Early Years and Privateering
Newport was christened at Harwich, a prominent port town on the east cost of England, on December 29, 1561. His father, also named Christopher Newport, was a shipmaster; the maiden name of his mother, Jane, is unknown.
At about age nineteen, Newport sailed from Harwich for Brazil on November 3, 1580, aboard the merchant vessel Minion of London. He jumped ship with some other crewmen at Baya (Bahia), Brazil, in 1581 after a quarrel erupted with the ship’s master, Stephen Hare. Newport may have returned to England by 1582, when his name appeared on a list of shipmasters in Harwich. He married Katherine Proctor there on October 19, 1584.
The next year, 1585, marked the beginning of a long, undeclared war between England and Spain that eventually concluded in 1604. During the intervening years, in accordance with international practice, England and Spain commissioned private seafarers to prey on each other’s shipping. Essentially licensed pirates, the privateers of both sides varied in effectiveness, although a capable captain and his men could become quite wealthy if they were fortunate enough to seize numerous prizes while escaping death or capture. It was during this conflict—notable for the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588—that Newport and several other English privateers made their fortunes and their reputations.
By 1587, Newport was master’s mate of the privateering ship the Drake, and he sailed with Sir Francis Drake to Cádiz, where Drake destroyed Spanish ships. Afterward, Newport’s privateer cruised the Spanish coast searching for prizes. Newport, referred to subsequently as “of Limehouse, mariner,” was master of the Margaret, out of London, in 1589. In 1590, he served in his first major command, as captain of the Little John in a fleet that sailed for the West Indies and Virginia. Off the northwestern coast of Cuba, Newport lost his right arm as he tried to capture two Mexican prizes; Virginia would have to wait.
Over the next four years, Newport made four voyages to the West Indies, continuing in the employment of London merchants but also remaining active as a privateer. Beginning in 1592, he captained the Golden Dragon. Because of his growing reputation and accomplishments, he commanded a flotilla of privateers and led attacks on Spanish towns in the Caribbean. He helped capture the extremely rich Madre de Dios in 1592 and sailed it back to England.
In 1595, Newport made his only voyage to the Mediterranean. That year he also married his third wife, Elizabeth Glanville, the daughter of a leading London goldsmith. (His first wife had died by 1590, when he married Ellen Ade, who subsequently died.)
When Newport married into the Glanville family, his status changed from an employee of London merchants to a partner with five of them—his brothers-in-law. He became a one-sixth owner of the new, heavily armed trading and privateering vessel Neptune. Between 1595 and the end of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1604, Newport annually raided Spanish-Caribbean settlements and ships. He became one of the most experienced ship captains in England in terms of voyages to and from the Caribbean. After the peace treaty was signed, he turned from privateering to trade and met equal success.
Arrival in Virginia
In 1606, the Virginia Company of London chose Newport to lead the voyage to Virginia because of his reputation as a “mariner well practised.” (He was also named “principal master” of the Royal Navy in 1606.) Newport took command of the Susan Constant and received his formal instructions from the company on December 10, 1606. Because of a lawsuit over a collision that had occurred on November 23 between the Susan Constant and the Philip and Francis, the voyage did not get under way until December 20. On that date, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed (captained by), and the Discovery (captained by John Ratcliffe) finally sailed down the Thames River on their way to Virginia.
The journey did not go well. Storms delayed the vessels off the coast of Kent for about six weeks, long enough for a clash of egos to emerge among two of the expedition’s leaders aboard the Susan Constant.and Captain locked horns, and after Newport sided with Wingfield, Smith was arrested and nearly hanged at Nevis, in the West Indies. The fleet left the West Indies on April 10 and, after surviving a violent storm, finally landed at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia on April 26.
The landing was no less difficult. Newport went ashore with Wingfield, Gosnold, and. They “faire meddows and goodly tall Trees, with such Fresh-waters running through the woods,” wrote , “as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.” The woods, however, concealed a group of Virginia Indians who charged the newcomers as they were returning to their ships and wounded several of them with arrows before being driven off.
