killed, some friendly Power (for so he expresses it) restrain’d the course of Gravelly Sand, rais’d by a whirlwind, as it met him in a narrow lane.”

We will never know what happened on the Margaret (of Boston). That some men might survive for a while below decks on a semi-submerged vessel is not impossible (though the narrative does also seem to say that they were lodged on boards placed across the taffrail, apparently sheltered under a sail). But trapped below decks for eleven weeks? Living off raw meat and fish that swam past? What did they drink? And finally the vessel just pumped itself out and re-surfaced? Some terrible story is concealed under these events, and the supernatural story is just a ruse, to distract attention away from normal likelihoods, and what they did to survive.

Like the case of the witch on the ‘Recovery’, we have a story that starts with a seaman losing his nerve, making wild accusations against both himself and others, and feeling the diabolic temptation of a Satanic delivery from the sea: “Particularly he said, That the Spirit had brought a boat to fetch him away.”

The concluding reference to Richard Baxter is interesting. The agèd Baxter, writing earlier in the same decade, still believed in a spirit-haunted, witch-and-devil-filled world. When the anonymous writer thought of this parallel, he connects the mariners’ yarn of six seamen having made a pact with the devil (and disappearing invisibly, quickly and totally at midnight, rather than disappearing piecemeal) with a mindset in which it can be believed that the devil directs hurricanes and whirlwinds, that these somehow only strike churches, while the just enjoy ‘particular Deliverances’ (though Baxter has to concede that the personal linen of the just doesn’t enjoy quite such protection from that ‘friendly power’).

Baxter had said this: “Though Hurricanes and Whirlwinds have Natural Causes, yet I have great cause to think, that they are managed by some Spirits (as I said before of Storms). Gunpowder worketh in Guns according to its nature; but if some Rational Agent did not invent, make, and manage it, all its Power, would be of little use. I have marvelled to see my own small Linnen spred out by Servants to dry, to be suddenly catcht up, and carried over the Town and Steeple away, and never more heard of. Near the time when some Reapers in the Vale of Evesham were hurt, writhen, and one killed with a Whirlwind, I was walking in a Gravelly Way in a Corn-field, there being a Lane besides me, between two Hedges; suddenly a Whirlwind came up the Cart-way, casting up the Gravelly Sand directly to meet me; when it came within Ten or Twelve Yards of me, I was about stepping out of the way into the Corn, to escape it, but it suddenly turned out of the way to the Right-hand, into the Lane from me, so as perswaded me, that it was a voluntary Motion, directed by a friendly Power; for it went straight on up the Lane, and tore the Hedges and Branches of the Trees on the side of the Lane. But these are small effects to what other see, especially of the great Hurricanes at Sea in the West-Indies. The Spirits that Rule in the Air have great Power of the Airy Motions.

Many and many Churches have been thus torn, proportionably so much beyond all other Buildings, especially of Stone, that I cannot but think there is some knowing Agent that maketh the Choice, though I know not who, nor why. Except a few Hay-Ricks, I remember not that till this Seventy sixth Year of my Age, I have known Lightenings to have had Hurting Power on any Buildings but Churches, save very rarely, and small, as this last Year, at Islington, it entred a House, and kil’'d a Woman and Child:) Nor to have torn any Wood but Oak, (which in Trees and Buildings I have seen torn where I dwelt.) But divers persons have been killed and scorch’d by it. An Eminent Knight, that I knew, is commonly said to have been struck dead by it in his Garden.”

[Extracts from: The certainty of the worlds of spirits … Richard Baxter (1691).]

EEBO also offers this cleverly self-exculpatory supernatural narrative (for such I take it to be) attested to by a ship’s master. Having lost his collier off Spurn Head on its way back from Newcastle, he has concocted a stirring tale of the evil spirit on board that sank the ship. It manifested to him (and only him) frequently, but he shapes his story so that we can see that he reacted with professional skill and courage. But all to no avail: on board his ship, nothing would work properly, candles burned blue, the ship’s boat launched itself, the explosive departure of the spirit as the ship went down burned his face...

A True and Perfect Relation of the Strange and Dreadful Apparition which lately Infested and Sunk a Ship bound for New-castle, called, The Hope-well of London.

The 22. of February, 1672 we sailed from Gravesend; and the 26. by Gods Providence we sailed over the Bar of Newcastle, and there Loaded the 2. of March. About Nine or Ten of the Clock in the Night following, we having made all clear and ready for the furtherance of our Voyage, some time after Supper I went to rest, when about Twelve of the Clock in the Night, to the best of my remembrance, I was awaked out of my sleep by a great noise, (but saw nothing) which to the best of my capacity, bid me Be gone, and that I had nothing to do there. But being so hastily disturbed, and not certain what might be the cause, I gave it over for a Dream, and past that accident as uncertain of the truth. Now after the first Day was past, about Eight or Nine of the Clock at Night I went to rest; and about twelve, my Mate was striking a Light to take a Pipe of Tobacco, (as I suppose) and expecting the Wherry to go up to the Town, being the Tide fell out about Two in the Morning, I desired the Candle might not be put out; and being as well awake as now I am, to the best of my judgement, I was then pulled by the Hair of my Head off from my Pillow, and the same words declared to me as before; and then I saw the perfect face and proportion of a Man, in a black Hat, stuff Coat, and striped Neck-cloth, with hanging down Hair, and a sower-down-looking Countenance, and his Teeth being set in his Head, I had then time to say, Lord have mercy upon me· What art? at which he vanished: Yet the Candle burned very blew, and almost went out: Hereupon being much discontented, I did by the following Post give my Owners a just account of what had befallen me.

