Cape Cod's Oldest Shipwreck: The Desperate Crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk

Cape Cod's Oldest Shipwreck: The Desperate Crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk

by Mark C. Wilkins


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In 1626-27, the Sparrow-Hawk began her final journey across the brutal winter waves of the Atlantic Ocean, departing from the southern coast of England with America as her goal. As cases of scurvy and whispers of mutiny rose, the hopes of those aboard the small vessel began to fade. The ever-changing coastline of Cape Cod caused the Sparrow-Hawk to run aground. Desperate to repair their ship and attain their goal of becoming wealthy Virginia tobacco planters, the passengers wrecked her again, forcing them to abandon their beloved ship and take up residence in Plymouth Colony. Revealed by the tides over two hundred years later, the wreckage was pillaged by local scavengers and put on display in Boston. Join Mark Wilkins as he delves into the secrets of the Sparrow-Hawk.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596298606
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 06/21/2011
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Mark Wilkins is the director and curator of the Atwood House Museum, home of the Chatham Historical Society. Mr. Wilkins has worked for the Smithsonian Institution. Formerly the director and curator of the Cape Cod Maritime Museum, he and a dedicated band of volunteers built a replica of an 1886 Crosby catboat, the Sarah. Mr. Wilkins lectures on a variety of historical topics on the Cape and the South Shore. He has spent many years researching and developing vessels for which little or no conclusive evidence exists. He spends many hours in archives, libraries, and museums ferreting out bits of information that will lend clarity to what such vessels may have looked like. He then constructs a detailed model and an overview of the "chain of evidence" to support his conclusions. These have been executed for various maritime museums nationwide. He endeavors to make this process a collaborative effort between historians, curators, independent researchers and boat builders. Mr. Wilkins also has made several speculative reconstructions of vessels from the seventeenth century and builds historic replicas of full-sized boats.

Read an Excerpt



From the last quarter of the sixteenth century to the year the Sparrow-Hawk sailed (1626), London grew from a disease- infested city on the verge of economic collapse to the beginnings of a mercantile hub as the promise of economic prosperity began entering its ports in the form of bundles of tobacco from Virginia; fish from New England; sugar from the West Indies; wines, currants and raisins from Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean; and silks, spices and pepper from China. Most of the demand for these products came from an increasingly consumptive London populace. Interestingly and importantly, both sugar and tobacco were addictive substances, and Queen Elizabeth I apparently liked sugar so much that it turned her teeth black.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, England's population increased by 24 percent, while London's population grew by 88 percent — even with high mortality rates. London was also becoming a focal point for domestic trade as merchants set up shops to take advantage of its port status. England's reformation was at a close, but England was broke due to its long, protracted war with Spain, compelling James I and IV (of England and Scotland, respectively) to end it in 1603. In 1604, the woolen trade, on which England had always depended for economic stability, was clearly depressed. By as late as 1616, woolens still constituted about 80 percent of England's exports, forcing England to look to the sea and the faraway shores of America for an answer to its dilemma. In addition, in an effort to broaden the appeal of England's chief export, foreigners flocked to London to help develop a lighter, more versatile version of the traditionally heavy English woolens (old draperies). "New draperies," being lighter, appealed to a broader audience and were also ideally suited to warmer climates. English woolens, be they heavy or light, were sent to Antwerp to be finished and dyed until about 1580. Political, commercial and religious upheaval closed Antwerp to English woolens producers and forced them to export their fabrics to German and Baltic ports; as a result, volume fell by about 20 percent. Still, England needed new commodities with which to build a more diversified and subsequently more stable economy.

Interestingly, England saw its expansionism as a distinctly westward phenomenon, a trait that Americans would inherit and further, as witnessed by the final annexation of California to the Union in 1850. More interesting still is the symmetry and irony of this ambition. As England experienced gold fever in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (royal colonial charters included explicit instructions for obtaining gold and silver above all else), America (California) would follow in the 1850s.

The London of the early seventeenth century was teeming with activity and was in a perpetual state of consolidation and expansion. It was at the center of mercantilist and colonial projects. Businesses opened, ran their course and failed; those that prospered grew. The food and drink business was especially lucrative, and one out of every twenty houses in London was used as a tavern. Cheap and often illegal (tenement) housing was built at a rapid pace and clogged the already crowded streets of London. Due to the Reformation, the Crown was able to seize land on which Catholic monasteries had been built. These became new London suburbs, with houses and streets to accommodate the never-ending stream of people coming to London. This became so expansive that James I ordered a ban in 1607, stating that there should be no new building within two miles of the gates of London, except on old foundations or in the courtyard of an existing home. Paradoxically, the Crown repeatedly undermined its own authority by selling licenses to build illegal buildings and then allowing offenders to keep these buildings for a fee. These monies were used to generate revenue for the perennially empty royal coffers — a problem that would climax with the reign of Charles I.

