Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea 
by David Cressy.
Oxford, 313 pp., £30, September 2022, 978 0 19 286339 3
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In​ 1641, the Golden Grape, a three-masted five-hundred-ton Dutch merchant fluyt, set off from Cádiz to Le Havre with an official cargo of 1253 barrels of raisins, four hundred jars of olive oil and a little wine. Its unofficial cargo, laden at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, was a great quantity of silk taffeta and a bag of five hundred gold pistoles, defying the ban on bullion exports from Spain to the Netherlands. As the ship neared la Manche, it foundered under ‘violent and tempestuous winds’ and ran aground on a sandbank off the Isle of Portland. The crew realised they had to abandon ship and began scrabbling for the gold. Filling their pockets with pistoles, they were told by superiors ‘to be silent and say nothing’. The master ordered ‘Little Will’ Phillis to retrieve money from his cabin even as the ship broke apart in the surf. Little Will desperately stuffed coins into the lining of his hat and struggled ashore burdened with bags of treasure.

Wading onto Chesil Beach, the surviving crew were faced with dozens, soon hundreds of villagers. Nearly every adult male from nearby Chickerell had arrived on the scene. Before you could say ‘pieces of eight’, organised crews of local fishermen were picking up the barrels, bottles and jars and loading them onto horses and carts and repurposed ploughs. People took whatever they could find. Francis Saveer, a mason, boarded the ship and managed to extract a piece of silk, eighteen rows of buttons, a jacket and a waistcoat. His servant took ‘two old jerkins and some old shirts’, which Saveer’s wife ‘threw away so soon as they were brought home’. Little Will met a man called Owen Gibbons, who agreed to help him with the gold, loading it onto his horse (later, no one could say where it had been taken).

Most of the villagers seem to have been preoccupied with collecting the millions of loose raisins washing ashore. Children picked out the ‘wet fruit’ from the sand, the way they had watched their mothers glean loose sheaves from the fields. Thomas Peck, a labourer, gathered around twelve pounds of raisins, ‘which he did put into the sleeves of his coat and carry home with him’. The wife of Henry Harvest found only half that number, with ‘a great deal of gravel and sand amongst them’. The vice-admiral for Dorset, charged with recovering the Golden Grape’s cargo for its owners, remarked bitterly: ‘I know nothing [in] the whole world more barbarous than that custom of these coasters in the west of England.’

David Cressy, a historian of early modern Britain, wants to rescue these customs from such condescension. Coastal folk were not the immoral ‘wreckers’ of 18th-century myths, luring ships onto rocks with false lights; nor were they the proletarian heroes of more recent histories, engaged in small-scale acts of resistance. He argues that salvaging goods from wrecked ships formed part of the ‘moral economy’ of maritime communities, borrowing E.P. Thompson’s famous explanation for early modern food riots. The crowds who gathered on beaches, Cressy suggests, like those who accosted profiteering wheat dealers, were animated by a firm sense of their traditional rights. People knew that the governing class would take the very best things from a wreck, but that still left a share for the common coaster. A mouthful of raisins, with only a little gravel in your teeth.

Legally speaking, the Golden Grape was not a true ‘wreck’. Medieval statutes, still in use in the 17th century, established that if ‘a man, a dog, or a cat escape quick out of the ship’, then it was subject to the usual laws of ownership. The merchants who had shipped the cargo should pay the salvagers ‘convenient for their travail’ in recovering it, but they were entitled to have their goods back in full if crewmen survived. Only if a ship was fully abandoned or the crew had all perished would the vessel and everything on it become res nullius, the property of no one. At sea these things were classed as flotsam (any floating object), jetsam (cargoes deliberately thrown overboard) and lagan (sunken goods marked with buoys). But once something made landfall it became wreccum maris, wreck of the sea, and open to the competing claims of salvagers, coastal landlords and crown officials.

The rudiments of wreck law were widely known. When a ship ran aground on the deadly Goodwin Sands in Kent in the late 16th century, the crew tied their dog to the mast and abandoned ship; returning later, ‘finding the dog alive … [they] had their ship and goods again.’ Seventeenth-century lawyers were at least as ingenious as sailors in straining the hard cases. Did it matter if the survivor was a man or a woman, or if the animal was wild or domesticated – what about the red deer that swam ashore from a wreck off Norfolk in 1705? Where did the shore begin anyway? The Admiralty asserted its claim to flotsam, jetsam and lagan, and its lawyers were salty with coastal folk who waded out too far to retrieve goods. Some villages maintained that their rights extended into the sea as far as a horse could stand, or where a man could reach with a long pole; others said it was ‘so far into the seas as they could from the shore discern a Humberkin’ – apparently a kind of floating barrel. But the Admiralty judge Sir Henry Marten complained in 1637 that this was ‘an old idle saying, no man living being able to tell us what such a barrel is’.

