Gosnold and the Tempest
The Voyage of 1602
We came across an uninhabited island, overgrown with woods, sassafras, cherry trees, vines, gooseberry bushes, hawthorn, and many other herbs and roots, strawberries, raspberries, and ground-nuts. It was nearby on a small rocky hill that we began to build our fort. Over the days and weeks that passed, we achieved much, planting a modest crop, constructing the fort, and making a small flat-bottomed boat that we used to pass from our island to the main shore. Captain Gosnold named our island Cuttyhunk. The area itself we named Cape Cod, in tribute to the sea which offered forth an abundance fish: cod, herring, and mackerel. Captain Gosnold went across to the main shore with a few men. There they encountered red-skinned men, women, and children. They were courteous and kind, and offered to trade. They had an abundance of furs, tobacco, hemp, and much else they brought forth. As June turned to July, some of the men started to worry what the winter might bring. There was concern that we lacked provision. Our objective had been tri-fold. First we were to chart a northern passage across the Atlantic (prior to 1602 passage to the Americas had only been achieved by sailing across from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Caribbean). Our second objective had been to harvest sassafras for medicinal purposes, which we had done in abundance. And our third objective was, if achievable, to establish the first English colony in Virginia. Despite Captain Gosnold’s desire to achieve this end, it had begun to rain relentlessly and morale began to drop. So it was that Gosnold allowed the men to vote on whether they would weather the winter or return to England. They voted to return. So concluding Bartholomew Gosnold’s 1602 voyage to the Americas.
Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, despite not being very well known today, is, in my opinion, the most important person to ever come from Ipswich. Gosnold was a minor Suffolk nobleman; his home was the Tudor House, Otley Hall, just 20 minutes up the road from here. He was born in 1572, studied law at Cambridge, and while at Cambridge he heard a series of sermons by the Revd. Richard Hakluyt. Sermons which (for good or ill) planted a new idea in the heart of Gosnold: the idea of an English colony in Virginia, an idea which Gosnold could not let go of. ‘Virgina’ at that time referred to the that whole north-eastern area of America, not just the state. So, inspired by the possibility, he turned his back on the law, and devoted his entire life to achieving that end, which he eventually did, making Bartholomew Gosnold the man responsible for England’s settling of the New World. A man from Ipswich no less.
The account I started with was my summation of his first failed attempt, the voyage of 1602. The islands in question are all those off the coast of Massachusetts, the largest of which is called Martha's Vineyard (again named by Gosnold, in memory of his deceased daughter Martha), and next to that a series of smaller islands (including Cuttyhunk which I mentioned), and the town that today spans those smaller islands is called, appropriately, the town of Gosnold. The voyage was an extremely risky venture. A few years previously there had been another attempt to set up a colony called Roanoke, and mysteriously every colonist, of which there were over 100, and almost every trace of the colony itself disappeared. It is thought today that the Native American population wiped them all out. But as you can imagine, this created a very fearful climate around the whole colonising of America project. Settlers and sailors feared they would be swallowed up by whatever malevolent power claimed the people of Roanoke. And investors feared they would pay for ships and provisions, just to see them disappear. As such, the 1602 voyage required the sort of backer who was foolhardy enough to take on the financial risk, despite the poor odds of there being any financial return. And that brings us to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, a flamboyant man who was famously handsome, slept with lots of women, a lover, a swordsman, a poet, a diplomat, and a patron of the arts. Bartholomew Gosnold required the backing of man willing to risk a lot for vanity’s sake, and the Earl of Southampton was very much that sort of man. Someone who thought very highly of themselves, constantly having art and sonnets written or painted in their honour. Apart from being the primary benefactor of Gosnold, The Earl of Southampton was also, more famously, the benefactor of one William Shakespeare. And what links all this together: The Voyage of 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold, the Earl of Southampton, and William Shakespeare? It is the play, The Tempest.
The Tempest begins with stage directions: A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning. A ship caught in a storm, with distressed men hoping they will survive. Though the ship is destroyed, everyone onboard makes it up on the dry land. The rest of the play takes place on: scene, an uninhabited island. Though it is in fact inhabited by Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, a kind of half wizard, half old testament prophet figure, and his daughter Miranda, along with Aril (a sort of magical fairy person) and Caliban. Now it’s not clear what Caliban is; he’s portrayed as inhuman, like a wild man, or deformed man. Although, given the colonial context in which The Tempest was written, many scholars today see Caliban as a figure who represents the people of the ‘New World’, like the Native Americans that Bartholomew Gosnold encountered at Cape Cod. The first Native American was not brought back to England until after Shakespeare had written The Tempest. So it could have only have been through second-hand accounts that Shakespeare learned of these people, accounts like that of Gosnold’s. The English attitude towards the Native American population was to view them as mere potential obstacles in the way of commercial goals, and so, unsurprisingly, the amiable helpfulness that Gosnold first encountered in the Native population quickly turned to open hostility.
Almost all Shakespeare’s plays are clearly set somewhere in Europe. The Tempest is an exception, being in no recognisable European country, but rather far from European civilisation, presumably across the Atlantic. No doubt informed, as I said, by the accounts of sailors going to and fro from the Americas. Now was Gosnold’s account a primary influence? That is a question we cannot answer, but it does seem likely. First, there is the very strong connection through their mutual benefactor Henry Wriothesley, who was the financial backer of Gosnold’s 1602 voyage and then a major contributor to the Virginia Company established by James I in 1606. And so it was, in the light of the King’s new Virginia charter, that in 1606 Gosnold convened a meeting at Otley Hall, gathered around the hearth, to discuss and plan for his second colonization attempt. They departed from London in December 1606 in three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, and in May 1607 established Jamestown in Virginia. Four months later Bartholomew Gosnold got sick and died, and his grave can still be seen in Virginia. The famous explorer John Smith recorded in his diary that the primary mover behind the colonization project was his friend Gosnold.
The Tempest was first performed in 1611, and so all of this, the age of exploration, would have permeated our English conscience: the idea of another world, a new world, full of the unknown, unknown trees, unknown lands, an unknown savage people. Our imagination could seldom have been occupied with anything else. Furthermore, there are some striking similarities between the 1602 voyage account on the island of Cuttyhunk, and Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest. There are two parties, the one that builds the fort, and the one that goes exploring, as there are two parties in The Tempest. The island is heavily wooded as it is The Tempest, there is a fresh water supply as there in The Tempest. The sassafras with its New Worldly power was believed to heal the ‘great pox’, and so it was gathered to sell back in Europe. This was the secondary objective of the voyage, and The Tempest makes a lot of references to gathering wood. Indeed in the 1602 account it even speaks of how the Native American population helped harvest the Sassafras with the English men, and in The Tempest Caliban gathers in the wood for his master Prospero. This theory, that the Cuttyhunk is Shakespeare’s island, was first proposed at the American Antiquarian Society in Boston in 1902. On the 300th Anniversary of the Gosnold voyage, it was proposed by the Unitarian minister Revd. Edward Everett Hale, who was interestingly a student of Dr William Ellery Channing.
The American Shakespeare connection has generated a lot of interest over the last century. It is remarkable how many issues thrown up as a result of American colonialism are foreshadowed in that play. If we go with the idea that Caliban is a metaphor for the Native American population, we can follow a narrative arc. In The Tempest Prospero (the exiled Duke of Milan), before the story begins, finds himself on the island. Once there he needs to be shown by Caliban how to survive on the island. Think of the native Americans helping Captain Gosnold in 1602. In time, Prospero teaches Caliban how to speak. Prospero then enslaves Caliban and punishes him. In rebellion against Prospero’s tyranny, Caliban tries to rape Prospero’s daughter Miranda, and so, Caliban is a symbol of Native Americans’ ‘yes’, but more than that, a symbol of the victims of European Imperialism. A vanished people, forced to speak the conqueror’s language, and live by the conqueror’s values. And as Gosnold saw Native American’s generosity on one hand, so also, he experienced the inevitable rise in their hostility.
The other key idea that Shakespeare plays with here is the notion that now that we have gone across the sea and found this new land, this new world, we can endeavour to create a more peaceable and egalitarian society. We see that naïve optimism expressed through Gonzalo’s speech, his naïvely optimistic utopian vision of a land with no inheritance laws, no contracts, no red tape. A land of such abundance we can be perpetually idle, and live as innocent creatures upon this earth. And most naïvely of all, a land without kingship, without kings or queens. This is of course not quite the vision which ultimately seized upon America in 1776, when they declared independence, but it does point towards it. There was an optimistic new republican radicalism which the American founding fathers manifested, which is not wholly out of step with Gonzalo’s optimistic utopian vision, or at least the spirit of that vision. And again, I see a lot of Captain Gosnold in the old Gonzalo. Gosnold in 1602, unlike most of his compatriots, cared much more about establishing the colony than going home to make money. He was driven by a vision of what might be made manifest across the sea in the new world. His dream and hope went well beyond his own personal material gain.
Almost all of Shakespeare’s plays are re-moulded, re-written, reconceived versions of previously written stories or myths, with clearly defined source material. The Tempest, not so much. It’s much more original. The only other sources of influence we can point to, beyond the colonialist accounts we’ve already heard about, are an essay by the 16th century philosopher Montaigne on pre-colonial cannibalism and other barbarous cultural practices of Natives in South America, and of course, as you may have inferred, from the Bible itself, particularly the narrative concerning Paul’s shipwreck on Malta. However, biblical influence would have come from translations pre-dating the King James Version, such as the Geneva Bible, as the King James Version was also published in 1611, when the play was first performed. As for the play itself, it’s generally regarded as Shakespeare’s last play. It was at least his last solely written play. As such, this play is usually viewed as a culmination of his work in some sense, in which Shakespeare presents his ideas in their most crystallised form, musing, for example, on questions of subjectivity. Take Prospero and Caliban - who is just and who is barbarous? Well, it’s a matter of perspective. What may seem barbarous to the European Christian may not to the Native American, and vice versa. We as Unitarians take this type of analysis today as a given. Of course the world shows up differently to different people in different cultures, but in 1611 this was a radical idea. And so, must the other learn from us for they are lesser? Or as Gonzalo’s utopian vision suggests, might these untouched innocent peoples have something to teach us? It raises the whole question of justice, and what justice is. Is justice my satisfaction, or the satisfaction of one culture’s social mores over and above and another?
By asking these questions, you beg an answer, an answer that the late Shakespeare seems to be nudging us towards, that there is no universal morality, no universal justice, perhaps even no God in the sky playing with his moral abacus setting the record straight in the end. As Prospero uses his magic for good or ill, there is never any suggestion that a moral arbiter from on high will set things right. As The Tempest is a play revolving around Prospero, so many have seen Shakespeare in Prospero himself – the man who causes storms to whip up, puts words in the mouths of the others, and directs the spectacle. Like the playwright, who creates through his art new worlds, who through Prospero as his final mouthpiece gives his final farewell to the stage. The Tempest is an epic exploration, of geography, of metaphysics, of human potential, of morality, of art, of life itself. And so let us voyage on, for who knows what new worlds await us…
Prospero’s final speech
Now my spells are all broken,
And the only power I have is my own,
Which is very weak. Now you all
Have got the power to keep me prisoner here,
Or send me off to Naples. Please don’t
Keep me here on this desert island
With your magic spells. Release me
So I can return to my dukedom
With your help. The gentle wind
You blow with your applause
Will fill my ship’s sails. Without applause,
My plan to please you has failed.
Now I have no spirits to enslave,
No magic to cast spells,
And I’ll end up in despair
Unless I’m relieved by prayer,
Which wins over God himself
And absolves all sins.
Just as you’d like to have your sins forgiven,
Indulge me, forgive me, and set me free.