The Fifth of that instant, we set sail: about four of the Clock in the day, the Wind at W. S. W. fair Weather, and a brave Gale off the shore, which continued until half an hour after a Eleven on Wednesday Night; at which time the man at the Helm called out that he could not stir the Helm: but after I had pulled off the Whip-staff, the Ship steered as before, being still fair Weather, the Wind then coming to the N. W. and Snowing Weather, but very fair and clear. I was yet doubtful of more Wind, and therefore caused the Men to furl the fore Top-sail, and lower down the main Top-sail upon the back of the main Sail, but could not with all the strength we had hale in; the Weather brake off the fore Top-sail, when this was still in my judgement, that our Ship did hale as much, as when our Sails were out. Then we haled up our main Sail, and still the Ship had the same list as with a large Wind, which to my judgment might be half a streak or thereabout.

By this time it was Two of the Clock, then our Men tried the Pump, and found little or no water in her: the Man at the Helm called out, That the Candle burned so blew in the Lanthorn, That it gave little or no light, and three several times went out, so that I held the Candle to the Look-out, which Candle did burn very well, and showed a good light; but of a sudden our Ship would not feel her Helm so kindly as before, and brought all our Sails aback. Then our Ship heeled as much to Windward as before to Leeward: the Glass being out, we went to the Pump, and found no water in the Ship, but she did not steer well, neither could I find the reason, being still so fair weather: This unkind steerage, made me urgent to try the Pump yet more, but I could not get the upper box to work, nor stir; but having taken that up, and trying with the Pump-hook, we could not come near the lower box by a foot and a half, which to my judgement was hindered by something like a Bull-fish, or Woolsack, that as we forced down, gave up again with the hook: Whereupon Mistrusting that all was not well, I caused our men to keep the Coat of our pump up, and my self loosened the tack; in the mean time I ordered two men to loose the Boat, which they did, being lashed in three places: Yet they do not remember to this hour, that they loosened any of them but the middlemost; and with three men in her, the Boat went over the top of the Fore-sheet, which lay above the stem, without touching it, with such violence, as even amazed us that saw it: And they that were in the Boat gave such loud cries, as frighted him at the Helm who came running out unknown to me. But then finding the ship coming nearer the wind then formerly, I ran to the stair-case, to bid him put the Helm over, but could not: And hearing one jump down at the hatch, which was open at the half Deck, did suppose that the Helms man came down again; and calling him by his name to come and help me, the word was no sooner out of my mouth, but I perceived the same person that I had formerly seen before we came out of the Harbour; who came violently to me, saying, Be gone, you have no more to do here; throwing me in at the Cabin door, clear upon the top of the table; when I crying out, In the name of God what art, he vanished away in a flash of fire: thinking withal, that the ship had split in a thousand pieces, it giving such a crack. The men thereupon calling out, Master if ye be a man come away, did something revive me; and striving to have got to my chest, being I had some money in it, I found that something hindered me, but what it was I could not tell. Then perceiving the main Sea coming in so fast, that I was up to the waste, before I could get out of the Cabin; and finding all our men in the Boat but only one, I desired him to get a compass; which he did, yet could never after know what became of it. We were no sooner in the Boat, but the Ship sank down, and yet having a great Sea Fur Gown, which lay upon the dicker upon the ships going down, the very upset of the water brought it to the Boats side, and one of our men took it in. We reckoned our selves to be ten or twelve Leagues E. S. E. from the Spurn, I perceived the Fane at the Main-top-mast head, when the ship was sunk: We continued in the Boat from three in the morning, till ten or eleven that day, when we were taken up by a Whitby Ketch, who used us very kindly, and towed our Boat at his stern with two ends of a hawser, till she brake away: She being bound for Newcastle, and the wind being contrary, did on the Saturday following, set us a shore at Grimsby in Hull River, where the Mayor gave us a Pass for London.

This is a true and perfect relation to the best of my knowledge in every respect,

John Pye Master. And attested by nine men more, all belonging to my Ship.

Postscript. I had forgot to express, that one side of my face is burnt and blasted sorely, which I felt within half an hour after I was gone out of the Ship; but how it came upon me in the Ship I could not tell, being then in a great horror and amazement. John Pye.

The little pamphlet was published in both Edinburgh and London.

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