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Monday, November 15, 2010

The Lobsterman and the Burning of Portland

by Guest blogger, Marjorie Gilbert

Fifteen years ago, I was waylaid by a merman.

I wrote a treatment for a screenplay that never was, about a female lobsterman who was based in Portland, Maine. Late one unremarkable day, she pulled in a merman who promised her riches if she promised him his life. It was a good treatment, but the project languished and it got filed away.

Several years and several moves later, I happened to be going through a box of collected papers, pulled out the treatment, and could think of little else. I stopped writing the book I was working on and devoted my energies to turning the screenplay treatment into book.

Since my daughters and I toured the Tate House in Stroudwater, the home of a senior mast agent who was active from 1754 to 1775, a possible storyline began to form. What if an Irish sailor was a member of a crew sailing from England to Portland, then Falmouth Neck, in the course of mast trade? What if the ship should get caught in a storm and sink, leaving the Irish sailor the only survivor? What if, on the verge of death, a mermaid saved the Irish sailor and brought him safely to Falmouth Neck’s shore?

The book seemed to fall into place. I could alternate the chapters between the past and present, allowing the Irish sailor’s story to loosely follow the history of Portland while contrasting it with the very modern of story of the female lobsterman and her life on and off the sea. However, what parts of the history of should I include? Not only that, I needed events into which I could insert my Irish sailor without changing the course of the city’s history.

The first two times Portland burned had to be discarded, for they had happened in the 1600s, well before Captain Tate came to Stroudwater. Though it was tempting to have my character help in Peleg’s Great Escape, General Peleg Wadsworth, grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, needed no assistance. After holding off British soldiers with a blunderbuss, getting thrown in prison by the British, then escaping with Major Benjamin Burtan by using of a spoon and an Indian birch-bark canoe, needed no embellishment. That left one of the most ground-shaking events of Portland’s history: the burning of Portland in 1775.

On 16 October 1775, the inhabitants of Falmouth Neck (Portland), saw a disturbing sight: two British ships named Canceau and Cat, two schooners and a bomb sloop at the mouth of the harbor. The fact that the Canceau was captained by Captain Henry Mowatt, RN raised some concern, thanks to the fact that he had been imprisoned in Falmouth Neck earlier that April. However, the assumption was made that Mowatt was there to requisition livestock and provisions for his ships. The residents of Falmouth Neck reacted quickly, loading their livestock into ships and sailing them across Casco Bay to what is now known as Peaks Island.

17 October 1775 brought worse news. The wind that had held the ships at bay at the mouth of the harbor abated and they formed a line in front of Falmouth Neck. A single British soldier delivered a letter from Mowatt to the courthouse. There, the residents of Falmouth Neck were informed that Mowatt intended to mete out “a just punishment on the town of Falmouth” and that they had two hours to clear the town before it was razed to the ground. General Preble and two other men managed to buy some time by requesting that Mowatt revisit the issue the following day. Until that time, the townspeople established camps in the woods on the back side of the peninsula on which Falmouth Neck is located in the event that these negotiations were not successful.

They were not.

Bombing commenced the following morning, at nine-thirty, and did not end until six o’clock that night. Those houses that survived the bombardment by the ships and were not owned by Torries were destroyed by British soldiers carrying torches. In all, 414 buildings burned.

Amazingly, no one died.

I owe much to the intrepid Widow Alice Greele. She kept a fashionable inn on Back or Queen Street (now Congress). During the bombing of Portland, she single-handedly defended her inn by dashing about the courtyard, throwing cannon balls into horse troughs with a shovel and putting out fires. Thanks to her, I was able to insert the Irish sailor as both a witness and participant in the burning of Portland by making him Alice Greele’s assistant. It sounds simple enough, but both doing a nearly blow-by-blow account of these three days took several tries, getting the balance between historic accuracy and narrative interest just right.

Writing historical fiction is challenging, for it takes both research and alchemy to recreate events as they happened without sounding like a history lesson. There is one thing for certain, it is never boring.

For Further Reading:

The Tate House Museum:
This site includes a history of the house and the Tates as well as a history of the mast trade.

Goold, William, The Burning of Falmouth (now Portland), by Captain Mowatt in 1775,

Willis, William, The History of Portland, from 1632 to 1864: With a Notice of Previous Settlements, Colonial Grants, and Changes of Government in Maine, Portland: Bailey and Noyes, 1865
The Wadsworths, Peleg and Elizabeth,

Marjorie Gilbert is a historical author who lives in Maine with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of two novels, The Return, which is set in Georgian England, and The Lobsterman, which is set in past and present Portland, Maine. Her third book, a work in progress set in Georgian England, won third prize in the 2009 Royal Ascot. In July of 2010, Gilbert signed a contract for publication of The Lobsterman.


catslady said...

That's why I love historicals the most - authors always put a lot of work into them and it shows. The merman or mermaid stories sound fascinating. And since I know very little about Portland, it sounds like a very interesting topic.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Marjorie: The Return sounds fascinating, one I'll have to put on my TBR pile (sigh). I don't know much about that area, so it should be a good read. Thanks for sharing.

Beverley Eikli said...

I was enthralled...will have to check out both the Lobsterman and The Return.