The Plan to Save Jamestown
By January 1609, with Newport back from the second supply trip, Sir Thomas Smythe, treasurer and de facto head of the Virginia Company of London, understood that his enterprise at Jamestown was failing in every conceivable way. The response of Smythe and the principal investors in the Virginia Company was not, however, resignation and evacuation, although they considered it. Rather, they undertook a wholesale reorganization of their company and its colony, and commenced an unprecedented public relations campaign to entice "adventurers"—their word for people who would wager either their money or their lives on Virginia.
Under Newport's experienced leadership, the fleet made good time. On July 24 the voyagers were within seven days of landfall when they were hit by a hurricane. The Sea Venture bore the brunt of the storm and was soon separated from the other ships. As thirty-foot waves and violent winds bombarded the ship, it sprung a leak so severe that, as one passenger put it, "we almost drowned within whilst we sat looking when to perish from above." For three days the passengers and crew fought the rising water, but it was a losing battle. On the fourth morning the exhausted men and women gave up, and "commending our sinful souls to God, committed the ship to the mercy of the gale."
Trapped in Paradise
The passengers on the other ships in the fleet did not fare so well. They arrived in Virginia sick, with damaged ships, having jettisoned many of their supplies. Their arrival without Gates sent Jamestown into a political tailspin. While the castaways on Bermuda spent the winter of 1609–1610 feasting, the settlers in Virginia endured the "Starving Time," with a mortality rate of 70 percent and survivors resorting to cannibalism, raiding the graves of their fallen countrymen and Indians they had killed in warfare.
On May 24, 1610, Gates, Somers, Newport, and the castaways sailed up the James River in boats—aptly named the Patience and Deliverance—built from Bermuda cedar and the scavenged remains of the Sea Venture. But all of Gates's efforts seemed for naught when he surveyed the dire straits inside the fort. He reluctantly admitted that he saw no choice but to abandon Jamestown. So he loaded everyone back on the boats, along with the survivors of the "Starving Time," with plans to sail to Newfoundland where he assumed they could catch a ride home on one of the many English fishing or trading vessels that frequented Newfoundland harbors at this time. He was met on the James by Thomas West, baron De La Warr, sent by Thomas Smythe on yet another rescue mission, this one based on the mistaken belief that Gates was dead and the enterprise lost. De La Warr and his pilot, Samuel Argall, brought a year's supply of food, and so everyone returned to Jamestown.
The Sea Venture Legacy
Far more importantly, many seventeenth-century Londoners believed that nothing but the divine intervention of God could explain the events surrounding the Sea Venture. Protestant ministers, already committed to challenging the Catholic-Spanish domination of the Americas, and Virginia Company promoters, desperate for profits, eagerly spread the word. God, they claimed, had acted to save English America. As one minister put it, the events "could proceed from none other but the singular providence of God." And so it was essential that the English not give up on their American colony.
While Virginians suffered through many more years of deprivation and disappointment, they persisted in the Chesapeake. The Virginia Company collapsed in 1624 without ever earning a profit. In fact, nearly everyone who invested lost nearly everything they wagered. Mortality rates ran so high in the colony that one visitor in the 1620s observed, "Instead of a plantation it will shortly get the name of a slaughter house."
April 10, 1606 - King James I grants the Virginia Company a royal charter dividing the North American coast between two companies, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, overseen by the "Counsell of Virginia," whose thirteen members are appointed by the king.
April 26, 1607 - Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
June 2, 1609 - The largest fleet England has ever amassed in the West—nine ships, 600 passengers, and livestock and provisions to last a year—leaves England for Virginia. Led by the flagship Sea Venture, the fleet's mission is to save the failing colony. Sir Thomas Gates heads the expedition.
July 24, 1609 - A hurricane strikes the nine-ship English fleet bound for Virginia on a rescue mission. The flagship Sea Venture is separated from the other vessels and irreparably damaged by the storm.
Late August 1609 - After being damaged by a hurricane, eight of nine English ships bound for Virginia arrive safely at Jamestown under the assumption that the flagship Sea Venture, carrying Captain Christopher Newport and Sir Thomas Gates, had been lost at sea. The news sends the colony into a political tailspin.
Winter 1609–1610 - While the English colonists starve in Virginia, the shipwrecked crew and passengers of the Sea Venture make camp in Bermuda. They build two new boats, the Patience and Deliverance, from Bermuda cedar and the scavenged remains of the Sea Venture.
May 21, 1610 - Having been stranded in the Bermuda islands for nearly a year, the party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates arrives at Point Comfort in the Chesapeake Bay.
May 24, 1610 - The party of Virginia colonists headed by Sir Thomas Gates arrives at Jamestown, now aboard the Patience and Deliverance. They find only sixty survivors of a winter famine. Gates decides to abandon the colony for Newfoundland.
June 8, 1610 - Sailing up the James River toward the Chesapeake Bay and then Newfoundland, Jamestown colonists encounter a ship bearing the new governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, and a year's worth of supplies. The colonists return to Jamestown that evening.
November 1, 1611 - William Shakespeare's players present the first recorded performance of The Tempest before King James I and the royal court at Whitehall Palace. The play is in part based on the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, a ship bearing colonists to Jamestown in Virginia.
July 11, 1612 - The first intentional colonists arrive in Bermuda to secure the claim of the Somers Island Company, a subsidiary of the Virginia Company. England's intention to colonize the island chain came after a successful ten months spent in Bermuda by the shipwrecked survivors of the Sea Venture, bound for Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Glover, L. Sea Venture. (2012, December 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Sea_Venture.
- MLA Citation:
Glover, Lorri. "Sea Venture." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 15, 2010 | Last modified: December 6, 2012