Once goods were ascertained to be ‘wreck’, customary entitlements and obligations came into play. Finders of wreck claimed half of an item’s value as it was determined by a jury of local shipmasters, while the landlord (or the Crown, depending on who held the right for a particular stretch of coast) took the other half by seigneurial droit. Most wrecks were mundane pieces of driftwood – wainscot, barrels, the odd plank. Finders paid their fee to the lord and kept the wood for building, mending or burning. Daniel Defoe wrote that on the North Norfolk coast there was ‘scarce a barn or a shed, or a stable, nay, not the pales of their yards and gardens, not a necessary house, but what was built of old planks, beams, wales and timbers, etc, the wrecks of ships and ruins of mariners’ and merchants’ fortunes’. Finders keepers, losers weepers.

But when something more interesting washed up, it wouldn’t be long before the finder heard the rap of the bailiff at the door. Samuel Pepys reckoned that ‘the great profit of the lords of manors upon the sea coasts lay in wrecks.’ This was an exaggeration: as chief secretary to the Admiralty, he had a dog in the fight. But there were certainly occasional treats to be nabbed, such as the two boxes of marmalade that washed ashore on Sir Edward Mansell’s land in 1583, or the 43 pipes of wine that John Poulson fished out of the Erme estuary in 1630. Canny landowners could do good business out of dangerous stretches of coast. Sir Nicholas Lestrange kept a list of ‘Wreck goods bought’ and ‘Wreck goods delivered’ at his manor in Hunstanton. In 1695 he paid out £56 for various cables, weights and masts picked up by his tenants, before selling them to shipmen in Lynn and Lowestoft for more than five times that.

But it wasn’t really about the money. As Sir Edward Rodney put it in 1628, quibbling over a ‘small bark’ wrecked in the Bristol Channel, ‘the goods are but of small value … but the consequence is great.’ Lordly claims over wreck were an expression of feudal domination. Jurisdiction over shipwrecks originated in England as a royal prerogative, alongside the Crown’s claims to wondrous happenstance like beached whales, buried treasure or the chattels dropped by fleeing fugitives. Even as successive medieval kings granted the right of wreccum maris to coastal landlords, it never lost the sheen of royal sovereignty. When vice-admirals arrived to recover lost goods for surviving merchants, lords met them waving charters, or swords. A bystander was killed on the Gower Peninsula in 1557 for the sake of a wrecked cargo of raisins, almonds and figs, after insults between two retinues got out of hand. When hogsheads of French wine were washed up at Preston in Sussex, Lady Shirley asked her steward to send them up to London ‘so we may drink it, which will end the dispute with the commissions of the customs’.

When goods went missing it was always easy to blame the people who actually heaved them from the sea. Sir John Killigrew, who held the right to wrecks on the Lizard peninsula, faced opposition from his tenants when he proposed building a lighthouse there in the early 17th century. He claimed that ‘they have been so long used to reap purchase by the calamity of the ruin of shipping, as they claim it hereditary … I hope they will now husband their land, which their former idle life hath omitted in the assurance of their gain by shipwreck.’ These idlers had hauled Italian velvets, taffeta and copper wire from a wreck of 1619 for Sir John, ‘of which,’ he wrote to his friend Dudley Carleton, ‘I desire not to be called to account.’ Decried as coast harpies and land monsters, salvagers were beneath contempt. The 17th-century preacher William Johnson inveighed against ‘the Countrey people enriching themselves with the losses of other men, the worst way of getting in the world’.

It suited a lot of people to blame anonymous mobs of wreckers: merchants trying to claim compensation for their goods; landowners with deep wine cellars; newshounds sniffing for a sensational scoop. In 1679 the Domestick Intelligence reported a French vessel wrecked at a (suspiciously anonymous) Yorkshire village. So many barrels of brandy were unloaded from the wreck that ‘an Horse could not pass in the Town’, and soon ‘near halfe the Town, Men, Women, and Children lay drunk upon the Sands.’ One man slept for sixteen hours after the binge, and having been woken with some difficulty, ‘continues as it were distracted, and ’tis thought will never be in his senses again’. If there was one thing better than hearing about the evils of shipwreck excess, it was the redemption of a godly mariner. A pamphlet of 1613, Lamentable Newes, Shewing the Wonderfull Deliverance of Maister Edmond Pet Sayler, described Maister Edmond’s travails as the sole survivor of a collier wrecked in the North Sea. After two days in the water clinging to the mast, ‘his owne wife did not knowe him, when he was brought home to London, by reason he was swelled of such bignes, and so changed.’

Landlubbing audiences just couldn’t get enough brine in their fish stories. William Hyland enjoyed marvellous success with his ‘dramatick piece’ The Ship-Wreck of 1746, in which Jack Lookout and Tom Plunder prey on the ship of Captain Bluff, entangling Farmer Careful with the bureaucrats Mr Search’em and Mr Pick’em. There is as much hauling-to-mainsail, Huzzah!-ing, and whoring as you would hope, with a dash of political commentary too brazen to call satire. ‘I never feared nor cared for any of their pretended Rights,’ Lookout says, as an old woman sings a song of wrecking: ‘We’ll bouze and carouse of the best,/The Owners (not we) are to pay,/Let the Merchants (rich Rogues) be opprest.’ The next year, thousands of spectators turned out to see the real thing when the Spanish corsair Nympha came to grief at Beachy Head, sloughing off a heady cargo of cinnamon, mercury and brandy. London journalists reported dozens of deaths among the salvagers – some from exposure, some shot as looters, and others simple ‘country people’ who drank from the wrong barrel.

