Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Vanished Ship

This is the story of fate of the good ship, Arbella.  

The Arbella began her life as the Eagle.  She was a 400-ton ship, good sized  for that era, over twice as big as her much-more-famous predecessor, the Mayflower.  The Mayflower carted over 100 English settlers in 1620 who founded Plymouth, a modest-sized settlement.  The Arbella, sailing 10 years later, was the lead ship of a flotilla of 11, and began an influx of Puritans that continued for a decade and totaled around 10,000 individuals.

The later history of the Mayflower is documented.  But the Arbella disappears.  The last we hear of her -- as far as I can tell -- is in late August of 1630, some two months after she arrives in America.  She plays host to the August meeting of the "Court," the governing body of Massachusetts.  Then she simply drops off  the records.

Her namesake, Lady Arbella Johnson, died right about that time, in the wave of disease that took the lives of about two out of every seven that arrived that summer.  But her ship is simply never mentioned again.  Other ships who were part of the flotilla, some of them, are in the records -- they come and go, shuttle supplies back and forth.  Few if any of those are owned by the Massachusetts Bay Company.  But the Arbella was owned by the Company.  What did they do with her?

This calls for some imagination.  What can happen to a ship?

She can be wrecked on shoals.  She can burn, spectacularly.  I suppose she might be stolen, though I think that would be tricky, and then what would you do with a hot 400-ton ship?

I don't think any of these things happened.  There were several chroniclers of the early years in Massachusetts, and some of them had a taste for the spectacular.  They don't tell any dramatic story concerning the fate of the Arbella.  The people who freeze to death while boating that December -- everyone talks about.  The semi-respectable Englishman who turns pirate gets play.  The fellow with the three wives -- we hear about him.  None of them mention anything about the Arbella ablaze, or wrecked, or even damaged.

I think she was sold.  Dull, but most likely.

The first few months in Massachusetts were disastrous.  As a result, Company stock tumbled, investors pulled out, and potential colonists suddenly got cold feet.  The colonists needed money to buy food because farming in New England was trickier than they thought.  The Arbella was a Company asset, a valuable one, I suppose.

But even that should be mentioned in the Company records, right? Disposal of an asset like that?  Unless there was some controversy around it.  I have found that sometimes the Records don't mention certain things, certain controversies, because they didn't like to go on record that they disagreed.  Sometimes-Governor John Winthrop detailed many of those arguments in his diary, but we don't really know, of course, how much he left out.

Maybe sale of the Arbella was slightly under the table, but not interesting enough for Winthrop (or anybody) to note.

But the great ship burning spectacularly in the night, while Lady Arbella is drawing her last breath, is a much more compelling image, is it not?