The Tempest

"The Tempest"

Hurricanes as we know them today were forming and smashing against the islands of the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of North America long before Columbus made his first visit to the Americas. This type of storm was called a tempest until the Spanish and English explorers combined the names for thunder, lightning, and storm gods of native tribes throughout the Americas into the word hurricane.

Many are the stories of trouble and near—mutinies that Christopher Columbus faced with his crews in 1492. Had the navigator from Genoa known he was sailing straight into a region of violent storms near the season of their peak annual performances, he might have been willing to turn back. Possibly 1492 was a freak year in which no hurricanes blew, or perhaps the divine hand of Providence steered storms around the little fleet. Whatever the reason, not once during the months that Columbus spent on that first voyage to the New World did he encounter a hurricane.

The only time he experienced hurricane—related conditions was during his approach to the eastern Bahamas. Here the fleet ran into high seas with no wind; the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria were almost surely sailing through storm tides piled up by a hurricane. It had merely recurved sharply behind them and wasted away in the North Atlantic.

Columbus appears again to have been spared a true hurricane in 1494. Then, on his final voyage, Columbus plodded along the coast of Central America, hoping that the turn of each new headland would provide the coveted passage to the Far East. Full—blown hurricanes are rare in the lower Caribbean, but this time Columbus managed to meet one head on. The torment of the storm was recorded in his log, which contained these observations: "The tempest arose and worried me so that I knew not where to turn; . . . eyes never beheld the seas so high, angry, and covered with foam. . . . Never did the sky look more terrible. The people were so worn out that they longed for death to end their terrible suffering."

Records of hurricanes that occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries were surprisingly accurate and complete. While the New World was being colonized, knowing the habits of hurricanes, when and where they were likely to strike, was important. One particular 17th—century hurricane is important because it appears to have provided William Shakespeare with background material for The Tempest, his last contribution to the stage.

On June 2, 1609, a fleet of nine ships set sail from Plymouth, England, bound for the colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Aboard one of the ships, the Sea Adventure, was the new governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas Gates. The fleet plodded wearily across the Atlantic for almost two months without incident. In late July a hurricane passed through the Bahama Islands and recurved out into the ocean. On July 25 it struck the fleet; almost immediately it sent one of the ships to the bottom and totally scattered the others. One by one, seven of the nine ships straggled into the harbor at Jamestown. When several weeks had passed and the Sea Adventure failed to arrive or be heard from, it was believed lost, along with the new governor and at least 150 others.

The Sea Adventure had not sunk but had become completely separated from the fleet. In its attempt to make a landfall on the island of Bermuda, luck ran out; the ship went to pieces on a reef. Most of the crew and passengers managed to get ashore safely and, for the next nine months, lived as castaways on the island, with the wreckage from the ship and the natural bounty of the islands to sustain them. They built two small vessels and finally sailed safely to Jamestown.

Sir Thomas and some of the survivors returned shortly to England, and the story of their adventure became the talk of London. Two returning survivors, Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey, each published a pamphlet documenting the events of the voyage. Strachey's True Reportory of the Wracke describes vividly the dreadful storm, rebellious castaways, compassionate governor, treacherous natives—the stuff of a good drama.

Scholars have little doubt that the 1610 manuscripts became William Shakespeare's inspiration for The Tempest. Many parallels of the shipwreck and the Bermuda experience appear in the play. Although the uninhabited island is not identified as the New World, its climate and topography coincide. Other noteworthy parallels are the type of storm and analogous characters. Sir Thomas Gates is, of course, Prospero the Duke of Milan, and the Native American is Caliban, the deformed slave, who alludes to making dams for fish and finding cedar berries in the water. The usurpers and drunken sailors are colonizers who plan to exterminate or enslave the natives.

Shakespeare took many liberties in retelling the story, changing all names and places to protect the plot. The result has been the most memorable hurricane in history or legend.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning