The Plan to Save Jamestown
From its start, the Virginia colony suffered from unrealistic expectations, political infighting, violence between Indians and settlers, and deprivation. Within weeks of being deposited on Jamestown Island by Captain Christopher Newport, the first settlers realized that the promises made by the Virginia Company of London—that the settlement would be safe, prosperous, and bounteous—had been greatly exaggerated. While the colonists futilely searched the forests for gold and the “other sea” (and a quick passage to the Far East), their leaders quarreled and alienated the powerful leader Powhatan (Wahunsonacock). Colonist George Percy quickly decided “There were never Englishmen left in a forreigne Countrey in such miserie as wee were in this new discovered Virginia.” Half the colonists who arrived in April 1607 were dead by October, and fewer than forty survived the winter. Newport made two supply trips to Virginia, in January and October 1608, both times bringing home more bad news: John Smith, a brash commoner, had assumed authority over a quarreling, ineffective colonial Council, the colonists refused to take orders, the Powhatan Indians struck at will, and famine and illness raged.
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.
On June 2, 1609, the Virginia Company of London sent across the Atlantic Ocean the largest fleet England had ever amassed in the West: nine ships, 600 passengers, and livestock and provisions to last a year. The audacious effort was born out of desperation to save Jamestown, and with it the whole idea of an English, Protestant presence in the Americas. Newport, the most experienced mariner of his age, was hired to captain the flagship Sea Venture. He carried the admiral of the fleet, George Somers; the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates; and 150 passengers and crew members. Unlike the earlier crossings, which transported too many gentlemen, this fleet carried skilled workers: shipwrights, carpenters, fishermen, masons, and farmers capable of building and sustaining a self-sufficient community.
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
But the Sea Venture voyagers did not meet a watery grave. Instead, they were cast away on the uninhabited island chain Bermuda, which was, in the seventeenth century, rumored to be haunted by evil spirits, and known as the Isle of Devils, “that all men did shun as Hell and Perdition.” Far from diabolical, however, Bermuda was the paradise that promotional tracts promised would await those voyaging to Virginia: there was a boundless food supply, an ideal climate, and no dangerous wildlife. The castaways feasted on birds, fish, sea turtles, and wild hogs, which had swum ashore after an unknown shipwreck. George Somers and some of his men scouted the island chain while Thomas Gates put the passengers and crew—luckily, trained in a wide range of skills—to work collecting water, hunting and cooking, and constructing housing and boats.
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.
The Sea Venture Legacy
The real salvation of Virginia came not with De La Warr but that fall, when Gates and Newport returned home to tell their remarkable tale. William Strachey, one of the castaways, committed his story to the page, as did Silvester Jourdain and Robert Rich. Strachey’s, however, was the longest and most compelling of the Sea Venture narratives. Believed to have been written in 1610 but published after his death in 1625, Strachey’s account, titled A true repertory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, circulated through London’s literary circles. All three men’s common themes of harrowing adventure and providential delivery added to the stories told by Gates and Newport and shaped the promotional campaigns of the Virginia Company. The saga of the Sea Venture swept London, even seducing the city’s most famous playwright. Shakespeare’s The Tempest was inspired in part by the Sea Venture story.
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.”
Meanwhile, another English colony, created because of the Sea Venture and conceived as a partner to Virginia, thrived. Bermuda, not New England, as is commonly assumed, was the location of England’s second New World colony. The Somers Island Company, named for George Somers, operated as a subsidiary of the Virginia Company from 1612 until 1615. During those years, the company sent about 600 colonists to Bermuda and consistently turned a profit. Bermudians enjoyed lower mortality rates and longer life expectancy than their countrymen in both Virginia and England. By 1625, nine forts secured the island from Spanish encroachments, ministers led services at six churches, and 2,500 residents were governed in part by an elective assembly. From the loss of the Sea Venture and the founding of Bermuda, England gained an invaluable entry into the Spanish-dominated Caribbean and the profits and hope to continue pursuing its colonial ambitions.