American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes
PALATINE. The 1738 wreck of the English ship Princess Augusta on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, is the initial source of the “Palatine” legend. The Princess Augusta was en route from Rotterdam to Philadelphia, carrying over 300 immigrants from the Rhine Palatinate of Germany (“Palatines”). More than 200 of the Palatines, as well as the captain, died on the voyage from typhoid or exposure; the first mate, Andrew Brook, became master. Caught in heavy snow and high winds off Point Judith, Brook made the decision to head for Philadelphia, attempting to pass between Block Island and Montauk Point. On 27 December 1738, the vessel struck “the Hummocks,” the northernmost spit of Block Island. The islanders took off the more than 100 people remaining on the vessel, but the captain refused to remove their belongings. Captain Brook and his crew removed their own belongings and the ship’s tackling, then unbent the ship’s sheet anchor and allowed the vessel to drift off. Four days after the Princess Augusta struck, it was blown ashore and broke up. In a process called “wrecking,” some islanders salvaged the immigrants’ chests, which contained gold, silver, and pewter.
For seventy-five years after, islanders and nonislanders claimed to have seen the “Palatine Lights” in all seasons and in varying magnitudes and intensity. Some thought they saw lines, spars, and rigging ablaze in the lights. The legend maintains that the lights, a symbol of the guilt of those who did not help the Palatines, were seen until the last of the participants died.
John Greenleaf Whittier* learned of the legend from his friend Joseph P. Hazard of Newport, Rhode Island. His poem “The Palatine” was published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1867 and subsequently as part of his collection The Tent on the Beach (1867). In Whittier’s version, the islanders use false lights to draw the ship to its death, then strip the ship of its valuables and burn it, leaving the survivors to die on the beach; each year, on the anniversary of the wreck, the burning ship appears. Only much later, in 1876, did Whittier write a letter to the Block Islanders apologizing for his historical errors.
William Gilmore Simms* also wrote a poem on the legend entitled “The Ship of the Palatines,” first published in the Ladies’ Companion, edited by William W. Snowden, in July 1843 and reprinted in Poems Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary and Contemplative in 1853. Simms claims that the tradition upon which the legend is founded is still current. Unlike Whittier, Simms knew that the passengers, not the ship, are called Palatines. His poem’s evil is wrought by the captain and crew, who kill the passengers for their wealth, then burn the ship. Again, the burning ship appears on each anniversary until the sons of all the men involved are dead. Although Simms claims in his headnote not to have tampered with the facts, he nevertheless dramatically alters the setting from Block Island to the Carolina banks. [See also GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS]
Mary K. Bercaw Edwards