On September 16, 1620, the now famous Mayflower departed England on its path for the New World. What you probably don’t know is that this was not the only ship to leave the English port of Southampton that week, bound for the New World. Below is the story of the Speedwell, the Mayflower’s ill fated sister ship and the striking parallels in their journey to the America’s.
In August 1620, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, captained by John Thomas Chappell, had attempted to depart England twice, but were forced to return to port both times, as the Speedwell proved unseaworthy. To the dismay of Captain Chappell and the Speedwell passengers, it was decided that the Mayflower would go on the voyage alone. At the time, maritime travel was run a lot like modern day airlines and tickets were non refundable. Speedwell passengers were offered vouchers for the port’s only hotel, the Southampton Inn, which most of them opted for. It wasn’t until the following day when many of the passengers discovered that the vouchers did not cover meal expenses, did they became enraged and returned to the port. Fortunately for the passengers, (and more likely for the ship’s crew) Captain Chappell, motivated by delinquent child support payments, had hired a crew of men to repair his leaking vessel. By the next morning the crew had pinpointed the origin of the leak to be a gaping cannon ball hole in the bow, which Captain Cappell comment in retrospect “seemed pretty obvious”.
With their ship watertight once again, the Speedwell set sail that same night and Captain Chappell became obsessed with making up the lost day and catching the Mayflower before it reached the new world. Unbenounced to Chappell, rough seas had pushed the Mayflower off course, which resulted in it landing 500 miles north of their intended destination on the American coast. Encountering similar rough seas in the days following, the Speedwell was also thrown off course, but in the opposite direction. Landing about 1000 miles south of their intended destination, the Speedwell became the first English vessel to land on what is now modern day Key West which was then considered Spanish territory.
Like their freezing and starving Mayflower counterparts, the crew and passengers of the Speedwell had a rough first winter in their new settlement as well. The Spanish merchant ships that passed the island proved to be infrequent and the settlement was constantly running out on of their supply of rum. In the Spring months, the settlers began to explore the island more in an effort to make contact with native inhabitants. In a chilling discovery, the settlers found that the island was largely covered in bones, as native tribes had used the area as a communal burial ground for many years. To add to the mystery of the island, the settlers often noticed roving clowders of polydactyl cats (house cats with abnormal amounts of toes) constantly watching them. By late November of that year, the settlers paranoia over the creepy cats had reached a feverpitch. In a last ditch effort to appease the cats, Captain Chappell and the settlers invited the cats into their walls for a feast of ocean fish and goat’s milk. A sort of “thanks giving” for their good fortune over the last year. This is the last recorded history of the little known Speedwell Settlement of Key West, but it is often assumed that part way through the dinner, the cats turned on the settlers and devoured them.
*Some of Hemingway’s cats were polydactyl cats and likely descended from this same group that plagued the Speedwell Settlement. Some of their bloodline still reside in the Hemingway house on Key West… waiting for their next victims.