George Somers

Sir George Somers (1554–1610)

Sir George Somers was an English privateer and sea captain who served as admiral of a large resupply voyage to Jamestown in 1609; his ship the Sea Venture was wrecked and its passengers stranded for almost ten months on the islands of Bermuda. A native of Dorset, in the southwest of England, Somers preyed on Spanish shipping in the West Indies during his early years, earning enough money to buy land and build a nice home near his native town of Lyme Regis. Described as being "a lion at sea," he was knighted by King James I in 1603, and in 1606 was named in the Virginia Company of London's royal charter to settle Virginia. In 1609, Somers sailed on the Sea Venture, the resupply fleet's flagship that was shipwrecked in the Bermudas. There, despite disagreements with the governor, Sir Thomas Gates, Somers helped lead the castaways in their return to Virginia in May 1610. A few weeks later, a new governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, ordered Somers back to Bermuda to gather supplies. He died there early in November. His nephew Matthew Somers buried his heart and entrails in Bermuda—soon after named the Somers Islands—before returning the rest of his body to England for burial. MORE...

 

Early Years

Somers was born at Berne Farm in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in the southwest of England, in April 1554. He was the third surviving son of John and Alice Somer (or Somers). Very little is known about his early life, but by the time he was in his mid-thirties, Somers seems to have been engaged in privateering missions against Spanish shipping in the West Indies. In 1587 he used the booty earned on one such mission to purchase more than one hundred acres of land near his birthplace; he called it Berne Manor. Through the 1590s, his reputation as a competent sea captain grew steadily. He was a senior officer in Sir Amyas Preston's audacious raid on the coast of South America in 1595, when English forces captured, sacked, and burned San Jago de Leon, a Spanish town on the site of present-day Caracas, Venezuela. The raid produced only a limited financial return, but was described by one of Preston's men, Robert Davie, in "The Victorious Voyage of Captaine Amias Preston now knight, and Captaine George Sommers to the West India, begun in March 1595." Richard Hakluyt (the younger) published the account in an edition of his Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation.

In 1597, Somers took part in the Islands Voyage, in which an English fleet led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh attacked the Portuguese-held Azores. Although the raid was unsuccessful, Somers managed to capture a prize while sailing back to Dartmouth. Later he was entrusted with the command of some of England's best warships, including the Swiftsure and the Warspite. He captained the former in a 1601 attack on a Spanish invasion fleet off Kinsale, in the south of Ireland, and the latter in 1602, again at the Azores. According to Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England (1662), Somers "was a lamb on land, so patient that few could anger him: and (as if entering a ship he assumed a new nature) a lion at sea, so passionate few could please him."

As Somers's prestige in naval circles grew, so did his wealth. An inventory of his Berne Manor estate after his death included well-constructed beds, embroidered Indian coverlets, silk damask cushions, and carpets of all kinds and colors, among them a "faire Turkey carpet of greate price." In July 1603, just prior to the coronation of James I, Somers was knighted in the royal garden at Whitehall. The next year he was elected to Parliament from Lyme Regis. And in 1606 he became the town's mayor.

Probably early in the 1580s, Somers married Joan Heywood, the daughter of Philip Heywood, a Lyme Regis farmer. Joan Somers died in 1618 and the couple had no children.

The Somers Islands

On April 10, 1606, Somers's name—with those of Sir Thomas Gates, Richard Hakluyt (the younger), and Edward Maria Wingfield, among others—appeared at the top of the charter granted by James I to the Virginia Company of London. Somers did not accompany the initial 104 men who in 1607 settled at Jamestown. Instead, on June 2, 1609, he was aboard the flagship Sea Venture (or Sea Adventure), one of nine ships that disembarked from England on a resupply mission to Virginia. (Somers's nephew Matthew Somers sailed as master on another ship the elder Somers partly owned, the Swallow.) While Gates would serve as the colony's interim governor under the new second charter, Somers was appointed admiral of Virginia, making him the mission's commander at sea. He was, in the words of William Strachey, "a Gentleman of approved assurednesse, and ready knowledge in Sea-faring actions, having often carried command, and chiefe charge in many Ships Royall of her Majesties."

