It is easy for Bermudians to assume the wreck of the ship Sea Venture is a stirring yarn that begins with a hurricane and ends with the captain of the ship, Sir George Somers, on his deathbed, asking that his heart be buried in the islands he had come to love. Actually, it doesn’t begin that way, he wasn’t the ship’s captain and he almost certainly did not make such a request, but people don’t like the truth to get in the way of a good story, do they?
In our anxiety to keep the story manageably short and as sweet as befits the discovery of as special a place as Bermuda, some of us have romanticised and twisted it, and we have forgotten the larger truth in which our story is embedded.
A new book, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown, written by two American academics, Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, and published late last year, is a well-researched reminder of the bigger picture and of the slightly less toothsome truth of Bermuda’s part in it. That larger picture, in which the wreck of the Sea Venture is merely one dramatic event among many others, is a Technicolor, CinemaScope, blockbuster epic of a story so large it’s hard to process as a narrative: waves of English and European explorers racing to cross the Atlantic to establish commercially exploitable footholds in North America, the New World. They landed on sites from Labrador right the way down to Florida.
Every one of those landings has a rich story to tell. Thousands of people, trying to find their fortunes, or trying to escape uncomfortable former lives, struggled and died of disease, cold, starvation, drowning, accident, murder and armed struggle with the native American tribes who were there before the adventurers landed.
Our little part in it related to the settlement at Jamestown Island in Virginia, 60 miles up the James River from Chesapeake Bay, a swampy, unhealthy site unfortunately chosen for its usefulness as a defensive position when it was first settled in 1607.
Many people suffered and died there. They suffered for many reasons, but if you had to pick the chief reason for their misfortunes, it would have to be the fact that they were poorly led in the early days of their venture. Instead of ensuring that the first settlers, in order to make a go of the place, farmed and otherwise provided for themselves, those in charge allowed them to spend their time occupied with such things as looking for the gold the Virginia Company believed must be there in abundance. Since the company had put up the money to send them to America in the first place, and needed a commercial reason to stay engaged with the venture, that kind of search had to be high on the settlers’ list of priorities, but it should not have been allowed to take precedence over self-preservation.
Those who travelled to the New World included many who were, shall we say, known to the authorities in England. Others would likely have become known to the authorities had they stayed at home. Taking charge of a group like that is no picnic. A good leader has to be strong enough to get a firm grip on his charges and prepared to be ruthless to keep them in line.
Jealousy, bickering and dissent fill the vacuum created by weak leadership, and there was lots of it at Jamestown.
Of the early leaders, perhaps only Captain John Smith, who was himself a target of much jealous backbiting, seemed to have the personality needed. He led the Jamestown group for a period until late 1609, when injuries sustained in what he said was an accident, but others believed was an attempt on his life, forced him back to England.
In England, there was a striking lack of knowledge of the problems the settlers experienced. The Virginia Company faced a dilemma in the staffing of its settlement: if they told the truth about Jamestown’s problems, it would be harder to get people to invest money in the company and harder to induce people to offer themselves as settlers.
By the time the Sea Venture fleet was put together, it was obvious to those running the company that strong leadership and sufficient manpower were needed to make a go of it. But they kept that to themselves. They published, or allowed to be published in London, only documents that put a positive gloss on what was happening in the New World. They dismissed the claims of those who managed to return to England and speak about the privations the settlers suffered as exaggerations and lies born of sour grapes.
That is probably the reason Sea Venture passenger William Strachey’s account of the shipwreck in Bermuda, called A True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, was not published for some years after he wrote it. It contained descriptions of the mutinies Sir Thomas had to deal with in Bermuda, things the company would be anxious not to have publicised. On the other hand, two of Strachey’s fellow passengers also wrote accounts of the shipwreck that were published. They were shorter and less detailed than Strachey’s account and contained no references to the mutinies.
Silvester Jourdain wrote A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils. Robert Rich wrote a narrative poem called “The Lost Flocke Triumphant.” These were both well-known documents in London in 1610, after the sensational return from the New World of Sir Thomas Gates and Christopher Newport, who told Londoners the story of the wreck of the Sea Venture for the first time.
For those who are interested, the delay in publication of Strachey’s account is also one of the reasons there is controversy about whether William Shakespeare read that document and, at least in part, based his play The Tempest on its account of the wreck of the ship in Bermuda. The interpretation of the evidence these days seems to be leaning toward the conclusion that Shakespeare did read the document and did base his play on the shipwreck in Bermuda.
