On this day in 1703, the winds of one of the fiercest storms in British history began to blow. They would continue blowing for an entire week, resulting in 123 deaths on land and 8,000 drowned at sea. More than 800 houses were destroyed along with over 400 windmills.
Almost as notable as the storm itself was the publication of an account of the storm that was published by Daniel Defoe just a few months after the storm. At the time, Defoe had not yet published his best known work, the novel Robinson Crusoe (See February 1: From News to Novel Day). Defoe had just been released from prison after serving several months for seditious libel after publishing a satirical tract on the religious intolerance of the Church of English. His sentence included being put in the pillory in the center of London for one hour on three successive days.
Desperate for money after his legal troubles, Defoe hatched the idea of writing about the great storm. He didn’t just write his own account, however. Instead, he placed newspaper ads requesting individuals to send him their stories from the storm. Although there were newspapers at the time, the type of objective news reporting we associate with journalism today was non-existent. Defoe’s book The Storm is seen today as a pioneering work of journalism, containing approximately 60 separate first-hand accounts of England’s great tempest (1).
In the excerpt below, Defoe recounts a grim anecdote of a double suicide by a ship’s captain and his surgeon:
One unhappy Accident I cannot omit, and which is brought us from good Hands, and happen’d in a Ship homeward bound from the West-Indies. The Ship was in the utmost Danger of Foundring; and when the Master saw all, as he thought, lost, his Masts gone, the Ship leaky, and expecting her every moment to sink under him, fill’d with Despair, he calls to him the Surgeon of the Ship, and by a fatal Contract, as soon made as hastily executed, they resolv’d to prevent the Death they fear’d by one more certain; and going into the Cabbin, they both shot themselves with their Pistols. It pleas’d God the Ship recover’d the Distress, was driven safe into —— and the Captain just liv’d to see the desperate Course he took might have been spar’d; the Surgeon died immediately. (2)
Defoe’s legacy remains alive today in the form of six basic words that form the essential toolkit for journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Known commonly as the 5 Ws and H, these six words are excellent reminders of the basic questions we should use to investigate any topic, whether writing a news story or an investigative report:
Who was involved?
When did it happen?
Where did it happen?
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?
Today’s Challenge: Searching for Sense with Six Question
What are some examples of the most important events in world history? Brainstorm a list of significant events from world history. Then, select one specific event and begin researching the event by asking and answering the 5 Ws and H. Put together a brief report that includes answers to all six questions. Write for an audience who knows little about the event. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Miller, John J. “Writing Up a Storm” Wall Street Journal 13 August 2011.
2-Defoe, Daniel. The Storm. Project Gutenberg. Public Domain. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/42234/42234-h/42234-h.htm.