A 1700s shipwreck in the Bay of Fundy has family connections to Lincoln County, where a few hardy survivors settled after finally being rescued.
The Heartwood Regional Theater Company of Damariscotta will present the gritty saga of the Irish ship Martha & Eliza this spring, in musical form. It’s the story of affluent Scots-Irish Presbyterians who sought a new life in America free from religious persecution in Ireland. So, in “God’s Grand Design,” they crowd aboard a ship that loses its way in a storm and runs aground off Grand Manan island, now part of New Brunswick, Canada.
In 1741 the 90-foot, two-masted bark Martha & Eliza literally ended up on the rocks (WWF March 2006). But the story itself will end up on stage, probably at Lincoln Academy’s theater in Newcastle, May 11-12 and 18-20, 2007.
Matthew Rowan, the villainous captain of the vessel who later became governor of North Carolina, looted passengers’ belongings and with his crew fled the shipwreck in a small boat. He forsook the passengers, leaving them to forage for shellfish and shelter on the uninhabited island. Many of them died, but thanks to the discovery of their plight by Passamaquoddy Indians, a small group of passengers eventually arrived in Midcoast Maine, where a few of them remained and married local people.
Musician Julia Lane of Round Pond, who herself has deep local roots, traveled as far as Ireland to research the Grand Design story, and she has found actual documents from survivors. It is a cruel tale yet it illustrates the human will to persevere in the face of starvation and winter exposure.
Lane, a singer and harpist, is half of the musical partnership Castlebay; husband Fred Gosbee is the other half. He sings and plays a variety of stringed and wind instruments. Together they have for years played Celtic music around the country and in Ireland and Scotland, where they have been warmly appreciated for keeping traditional music alive. They also perform their own folk compositions.
The Heartwood production, called Grand Design, will involve various local musicians and a cast of local actors.
Early records show that the Irish expatriates’ ship sailed from Londonderry, Northern Ireland on July 28, 1741, bound for Newcastle, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River. There were some 200 paying passengers.
Four weeks at sea, the Martha & Eliza was dismasted in a hurricane. The ship drifted around the north Atlantic for several weeks during which time the Rowan lost his bearings. A fever spread through the passengers, the ship ran out of food and many passengers died. At one point a passing vessel, also in distress, gave the Martha & Eliza biscuits and water.
On Oct. 28 the crippled ship finally drifted ashore among islands near Grand Manan. After evacuating the passengers from the disabled ship and separating them into groups on three small islands — with no provisions — Captain Rowan and his crew sailed in the ship’s longboat to Fort Frederick at Pemaquid, where they “tarried.” This means they ate and drank and partied, while the hapless passengers erected rude shelters from parts of the derelict ship and lived on mussels and dulse, a kind of seaweed. A group of 35 passengers tried to reach the mainland to seek help and were never heard from again.
At the end of November, the Martha & Eliza’s crew returned in a small sloop and schooner to plunder the ship. A complaint in the Massachusetts archives says that, “At the time the sloop and schooner came for us, the hands aboard — our mate and others — for reasons best known to themselves, were quite unwilling to land or search for these, though we had seen them that very day on the shore searching for food and eating rockweed, and so left them. Of these we can give no further account.”
The survivors asked for help: “Now, besides these already mentioned that came first aboard the vessel at Londonderry, there is but 48 of us now. In brief, many died at sea and many after we came to land, the corps of which lie many of them on the shore, through weakness we were not able to inter them.”
The rescue vessel took 48 people to Pleasant Point in Cushing, and Captain Rowan and his henchmen stripped survivors of money and possessions they still had as “payment” for their rescue. The complaint says some of their clothes were taken, “to leave us almost naked.”
Remaining passengers were left to find what subsistence they could on the winter shores of Grand Manan. Sarah Porterfield, who in 1798 wrote, an account of her ordeal, was rescued with her sister in late December. She believed they were the last castaways. The two sisters were brought to New Harbor and eventually settled in Boothbay and Georgetown.
For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.heartwoodtheatre.org.