“As you grow older, it becomes harder to feel 100 percent happy; you learn all the things that can go wrong, you become superstitious about tempting fate, about bringing disaster upon your life by accidentally feeling too good one day” ― Douglas Coupland
A great deal of maritime superstition revolves around the building and naming of a new ship, and consequently for thousands of years of human seafaring, the launching of a vessel has entailed some serious ceremony, from the Ancient Babylonians pouring bitumen over the hull and sacrificing oxen, to the Classical Greeks, who donned olive branch headgear, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water over the vessel in blessing, to the Ottoman feasting and sheep sacrifices that preceded pushing off. The more familiar ritual of busting a bottle of wine on the prow in the West is liturgically Catholic in form and effectively represents a christening or baptism, and likely results from the fact that of all our technological feats, few are anthropomorphized to the extent that a sailing vessel is. “There is a vast difference between building houses or automobiles and building ships. A shipwright is more than a carpenter; he is a combination of a carpenter, cabinetmaker, engineer, and smith. The result of his work, in the eyes of many people, is man’s closest approach to creating with his hands a living thing endowed with all the frailties of a human being (Beck, 1957, p48). Thus there is an indisputable logic in (1) choosing an appropriate name likely to confer good fortune, and (2) making an appeal to the celestial powers that be to look favorably on your efforts, just in case. Along came the Reformation in 1517 A.D., when Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses and ushered in a few hundred years of Catholics and Protestants clubbing each other over the head across Europe. One odd offshoot of the conflict seems to be that Protestant-leaning countries stopped baptizing their ships. I say why tempt fate, but I guess sometimes you just have to stand on principle. Then again, this may have had catastrophic consequences for the residents of New Haven, Connecticut in 1648, and I for one blame Rhode Island.
In 1647, the future was not looking so bright for the nascent colony of New Haven (actually distinct from the Connecticut Colony at the time). The colony was founded in 1637 by about 500 breakaway Puritans who hated the Red Sox (okay, fine, they found the theocratic leadership of their original Massachusetts Bay Colony a bit oppressive). Unfortunately, the founders of New Haven happened to be a set of colonists badly prepared to set up an independent and self-sufficient little nation-state, mostly because they had a fondness for food, but hated farming. “New Haven was settled by merchants whose leading idea was commerce, not agriculture, for which they and the land, indeed, were illy adapted. In 1641 they planted a colony on the Delaware to trade with the Indians. The next year it was broken up by the Dutch from New York, who claimed jurisdiction. Extremely disappointed in trade, their large estates rapidly dwindling, they built a large ship and freighted her for England with the best part of their commercial estates (Howe, 1884, p8).
So, the New Haven gentleman were not especially interested in farm work, and even if they were, New Haven is a rotten place to grow anything but an insurance company. Add to that the Dutch willingness to burn any commercial enterprise planted near their territories in New York or Delaware to the ground, and New Haven was feeling itself hard pressed to make a go of it. Unfortunately, New Haven was just a little enclave with a decent port and a bunch of hopeful citizens who knew if they could just get their goods to market in Europe, they might be able to make a tidy profit and turn things around. The problem, as it usually is, was the middlemen. “Up to this time they had sent goods to England by way of Boston or of the West Indies; there might be more profit, they thought, in a direct trade, cutting out the cost of reshipment. So they bought a ship. We do not know her name, she is always spoken of as the ‘Great Shippe,’ although she was only one hundred tons; perhaps the title was given her because the colonists were staking so much on this venture. If it succeeded, their prosperity might be assured; if it failed, they must give up the sea and commerce as a dependence and turn their energies to agriculture. The ‘Great Shippe’ was a new boat, said to have been built in Rhode Island” (Newton, 1916, p38).