Another noteworthy business was the printing house, as there was much to print. Mortality sheets, Shakespeare's folios, Captain John Smith's Generalle Historie and other accounts of exploratory efforts in the Americas and West Indies began to circulate all over London. This was also the London of Shakespeare and the Globe Theater, of "publicke" houses where one might find a diverse cross section of Englishmen, Irishmen and Scots, plus many foreigners from the continent — from gentry discussing the latest edicts of James I and vagrants hoping for a handout to mariners and adventurers planning their next venture in the Atlantic world, shipbuilders and port officials. The king and court were completely separate but omnipresent entities, and daily life at court included all attendant sycophants and entrepreneurs hoping to gain favorable trade conditions or earn a place at Windsor Castle. As commerce in London grew, so did the infrastructure for the port, and shipbuilding and associated trades started popping up downriver in such hamlets as Wapping, Shadwell, Limehouse and Poplar. Approximately half the workers in these towns were mariners or people associated with the maritime trades. In addition, there was a seemingly insatiable desire for unskilled laborers to help with the loading and unloading of ships and vessels up and down the Thames.

Moving through the narrow and crowded streets of this burgeoning hub of commerce, politics and influence, one might spy a rather sickly fellow staggering along or leaning against the corner of a hastily constructed tenement, his ashen pallor causing passersby to hasten their pace to avoid lingering near yet another potential plague victim. In 1625 alone, forty thousand people died of bubonic plague. Perhaps the poor unfortunate was only drunk — at the Pope's Head Tavern in Cornhill, wine could be had at a penny a pint, and bread was free. Or for a few more pence, one could satisfy his hunger with a meat or oyster pie, the contents of which were procured from the banks of the Thames, shell and all. After a filling, if not healthy meal, one might shuffle down the filthy cobbles of any number of thoroughfares and streets, the autumn sun setting in the west, casting long purple shadows across the hewn beams and plastered façades of the countless Tudor dwellings lining London's growing business district.

Making one's way down to the center of commercial activity, the Thames, perhaps one would be handed a flyer that documented recent deaths due to the plague or a handbill for a play. Starting in the 1570s, six new theaters were established around London; John Stowe called them "public places." They were round or octagonal in shape and could hold between two and three thousand people each. Theater was the biggest form of entertainment in London, but one could also find amusement in public executions or gambling on cockfights or archery competitions. There were two theater districts. One was in the northern outskirts, in Finsbury and Shoreditch, and the other was across the Thames in Bankside and Southwark. Shakespeare's celebrated Globe Theater was located in Southwark. Theaters were deliberately built outside the jurisdiction of city officials, and actors needed a license or a powerful patron such as Lord Chamberlain or the king in order to avoid the charge of being rogues.

By March 1625, James I was dead and was succeeded by his only son, Charles, who at the ripe old age of twenty-four became Charles I of England. There was a marked difference at court with Charles, who nurtured and appreciated learned and clever men in all disciplines. Banished were the fools, jesters and bawds of his father's court. Charles also was an avid lover of the arts and took a keen interest in paintings, carvings and prints. The young king was serious, temperate and chaste, in strident contrast to the previous monarch. King Charles had a tense relationship with Parliament almost from the very outset. Occurring concurrently with Charles's ascension to the throne was one of the worst outbreaks of the plague (1625). What ensued in the following months was a great debate over how the king would be funded. Traditionally, the king derived revenues from various forms of taxation, most notably customs duties, which were termed "tonnage" and "poundage." In other words, the more commodities that were imported into England, the more the king earned.

By this time, Virginia tobacco had become a lucrative commodity, and much of it was labeled "for the king's personal consumption." (This will be explored in greater detail shortly.) The tonnage and poundage revenue stream was usually granted to the monarch for life, but with Charles, Parliament voted to give him these monies for only one year so it could reconsider the problem of royal finances after the plague had subsided (members of Parliament then bid a hasty retreat from London). The king also derived revenues from other forms of taxation, which Parliament considered illegal. The debate over royal finances and church reform would ultimately cost Charles his head and would plunge England into civil war in the early 1640s. However, during the mid-1620s, Charles was concerned with other ways to fund his Crown while still begrudgingly working with Parliament. With the winds of war brewing between Spain and England again, Charles was about to spend large sums of money on a war, making his need for increased revenue even more profound. To make a very long and tortuous story short, Parliament refused to grant Charles the money he requested, so Charles simply dissolved Parliament. After all, the monarchy was by divine appointment. What right did Parliament have to deny the king that which he demanded?

Charles launched an ill-fated naval/army attack on Cadiz, during which the army made a successful assault on a plentiful supply of local wine, rendering its actual attack pointless due to excessive drinking and scarce food. The army was reduced to little more than a drunken rabble! The failed assault force returned to Plymouth in the fall of 1626, tired, sick and dying. Perhaps the crew of Sparrow-Hawk saw the men trudging through the streets as they prepared for their voyage.