Sadly, poor leadership seems to have been common in migration across the Atlantic. In the England of that day, it was assumed that any gentleman was capable of being a leader, and it was assumed that common men would respond to the leadership of any gentleman. In the circumstances, it was a foolish, doom-laden miscalculation.
Another doom-laden miscalculation was the Virginia Company’s failure to make it clear before the Sea Venture fleet left England what the limits of command were of the two most senior officers. Perhaps they thought the pair would be gentlemanly enough to sort it out between them. Sadly, they did not.
Broadly speaking, Sir George Somers was intended to have command of the group at sea and Sir Thomas Gates was to have command once it landed, as the man the company designated as the new lieutenant governor of the Jamestown settlement. But these two had both spent their lives in the military, and speaking broadly is never enough for men with a need for precision.
They were distinguished and powerful men, who had made their names in service to England. Sir George made a fortune in gold taken from Spanish ships in the Caribbean, and he won a seat in Parliament shortly after he was knighted in 1603. Sir Thomas Gates had also fought in the Caribbean and in the Netherlands. He studied law at Grey’s Inn. The two of them had earned the right to be self-confident and sure of what they said. Both of them would have taken disagreement with their ideas as an affront.
Disagree with one another they did, however, and their disagreement doomed the settlers at Jamestown to another winter of starvation and death. In their refusal to relinquish, each to the other, the right to call the shots, they elected to sail together in the ship commanded by Christopher Newport, the senior captain of the fleet.
Militarily, that is a cardinal sin. Imagine Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery flying in the same aircraft a day or two before the invasion of France. There could be no accidents on such a flight—only hideous disasters! So it was with the Sea Venture. All of them, Gates, Somers and Newport, must have known how dangerous a decision it was to travel together and, after the shipwreck, they must all have regretted it mightily.
The Virginia Company had been warned that three captains in the Sea Venture fleet would be a bad influence. All three of them had experience at sailing across the Atlantic, however, so their ability to foment dissent was ignored. Had Gates, Somers and Newport arrived with the rest of the fleet, the influence of these three men would certainly have been controlled.
In the absence of the Sea Venture, though, this trio in effect chased the effective Captain John Smith out, took over the Jamestown Council and appointed a poorly qualified, albeit aristocratic man, George Percy, to be president of the council in Smith’s place. The Powhatan Indians in the area, who caused mayhem, noticed Percy’s weak leadership. Their aggression forced the settlers to crowd into the fort at Jamestown for fear of being murdered.
That winter was called the Starving Time. The settlers died like flies. What little food had been put by was quickly eaten. Afterwards, they ate anything—dogs, cats, rats, snakes and, it is reported, human flesh. When Captain John Smith sailed for England in October 1609, he left behind 420 settlers. Six months later, in March 1610, only 60 were alive.
Those shipwrecked in Bermuda had a much better time of it. Food was plentiful. It was comparatively warm. There were no Indians to fight. And, as it turned out, they had a strong leader. During the hurricane bickering had been forgotten. Sir George Somers oversaw the steering of the ship, spending three days and no doubt sleepless nights on the poop deck. Sir Thomas Gates took command of manning the pumps. Christopher Newport would have had his hands full looking for leaks, looking after his crew and trying to make sure his stricken ship was kept afloat and properly manned.
But the moment they reached shore, Sir Thomas Gates asserted command. In their book, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown, authors Glover and Smith wrote: “Sir Thomas Gates intended to ensure that order, not fear, prevailed on Bermuda. As the next leader of the Jamestown settlement, he asserted authority over the company after everyone made it safely onto the island…. An original member of the Virginia Company (as was Sir George Somers), he took very seriously his charge to redeem its American enterprise. Although deferring to Somers and Newport while at sea, he asserted his supremacy once on land—that he wound up on Bermuda rather than in Virginia mattered little to the Governor.”
The detailed written instructions the company had given him on dealing with the Jamestown settlement did not apply to the rather different circumstances Sir Thomas faced in Bermuda. However, they did give him wide powers, including the right to declare martial law when he thought it was necessary. He had no illusions about some of those in his company, and he would have known from experience that it was important to assert his authority hard and at the first opportunity. He did just that.
He was not the sort of man whose head would have been turned by the plenty he found in Bermuda. He was a man of firm purpose, and his purpose was to do what the company had asked him to do—sort out the settlement at Jamestown. So from the very first, he focused on escaping from Bermuda and taking up his post in Virginia.