On July 24, the fleet was scattered by a violent storm in the Atlantic, and the Sea Venture, also carrying Gates, Strachey, and the Reverend Richard Bucke, sprang a serious leak. Everyone took a turn at pumping and baling until, on July 28, Somers, "when no man dreamed of such happinesse, had discovered, and cried Land." What he saw was a fishhook-shaped group of islands, called the Bermudas, situated about 640 miles east of present-day Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Captain Christopher Newport guided the ship as close to shore as possible before running aground on reefs. Largely destroyed, the Sea Venture nevertheless remained upright, and the ship's crew, passengers, and cargo were all able to be unloaded.

The following ten months were far from happy. Although the Bermudas were known to mariners, they were far from the most heavily frequented Atlantic sea lanes, and the castaways reckoned that, if they were to escape the islands, they would have to construct new vessels to replace their wrecked ship. In the meantime, there were serious problems over command. As governor, Gates considered himself in command, while Somers argued that the islands were merely a staging post on an as-yet-uncompleted voyage for which he, as admiral, bore responsibility.

Nothing about Somers suggests that he was a divisive man, but factions emerged among the castaways and the tensions occasionally erupted into mutinies and even violence. One account of the Bermuda stay observed that "the sea and land-commandours, being alienated one from another (a qualetye over common to the English)," created "jealousies" and "a separation of the company." The writer charged Somers and Gates with having "an affection of disgraceinge one another, and crossing their designes." In March 1610, Gates executed Henry Paine, a gentleman who had planned to escape the island with some stolen supplies. Several of Paine's alleged conspirators also were executed.

In the meantime, according to William Strachey, Somers "coasted the Ilands" and charted them, "and daily fished, and hunted for our whole company." By the end of April 1610, the castaways were finished constructing two seaworthy vessels, the Deliverance and the Patience, the latter of which was designed by Somers. They set sail on May 10, leaving two men behind, either out of mutual distrust or, possibly, to maintain a plausible English claim to the islands.

Somers's leadership among the Sea Venture castaways would be remembered in the early English name for the islands. In a letter to Dudley Carleton dated February 12, 1610, John Chamberlain of London noted renewed interest in trade with the Bermudas, which had been "first christened Virginiola as a member of that plantation, but now lastly resolved to be called Sommer Iland as well in respect of the continuall temporal ayre, as in remembrance of Sir Gorge Sommers that died there."

Virginia

After ten days at sea, the Deliverance and the Patience reached Point Comfort in the Chesapeake Bay on May 21, 1610, and, three days later, Jamestown. There, Somers, Gates, and the rest found only sixty survivors of a famine that came to be known as the Starving Time. (The fort at Jamestown had begun the winter with about 240 settlers.) Within two weeks, Gates decided that Virginia should be abandoned. But on June 8, while he and the colonists sailed down the James River with the intention of traveling to Newfoundland and then to England, they encountered the ship carrying Governor Thomas West, baron De La Warr, and a year's worth of supplies. They returned to Jamestown that evening.

Governor De La Warr soon ordered Captain Samuel Argall, in the Discovery, and Somers, in the Patience, to return to Bermuda for additional supplies and to recover the two men left there. En route, Argall encountered violent storms and wound up off Cape Cod, where he loaded his pinnace with fish before sailing down the coast. Somers, meanwhile, reunited with his nephew Matthew Somers, made it to Bermuda; however, he died there on November 9, 1610.

