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A Brief History of Shipwrecks in Literature

Alan G. Jamieson on Why Lost Ships Are So Compelling to Writers

On August 14, 2020 the animal transport Gulf Livestock 1 departed Napier, New Zealand, bound for China. The Panamanian-registered vessel was carrying almost 6,000 live cattle and had a crew of 43: 39 men from the Philippines, including the captain, two from New Zealand and two from Australia.

On 2 September, when the ship was southwest of Japan, an emergency message was sent out. The engine had failed and the vessel was drifting in stormy seas caused by Typhoon Maysak. The Japanese coast guard responded and picked up two survivors, both Filipinos. They said the ship had been struck by a large wave and had capsized. The other 41 members of the crew had died, along with the cargo of cattle.

News items about this incident appeared on various media sites for a few days before it was forgotten. This recent shipwreck was one of so many across the centuries. The oldest known shipwreck, on the coast of Greece, is more than 4,000 years old, and UNESCO has estimated that there are more than 3 million shipwreck sites around the world. Shipwrecks have always been part of human experience, with the earliest account of a shipwreck, from ancient Egypt, being almost as old as the oldest known shipwreck.

The loss of the Gulf Livestock 1 fits the most popular image of a shipwreck, with a vessel being overpowered by the forces of nature in a storm at sea. Other conceptions involve ships being driven onto a rocky coast by stormy seas. Yet the best-known shipwreck, that of the Titanic in 1912, took place when the North Atlantic Ocean was almost calm; an iceberg was the cause, not stormy seas. There have been many types of shipwreck over the centuries, including ships that simply disappeared.

Even in the age of sail, when shipwrecks were much more common than they are today, most people had never been in a shipwreck or even seen one from the shore. Yet shipwrecks, like other types of disaster, were popular subjects for storytelling, and most people’s knowledge of disasters at sea came via such stories.

The dramatic nature of shipwrecks made them obvious targets for transformation into fictional literary forms.

Shipwrecks feature in Homer’s Odyssey, written in the eighth century BCE, and St Paul’s shipwreck at Malta appears in the Bible, but shipwreck narratives as a literary genre only started in the sixteenth century CE when Portuguese survivors of shipwrecks produced pamphlets about their experiences, which found many readers. The non-fiction shipwreck narrative enjoyed its heyday from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, with Archibald Duncan’s six-volume anthology The Mariner’s Chronicle: Containing Narratives of the Most Remarkable Disasters at Sea (first volume 1804) being perhaps the greatest of them all. However, even in the late twentieth century stories such as Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm could achieve considerable popular success.

The dramatic nature of shipwrecks made them obvious targets for transformation into fictional literary forms. A number of William Shakespeare’s plays feature shipwrecks, most notably A Comedy of Errors (1594), Twelfth Night (1602) and The Tempest (1611). Shakespeare’s inspiration for the shipwreck in the last of these three is said to have been the story of the wreck of the Sea Venture in 1609.

The Sea Venture was part of a supply fleet on its way to the struggling English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in North America. Encountering a storm while crossing the North Atlantic, the ship was wrecked on the island of Bermuda. The survivors managed to construct two smaller vessels from the shattered timbers of the Sea Venture and in 1610 they sailed on to Jamestown, only to find the colonists ready to evacuate the settlement. Fortunately, another supply fleet arrived and the colonists decided to continue with their new life in America. An account of the Sea Venture’s wreck and subsequent events was published in London in 1611 and was probably known to Shakespeare when he wrote and presented The Tempest later that year.

After Shakespeare, the man who did most to bring the shipwreck into English literature was Daniel Defoe. Originally a London merchant, Defoe was swept up in the shipwreck-hunting mania that followed New Englander Captain Phips’s recovery of treasure from a sunken Spanish galleon in the Caribbean in 1687. Phips brought great wealth to himself and his backers in England. Many companies were set up to go on similar hunts for sunken treasure and Defoe invested in a diving-bell concerned with that aim, even becoming its treasurer. Like most such ventures this company achieved nothing; Defoe lost his money and was accused of financial irregularities.

This debacle was one of the reasons Defoe went bankrupt in 1692. To salvage his fortunes, he took up writing, producing both fiction and non-fiction. In 1703 a great storm swept across southern England and sank a dozen Royal Navy warships as well as forty merchant ships, with hundreds of sailors drowned. Defoe’s book The Storm (1704) was a detailed study of this disaster and was the first book to cover a national weather event.

