Most readers are familiar with the main circumstances surrounding the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822): he is sailing in an open boat off the western coast of Italy when a late afternoon storm comes up, capsizes his boat, and throws him and his two companions into the sea where they drown. But were the deaths really accidental?
Not according to Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881), who was in a position to know something about the matter. Trelawny at first suspected, then later became convinced, that the three mariners were victims, not of an accidental drowning, but of murder.
Edward John Trelawny
Trelawny, a well-travelled English adventurer, met Shelley in Pisa, Italy, in early 1822. Shelley lived in the city with his wife, Mary, and young son, and soon introduced Trelawny to Lord Byron, who lived nearby. Trelawny became a welcome and resourceful companion to both poets, being far more worldly-wise and practical-minded than they.
With the approach of summer, the Shelleys leased a villa on the bay at La Spezia overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and about fifty miles north of Pisa. To take advantage of the fine Italian weather and lovely coastal waters, Shelley and Byron asked Trelawny to oversee the building of a custom-made boat for each of them.
Shelley’s boat and villa at La Spezia
Shelley’s vessel turned out to be a light, fast, thirty-foot open boat, schooner-rigged, with no deck. It bore the name Don Juan, the title of Byron’s greatest work. Byron’s yacht, the Bolivar, was heavier, more solidly built, and easier to handle in rough weather. It had a deck and a cabin.
Shelley was not a first-rate sailor. He could not swim and was somewhat awkward, yet he still loved to be out in his boat on the open sea. Byron, on the other hand, once his yacht was delivered to him, took no further interest in it. Trelawny made far more use of the Bolivar than Byron did. Shelley always went out in the Don Juan with two companions who could help manage the swift but skittish boat.
In early July, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams, along with a boat boy, sailed the Don Juan down the coast to Livorno—or Leghorn as the English called it—to meet in Pisa with Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. Shelley, Byron, and Hunt were getting together to discuss plans for a new magazine they wanted to publish in England. After a few days of deliberations, Shelley and his two crewmates prepared to sail back home to their families.
They left the port of Livorno on the afternoon of July 8, Trelawny intending to accompany them part of the way in the Bolivar. A health officer, however, boarded the yacht, found that Trelawny had not obtained port clearance, and refused to let him depart. So Trelawny re-anchored and watched the Don Juan and a couple of feluccas—long, low, sturdy boats used in the region for fishing—sail off into a darkening western sky.
“They should have sailed this morning at three or four A.M., instead of three P.M.” remarked the Bolivar’s mate to Trelawny. Pointing to the southwest, he said, “Look at those black lines and the dirty rags hanging on them out of the sky—they are a warning.” Within a few hours the wind increased and rain began to fall as fishing vessels and other small craft scurried back into the harbor for shelter from the brief but violent thunder squall that quickly swept over the area.
Once the storm passed, “I looked to seaward anxiously,” wrote Trelawny in Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878), “in the hope of descrying Shelley’s boat, amongst the many small craft scattered about. I watched every speck that loomed on the horizon, thinking that they would have borne up on their return to the port, as all the other boats that had gone out in the same direction had done.”
Trelawny dispatched the mate to enquire if any of the returning craft had seen the English boat, but all denied seeing anything. Yet the mate noticed on one of the feluccas an English-made oar that he thought he had seen in Shelley’s boat, “but the entire crew swore by all the saints in the calendar that this was not so.”
Many days later, Shelley’s body was found on the beach near Viareggio, half way up the coast between Livorno and La Spezia. “The face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless,” wrote Trelawny. In the pockets of Shelley’s coat were found a volume of Aeschylus and a volume of Keats’s poems. With Byron, Hunt, and Trelawny looking on, the body was cremated on the beach where it was discovered.
A dredging crew later found the boat itself in eighteen feet of water about two miles offshore. “Her starboard quarter was stove in,” said Trelawny, “evidently by a blow from the sharp bows of a felucca.” It was clear to him that Shelley’s boat had not simply capsized or been swamped but had met with foul play. Still, he had only circumstantial evidence to support his belief.
Then, in 1863, forty-one years after the tragedy, an old Italian fisherman, on his deathbed, reportedly confessed that he was one of five crewmen on a felucca that purposely ran down Shelley’s boat in foul weather thinking that “milord Inglese” (Byron) was on board. They had planned to kill him and steal his money, which he supposedly always carried with him in large amounts. But when they rammed the lightly-built Don Juan, it sank almost immediately. The felucca then sailed off, leaving Shelley and his companions to drown.
Most scholars today discount Trelawny’s testimony as speculative and unreliable. Scholars now seem to agree that the deaths were accidental—that Shelley’s boat did, indeed, capsize in the storm. Yet Trelawny cannot be entirely dismissed. The possibility remains that Shelley’s death, and that of his two companions, was not simply an accident, but rather homicide.
Shelley was 29 years old when he drowned. Keats had died a year earlier at age 26, and Byron would die two years later at 36.