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The story so far: En route to Jamestown, 150 men and women from the Sea Venture were marooned in 1609 on the deserted island of Bermuda. Among them were Adm. George Somers, who commanded the ship, and Sir Thomas Gates, who had been appointed governor of the Virginia colony.
All work and no play
Trouble started early, despite the chroniclers' efforts to downplay it. William Strachey was vague about it, and Silvester Jourdain ignored it entirely. But Strachey's account made clear that not everyone was happy with the castaways' leadership, particularly Gates' insistence that they put in long hours helping Richard Frobisher build a new ship to take them to Virginia.
The "dangerous and secret discontents," Strachey wrote, emerged first among the sailors. Why, they asked logically, should they be so eager to leave the comparative comfort of Bermuda for the travails of Jamestown?
"In Virginia nothing but wretchedness and labor must be expected," Strachey continued, "with many wants and a churlish entreaty, there being neither that fish, flesh, nor fowl which here... at ease and pleasure might be enjoyed."
The sailors did not know the extent of Jamestown's troubles, but they surely figured that they were not carrying food and supplies to a flourishing colony. They must also have heard stories of Virginia's hostile Indians. They felt better off staying "where they should have the least outward wants."
Strachey, ever loyal to Gates, stressed it was "happy for us... that we both had our governor with us," as well as the "solicitous and careful" Frobisher. Strachey conceded that without the leadership of Gates and Frobisher, "we had most of us finished our days there."
There may also have been a religious element to the discontent. The ringleader, John Want, was a Congregationalist and, according to Strachey, "seditious... in points of religious."
Want and his followers planned to abandon their shipbuilding and occupy a neighboring island, Strachey wrote, "like outlaws retired into the woods to make a settlement and habitation there."
In September, Gates got wind of the plan. Want and six others were brought before the governor. Gates granted their wish by banishing them to another island, though smaller and rockier than they'd hoped and without the provisions they'd intended to take.
In exile, the conspirators apparently tired of Want's preaching, or perhaps found a life more difficult than they'd anticipated. They petitioned Gates to let them return, and the governor relented.
More trouble soon followed. Sailors Edward Waters and Edward Samuel got into a fight. Waters took a shovel, Strachey wrote, and "strake him therewith under the lift of the ear," killing Samuel.
Gates sentenced Waters to be hanged. He ordered him tied to a tree and guarded by five or six men. But Waters apparently was well-liked by most of his fellow sailors, and they waited for the guards to fall asleep. Then they cut Waters loose and he fled into the woods.
Somers appealed to Gates on Waters' behalf and, "upon many conditions, had his trial respited by our governor." Waters returned to camp a free man.
By January, resentments boiled over. This time the leader of the mutiny was Stephen Hopkins, a Puritan. Religion seems to have again played a role, but Hopkins also challenged Gates' civil authority.
Hopkins argued (according to Strachey) that "it was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the governor or refuse to go any further led by his authority... since the authority ceased when the wreck was committed."
In other words, Gates may have been governor of Virginia, but this was Bermuda. Once again, there seemed to be considerable support for staying in Bermuda, with its "abundance by God's providence of all manner of good food."
Sometime in January, Hopkins told Samuel Sharpe and Humphrey Reede of his plans. They in turn leaked them to Gates. The governor had Hopkins brought before him in manacles. He sentenced him to death for mutiny and rebellion. Again there were pleas for mercy, this time from Christopher Newport and even Strachey, who noted how remorseful Hopkins was. Gates relented again, freeing Hopkins. A decade later, Hopkins set sail for America again with the Puritans aboard the Mayflower.
By February, Frobisher's new ship of 40 feet was almost complete. The castaways had managed to save one barrel of pitch and another of tar, which they used to caulk the hull. They scrubbed the bottom with a lime made of whelk shells and hard whitestone they had burned in a kiln.
Gates named the ship "Deliverance." Somers' ship took a little longer inevitably, given he had fewer men, none of the oak from the Sea Venture, and a single iron bolt, which was all Frobisher could spare. Somers used the bolt to attach the keel. His men whittled dowels out of cedar to use as nails, and they caulked the seams with some pulverized rocks mixed with turtle oil. He named the 29-footer "Patience."