Defoe’s fictional work Robinson Crusoe (1719) is regarded by many as the first English novel. It is a shipwreck—from which Crusoe is the only survivor—that begins the tale of his adventures as a castaway. The story of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk is usually taken to be the inspiration for Defoe’s work, and it is certainly true that the author’s account of Crusoe’s life on the island owes much to details of Selkirk’s time as a castaway. However, Selkirk was not shipwrecked.

After a dispute with the captain about the seaworthiness of his ship, Selkirk had asked to be put ashore on an island in the Juan Fernández group in the Pacific Ocean on South America in 1704. Only in 1709 was he rescued by a visiting British ship. Selkirk did at least have the satisfaction of learning that the ship he had left did later sink, and that only the captain and a few other men had survived. The fact that Selkirk was not shipwrecked has led some scholars to suggest the authors of various contemporary shipwreck narratives as possible alternative inspirations for Defoe’s castaway.

The success of Robinson Crusoe led to the popularity of shipwreck scenes in eighteenth-century literature. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Gulliver survives a shipwreck and once he has reached the shore he falls asleep. On waking he discovers that he has been tied to the ground by the tiny inhabitants of the land of Lilliput. In Candide (1759), Voltaire has his hero survive a shipwreck near Lisbon, Portugal, only to reach that port just in time for the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which he also survives.

Neither Swift nor Voltaire had any personal experience of shipwreck, but one of the first notable poems about a shipwreck was written by a sailor who had survived not one but two of them and would eventually be lost in a third. The Scottish mariner William Falconer served on both merchant ships and warships, with his first shipwreck taking place in one of the latter. In 1760 the warship HMS-Ramillies was wrecked on the south coast of Devon. Out of 850 men on board, only 27 survived, one of whom was Falconer. Returning to the merchant service, Falconer joined a ship called Britannia, which was active in the Levant trade.

On a voyage from Alexandria to Venice, the ship was wrecked on the coast of Greece, with Falconer one of only three survivors. With this latter wreck as his main inspiration, Falconer wrote the poem The Shipwreck (1762), which enjoyed considerable acclaim. After finishing his equally popular maritime dictionary in 1769, Falconer set out for India as a passenger in the frigate HMS-Aurora. The ship left Cape Town, South Africa, on 27 December 1769 and was never seen again. It was generally thought to have been lost in a storm in the Indian Ocean in January 1770. Falconer’s poem remained an inspiration for both writers and artists well into the nineteenth century.

One of the most famous French novels of the eighteenth century was Paul et Virginie (1788), written by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The titular young couple are brought up together on the island of Mauritius (then known as Ile de France) in the Indian Ocean and later fall in love. Eventually Virginie is forced to leave, and when she finally returns her ship is wrecked within sight of Mauritius, after which Paul finds her lifeless body washed up on the beach.

The author had spent some time in Mauritius and the inspiration for his shipwreck account is said to have been the loss of the French East Indiaman St Géran on the island in 1744, which only ten of the 267 people on board survived. The novel remained extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century and many artists portrayed the scene of Paul finding Virginie’s body on the beach.

Shipwrecks could impact more directly on the lives of writers, as in the case of the English poet William Wordsworth. His brother John was a captain in the service of the East India Company. In 1805 he set out on a voyage to India and China in his ship Earl of Abergavenny, but the voyage had hardly started when the ship was wrecked in a storm on the south coast of England. John Wordsworth was not among the survivors, and it has been claimed that grief over his brother’s death contributed to the declining quality of William Wordsworth’s later poems.

Family links to shipwreck are also found in the narrative poem Don Juan, which George Gordon, Lord Byron, began to publish in 1819. Byron’s grandfather, Admiral John Byron, had set out with Commodore Anson on his squadron’s voyage around the world in 1740 when he was a young midshipman. Unfortunately his ship, HMS-Wager, became separated after rounding Cape Horn and was wrecked on the coast of Chile. The shipwreck was followed by a mutiny among the surviving sailors, and young Byron was lucky to survive these events.

Eventually, in 1768, he published an account of his experiences that enjoyed some success with the reading public. Lord Byron used his grandfather’s account as inspiration for the shipwreck section of Don Juan, but the cannibalism in that section was drawn from other shipwreck narratives and not the story of the loss of the Wager.

Shipwrecks loom large in the works of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, especially his short story “Ms. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837). In the latter, Poe thought so much of one of his inspirations, the loss of the American brig Polly in 1811, that he outlined much of its story in a footnote. One of the most famous American poems about a shipwreck, The Wreck of the Hesperus (1840) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had its inspiration in the great blizzard that swept across New England in January 1839, sinking twenty ships with a loss of forty lives.