That night, according tofrom the Virginia Company of London, Newport opened a box that contained the names of the seven councilmen who would elect a president and govern the colony. They included Newport, Wingfield, Gosnold, Ratcliffe, Smith, Captain John Martin, and Captain George Kendall. Smith, however, was not allowed to take his seat, which further strained relations among him, Newport, and the newly elected President Wingfield.
On April 29, Newport erected a cross at the mouth of the bay, at a place they named Cape Henry, to claim the land for the Crown. During the next two weeks, Newport directed the exploration of the lower Chesapeake Bay and the James River. Despite the inauspicious first encounter with theIndians of , subsequent interactions were cautiously friendly. The Englishmen took care to visit each and greet each chief as the ships worked their way west up the James River, which Newport learned was navigable at least as far as the Appomattox River. After debating several possible sites for the new settlement, the leaders decided on a marshy peninsula they called Jamestown Island. Once a start was made there, Newport continued his exploration of the James with a small party, sailing as far as the falls (present-day Richmond) and erecting a cross there to mark possession of the river westward from Cape Henry. He and his men then sailed back to Jamestown.
When they returned on May 27, Newport discovered that several nearby Indian tribes had attacked the settlement only the day before. He and the other leaders immediately set the men to constructing a triangular fort with a bastion in each corner. Although the English had driven off the attackers, the colony’s leaders anticipated stronger assaults from the Indians in the future. In addition, the Spaniards in present-day Florida were threatened by the English presence andto drive them off.
Newport sailed for England on June 22, carrying anfrom the council. The fort had been completed and a crop of wheat had been sown. Smith had been admitted to the council, in part because Newport had played peacemaker. The abundant resources of Virginia, in particular the rich forests, engendered optimism that the colony would thrive and turn a profit for its investors. In the hold of the Susan Constant, Newport carried what he and the other leaders believed to be gold-bearing ore—the best means of quick wealth for the investors.
After arriving in London on August 12, however, Newport learned that the gold was in fact iron pyrite, commonly called fool’s gold. In the meantime, a series of disasters struck the colony. Illness, salt poisoning, starvation, and occasional Indian attacks reduced the English population by more than half over the fall and winter. Adding to the Englishmen’s woes, relations among their leaders again deteriorated. Smith negotiated with the paramount chief Powhatan for food but was captured in December and two of his companions were killed. When he returned to Jamestown on January 2, 1608, he was accused of being responsible for the two colonists’ deaths and sentenced to hang. He was saved only by the arrival, that day, of Newport, with the so-called first supply of new colonists.
Neither Newport nor Smith could save Jamestown from disaster a few days later, however, when the fort caught fire and practically burned to the ground along with most of the food and other supplies. The catastrophe made the upstart Smith more vital than ever to the settlement’s survival because Powhatan regarded Smith as virtually an adopted member of his chiefdom. It was Smith who could negotiate for the colony most effectively. He and Newport sailed in February to Powhatan’s principal town of Werowocomoco, negotiating with the paramount chief for corn. They returned to Jamestown on March 9 with enough corn to see the settlement through the rest of the winter.
Once again, “gold” was found near Jamestown, and on April 10, 1608, his hold filled, Newport sailed for England. He arrived in London on May 21, but the gold once more proved false. During the summer, while Newport received additional instructions from the company and gathered more supplies and settlers, Smith undertook two voyages of exploration in the Chesapeake Bay. He established trading relations with numerous tribes both inside and outside Tsenacomoco, learned the approximate locations of mineral deposits (but no gold mines), satisfied himself that there was no “northwest passage” between the bay and the Pacific Ocean, and began drafting a comprehensive map of the Chesapeake. On September 10, Smith—who twice had faced death sentences from the council—was elected president. He quickly set about preparing the colony for the approaching winter.