Having spent some days making sure his castaways had shelter, food and water, his first attempt at escape, in August, involved refitting the Sea Venture’s longboat as a pinnace, that is, decking it in, using the Sea Venture’s hatches, and fitting a mast and sails. An experienced sailor, Henry Ravens, agreed to make the voyage with a small crew. Gates prepared letters for these men to hand on arrival to the Jamestown settlers, appointing an acting leader to run things in his absence together with council members to assist him. He also gave them a letter to forward to the Virginia Company in London, explaining the situation and asking them to divert Lord de la Warre’s fleet to Bermuda to pick him up. Lord de la Warre was appointed governor when Sir Thomas was appointed lieutenant governor, and he was to follow the Sea Venture fleet with yet more settlers.
Ravens and his crew left exactly one month after the Sea Venture wrecked off St George’s, but they did not make it to Jamestown and were never seen again. The common assumption is that they were lost at sea, but Glover and Smith assert that they did make it to Virginia, only to be killed by Powhatan Indians, who boasted to the settlers of what they had done. The authors say Sir Thomas Gates was told of this when he and his castaways first landed, in the Deliverance and the Patience, at Point Comfort on the Virginia coast.
Nevertheless, it did not take Sir Thomas long to start in on his second escape attempt. He ordered shipwright Richard Frobisher to build a larger pinnace, one capable of taking at least a large portion of the castaways to Virginia. The group would have had to saw planks for the hull from Bermuda’s cedar trees, which was a time-consuming and frustrating undertaking, but they were able to use the Sea Venture’s timbers, rigging and sails.
In the meantime, Sir George Somers had set himself to survey the islands of Bermuda from one end to the other. Copies of his map are in the British Library and the Bermuda Archives. It seems a good effort for a seaman.
Surveying the islands was certainly a useful thing to do from the standpoint of the comfort and knowledge of the castaways, but it seems also, as authors Glover and Smith point out, to have had two other, no less useful purposes. Doing such work suggested to the castaways that there was no question they would eventually manage to get away from Bermuda. And it suggested that Sir George, in any event, was aware of the potential of Bermuda for settlement and Virginia Company profit.
It was a project that was a good fit with his skills. It had practical value to those stranded in Bermuda, and in the future, it might also be useful to the Virginia Company, if it ever decided to finance a Bermuda settlement. As a document intended for the Company, Sir George’s map had the additional value of sending a signal to the rest of the Sea Venture passengers that they must eventually be moving on.
There was another reason. The project got him away from Sir Thomas Gates, the on-land leader of the Sea Venture group, with whom he did not see eye to eye. At least in part, their difficulties were fuelled by a difference of personality. About Sir George, it was said that he was a “lion at sea, so passionate that few could please him,” but a perfect lamb when on land.
Sir Thomas, on the other hand, was a stern man, pushing himself to play a particularly stern role in Bermuda because he knew that leading this group was a dress rehearsal for the really tough task of sorting out the badly disorganised Jamestown settlement—when they got there.
As the Admiral of the Sea Venture fleet at sea, Sir George would not have enjoyed being a mere link in Sir Thomas’s chain of command on land, even if he had liked and respected the man. But he did not, and the feeling was mutual. Further, as an experienced leader, he would have known how Sir Thomas intended to manage the Bermuda castaways, and would have wanted to avoid being involved.
The castaways divided themselves, more or less, into two groups. Sir George and some of the sailors in the party split from Sir Thomas and the settlers, setting up camp a distance away. This separation must have had Sir Thomas’s approval—might even have been his idea, since while he was trying to keep a difficult batch of undisciplined civilians in line, he would have wanted a feud with Sir George and his seamen even less than they’d have wanted one with him.
So it came about that Sir Thomas ran his group over here, and Sir George ran his over there, and each leader tried to stay out of the other’s hair.
Sir Thomas worked very hard at keeping a tight leash on his settlers. A bell called them to work, to meals, to worship and to rest, and was strictly observed. Some fished, some hunted, some cooked and some worked at community tasks. Sir Thomas himself, despite the social distance between him and his more ordinary charges, was far from aloof—he made a point of working and worshipping and eating alongside them.
But despite his efforts, there was trouble almost from the very start. Within a month of the shipwreck, one of Christopher Newport’s men, James Want, persuaded five others to refuse to work on the pinnace that Henry Raven and his men were to use to sail to Virginia for help. Want saw no reason to facilitate attempts to leave bountiful Bermuda for what he believed would be a bleak future in Jamestown. He and his followers tried to leave the main group and set up their own camp elsewhere.