In Longfellow’s poem, a captain unwisely brings his daughter along on a winter voyage. One of his crew says a big storm is coming, but the captain ignores him. Soon the ship is being hit by stormy seas and the captain ties his daughter to a mast to stop her being washed overboard. The ship is eventually wrecked on Norman’s Woe, a reef near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and all on board perish. The daughter is found still tied to the mast when it is washed ashore.

Longfellow’s direct inspiration was the Favorite, a vessel from Wiscasset, Maine, which was wrecked on Norman’s Woe in the 1839 storm. There were no survivors, and it was said that a woman’s body was found strapped to a mast. Longfellow changed the name of the vessel to the Hesperus, another vessel lost in the 1839 storm, which was wrecked near Boston. The poem was recited by generations of American schoolchildren, and it was still well enough known in the first half of the twentieth century to form the basis for two films, one made in 1927 and the other in 1’48.

Although shipwrecks by no means vanish from literature after 1900, they are no longer such important elements in stories as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although it was greeted with widespread indifference when it first appeared in 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is now regarded as one of the greatest American novels. Much of the inspiration for its contents came from the story of the loss of the whaleship Essex in 1820. The ship le( its home port of Nantucket, New England, and went to the Pacific Ocean in quest of whales.

When west of the coast of South America, the crew encountered a sperm whale that struck back at them, smashing a hole in the side of the Essex. Before the ship sank, the crew recovered some supplies from it, but they had only two small whaleboats to carry them across the ocean to South America. After many difficulties, and with some survivors resorting to cannibalism, only eight of the original crew of twenty were eventually picked up by passing ships. Many films have been made based on Moby-Dick, with the 1956 version being the most famous.

Although ships made of iron and, later, steel and propelled by steam engines seemed to promise greater safety at sea than the old wooden sailing ships, shipwrecks still occurred in the late nineteenth century. In December 1875 the German steamship Deutschland, bound for the U-A, was wrecked on a sandbank in the Thames estuary after straying on course. Among those who died in the wreck were five Franciscan nuns fleeing the anti-Catholic laws in Prussia.

Their fate moved a young English Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to write his famous poem The Wreck of the “Deutschland.” Wooden sailing ships remained vulnerable to shipwreck, and when the Royal Navy’s sail training ship HMS-Eurydice was lost on the Isle of Wight in 1878, with only two survivors from the 361 people on board, Hopkins produced the poem The Loss of the Eurydice. In both poems Hopkins struggles to understand God’s purpose in allowing such tragedies to occur, but finally comes to believe that acceptance of God’s higher wisdom is the only answer. None of Hopkins’s poems was published in his lifetime, but after their first printing in 1918 they were soon recognized as important literary works.

God’s purpose in allowing tragic shipwrecks to happen and His divine providence in allowing some people to survive them have been themes for writers since at least the sixteenth century. In the late nineteenth century the first writers of what would become science fiction saw shipwrecks in a different, more secular light. In his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) Jules Verne created a character in Captain Nemo who is hostile to the world above the sea, with its political and religious conflicts, but even he needs money to support his activities.

Whenever Nemo needs to refill his coffers, he takes his submarine Nautilus to Vigo Bay in northwest Spain, where his divers collect gold, silver and jewels from the Spanish treasure galleons lost there in 1702. Those galleons, escorted by French warships, had arrived at Vigo to escape an Anglo-Dutch fleet that was looking for them. The pursuers then found their prey, sailed into Vigo Bay and destroyed the Franco-Spanish fleet. Although most of the treasure had already been landed before the battle, tales of sunken riches at Vigo continued for decades afterwards.

H. G. Wells, in his novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), placed a shipwreck survivor on an island who soon finds out that the resident doctor is conducting evil experiments there on animals and humans. Where once a shipwreck survivor might have been confronted by primitive tribes, he now finds himself at the mercy of a mad scientist.

Although shipwrecks by no means vanish from literature after 1900—indeed, one appears in a fiction work as recent as Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi (2001; film adaptation 2012)—they are no longer such important elements in stories as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Out of the Depths

Excerpted from Out of the Depths: A History of Shipwrecks by Alan G. Jamieson, available via Reaktion Books.

Alan G. Jamieson
Alan G. Jamieson
Alan G. Jamieson is a researcher and writer based in Alberta, Canada. His books include the novel Crossroads of the Years and Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs, the latter also published by Reaktion Books.





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