SEA VENTURE SOCIETY
Descendants and Devotees
Of The Shipwreck That
Saved America's Colonization
1797 engraving, by Benjamin Smith, of Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
William Shakespeare’s The Tempest details an adventure of spirits, power struggles, and survival at the mercy of the high seas. Although Shakespeare invented the plot, the play’s inhabitants and plot twists were inspired by a very real shipwreck that captivated London at the time.
Great Britain’s first successful colony in the New World was at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 . Conditions there became bleak, and it looked like Jamestown might meet the same fate as the colonists at Roanoke. The colonists were starving and failure seemed imminent. In 1609, a fleet of nine ships from England set sail for Virginia, determined to save the floundering colony. The ships were loaded up with supplies, livestock, and new colonists. This fleet was led by its flagship: the Sea Venture. While crossing the Atlantic, the convoy encountered a hurricane. One ship sank, and everyone on board was lost. Seven of the ships survived the storm and arrived safely in Jamestown. The Sea Venture was too badly damaged and floated for three days at sea. In order to prevent sinking in the middle of the Atlantic, the captain chose to wedge the ship in a coral reef near an uninhabited island now known as Bermuda.
His daring action resulted in all 150 of the crew and passengers surviving. This island was similar to the one created by Shakespeare, being called “the Ile of Divels” and rumored to be “a most prodigious and enchanted place.” The survivors found pleasant weather, no dangerous wildlife, and an abundance of food to add to the ship’s supplies. Just like the castaways in The Tempest, the would-be colonists split into two main factions and lived well on the island for ten months while building new boats out of materials salvaged from the Sea Venture. Life in Bermuda was so pleasant, in fact, that when the two refashioned boats were ready, there was a small mutiny of people who did not want to leave — a rebellion acknowledged by the power struggles in Shakespeare’s play.
The colonists eventually left the island and arrived at Jamestown, and their ample supplies rescued the now starving settlers left alive. Several of them put their experiences on paper and sent their recollections to England. The most harrowing account was penned by William Strachey, whose description of the horrorific storm and subsequent life as a castaway reached London in 1610. Upon hearing this new information from the New World, Shakespeare began to write The Tempest and create his own enchanted island and its marooned cast. One such player, Stephano, seems to have been modeled after the Sea Venture’s memorable passenger, Stephen Hopkins. It is certainly clear that Shakespeare created a world of his own, but it was built upon the tempestuous adventures that Strachey, Hopkins, and their fellow castaways endured.