As the British merchant marine grew – from 1642 vessels in 1582 to 7215 in 1755 – so did the number of wrecks. They are meticulously catalogued in Cressy’s book, which includes an appendix of 850 recorded shipwrecks around the British Isles between 1550 and 1750 – though, with some 5 per cent of ships lost at sea in this period, he acknowledges that this is a small fraction of the total. The archival salvage is impressive, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of argument; descriptions of wrecks pile up like driftwood on the beach. But Cressy has a flair for finding moments of high drama, and the array of detail proves his point: ‘shipwrecks real, mythical and metaphorical were part of English cultural consciousness’ between the 16th and 18th centuries.

They were certainly a favourite motif of early modern writing: the timbers of Renaissance imaginations creaked under the weight of analogy. The soul was a ship, and temptations would wreck it. The state was a ship, and poor governance would wreck it (William Johnson: ‘I think Monarchy is the best Government in a Ship, as well as in the State’). A good woman was ‘like a ship’, the preacher Robert Wilkinson ventured, because ‘her countenance and conversation are ballasted with soberness and gravity’ – though she ‘must not have one quality of a ship, and that is too much rigging’.

Beneath the bluster, however, was hard-nosed calculation. A lot of capital was at risk on the waves, and by the later 17th century the cascade of anti-salvaging rhetoric joined repeated calls for reform to the traditional law of wreck. Officers of the East India Company complained of the ‘rapine and violence … against the common reason of all man’ after the Albemarle was wrecked off Polperro in 1708 and its booty of indigo, silk and diamonds spirited away by Cornish villagers. The company sponsored legislation of 1714 that attempted to regulate salvage operations, placing them under the order of local customs officers, constables and justices of the peace. But calls for harsher penalties continued. In 1753 a new law sponsored by the ‘merchants, traders, and insurers of London’ made it petty larceny to take things of ‘small value’ from a wreck, incurring six months’ imprisonment and fines. Salvaging any substantial goods from a wreck became a felony punishable by death.

As legislation fastened the tie between shipwrecked goods and their mercantile owners, it turned custom into crime, sleeves full of raisins into insurance losses. Salvagers had always occupied a space between deference and defiance, making lost property a matter of the loudest claim. ‘I seize upon all,’ the earl of Arundel’s steward declared when he arrived at the wreck of the St Jacob near Littlehampton in 1654. The crowd, who had been picking at loose oranges and lemons under the close watch of the surviving Dutch crew, suddenly turned on him. They ‘all cried out that she rather belonged to them,’ dismantled the ship from top to bottom and carried everything away for themselves. According to one mariner, John Harris, ‘the best anchor and cable were due to my lord of Arundel as groundage’; but another claimed that had the steward not intervened, ‘the said ship and goods, or greater part thereof, [would have] been preserved.’ The clean lines of bourgeois property were opposed to older and considerably muddier relations of moral economy.

But early modern wrecks also brought out a propensity to truck, barter and exchange that was neither strictly moral nor strictly bourgeois. John Gilliam drove his horse and cart six miles from Portisham to the Golden Grape wreck ‘with intent to buy some of the goods that were salved out of the said ship for his money’. As pay for carting cargo he was given a barrel of raisins, which he managed to sell for 35 shillings. Alice Mathews did a steady trade, buying a jar of oil for four shillings, and selling a pound of wool for two shillings sixpence ‘to a stranger gentleman’. Profit was important, but so was speed. The sooner goods could be sold or swapped or spirited to a friend, the harder they were to trace. Richard Rich, a mariner twice hauled before the Golden Grape inquiry, eventually remembered a great many pieces of eight he had ‘forgotten to express’, having given them ‘to Mary Paine, a young woman living in Melcombe Regis, to keep for him’.

Salvagers knew their own value, and were not afraid to ask for it. After three Dutch ships were stranded on the Goodwin Sands in 1616, small boats from Deal set out to offer help – for a price. As the tempest howled, local crews parlayed with the Flemish captain of the Abraham. One group offered to bring the cargo to safety in exchange for a third of its value, while another offered to labour for ‘what four indifferent men would allow them’. They eventually shook hands on a bargain – but, as it turned out, a lot of muskets went missing. At the subsequent inquiry, the sailors demanded ‘contentment’ for their work, ‘otherwise men will not hereafter adventure to save either ship or goods, but only, as many do, wait upon the wrack and spoil of the merchant.’ Shakespeare’s Pericles, trucking with the fishermen who had found his father’s armour lost at sea, tries to claim it back for free as his birthright, a sign of his nobility. One fisherman is persuaded, but the other points out: ‘Ay, but hark you, my friend; ’twas we that made up this garment through the rough seams of the waters.’

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