Shipbuilding would soon become a massive industry in New England (lots of pristine forests for quality timber at the time), but in the 1640’s it was just starting to get off the ground. Massachusetts Bay, the major center of the colonial shipbuilding industry produced about 30 vessels in the 1640’s, only nine of which were rated at more than 100 tons. The first ship of significant size recorded as being built in Rhode Island was in 1646, and it was noted that it was bought by the New Haven colony. “In 1646 the New Haven colony built a ship of a hundred and fifty tons, at Rhode Island, which seems to have been about the commencement of the business there, where it has ever since been an important branch of industry” (Bishop, 1864, p54). The Newport, Rhode Island shipbuilders are specifically credited with its construction. The maritime craftsmen of Rhode Island were no doubt Puritans. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with that. I dig the hats. Anyhow, the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was established by yet another band of merry Puritans fleeing a nasty bit of religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (I’m sensing a pattern with Massachusetts), and they were resolved to be open-minded and progressive, even going so far as to abolish witch trials, eliminate imprisonment for debt, declare slavery illegal, and end capital punishment. Basically, they were the Puritan equivalent of hippies. And while I love to party with the flower children, and wholeheartedly embrace the free love philosophy in general terms, I don’t want them building my boats. Happy to learn Continental Post-Modern philosophy from them. Keep them away from anything that requires a safety record. Poor New Haven was headed towards bankruptcy and believe it or not the Connecticut Colony was getting pretty aggressive. Not just attitude. They actually had a military and were making noises about invading. New Haven needed some cold, hard cash, and needed it quickly. When Rhode Island offered to build them a brand new ship of sizable tonnage at premium prices, they really couldn’t resist ignoring the fact that those mellow shipbuilders stone cold chillin’ and watching Colonial versions of Beavis and Butthead (probably puppet shows) in Newport had never built a ship that big. When the commissioned vessel sailed into New Haven’s harbor, the few seasoned seamen among the New Haven colonists were skeptical, but desperation had led them to this last ditch act, and they really didn’t have any option but to load her up. “It was not a well built ship, and fears were often expressed by Captain Lamberton, who was her master, before she left port, as to the safety of the passengers and freight. Moreover, she was badly laden, the lighter goods being at the bottom. Wheat, too, has a tendency to shift in a storm, and part of her lading was wheat. Mr. Davenport had sent his sermons and diary to England by her, probably for publication, and Mr. Hooke, minister of the first church in Hartford, also sent his. Mr. Davenport and Mr. Hooke both rewrote part of their manuscript, but Mr. Davenport’s diary could never be re-written (Woodward, 1912, p28). Their dire financial straits led them to make the best of it.
In 1647 the New Haven colonists, who even at that early day exhibited the enterprise that has been a distinguishing feature of the Yankee, sent a ship to Ireland to try to develop a commerce, their trading posts on the Delaware having been broken up by the Swedes. When their agent, Captain Lamberton, sailed—in January—the harbor was so beset with ice that a track had to be cut through the floes to open water, five miles distant. She had, moreover, to be dragged out stern foremost—an ill omen, the sailors thought—and as she swung before the wind a passing drift of fog concealed her, for a moment, from the gaze of those on shore, who, from this, foretold things of evil. Though large and new, the ship was so “walty”—inclined to roll—that the captain set off with misgiving, and as she moved away the crew heard this solemn and disheartening invocation from a clergyman on the wharf: “Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these, our friends, in the bottom of the sea, take them; they are thine: save them.” Winter passed; so did spring; still the ship came not; but one afternoon in June, just as a rain had passed, some children cried, “There’s a brave ship!” for, flying up the harbor, with all sail set and flaunting colors, was a vessel—”the very mould of our ship,” the clergyman said. Strange to tell, she was going flat against the wind; no sailors were on her deck; she did not toss with the fling of the waves; there was no ripple at her bow. As she came close to land a single figure appeared on the quarter, pointing seaward with a cutlass; then suddenly her main-top fell, her masts toppled from their holdings, the dismantled hulk careened and went down. A cloud dropped from heaven and brooded for a time above the place where it had vanished, and when it lifted the surface of the sea was empty and still. The good folk of New Haven believed that the fate of the absent ship had been revealed, at last, for she never came back and Captain Lamberton was never heard from (Skinner, 1896, p38-40).
