Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Walking ashore through pack ice: Plymouth, 1684

This link is the Guardian reporting the likely disappearance of the polar icecap in the next three decades, while in this pamphlet of 1684, two survivors of a hideous series of ship-board calamities walk six hours across the frozen waters of the Channel to make landfall near Plymouth, leaving their ship, “the De Ruyter of Rotterdam”, icebound: “which we see at a distance, but as yet the Frost is so hard we cannot get to her”.

The author of the little pamphlet is one J.G., who is housing the survivors at his home in Plymouth. In August 1683, Heer van Essell, a prosperous Dutch Merchant, hired a ship to take him and his family (his “exceedingly Beautiful wife” and their two children) home to Holland from the West Indies. For the first two months, the voyage went well, but they then were becalmed for several weeks. Besides this family of four, there were sixteen seamen and the ship’s master on board the ship. Several of the crew die of disease, the rationed food runs out, the rest go for four days go without any food. They are unable to make land. The two children of the Van Essels die, and their corpses are eaten.

It is then resolved that they must draw lots for the next to be killed and eaten, with a second draw in the same lottery, to settle the executioner. The draw falls to the wife to be eaten, and her husband to kill her. Van Essel is reported to have said words to this effect: “ ‘I am resolved never to be her Executioner, who hath been so loving a just a Wife to me, but in her stead am resolved my self the Sacrifice.’ He drew a Pistol from his Pocket, which he so unexpectedly discharged, they had not time to prevent it, shot himself in the Head, of which Wound he Immediately died”. His body is divided up, but “No entreaties could perswade her to Feed on that dear Corps she had so often cherished, but what share thereof the hardship of her Fate allowed her for her Food, she Embalmed with her Tears.” An English seaman on board manages to catch two rats, which she eats instead. There follows another lottery to be killed and eaten: once again, the lot falls to the luckless and by now suicidal woman to be eaten, but the Englishman on board is committed to saving her: “Carpinger with two more he hired, steps in and resolutely withstood the Execution; Upon which Quarrel they drew their Falchions, and four Persons were Slain, amongst whom the Faithful Servant was one. This was sufficient Morsel for the present, and staid the Bloody Hunger of the Survivors.”

J.G. does not indicate quite how the heroic Carpinger and Mistress Van Essell were keeping themselves alive. The purgatorial voyage is almost over in terms of distance, “But such was the Rigour of their Fate, that by the unused Dyet most of the Men were Dead, just as they got sight of the Lands end of England, and having but very few hands to work their Vessel, they found that from the danger they had been so long in, a second threatned them from the Severity of the late Season, for the Ice being there in very great Flakes, they found themselves drove amidst the same towards the Shore.”

The ship is, rather astonishingly, fast in pack ice in the western English channel for six more days, leaving all dead but Carpinger, the woman, and two others, ‘and these so Miserably weak they could not leave their Cabbins, so that being Froze in, that they could not stir, Carpinger with the Lady resolved to venture on the Ice, and set towards the Shore…’ Equipped with a long pole and a plank (I assume to get from floe to floe), Carpinger and the Lady walk for six hours, and reach shore near Plymouth.

J.G.’s novelistic brief account, with its well-defined English hero, beautiful heroine in extreme distress, invented speeches and abundant sentiment, manages a kind of happy ending to all these woes: “Where at my own House the said Parties do now remain, in reasonable Health. And considering the care and kindness of Carpinger, the Lady seems much to Favour him, and when the time of Mournings over, will undoubtedly make him happy in her Embraces.”

The work is signed and dated, and witnesses to its truth appended, 'J.G., Plymouth, Feb. 3d. 1683'.

There’s currently a whole genre of books documenting disasters at sea (Nathaniel Philbrick, Edward Leslie, Stephen Taylor, John Rousmaniere, Tami Ashcraft, Douglas Robertson). I don’t know if any of these authors has picked up on the sad voyage of the de Ruyter. We jump on a plane, travel the world, and think it worth anecdote if there’s a scrum at Heathrow. Here are the awful hazards of travel, early modern style.

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