The Interview With Hobson Woodward

What the Bard likely pulled from a wreck

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2009

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Four hundred years ago this month, the Sea Venture, one of nine ships sailing from England to the Jamestown colony in Virginia, was wrecked off Bermuda. Its castaways lived on the island for 10 months before setting sail again for the colony. Among them was the aspiring writer William Strachey (ancestor of Lytton Strachey), whose account of the ordeal became widely, if briefly, popular. Strachey returned to London just as William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest’’ was playing to wide acclaim. Was he struck by the similarities between his account and Shakespeare’s imaginings? This is one of the many questions that Hobson Woodward answers with admirable scholarship, wit, and cunning in “A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest’’ (Viking).

Woodward, the associate editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, spoke from his office in Boston.

Q. Why were you tempted to revisit this event?

A. For a historian it doesn’t get much better than this, because the Sea Venture story is two tales in one. There’s the hurricane at sea, and then there is the Bermuda wreck becoming an inspiration for “The Tempest.’’ The first is one of the most dramatic adventures of the era, and the second is a fascinating detective story.

Q. What surprised you most in your research?

A. The biggest revelation was the presence of Native Americans on the ship. John Smith claims that two Virginia Powhatans were on the Sea Venture and that one murdered the other on Bermuda, but many historians doubted him because he waited 15 years to tell the story. (Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, however, note an overlooked contemporary account of the Powhatans on Bermuda.) My own insight was the significance of the castaways’ use of canoes on the island. Since Bermuda was uninhabited and it’s unlikely that Englishmen would have hollowed out canoes, my conclusion is that the Powhatans were there.

Q. Did castaway life reflect the tensions in contemporary British society?

A. Very much so. There was a split between wealthy and poor, but there was also a fascinating break between the soldiers and the sailors. The sailors had a real grievance, since they were never supposed to be subject to the control of the landsmen. Their job was to take the ship back and forth to Virginia and not to remain in the colony, but the shipwreck put them under the command of a soldier.

Q. Weren’t these incredibly resourceful castaways, organized within hours of being shipwrecked?

A. Yes, but they were also fortunate that the ship remained intact when it ran aground, allowing them to retrieve their tools and weapons. The leaders were also surprisingly mild for the era. That caused its own set of problems, but in the long run it kept morale high.

Q. You include shocking details of atrocities committed by the Jamestown colonists. Why?

A. Those facts are impossible to avoid. Jamestown in 1610 was a violent place, and the conflict was made even worse by a drought. The brutality the castaways witnessed and experienced when they finally made it to Virginia was all the more shocking because it was virtually absent on Bermuda.

Q. What did you most regret having to omit?

A. In early versions I included more about Jamestown, but ultimately I decided to focus only on the year that my narrator William Strachey was present. I cut back on quotations as well. I love hearing voices from the past, but I had to keep in mind that 17th-century language is sometimes opaque.

Q. Are you speculating about Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Sea Venture story?

A. Investigation into the various ways that the Sea Venture chronicles were used in crafting “The Tempest’’ has been going on since 1797. Some still question the connection, but most Shakespeare scholars are convinced. The evidence is in the texts themselves: the St. Elmo’s fire that shimmered in the rigging of the Sea Venture just as Ariel glows on the “Tempest’’ ship; the clownish Bermuda rebel, Stephen, who shares attributes with Shakespeare’s comic mutineer, Stephano; the allegedly murderous Powhatan who mirrors the homicidal Caliban.

Q. But we don’t know that William Strachey ever saw the play that may have been based on his account?

A. There is no document that places Strachey at the play, but I feel sure he attended. He was a former owner of the Blackfriars where it was performed, and he attended [theatre] in the early days as many as three times a week. He associated with the literary elite, and the playhouses were where they spent their time. And he had just come back from Virginia; surely he would have gone to see a popular new play with a New World theme that was written by London’s most prominent author.

Q. What did you think of Strachey finally?

A. I think that in many ways he achieved the level of renown that was due him. He simply was no William Shakespeare. Just one of his works is really spectacular, and that is his account of the Sea Venture voyage. He wrote it without much thought in a wilderness hut, and that may be why it’s so good. Strachey received little credit for his writing during his lifetime. Perhaps this book will make up for that in a small way.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

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