I think we all saw it coming, and it seems that the poor vessel didn’t even have a name until delivered to New Haven, as the records are pretty thin. Historians have since confirmed that the people of New Haven named her Fellowship, but the only note of this is in Governor Eaton’s (one of the Directors of “The Company of the Merchants of New Haven”), last will and testament.
Just what the name of this vessel was is not known. Some have thought that it was called the “Fellowship.” In the old records it is always mentioned as the “great shippe.” When it sailed into New Haven harbor, people went down to the wharf to look at it. Many rowed out to examine it. Old sailors did not like the looks of it. Mr. Lamberton, who was made the captain, thought it was a “cranky” boat, and would easily capsize in the middle of the ocean. But whether they thought their new ship was seaworthy or not they went right to work and made ready for the voyage. The captain rigged the masts to suit himself and had a fine new set of blocks or pulleys made for the tackling. Then they filled the hold with everything they could find to sell. They put in lumber and hides, pease and wheat, and a lot of beaver skins. Some put in their silver plates and spoons; for they needed other things more, and their silverware was all they had left with which to buy them. Besides these there were some of Mr. Davenport’s sermons which were to be printed in England. This cargo was worth many thousands of dollars, and, if the voyage was successful, would bring a handsome profit; but if it was a failure, the loss would be ruinous, for it was like putting all their eggs in one basket (Baldwin, 1902, p77-78).
Of course, the ship vanished without a trace, dashing the hopes of the New Haven Colony, which was eventually absorbed into the greater expanding sphere of prosperity that was the Connecticut Colony. Oddly, multiple sources remarked upon the return of Fellowship in a phantom form, including a letter from James Pierpont (founder of Yale University) to the minister Cotton Mather (vigorous supporter of the Salem Witch Trials), documenting the reports of those who had observed the return of the ghost ship to New Haven harbor.
Reverend and Dear Sir: In compliance with your desires, I now give you the relation of that apparition of a ship in the air, which I have received from the most credible, judicious, and curious surviving observers of it. In the year 1647, besides much other lading, a far more rich treasure of passengers, (ﬁve or six of which were persons of chief note and worth in New Haven) put themselves on board a new ship, built at Rhode Island, of about 150 tons; but so walty, that the master (Lamberton) often said she would prove their grave. In the month of January, cutting their way through much ice, on which they were accompanied with the Reverend Mr. Davenport, besides many other friends, with many fears, as well as prayers and tears, they set sail. Mr. Davenport in prayer, with an observable emphasis, used these words: ‘Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, they are thine: save them.’ The spring following, no tidings of these friends arrived with the ships from England: New Haven’s heart began to fail her: this put the godly people on much prayer, both publick and private, ‘that the Lord would (if it was his pleasure) let them hear what he had done with their dear friends, and prepare them with a suitable submission to his Holy Will.’ In June next ensuing, a great thunder-storm arose out of the northwest after which (the hemisphere being serene) about an hour before sunset, a ship of like dimensions with the aforesaid, with her canvas and colours abroad (though the wind northerly) appeared in the air coming up from our harbour’s mouth, which lyes southward from the town, seemingly with her sails ﬁlled under a fresh gale, holding her course north, and continuing under observation, sailing against the wind for the space of half an hour. Many were drawn to behold this great work of God; yea, the very children cryed out, ‘There’s a brave ship!’ At length, crowding up as far as there is usually water sufficient for such a vessel, and so near some of the spectators, as that they imagined a man might hurl a stone on board her, her main-top seemed to be blown oil‘, but left hanging in the shrouds; then her mizzen-top; then all her masting seemed blown away by the board: quickly after the hulk brought unto a careen, she overset, and so vanished into a smoky cloud, which in some time dissipated, leaving, us everywhere else, a clear air. The admiring spectators could distinguish the several colours of each part, the principal rigging, and such proportions, as caused not only the generality of persons to say, ‘This was the mould of their ship, and thus was her tragick end,’ but Mr. Davenport also in publick declared to this effect, ‘That God had condescended, for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many fervent prayers were made continually.’ Thus I am Sir, Your humble servant, James Pierpont.” (Mather, 1853, p84).
