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The Storm: Chapter Two

Chapter Two: of the Opinion of the Ancients, that this Island was more Subject to Storms than other Parts of the World.

I am not of opinion with the early ages of the world, when these islands were first known, that they were the most terrible of any part of the world for storms and tempests.

Cambden tells us, the Britons were distinguished from all the world by unpassable seas and terrible northern winds, which made the Albion shores dreadful to sailors; and this part of the world was therefore reckoned’ the utmost bounds of the northern known land, beyond which none had ever sailed: and quotes a great variety of ancient authors to this purpose; some of which I present as a specimen.

Et Penitus Toto Divisos Orbe Britannos.

Britain’s disjoined from all the well known world.

Quem Littus adusta,
Horrescit Lybiae ratibusq; Impervia * — Thule.
Ignotumq; Fretum. — Claud.

* Taken frequently for Britain.

And if the notions the world then had were true, it would be very absurd for us who live here to pretend miracles in any extremes of tempests; since by what the poets of those ages flourished about stormy weather, was the native and most proper epithet of the place:

Belluosus qui remotis
Obstrepit Oceanus Britannis. — Hor.

Nay, some are for placing the nativity of the winds here-abouts, as if they had been all generated here, and the confluence of matter had made this island its general rendezvous.

But I shall easily show, that there are several places in the world far better adapted to be the general receptacle or centre of vapours, to supply a fund of tempestuous matter than England; as particularly the vast lakes of North America, of which afterwards.

Lowlands of England.

And yet I have two notions, one real, one imaginary, of the reasons which gave the ancients such terrible apprehensions of this part of the world; which of late we find as habitable and navigable as any of the rest.

The real occasion I suppose thus: that before the multitude and industry of inhabitants prevailed to the managing, enclosing, and improving the country, the vast tract of land in this island which continually lay open to the flux of the sea, and to the inundations of land-waters, were as so many standing lakes; from whence the sun continually exhaling vast quantities of moist vapours, the air could not but be continually crowded with all those parts of necessary matter to which we ascribe the original of winds, rains, storms, and the like.

He that is acquainted with the situation of England, and can reflect on the vast quantities of flat grounds, on the banks of all our navigable rivers, and the shores of the sea, which lands at least lying under water every spring tide, and being thereby continually full of moisture, were like a stagnated standing body of water brooding vapours in the interval of the tide, must own that at least a fifteenth part of the whole island may come into this denomination.

Let him that doubts the truth of this, examine a little the particulars; let him stand upon Shooters Hill in Kent, and view the mouth of the river Thames, and consider what a river it must be when none of the marshes on either side were walled in from the sea, and when the sea without all question flowed up to the foot of the hills on either shore, and up every creek, where he must allow is now dry land on either side the river for two miles in breadth at least, sometimes three or four, for above forty miles on both sides the river.

Let him farther reflect, how all these parts lay when, as our ancient histories relate, the Danish fleet came up almost to Hartford; so that all that range of fresh marshes which reach for twenty-five miles in length, from Ware to the river Thames, must be a sea.

In short, let any such considering person imagine the vast tract of marsh-lands on both sides the river Thames, to Harwich on the Essex side, and to Whitstable on the Kentish side, the levels of marshes up the Stour from Sandwich to Canterbury, the whole extent of the low-grounds commonly called Rumney-marsh, from Hythe to Winchelsea and up the banks of the Rother; all which put together, and being allowed to be in one place covered with water, what a lake would it be supposed to make? According to the nicest calculations I can make, it could not amount to less than 500,000 acres of land.

The isle of Ely, with the flats up the several rivers from Yarmouth to Norwich, Beccles, &c., the continued levels in the several counties of Norfolk, Cambridge, Suffolk, Huntingdon, Northampton, and Lincoln, I believe do really contain as much land as the whole county of Norfolk; and it is not many ages since these countries were universally one vast Moras or Lough, and the few solid parts wholly unapproachable: insomuch that the town of Ely itself was a receptacle for the malecontents of the nation, where no reasonable force could come near to dislodge them.

It is needless to reckon up twelve or fourteen like places in England, as the moores in Somersetshire, the flat shores in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Durham, the like in Hampshire, and Sussex; and in short, on the banks of every navigable river.

The sum of the matter is this; that while this nation was thus full of standing lakes, stagnated waters, and moist places, the multitude of exhalations must furnish the air with a quantity of matter for showers and storms, infinitely more than it can be now supplied withal, those vast tracts of land being now fenced off, laid dry, and turned into wholesome and profitable provinces.

This seems demonstrated from Ireland, where the multitude of loughs, lakes, bogs, and moist places, serve the air, with exhalations, which give themselves back again in showers, and make it be called, the pisspot of the world.

The imaginary notion I have to advance on this head, amounts only to a reflection upon the skill of those ages in the art of navigation; which being far short of what it is since arrived to, made these vast northern seas too terrible for them to venture in: and accordingly, they raised those apprehensions up to fable, which began only in their want of judgment.

Britain’s Navigation Dangerous.

The Phonecians, who were our first navigators, the Genoese, and after them the Portugese, who arrived to extraordinary proficiency in sea affairs, were yet all of them as we say, fair-weather seamen; the chief of their navigation was coasting; and if they were driven out of their knowledge, had work enough to find their way home, and sometimes never found it at all; but one sea conveyed them directly into the last ocean, from whence no navigation could return them. When these, by adventures, or misadventures rather, had at any time extended their voyaging as far as this island, which, by the way, they, always performed round the coast of Spain, Portugal, and France; if ever such a vessel returned, if ever the bold navigator arrived at home, he had done enough to talk on all his days, and needed no other diversion among his neighbours, than to give an account of the vast seas, mighty rocks, deep gulfs, and prodigious storms he met with in these remote parts of the known world: and this magnified by the poetical arts of the learned men of those times, grew into a received maxim of navigation. That these parts were so full of constant tempests, storms, and dangerous seas, that it was present death to come near them, and none but madmen and desperadoes could have any business there, since they were places where ships never came, and navigation was not proper in the place.

