This chapter charts the evolution of published disaster narratives through the first four decades of the eighteenth century, exploring connections between disaster stories, maritime trade, and an emerging culture of sensibility. It focuses particularly on shipwrecks, which exposed both people and property to unusual levels of vulnerability and risk on a fairly regular basis. For that reason, and also because ships’ captains were crucial sources of information for printers, shipwreck stories were the most common early disaster narratives. Although newspapers initially printed only perfunctory reports of specific incidents, by the 1730s they increasingly published human-interest stories about victims of shipwrecks and other catastrophes. Some versions of these stories—especially those told by the clergy—continued to interpret calamity as divine judgment, but narratives published in newspapers were overwhelmingly secular and more descriptive than explanatory. Like novels, these disaster stories served to engage readers’ emotions to evoke benevolence not repentance, sympathy not horror.
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