In September 1608, Newport reappeared in Virginia with the second supply of colonists. His instructions were to search for any survivors of the, resume exploring for gold mines, and stage a “coronation” of Powhatan, making him a “sub-king” under . Smith objected to these instructions as unrealistic, and while the coronation was carried out, it became a farce. First, Powhatan refused to come to Jamestown, insisting that he already was a king in his own country and that the English could come to him if they wished to have a ceremony. (Powhatan, of course, already considered the English settlers to be a sort of sub-tribe under his authority; from his point of view, they survived only because of his beneficence.)
Newport, Smith, and a retinue duly made the trek to Werowocomoco, where they induced Powhatan to “bow” and receive his “crown” by “leaning hard” on his shoulders. In exchange for the crown and other gifts, Powhatan gave Newport an old pair of shoes and his “mantle” (perhaps the garment that currently resides in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England). Afterward, Newport searched briefly for the Lost Colonists and gold mines, but to no avail. He then set sail for England. Instead of gold, his ships bore more practical products of the settlers’ labors: clapboard, wainscot, “pitch, tarre, glasse, frankincense, and sope ashes.” He arrived in London in mid-January 1609.
For the next eight months, as the other ships straggled into Jamestown, Gates, Somers, and Newport struggled to maintain order among the passengers and crew of the Sea Venture. Remarkably, all had lived through the shipwreck, but several did not survive the dissentions, intrigues, and charges of mutiny that surfaced in Bermuda and resulted in. On February 11, 1610, Newport and William Strachey to the christening of ‘s daughter, named Bermuda, and on March 25, Newport, Strachey, and James Swift became godfathers to a baby boy called Bermudas. (Rolfe’s wife and daughter both died.) In May 1610, the party finally departed the islands in two small vessels that ship carpenters and crew had from local trees and fragments salvaged from the wreck. They arrived in Jamestown later in the month and found disaster.
Having endured theover the winter, the few remaining colonists at Jamestown were barely alive. Most of the buildings had been burned for firewood, and the palisade surrounding the fort was down. To the relief of many there, Gates announced they would abandon Jamestown. On June 7, the survivors boarded ships and sailed down the James River to the Chesapeake Bay, where they spent the night. The next morning, while waiting for the tide to turn, they spied a longboat headed toward them from the east. It was the advance of an expedition led by the new, Virginia Company–appointed governor, . On his orders, the colonists turned around.
De La Warr had brought with him more settlers, soldiers, and a year’s worth of provisions. Most important, he brought a strict regimen of order and discipline, confirming and reinforcing a set of rules that came to be known as the. Newport returned to England by September, while De La Warr, who had fallen ill, set sail for home in March 1611.
In the spring of 1611, Newport sailed to Virginia for the last time, takingwith him, and arrived on May 12. Dale, the marshal of Virginia and acting governor in De La Warr’s and Gates’s absence, ran the colony strictly and helped the English finally defeat the Indians in the (1609–1614). Newport remained in Virginia for several months, overseeing the construction of a bridge at Jamestown. He sailed for England about the end of August and arrived there late in October.
In 1612, Newport took up the Royal Navy post of “principal master” to which he had been appointed in 1606 and also entered the service of the East India Company. He made three long voyages over the next few years. The first, aboard the Expedition of London to Banten (also called Bantam), a major trading town on the west coast of Java, was undertaken early in 1613. The second, to India, was made in 1615. Newport wrote his will on November 16, 1616, as he was about to sail to the East Indies for the third time. He took his son, also named Christopher Newport, with him as his master’s mate. In May 1617, Captain Newport arrived at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town, South Africa, and then sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. He dropped anchor at Banten on August 15. He died soon afterward.
Newport’s legacy lives on in Virginia, where his name is most famously associated with the city of Newport News. On an unknown date, the Virginia Company granted Newport thirty-two shares of stock worth £400. After he died, the grant was converted into 1,600 acres of land in Virginia, along with another 300 acres for six men whom his widow claimed as headrights in 1619. Presumably, the land was located in the area of present-day Newport News. Not all accounts of the origins of the city’s name involve Newport, however. The captain’s name was also given to Christopher Newport College (later University), founded in 1961 in Newport News.