Many people know about the floundering Jamestown Colony in Virginia in the early 1600s, but most have never heard of the side trip that one vessel, the Sea Venture, which along with eight other ships was sento bring aid to the struggling community, took on her way there. This book is a primary source narrative using the writings of two of that ship’s passengers, telling of the time they spent separated from the rest of their fleet and their subsequent sojourn on the island of Bermuda.
Until the Sea Venture was shipwrecked on the treacherous rocky shoals surrounding the island, no long-term colonists had settled there. The islands were known to pirates and other mariners, but Bermuda was known as the Devil’s Island because successful navigation into her bays was virtually impossible and so many ships foundered trying.
Although the devil was still at play with the fate of the Sea Venture, Bermuda was a huge blessing for the passengers of the ship, who had been swept into a hurricane, separated from their fleet, and only hours before had consigned their souls to God after almost four days of continuous bailing and attempting to stop their ship’s leaks. Exhausted, the passengers had closed the hatch and waited for the deep blue to claim them. One passenger had stayed above, and it was he who called out the land sighting and guided the battered ship as far in as he could before the ship ran aground.
William Strachey’s narrative is the longer of the two and much richer in both detail and language. Silvester Jourdain’s narrative has the feel of a letter written to sum things up for its recipient; its linguistic style is far simpler than Strachey’s, but gives some pertinent details lacking in his writings. In this version, spelling and punctuation have been modernized, but the syntax is retained. If you are not accustomed to reading documents from this era, it might take a bit to get used to the style. There are extensive superscripted notes, with explanations printed at the end of each chapter, helping to explain terminology that is unfamiliar to modern readers and give extra information.
In addition to the two narratives there are also two sections at the beginning of the book giving a little back story and telling how the narratives came into our modern era. Of particular interest to many, and indeed the reason why many people read it, is the fact that Strachey’s narrative is believed to have been William Shakespeare’s inspiration for his play The Tempest. It is also interesting to note that John Rolfe, who would later assure his place in history through marriage to Pocahontas, was one of the passengers.
From vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Bermuda, through the trials and infighting that the shipwrecked passengers endured, to their eventual reunion with their fellow Englishmen in Virginia (not a spoiler, as you know their fate from the book’s introduction), these two narratives are an excellent first hand accounting of this unique voyage.