Monday, December 3, 2012

History: The Great Storm

No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it.

Thus wrote Daniel Defoe, who so brilliantly fictionalized the sufferings of castaway Alexander Selkirk, in his 1704 publication The Storm. In this book he was not so much fictionalizing as summarizing the havoc that occurred in the south of England when a week-long hurricane descended on the country November 24, 1703. The horrors of the storm were settled upon as God's wrath against England and, though largely forgotten today, the Great Storm was a seminal event for those who lived through it.

Trees, particularly the covetted oaks of the New Forest - which were used to a large degree in shipbuilding - were one of the many casualties of the relentless weather. It is estimated that well over 15,000 trees were literally uprooted by the storm. 4,000 were destroyed in the New Forest alone and writer John Evelyn claimed to have lost 2,000 on his holdings in Surrey.

The Eddystone Lighthouse, pictured above, was completely swept away. Six human lives were lost with it. Inland, more than 10,000 people and countless head of cattle and sheep drown or were killed by collapsing buildings.

Ships themselves were high on the list of things battered and lost as well. Returning to Plymouth and London from action in the War of the Spanish Succession, many Royal Navy ships were sunk including men-of-war such as HMS Northumberland. The loss of men was incredible; it is estimated that close to 9,000 sailors perished in the storm.

Merchant ships fared no better. As this post over at History Today points out, some managed to survive but through no fault of their fellow man. Apparently one ship that wrecked off the Goodwin Sands in Kent saw 200 of its men clinging to life on a nearby cliff. One Thomas Powell of Deal tried to organize a party of locals to rescue them, but most people were too interested in looting what remained of the ship than in saving the unfortunate seamen. Somehow, Powell managed to recruit enough manpower to get the sailors to safety.

London was hit particularly hard on Friday the 26th. The roof of Westminster Abbey, made of lead, was torn clean away. Queen Anne was forced to take shelter in the basement of St. James Palace while the Bishop of Wells and his wife were killed in their bed when their chimney collapse literally on them.

Defoe's family huddled together in the dark of midnight, listening to roofs and chimneys topple all around them. At one point, they thought to take refuge in their garden but were confronted by a hale of roofing tiles. They retreated back into their brick home, deciding to "trust in God's providence."

The storm at last calmed on December 2nd and Defoe picked his way through the streets of London. He would later write of seeing 700 ships piled up like cord wood at the Pool. What he saw so effected him that he put pen to paper and wrote The Storm, which was published the following July.

The Great Storm was the subject of much speculation for years to come. Why it had happened, and why it had been so terrible, was put down uniformly to the displeasure of God. Even the government agreed. To recognize the "crying sins" of the nation, Parliament declared January 19, 1704 a national day of fasting saying that the storm "loudly calls for the deepest and most solemn humiliation of our people."

Defoe had his own idea, though. The gale, which had of course originated at sea, was no doubt God's vengeance for the Royal Navy's poor showing against the Catholics of Spain and France. Rather a harsh indictment, one has to say.

Header: Eddystone Lighthouse as it appeared in 1703 from an engraving by Henry Roberts c 1761 via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

I think it was global warming, Pauline... No, wait, Dafoe was probably right. God was just mad about the Catholics. That makes a lot of sense... ;-)

Pauline said...

I think it goes to show that "super storms" have been with us always and charging oil companies for the ones we have today is really not much different than imagining God is punishing you for not killing enough Catholics.

And 300 years from now our antecedents will think of us as superstitious idiots. It seems to be the nature of humans to imagine their ancestors were morons.