Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"We Will Live and Die Together"

 
The following scene, which I may include in a forthcoming novel about the conflict caused by English attempts to establish settlements at Roanoke in the 1580s, sets up an interesting side-note to Humphrey Gilbert’s botched attempt to found an English colony off the coast of Maine.
 
Gilbert and his crew sensed how close to Sable Island’s rocks the Squirrel, riding the crests of turbulent waves, had come.  If he dared to put out to sea, how many days or weeks would it be before he could return?  On this island roamed wild pigs and cattle, set ashore by Portuguese explorers.   He had to replenish his food supply.  The alternative was to return to the Queen in disgrace!  The Newfoundland fishermen had warned him about Sable Island, about how in bad weather too many ships had been dashed against its rocks.  "Approach it in the best of conditions."  Well, he had done the opposite.
 
Slanting rain pelted him.  He turned his face away from its force.  Minutes passed.  Sailors were staring at him, turning their faces when he attempted eye contact.  He would wait a bit longer!
 
If the fog lifted, he could then be certain.  If not, …   The waiting was intolerable!   He stared, at drifting, amorphous shapes.
 
A ferocious blast of wind drove him off his feet.  He careened down the slippery starboard deck, his right leg striking stanchions.  Adjusting painfully to the roll of the ship, gripping a foremast spar, he stood.  The boards beneath his feet trembled.  Fear constricted his throat.
 
"Admiral!  Here!"
 
Gilbert hesitated, then followed the beckoning sailor to a cluster of four seamen just aft of broadside.  There!  The fog had opened.  Gilbert's largest ship, the Delight, was coming apart on dark rocks.  And in the water . . . the ship's crew: heads, flailing arms.  Miraculously, a boat in the water, just beyond, in one eye-blink, capsized.  Churning bodies, disappearing.  Gone!
 
For an hour Gilbert’s two ships maintained their positions.  Then he ordered their departure.  All one hundred of the Delight’s crew had perished.  Numbed with guilt, he retired to his cabin.
 
There were sixteen survivors.  During Gilbert's seventeen day lay-over at Newfoundland, his carpenters had built a pinnace (a small sailing ship used frequently to transport people from ship to shore).  The Delight had towed the pinnace behind her to Sable Island.  The sixteen sailors boarded her.  They headed northward, attempting to steer with one oar.  On the seventh day of their ordeal they reached the shoreline of southern Newfoundland, where they ate wild peas and berries.  When a French ship discovered them, four had died.  The remaining twelve were transported across the Atlantic to a Spanish port near the French border.  They crossed over into France that night, and they eventually returned to England.
 
Richard Hakylut’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation includes an account of their survival by the master mariner of the Delight, Richard Clarke.  Here is my summary, aided by excerpts from his account.
 
Some of the Delight’s company in the water were able to swim.  They recovered the pinnace and hauled out of the water others afloat, including Clarke.   Eventually, sixteen men occupied the boat.  Expecting death, they were determined to “prolong their liues as long as it pleased God.”  They anticipated “euery moment of an houre when the Sea would eate them vp, the boate being so little and so many men in her, and so foule weather.”  For two days and two nights their boat went where the ocean directed them, “God pleased to allow their boat to live in the sea.”
 
A master named Hedley proposed to Clarke that it might “please God that some of vs may come to the land if our boate were not ouerladen. Let vs make sixteene lots, and those foure that haue the foure shortest lots we will cast ouerboord preseruing the Master among vs all. I replied vnto him, saying, no we will liue and die together.”  Hedley asked Clarke if his memory of their location was good.  Clarke answered that he knew how far off land they were (“but threescore leagues from the lande”) and hoped to come to land within two or three days.  This put them all “in comfort.”
 
“Thus we continued the third and fourth day without any sustenance, saue onely the weedes that swamme in the Sea, and salt water to drinke.”  On the fifth day Hedley and another man died.  During all of the five days and nights “we saw the Sunne but once and the Starre but one night, it was so foule weather.”  All were very weak.  Doubting that they would ever reach land, they wished to die.
 
“I promised them that the seuenth day they should come to shore, or els they should cast me ouer boord.”  At 11 a.m. on the seventh day they sighted land (southern Newfoundland), and at 3 p.m. they reached shore.  All during the seven days and nights the wind had “kept continually South.  If the wind had in the meanetime shifted vpon any other point, wee had neuer come to land: we were no sooner come to the land, but the wind came cleane contrary at North within halfe an houre after our arriuall.”
 
“But we were so weake that one could scarcely helpe another of vs out of the boate, yet with much adoe being come all on shore we kneeled downe ypon our knees and gaue God praise that he had dealt so mercifully with vs. Afterwards those which were strongest holpe their fellowes vnto a fresh brooke, where we satisfied our selues with water and berries very well.”
 
The area abounded with berries.  They spied a little wood consisting of pine, spruce, fir, and birch.  They made a little house with boughs inside which they spent the night.  The next morning Clarke “deuided the company three and three to goe euery way to see what foode they could find to sustaine thenselues, and appointed them to meete there all againe at noone with such foode as they could get.”  They found great stores of peas “as good as any wee haue in England: a man would thinke they had bene sowed there.”  They rested there three days and three nights, eating berries and peas.  Afterward, they rowed their boat along the shore five days, putting on land “when we were hungry or a thirst.”   
 
They “came to a very goodly riuer that ranne farre vp into the Countrey and saw very goodly growen trees of all sortes.”  There they happened upon a French Basque whaling vessel, which took them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish harbor, The Passage.  “The Master of the shippe was our great friend.    When the visitors came aboord, as it is the order in Spaine, they demanding what we were, he sayd we were poore fishermen that had cast away our ship in Newfound land and so the visitors inquired no more of the matter at that time.”  Had he told the truth, Clarke and his men would have been put to death.
 
That night their friend put them on land “and bad vs shift for our selues.”  They were ten or twelve miles from the French border.  They walked that night into France and “came into England toward the end of the yeere 1583.”
 
You may read a brief biographical account of Richard Clarke by the historian David B. Quinn by accessing http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/clarke_richard_1E.html.