Strachey's 'A true reportory of the wreck' in Bermuda

Description

Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625) is a vast four-volume collection of travel narratives compiled by the cleric, Samuel Purchas. It includes ‘A true reportory of the wracke’ by William Strachey (1572–1621). This is the dramatic survivor’s account of a ‘most dreadfull Tempest’ and shipwreck on the Bermudas, and a probable source for Shakespeare’s play.

Although it was not printed until 1625, a manuscript version of Strachey’s account was first circulated in England in 1610, when Shakespeare is thought to have seen it before writing The Tempest.

A ‘most dreadfull Tempest’

William Strachey was a member of the Virginia Company chartered by King James I to establish a colony in North America. He was a passenger on the Sea Venture, part of a fleet led by Admiral George Somer, that was heading for Virginia when it was struck by a ‘terrible storme’. The tempest sank one ship, dispersed the others, and drove the Sea Venture on to the rocky coast of the Bermudas (pp. 1734–35). Strachey claims these ‘Devils Ilands’ were ‘feared and avoyded … above any other place in the world’ but, like Shakespeare’s island, they became a place of miraculous ‘deliverance’ for the passengers and crew (p. 1737). Despite several ‘mutinous’ revolts (pp. 1742–45), the survivors lived on the island for almost a year, and ultimately reached Jamestown, Virginia, in two newly-made boats.

At the end of Strachey’s letter, Purchas adds an extract from another travel narrative, the Virginia Company’s True Declaration of the estate of the colony (1610). It includes a grisly description of cannibalism by an Englishman who ‘mortally hated his Wife’, ‘secretly killed her’ and claimed that she died naturally before he ‘fed daily upon her’ (p. 1757).

William Strachey and Shakespeare

The Tempest contains only one direct reference to the Bermudas, when Ariel tells how Prospero called him ‘to fetch dew / From the still-vex’d Bermoothes’ (1.2.228–29). Yet many critics see Strachey’s account of the wreck in the Bermudas as a key source for the play. Aside from The Tempest’s title, the violent storm and the island setting, Shakespeare may have been inspired by Strachey’s vivid descriptions of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘diverse mutinies’ in the Bermudas and in Jamestown. There are also possible parallels with Caliban in the treachery of the Indian Chief Powhatan.

The marginal note added by Samuel Purchas asks troubling questions also raised by Shakespeare’s play: ‘Can a Leopard change his spots? Can a savage remayning a Savage be civill? Were not wee our selves made and not borne civill … were not Caesars Britaines as Brutish as Virginians?’ (p. 1755). Prospero condemns Caliban as a ‘born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick’ (4.1.188–89) suggesting that the ‘savage and deformed slave’ can never be civilised. But Shakespeare seems, in the play as a whole, to leave this open to question.

Among the many verbal parallels between the ‘Reportory’ and The Tempest is the long description of St Elmo’s fire which ‘might have strucken amazement’ (p. 1737), echoed in Ariel’s claim to have ‘flamed amazement’ (1.2.198).

Full title:
A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; upon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas … July 15. 1610' in Purchas his Pilgrimes,Vol. 4, Chap. VI.
Published:
1625, London
Format:
Book / Folio
Creator:
Strachey William, Samuel Purchas [compiler]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
679.h.14.

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