And Thule, where no passage was
For ships their sails to bear.

Horace has reference to this horrid part of the world, as a place full of terrible monsters, and fit only for their habitation, in the words before quoted.

Belluosus qui remotis
Obstrepit Oceanus Britannis.

Juvenal follows his steps;

Quanto Delphino Balaena Britannica major. — Juv.

Such horrid apprehensions those ages had of these parts, which by our experience, and the prodigy to which navigation in particular, and sciential knowledge in general, is since grown, appear very ridiculous.

For we find no danger in our shores, no uncertain wavering in our tides, no frightful gulfs, no horrid monsters, but what the bold mariner has made familiar to him. The gulfs, which frighted those early sons of Neptune, are searched out by our seamen, and made useful bays, roads, and harbours of safety. The promontories which running out into the sea gave them terrible apprehensions of danger, are our safety, and make the sailors’ hearts glad, as they are the first lands they make when they are coming home from a long voyage, or as they are a good shelter when in a storm our ships get under their lee.

Progress of Navigation.

Our shores are sounded, the sands and flats are discovered, which they knew little or nothing of, and in which more real danger lies, than in all the frightful stories they told us; useful sea-marks and land-figures are placed on the shore, buoys, on the water, lighthouses on the highest rocks; and all these dreadful parts of the world are become the seat of trade, and the centre of navigation: art has reconciled all the difficulties, and use made all the horribles and terribles of those ages become as natural and familiar as daylight.

The hidden sands, almost the only real dread of a sailor, and by which till the channels between them were found out, our eastern coast must be really unpassable, now serve to make harbours: and Yarmouth road was made a safe place for shipping by them. Nay, when Portsmouth, Plymouth, and other good harbours would not defend our ships in the violent tempest we are treating of, here was the least damage done of any place in England, considering the number of ships which lay at anchor, and the openness of the place.

So that upon the whole it seems plain to me, that all the dismal things the ancients told us of Britain, and her terrible shores, arose from the infancy of marine knowledge, and the weakness of the sailor’s courage.

Not but that I readily allow we are more subject to bad weather and hard gales of wind than the coasts of Spain, Italy, and Barbary: but if this be allowed, our improvement in the art of building ships is so considerable, our vessels are so prepared to ride out the most violent storms, that the fury of the Sea is the least thing our sailors fear: keep them but from a lee shore, or touching upon a sand, they will venture all the rest: and nothing is as great satisfaction to them, if they have a storm in view, than a sound bottom and good sea room.

From hence it comes to pass, that such winds as in those days would have passed for storms, are called only a fresh gale, or blowing hard. If it blows enough to fright a South country sailor, we laugh at it: and if our sailors bald terms were set down in a table of degrees, it will explain what mean.

Stark calm.
Calm weather.
Little wind.
A fine breeze.
A small gale.
A fresh gale.
A topsail gale.
Blows fresh.
A hard gale of wind.
A fret of wind.
A storm.
A tempest.

Just half these tarpaulin article, I presume, would have passed in those days for a storm; and what our sailors call a top sail gale would have drove the navigators of those ages, into harbours: when our sailors reef a topsail, they would have handed all their sails; and when we go under a main-course, they would have run afore it for life to the next port they could make: when our hard gale blows, they would have cried a tempest; and about the fret of wind they would be all at their prayers.

And if we should reckon by this account, we are a stormy country indeed, our seas are no more navigable now for such sailors than they were then: if the Japanesses, the East Indians, and such like navigators were to come with their thin cockle shell barks and calico sails; if Cleopatra’s fleet, or Caesar’s’ great ships with which he fought the battle of Actium, were to come upon our seas, there hardly comes a March or a September in twenty years but would blow them to pieces, and then the poor remnant that got home, would go and talk of a terrible country where there is nothing but storms and tempests; when all the matter is, the weakness of their shipping, and the ignorance of their seamen: and I make no question but our ships ride out many a worse storm than that terrible tempest which scattered Julius Caesar’s fleet, or the same that drove AEneas on the coast of Carthage.

And in modern times we have a famous instance in the Spanish Armada; which, after it rather frighted than damaged by Sir Francis Drake’s machines, not then known by the name of fire ships, were scattered by a terrible storm, and lost upon every shore.

The case is plain, it was all owing to the accident of navigation: they had, no doubt, a hard gale of wind, and perhaps a storm; but they were also on an enemy’s coast, their pilots out of their knowledge, no harbour to run into, and an enemy astern, that when once they separated, fear drove them from one danger to another, and away they went to the northward, where they had nothing but God’s mercy, and the winds and seas to help them. In all those storms and distresses which ruined that fleet, we do not find an account of the loss of one ship, either of the English or Dutch; the Queen’s fleet rode it out in the downs, which all men know is none of the best roads in the world; and the Dutch rode among the flats of the Flemish coast, while the vast galleons not so well fitted for the weather, were forced to keep the sea, and were driven to and fro till they had got out of their knowledge; and like men desperate, embraced every danger they came near.

This long digression I could not but think needful, in order to clear up the case, having never met with anything on this head before: at the same time it is allowed, and histories are full of the particulars, that we have often very high winds, and sometimes violent tempests in these northern parts of the world; but I am still of opinion, such a tempest never happened before as that which is the subject of these sheets: and I refer the reader to the particulars.