Of Tempests and the Cruel Seas

Shakespeare Library Recalls Seafaring's Past

Posted June 11, 2010 at 2:52pm

With today’s GPS, travelers rarely worry about getting lost. And a trip across the ocean on a trans-Atlantic cruise is considered a vacation, not a death wish.

A few hundred years ago, however, braving the ocean’s vigorous winds, unyielding currents and endless horizon of blue with just a wooden ship and a dozen sails was a much more daunting task.

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s new exhibition, “Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750,” offers modern-day travelers and history buffs a peek into the reality of sea exploration from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

The 100-piece collection brings maps, artifacts, navigational tools and the personal writings of sailors from the Folger Library, the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va., the Library of Congress, Sultana Projects Inc., and the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University to the gallery at 201 East Capitol St. SE.

Visitors can check out astrolabes that measured ships’ latitudes, nautical instruments used to tell time by matching constellations, or the indenture contracts that brought a 21-year-old “spinster” and 23-year-old “tobaccopipemaker” to the new world in 1683 in exchange for four years of labor.

The exhibit features numerous scribbling and books written by captains and navigators of the time and even a medical manual that suggested lemon juice for curing scurvy. The collection includes the writings and drawings of Edward Barlow, a sailor for 45 years, who described Indian and African ports, the tough labors of seamen and vicious ocean storms from a sailor’s point of view in the 17th century.

Visitors can pick up a replica of a 21-pound atlas and feel the soft and coarse fibers of cotton and oakum ropes used to plug holes in ships. There’s also a touch screen that allows viewers to sift through the various maps in a 1729 world atlas.

The display has numerous prayer and sermon books that sailors used as spiritual anchors during storms or other hardships.

“Sailing required more than technical labor and navigation tools,” said Steve Mentz, co-curator and English professor at St. John’s University. They also needed spiritual consolation, he said.

The seas were dangerous, and at one point, 40 percent of ships bound for the Indian Ocean wrecked off Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and were never seen again. Ships could overload with too much cargo and sink to the ocean floor. Inaccurate maps and unpredictable winds and storms could lead explorers to unintended places. Because of the danger and disorientation of the endless horizon, explorers often turned to religion.

The seas affected not only the sailors who braved them, but also families who lost loved ones to the deep blue. One artifact, a gold, rock crystal ring — most likely worn by a widow — was all that remained of “R.C.,” a perished sailor. Embedded on the inside, the band reads, “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”

Beyond the display of artifacts, the gallery space serves as a “tool of orientation,” Mentz said. The long, narrow wooden corridor with a hanging sail sweeping to the roof and an enormous anchor centered on the floor adds a “metaphor connection” to a ship’s atmosphere.

“The exhibit shows a combination of the science and math that drove voyages and the individual transformations and experiences [mariners] went through,” Mentz said. “There was a challenge to the ocean. Society was not the beach-going culture it is today, where people go to the ocean for pleasure. This exhibit encourages us to think back to the sailors’ view.”

“Lost at Sea” is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until Sept. 4.