Simanaitis Says

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IT’S NEVER TOO LATE to learn new stuff, even about shipwrecks. Like, for instance, I knew that things floating were flotsam; things deliberately thrown overboard were jetsam. However, Tom Johnson taught me a lot more in “Sleeves Full of Raisins,” London Review of Books, April 13, 2023. The book being reviewed is Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea, by David Cressy, Oxford, 2022. 

Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea, by David Cressy, Oxford, 2022.

Author David Cressy certainly has the creds for writing this book: He is George III Professor of British History and Humanities Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Ohio State University. Born and educated in England, he made his career in the United States as an historian of early modern Britain. Cressy taught in the Claremont Colleges, California State University Long Beach, and the Ohio State University before retiring to write and travel.

I like his style right off. Here are tidbits from Tom Johnson’s LRB review of Cressy’s book.

The Golden Grape. The “Raisins” of Johnson’s title were official cargo of the Golden Grape, a three-masted five-hundred-ton Dutch fluyt: 1253 barrels of them, together with 400 jars of olive oil and some wine. 

A Dutch fluyt, 1677. Image by Wenceslaus Hollar from the University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digitial Collection, Wikipedia.

The ship also carried, illicitly, a bag of 500 gold pistoles, which were, reviewer Johnson notes, “defying the ban on bullion exports from Spain to the Netherlands. As the ship neared la Manche, it foundered under ‘violent and tempestuous winds’ and ran aground on a sandbank off the Isle of Portland.”

Brits would recognize la Manche as the English Channel. The Isle of Portland, 4 miles long 1.7 miles wide, is 5 miles south of Weymouth, Dorset, about 130 miles southwest of London. 

Johnson continues, “The crew realised they had to abandon ship and began scrabbling for the gold. Filling their pockets with pistoles, they were told by superiors ‘to be silent and say nothing.’ Wading onto Chesil Beach, the surviving crew were faced with dozens, soon hundreds of villagers. Nearly every adult male from nearby Chickerell had arrived on the scene. Before you could say ‘pieces of eight’, organised crews of local fishermen were picking up the barrels, bottles and jars and loading them onto horses and carts and repurposed ploughs.”

They certainly got their fill of raisins.

Save That Dog. Johnson writes, “Medieval statutes, still in use in the 17th century, established that if ‘a man, a dog, or a cat escape quick out of the ship’, then it was subject to the usual laws of ownership.” That is, the Golden Grape was not a true shipwreck. 

Johnson cites author Cressy’s research: “When a ship ran aground on the deadly Goodwin Sands in Kent in the late 16th century, the crew tied their dog to the mast and abandoned ship; returning later, ‘finding the dog alive … [they] had their ship and goods again.’ Seventeenth-century lawyers were at least as ingenious as sailors in straining the hard cases.”

Other Legalities. Johnson writes, “Only if a ship was fully abandoned or the crew had all perished would the vessel and everything on it become res nullius, the property of no one. At sea these things were classed as flotsam (any floating object), jetsam (cargoes deliberately thrown overboard) and lagan (sunken goods marked with buoys). But once something made landfall it became wreccum maris, wreck of the sea, and open to the competing claims of salvagers, coastal landlords and crown officials.”

And of Chickerall villagers. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023


  1. Bill U
    May 14, 2023

    Dennis, you have reminded me of the unsung role I’ve read about recently, played by privateers during the revolutionary and 1812 wars.

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