To Gates, it was mutiny. The plotters were quickly brought in front of him, and he banished them to what was described as a barren and distant island, without water, game or even much shelter from the weather. The six soon repented, and Sir Thomas allowed them back into his fold. He must have thought he had done well—the incident had allowed him to demonstrate both his firm resolve and his compassion.
The Want problem occurred in September. In January, Stephen Hopkins, a Puritan who worked as clerk to Reverend Richard Buck, the expedition’s Anglican minister, also began to whisper to others about the idea of forgetting about Virginia and staying in Bermuda. But some of those he tried to recruit turned him in, and Gates took him into custody. This time, Sir Thomas decided that sterner measures were called for, and sentenced Hopkins to death.
In his account of the Bermuda shipwreck, William Strachey wrote that Hopkins “made so much moan, alleging the ruin of his wife and children,” that many of the castaways took pity on him. Strachey and Newport, among others, petitioned Sir Thomas for a pardon, which he eventually allowed.
Sir George Somers had a problem of his own to deal with. In his section of the castaways, a sailor named Robert Waters murdered another by hitting him with a shovel. Although Waters was arrested and sentenced to death, his shipmates freed him, and hid him away. Sir George could never quite seem to find him.
While he was hiding out, Waters, with Christopher Carter (who had also been involved in John Want’s group) and some others in Somers’s group of sailors, hatched a plot to kill Sir Thomas by breaking into the storeroom and stealing weapons. Again, they were motivated by wanting not to have to go on to Jamestown. They were found out, and their plot was foiled, but they managed to avoid arrest and became a kind of political problem for both leaders. (In the end, when the Patience and the Deliverance sailed away, Waters and Carter were left in Bermuda.)
In the middle of the Waters/Carter problem, an eccentric gentleman called Henry Paine one night refused to report for his watch and assaulted his commander. You can imagine how badly that must have disturbed Sir Thomas. It must have seemed to him that the discipline he had spent so much effort weaving into the life of the castaways was coming unravelled. He sentenced Paine to death, and this time, the sentence was carried out quickly, and in front of the assembled settlers.
Sir Thomas’s determination to move on to Jamestown caused an undercurrent of disagreement throughout his time in Bermuda. To make life a little more difficult, he had to try to dampen down a rumour that he intended to use the Deliverance to take only those close to him to Jamestown, leaving the rest behind.
There was no question about it—Deliverance was, indeed, too small to take all of them, and Gates seemed not to have explained his plan very well. It’s tempting to think that the rumour might have been true! But the point was quickly made moot, because Sir George suggested that he and his sailors should build a second vessel (was it a coincidence that he called it Patience?) so that they could all move on to Jamestown, and Sir Thomas agreed.
He gave Sir George a good deal less in the way of men and material to help with its construction than he’d asked for, though. Again, it’s tempting to suppose that might have been a sign of how much Gates regretted that circumstances had backed him into that particular corner. But really, all one can say with hope of accuracy is that it showed how great a priority he put on his own escape to Jamestown.
The Deliverance, half the size of the Sea Venture, was finished in March. Patience, smaller still, was finished a month later. The two vessels were packed with the castaways’ belongings and with supplies, such as salted pork, dried fish, vegetables and water, to the extent that there was room for them.
They set sail on May 10, 1610, and arrived off the coast of Virginia about 10 days later. They called first at little Fort Algernon, at Point Comfort on the mouth of the James River. There, they learned of the disastrous winter the settlers had experienced at Jamestown—the Starving Time, as it was called. Of the 400 or so souls who should have been there, only 60 were left alive, and they were not a pretty sight. All of them were starving, and in a desperate state. So was the fort—the gates had come off their hinges, the walls had come down in places and the buildings inside were falling to bits.
There was no longer much of a government at Jamestown—most of those who were council members had died. Their president, George Percy, had saved himself by skedaddling to Point Comfort. The Powhatan Indians were a constant danger—they killed two of the Bermuda castaways only days after their arrival at Jamestown.
Sir Thomas had himself sworn in and straight away tried to negotiate with the Powhatans to buy some of their food. But the negotiations were short-lived, abandoned when it became evident that the Indians had no interest in helping the settlers and hadn’t enough food to help them even if they’d wanted to.
Contrary to popular belief, the Deliverance and the Patience did not carry enough supplies to rescue the settlement. Taking stock, the settlers reckoned they could feed themselves for about two weeks. Those who had survived the winter in Jamestown were not in good shape—indeed, some of them died after the Bermuda group arrived. The remainder wanted nothing more dearly than to go home to England.
