The Wreck of the Royal Tar: Background information when reading The Last True Poets of the Sea

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The Last True Poets of the Sea

by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake X
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake
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    Oct 2019, 400 pages

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Catherine M Andronik
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The Wreck of the Royal Tar

This article relates to The Last True Poets of the Sea

Print Review

Artist's depiction of the Royal Tar shipwreck featuring horses and people flailing in the wavesThe wreck of the Lyric and Fidelia Hathaway's swim to shore in The Last True Poets of the Sea are fictional, but there are indeed nearly one thousand shipwrecks off Maine's rocky coastline, all with stories of their own. Some involved passenger ships like the Lyric; others were military or commercial vessels. Some wrecks are visible, generally at low tide; others have been lost forever. The sites of some wrecks have been studied; others are the subject of conjecture, such as the 1635 galleon called the Angel Gabriel, rumored to lie somewhere in the Pemaquid Bay near Bristol. One of the most memorable of Maine's many shipwrecks is the disaster that struck the steamship Royal Tar in October 1836.

The Royal Tar left St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, on October 21, 1836, bound for Eastport and then Portland, Maine. 93 persons, passengers and crew were onboard—as well as a traveling menagerie, a zoo of sorts, including a lion, an elephant, two camels, monkeys, exotic birds and horses. To make room for the animals, their cages and the carts that would be used to transport them on land, two of the steamship's four lifeboats were removed prior to sailing. A storm hit almost immediately, and the Royal Tar sheltered for a few days in harbors in far northern Maine. On October 25, a boiler malfunctioned, and the ship caught fire near Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Rockland. The two lifeboats were speedily filled with passengers, who made it to Isle au Haut, another nearby island. 40 people were rescued; 32 perished.

There are conflicting reports about what happened to the animals. Some say that only two horses managed to swim to shore. While some sailors in the following days claimed to have seen Mogul the elephant dead, and there are tales of elephant bones on tiny Brimstone Island, there are also stories that Mogul arrived on another island, very much alive, and wreaked havoc on a local farm until a circus hand retrieved him. This colorful story is the subject of Chris Van Dusen's delightful picture book The Circus Ship. In this version, the animals all arrive safely on the shore of an island, endear themselves to the local inhabitants, and cleverly avoid recapture by a greedy circus owner. The wreck of the Royal Tar has even been adapted into a stage musical! Kate Russell, the artistic director of a local theater, heard story after story of the shipwreck from locals while she was in Stonington, Maine. She used the combination of facts and lore to craft a musical about a little girl whose father is a member of the crew of the doomed ship; the child is inspired by Mogul the elephant to swim to shore—a bit like Fidelia in The Last True Poets of the Sea. The homespun musical is also reminiscent of Violet and Orion's musical Cousteau!, which they cobble together for the Lyric Aquarium.

As Drake's novel reminds readers, where there are shipwrecks, there are bound to be stories waiting to be unraveled from the seaweed.

The Royal Tar shipwreck, courtesy of The Tragedy of the Seas (1841) by Charles Ellms

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This article relates to The Last True Poets of the Sea. It first ran in the October 16, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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