In his Generall Historie (1624), Captain John Smith makes a plausible case that Somers perished of exhaustion: "but such was his diligence with his extraordinary care, paines and industry to dispatch his businesse, and the strength of his body not answering the ever memorable courage of his minde," that Somers died "[i]n that very place we now call Saint Georges towne … whereof the place taketh the name." Another account claimed he died "of a surfeit in eating of a pig," and it is true that wild pigs were plentiful on the islands.

Whatever the case, Somers asked to be buried in Bermuda, but Matthew Somers only partially complied. He removed Sir George's heart and entrails and buried them under a simple cross. Then, without the knowledge of superstitious sailors, he stored the rest of his uncle's body on ship inside a cedar cask of whiskey. Rather than return to Virginia with much-needed supplies, Somers sailed the Patience to England, where he attempted to trade on his relative's fame for money from the Virginia Company. When that plan failed, Somers took Sir George's pickled body home to rest. On July 4, 1611, "with many vollies of shot, and the rites of a Souldier," according to Smith, Somers was buried at Whitchurch Canonicorum, near Berne Manor.

The Somers Island Company, named for Somers, operated as a subsidiary of the Virginia Company from 1612 until 1615. (The company's third charter extended the colony's boundaries to the Bermuda islands.) The first intentional English settlers landed there on July 11, 1612.

Time Line

  • April 1554 - George Somers is born at Berne Farm in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in the southwest of England. He is the third surviving son of John and Alice Somer (or Somers).
  • 1580s - Probably during this time, George Somers marries Joan Heywood, the daughter of Philip Heywood, a farmer in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. The couple will have no children.
  • 1587 - George Somers uses the booty captured on a privateering mission against the Spanish to purchase more than one hundred acres of land near his birthplace in Lyme Regis, Dorset; he calls it Berne Manor.
  • 1595 - George Somers serves as a senior officer in Sir Amyas Preston's audacious raid on the coast of South America, where the English forces capture, sack, and burn San Jago de Leon, a Spanish town on the site of present-day Caracas, Venezuela.
  • 1597 - George Somers takes part in the Islands Voyage, in which an English fleet led by Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, and Sir Walter Raleigh attacks the Portuguese-held Azores. The raid is unsuccessful, but Somers captures a prize while sailing home.
  • 1601 - George Somers captains the Swiftsure as part of an attack on a Spanish invasion fleet off Kinsale, in the south of Ireland.
  • 1602 - George Somers captains the Warspite as part of an English attack on the Portuguese-held Azores.
  • July 1603 - Just prior to the coronation of James I, George Somers is knighted in the royal garden at Whitehall.
  • 1604 - Sir George Somers is elected to Parliament from Lyme Regis, Dorset.
  • 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.
  • August 18, 1609 - Two ships reach Jamestown from England: Diamond and Swallow. Four others arrived a week earlier; two more were wrecked in a storm; and one, Sea Venture, survived by making its way south to the Bermuda islands. The Diamond may have brought with it disease that will contribute to the colony's high mortality rate.
  • November 9, 1610 - Sir George Somers dies on the Bermuda islands. His nephew Matthew Somers buries his heart and entrails there, then returns the body to England.
  • July 4, 1611 - Sir George Somers is buried at Whitchurch Canonicorum, near his home at Berne Manor in Dorset, England.
  • 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.
  • 1618 - Joan Somers, wife of Sir George Somers, dies.
Further Reading
Glover, Lorri, and Daniel Blake Smith. The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America. New York: Macmillan, 2009.
Raine, D. F. Sir George Somers: A Man and His Times. Bermuda: Pompano Publications, 1984.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Nicholls, M. Sir George Somers (1554–1610). (2014, December 31). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Somers_Sir_George_1554-1610.

  • MLA Citation:

    Nicholls, Mark. "Sir George Somers (1554–1610)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 Dec. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 31, 2011 | Last modified: December 31, 2014


Contributed by Mark Nicholls, a Fellow and former president of St John’s College, Cambridge. He is the author, with Penry Williams, of Sir Walter Raleigh: in Life and Legend (2011).