Back in 1641 at a time when the English and the Spanish were getting along well a pair of English ships spent three years trading in the Caribbean. The Galleons, Dover Merchant and Royal Merchant sailed back to Cadiz on their way home. In the port of Cadiz there was a fire which damaged a Spanish vessel that was due to carry the payroll to the army in Flanders. The English captain stepped in and offered to transport the gold and silver.
The two English ships were the worse for wear after a season at sea in the tropics. There is no doubt that they were heavy with weed, and had bulging seams and rotten caulking. Three years in the West Indies, under a punishing sun, can wreak havoc with planking and decking above the waterline. They may also have been infested with ship-worm. These days with modern steel ships, fibreglass and epoxy yachts we expect boats to be dry. Leaks are something that must be fixed. Traditional boat owners have a better sense of the realities of 17th century sailing. Wooden boats must be filled with water on the inside if they are wintered on the dockside. The timbers and caulking must be kept moist to prevent drying, which opens gaps in the seams. I have sailed in a Galway hooker for the first outing of a season, to see cataracts of water cascade through the seams above the waterline as we heeled over in the wind. Bailing and pumping out are part of the daily grind on a wooden ship.
Royal Merchant was leaking badly as they sailed through Biscay, being pumped out all the way. Off Lands End the weather took a turn for the worse. If your decks are leaking then rain and waves breaking on the deck add to your flooding woes. The overworked pumps broke down and the leaking ship began to sink. She went down off the Isles of Scilly, with the loss of 18 men. The other 40 men managed to board the ships boats and were rescued by the Dover Merchant.
Royal Merchant was the most valuable ship ever to sink. The salvage company that finds her stand to share in the region of one billion US dollars, once the legal teams figure out who owns the wreck.
Here is a poem about a sinking ship by Dora Sigerson Shorter. Dora was one of the leading lights of the Irish literary revival and the explosion of Celtic Culture and 19th Century mysticism. Given the context I think a closer reading may yield clues that it is not a Ship that is sinking, but something else. But what? Is this a poem in the vein of Yeats “September 1913” criticizing the bourgeoisie and the loss of direction in the struggle for Irish freedom? Is it a paean for the stagnation of the art movement? What is “the struggle” and who are “they” that shun it? I would welcome your thoughts in the comments section.
The Sinking Ship; by Dora Sigerson Shorter
The ship is sinking, come ye one and all.
Stand fast and so this weakness overhaul,
Come ye strong hands and cheery voices call,
The ship is sinking in a summer sea,
Bless her but once for all she used to be,
Who rode the billows once so proud and free,
If you but loved a little, with a sigh,
Gone, all are gone, they neither hear or care,
The sun shines on and life is ever fair.
They shun the struggle, laughter lurks elsewhere.
The ship is sinking, passing echoes cry,
The little ships that pass her in the night,
Speed from the darkness in their eager fright.
From troubled dreams they take refuge in flight.
Why should they then, who know they too must die,
Then get you gone, desert the sinking ship,
O faithless friends, who on her pleasure-trip
Clung close with gentle words and smiling lip,
And still as ever on your own joys cry,
The ship is sinking, parting in a smile,
The sunset waters mark the last sad mile
In dimpling play and in a little while
The waters close, Death and his angels cry,