The story of the New Haven ghost ship captured the popular imagination, and was reprinted in fictional format for many years after, insinuating itself into local folklore up and down the eastern seaboard.
The story of “The Spectre Ship of Salem,” as related in the following pages, is probably derived from the reputed appearance of similar phenomena at New Haven, Conn., in the year 1647. Rev. James Pierpont, the pastor of that place, in a letter written to the Rev. Cotton Mather, has related the appearance of an apparition of a ship in the air; in Mather’s “Magnalia Christi Americana” this letter is printed in full. Henry W. Longfellow, in “The Phantom Ship” presents the facts in poetic form, retaining every detail of the ancient version; the legend forms the theme of an interesting tale by Washington Irving; a ballad has been written on the subject by Professor Thomas C. Upham, of Bowdoin College, and it has formed the theme for sketches in prose and verse by other writers (Foley, 1907, p.iii).
While achieving some measure of literary immortality, New Haven was nonetheless screwed. “The commercial interests of the New Haven Colony never recovered from this blow. The god of the seas, to whom so much of time and money and strength and courage had been sacrificed, had mocked them and buried it all in the depths of the ocean. In fact, the disaster nearly put an end to the New Haven Colony” (New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1865, p169). Now, here’s why I blame Rhode Island. They were Puritan (obviously Protestant), on top of which the Rhode Island folks were at the far end of the spectrum of theological liberalism for Colonial America. Don’t get me wrong, they were clearly my kind of people. Love the shoes. But a certain lackadaisical attitude towards tried and true methods of ship building (including those ancient pre-Christian superstitions about naming and christening ships, or otherwise satiating the divine powers) stemming from Reformation Era rejection of the trappings of Catholicism, no doubt neglected by those Rhode Island progressives probably left New Haven high and dry when they found out that their boat had fundamental structural and theological flaws. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we go out, get religion, and ask all our ships if they’ve “accepted Jesus as their personal savior”. That would be silly, and Poseidon would be pissed. One has to be practical and play the odds. In fact, it makes more sense, when engaged in a dangerous activity like speed dating or trans-oceanic travel in a wooden ship built in Rhode Island, to forgo belief, but respect superstition. Don’t worry about committing to a belief system. As the Irish writer Marguerite Gardiner said, “Superstition is only the fear of belief, while religion is the confidence.” When the chips are down, best to placate the gods. Don’t worry if they exist or not.
Baldwin, Ernest Hickok, 1869-. Stories of Old New Haven. New York: Abbey Press, 1902.
Beck, Horace Palmer, 1920-. The Folklore of Maine. [1st ed.] Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957.
Bishop, J. Leander 1820-1868. A History of American Manufactures, From 1608 to 1860: Exhibiting … Comprising Annals of the Industry of the United States In Machinery, Manufactures And Useful Arts, With a Notice of the Important Inventions, Tariffs, And the Results of Each Decennial Census. Philadelphia: Edward Young & Co. , 1864.
Howe, Henry, 1816-1893. An Outline History of New Haven: (Interspersed With Reminiscences). [New Haven]: O. A. Dorman, 1884.
Mather, Cotton, 1663-1728. Magnalia Christi Americana: Or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England; From Its First Planting, In the Year 1620, Unto the Year of Our Lord 1698. In Seven Books. Hartford: S. Andrus and son, 1853.
Newton, Caroline Clifford, d.1936. Once Upon a Time In Connecticut. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1916.
Skinner, Charles M. 1852-1907. Myths And Legends of Our Own Land. Philadelphia &: J.P. Lippincott company, 1896.
New Haven Colony Historical Society. Papers of the New Haven Colony Historical Society. New Haven, Ct.: [The Society], 1865.
Woodward, Sarah Day. Early New Haven. New Haven, Conn.: Press of the Price, Lee & Adkins co., 1912.
Foley, P.K. (Prefatory note) & [Nantucket], pseud. The Spectre Ship of Salem: a Tale of a Naval Apparition of the Seventeenth Century. Salem, Mass., 1907.