Back in London, the king was desperately short of money again, forcing him to reluctantly convene Parliament in February 1626. During this kiss-and-make-up session, Parliament laid the blame for the king's poverty squarely at the doorstep of his chief advisor, the duke of Buckingham, who had lavish feasts, stately homes and countless other excesses. Ostensibly, the evil duke had led the good king astray, Parliament equivocated, still not quite ready to confront the king of England with allegations of fiscal impropriety. After the sacrificial bloodletting, as manifested by the impeachment of Buckingham, the king and Parliament reached a temporary accord. But it wouldn't last past June 1626, when, in a fit of frustration over the dreaded royal finances, Charles dissolved his second Parliament. Outside the rarified environment of Parliament and the court, the public watched with increasing uneasiness, ravaged by plagues, a lackluster economy, ever- increasing numbers of unemployed and seemingly more taxes, plus the contentious relationship between Charles and Parliament unfolding in front of them. The people of London wondered what form salvation might take. For many, even the wild and barbarous lands of America seemed a much more palatable alternative to staying in England. Into this teeming and dynamic economic and sociopolitical context, a pair of English merchants by the name of John Fells and John Sibsey were most likely to be found during the late fall/early winter of 1626. Their goal was simple: secure a charter and find a ship, crew and enough indentured servants and agricultural equipment to start a tobacco plantation in Virginia. The ship they chose would come to be called the Sparrow-Hawk. Although this sounded straightforward enough, it was, in fact, a very complex proposition — or was it?

During the second quarter of the seventeenth century, England had begun funneling support to Virginia in the form of supplies, materials, troops and myriad other items necessary to maintain the tenuous toehold England had at Jamestown after the collapse of the Virginia Company in 1624. The Crown did this to ensure the survival of the tobacco trade, which by this time had become lucrative. Although Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first colony in Virginia at Roanoke in 1558 — which he used as a base from which to conduct privateering raids against the Spanish gold fleets — this colony ultimately failed. Upon his return to England, Raleigh became an outspoken proponent of a curious leaf that could be smoked and was appearing in England with increasing frequency during the latter portion of the sixteenth century. The first official records of tobacco importation into England appear in 1603, during which sixteen thousand pounds of it were recorded as coming into England. Interestingly, the first appearance of the smoky weed in English literature occurred in Spenser's Faerie Queene in 1590, the use of which was described as having medicinal qualities:

Into the woods thenceforth in hast she went, To seeke for hearbes, that mote him remedy ... There, whether it divine Tobacco were, Or Panachaea, or Polygony, She found, and brought it to her patient deare Who all this while lay bleeding out his hart-bloud neare.

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh were patrons of Spenser. Jerome Brooks, an eminent tobacco historian, wrote that after 1590, England exceeded all other countries in its zeal for tobacco. By 1604, James I had ascended to the throne, and among his many new initiatives was a polemic on the use of tobacco. His Counter-blaste was a fiery chronicle of the evils of tobacco, made more so by the fact that at this point most of it had come from England's archenemy — Spain. The following is an excerpt:

And for the vanities committed in this filthy custome, is it not both great vanitie and uncleannesse that at the table, a place of respect, of cleannesse, of modestie, meni should not be ashamed to sit tossing of tobacco-pipes, and puffing of the smoke of tobacco, one to another, making the filthy smoke and stinke thereof to exhale athwart the dishes, and infest the aire, when, very often men that abhor it are at the repast? Surely smoke becomes a kitchin farre better than a dining chamber, and yet it makes a kitchin also oftentimes in the inward parts of men, soyling and infesting them with an unctuous and oily kind of soote, as hath been found in great tobacco takers that, after their death, were opened. And not onely meate time, but no other time nor action is exempted from the publicke use of this uncivil tricke.

As the antecedent to and in contrast with the diatribe by James I, others extolled the virtues of Nicotiana rustica during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. While England and the Spanish Armada were slugging it out in the English Channel in 1588, Thomas Hariot's (who, not surprisingly, was Sir Walter Raleigh's servant) A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia promoted Virginia as a good investment while simultaneously extolling the medicinal virtues of tobacco. Hariot suggested to potential investors that, in order that Jamestown "may return you profit and gain," a miraculous Virginian herb would come in very handy. Tobacco was also, at this time, being planted on English soil; both William Harrison and the elder Richard Hakluyt, writing in 1573 and 1582, respectively, praised the nutritional and medicinal qualities of tobacco, stating that it helped to ease the rheum. The rheum was the chronic cold or allergic reaction that seemingly sprung from living in damp and chilly Tudor England. By the end of the sixteenth century, with the English woolen trade in marked decline, colonial projects became a necessity, first in Ireland and then in America. All of England had high, if not desperate, hopes for new commodities that would infuse its sagging economy.


Excerpted from "Cape Cod's Oldest Shipwreck"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Mark C. Wilkins.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. London and Jamestown during the 1620s,
2. Planning a Voyage,
3. The Desperate Crossing, Winter 1626-27,
4. Cape James, Cape Malbarre, Cape Cod!,
5. John Sibsey's Virginia,
6. Reemergence — The "Old Ship" Reconsidered,
7. The Sparrow-Hawk on the Boston Common, Providence and Back to Plymouth,
8. Reconstructing the Sparrow-Hawk,
9. The Tudor Shipbuilder's Art,
Conclusions and Context,
Appendix A. William Bradford on the Wreck of the Sparrow-Hawk,
Appendix B. John Pory's Letter to the Earl of Southampton,
Appendix C. William Strachey's Account of 1606,
Appendix D. Seventeenth-Century Glossary,
About the Author,

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