Reluctantly, Sir Thomas agreed that there was nothing for it but to abandon Jamestown and sail away. There were two other boats at Jamestown that he could use to transport the settlers. (One of them was the pinnace Virginia, which was the second of the two small vessels in the Sea Venture fleet—the other was cast loose from the Sea Venture during the hurricane and lost—and which is claimed to have been the first vessel of any size built in America, at the Popham settlement in Maine in 1607).
In order to make sure the Powhatan Indian problem wasn’t made any worse by the departure of the settlers, Sir Thomas had the fort’s cannon buried, and took all the small arms aboard the boats. On June 7, the last of the supplies were loaded, and the settlers, their hearts full, sailed off in their motley little fleet, down the James River, towards the Atlantic. They never got there. On the way downriver, they met a longboat scouting upriver from Lord De La Warre’s fleet, which had arrived bringing another 150 settlers and three shiploads of supplies to Jamestown.
Imagine the consternation! The settlers, almost all of whom wanted to get out of Jamestown in the worst way, must have been horrified.
Sir Thomas Gates would have been relieved but mortified that fate had nudged him into abandoning his duty in Jamestown just hours before that became unnecessary—he would have worried that Lord De La Warre, whose Lieutenant Governor he was to be, would think him given to panic.
But back they had to go, all of them, to dig up the cannon, repair the fort, fight with the Powhatans and the mosquitoes and the smells, and start trying to build a life for themselves again. To add to their misery, young Lord De La Warre lost no time in telling them how little he was impressed. The place was in a revolting state, he said, owing to their “vanities and idlenes.” It was not a nice thing to say, in the circumstances, and not a good omen for a happy future.
It must have sounded to Sir George Somers, tired anyway of the landsmen’s thin-lipped approach to discipline, like a very good reason to have pressing business elsewhere. On June 13, at a council meeting, Sir George proposed that he and a few of his crew take Patience back to Bermuda for provisions. He thought he could be back “before the Indians doe gather their harvest,” as he put it in a letter he wrote a day or two later. Lord De La Warre thought that was a good idea but sent another ship with him, under the command of his kinsman, Samuel Argall.
Their first attempt to sail across to Bermuda failed because of storms. They sailed north as far as the coast of Maine, where they spent time fishing. They set sail again late in July, heading back to Jamestown to deliver their catch, which they would have salt-cured. But the two vessels were separated in a fog, and although Argall tried in the worst way to find Patience again, he had no success. He sailed alone to Jamestown, wondering where on earth Sir George had got to.
The answer to that little mystery was that Sir George had altered course for Bermuda.
Was this disappearing act a determination on his part to stay well away from unlucky Jamestown and his nemesis, Sir Thomas Gates? That’s the way I work it out, but we’ll probably never be certain.
Whatever the truth of that separation in the fog, Sir George ended up back in Bermuda with his shipmates where, in November of that year, he died. There are two, perhaps apocryphal, stories about his death—one that he collapsed chasing pigs through the forest, the other that he ate too much of the one he caught.
He apparently lived long enough to give instructions to his nephew, Matthew Somers, who captained Patience on the journey from Jamestown. But it wasn’t the “Bury My Heart in the Island I Love” speech we’ve been told he made. No, it was an instruction to Matthew to take the provisions they’d collected back to Jamestown forthwith, so that in death, Sir George could make good on a promise he must have felt guilty about being late keeping.
Matthew, it seems, was neither a nice young man nor a clever one. Back in England, after the adventure, he tried unsuccessfully to lay claim to Bermuda, to the ambergris that had been found on the beach, and to his uncle’s land, despite not being his heir. Matthew didn’t want to go to Jamestown any more than his uncle did, so he and his shipmates ignored poor Sir George’s deathbed request, and sailed themselves back to England.
I think it’s a reasonable guess that he and the other sailors eviscerated the body in order to preserve it with salt for the journey, as they knew well how to do with fish, and as has been done around the world for thousands of years.
Whether they wanted to carry Sir George’s body to England out of respect for him, in the hope of being rewarded, or as an excuse for not going to Jamestown, is arguable. It’s a reasonable guess that the last one carried most weight with them.
It’s also reasonable to guess that Sir George, despite his fondness for Bermuda, wasn’t so much running to a place he loved, when he came here for the last time, as he was running from a place he loathed.
We’re all frail.