With the Deliverance and Patience nearly done, those who wanted to stay in Bermuda had to act quickly. The third and most widespread mutiny came in March. Again the mutineers sought, Strachey said, to "draw unto them such a number of associates as they could work into the abandoning of our governor and to the inhabiting of this island."
Their plan was to raid the storehouse, which was filled not only with food and supplies, but also arms salvaged from the Sea Venture and, equally important for getting to Virginia, the ship's sails and oars. This time the conspirators included most of the men who had been living on a separate island with Somers building the Patience. Among them were Christopher Carter, from the first mutiny, and Edward Waters, the pardoned murderer.
Someone again tipped off the governor, who increased the guard at the storehouse. Things came to a head March 13 when Henry Paine, a guard who sympathized with the conspirators, refused to take his extra watch. "Scoffing at the double diligence and attendance of the watch," Paine spoke "in such unreverent terms" that Strachey felt it "would offend the modest ear too much to express it in his own phrase." The gist of it was that "the governor had no authority of that quality to justify upon anyone... and therefore let the governor (said he) kiss, etc."
Words escalated into violence, and while no one was hurt, Paine was arrested and Gates sentenced him to be hanged. This time the governor would not relent, except to grant Paine's wish that he instead be shot to death. "Towards evening," Strachey wrote, "he had his desire; the sun and his life setting together."
The rest of the conspirators again fled into the woods. From there they petitioned the governor. It wasn't mercy they wanted this time, but food and clothes. Gates appealed to Somers. According to Strachey, the governor "entreated Sir George to remember unto his company... to signify unto them, since now our own pinnace did arise to that burden," that it was time to put an end to their revolt.
Somers should remind the men, Gates told him, of their obligations to the king and to the company and its investors, and to their own reputations and honors. And Somers himself should remember that if the mutiny continued, the "blame would not lie upon the people (at all times wavering and insolent) but upon themselves, so weak and unworthy in their command."
This could harm, Gates added in case Somers didn't get the point, his "(heretofore) well-maintained reputation." Gates assured Somers that no one who now rejoined him would be prosecuted for the mutiny.
Strachey and Gates went to great lengths to avoid saying that Somers was among the conspirators. But clearly Somers had a great deal of influence over these men. Why else would Gates have added the menacing "heretofore" in referring to Somers' "well-maintained reputation"?
Many factors had increased tensions between Gates and Somers. From the start, there must have been questions about who was in charge. Somers, as admiral, was in charge of the fleet at sea. As governor, Gates was to rule on land, at Jamestown. Bermuda was neither's domain.
Add to that the very different goals and attitudes of the sailors and passengers. The former included many treasure-seeking privateers loyal to Somers, the latter many gentlemen loyal to Gates. The lines were not clear and were easily crossed, but they were there. Strachey may have been telling the truth when he said Somers took his 20 men to a second island to build the Patience, but it seems unlikely that was the only reason for setting up a second camp. The governor was in charge of the first, the admiral the second.
What was going on was a power struggle worthy of Shakespeare, with Gates as the rightful but arrogant and autocratic Prospero and Somers as the opportunistic usurper.
That there was a fairly open breach between Gates and Somers was the opinion stated in "A History of the Barmudaes," which sat in the British Museum, its author unknown, until the 19th century. Some scholars have attributed it to John Smith. Others have noted similarities between the handwriting on the manuscript and that of Nathaniel Butler. Butler became governor of Bermuda in 1619, a decade after the wreck of the Sea Venture. Butler wasn't one of the castaways, but he knew some of them personally.
In Butler's version of the story, if that's who wrote "Barmudaes," Somers was very much a part of the mutinies, however much he and Gates pretended otherwise. After all, Somers didn't have to set up a separate camp to build his boat. He could have done so right alongside Frobisher. Wrote Butler: "The sea and land commanders being alienated one from another (a quality over common to the English) and fallen into jealousies, there was produced not only a separation of the company... but an affection of disgracing one another, and crossing their designs."
Butler also claimed Somers had a secret reason for wanting to stay in Bermuda. It was not that he wanted to stay forever, however pleasant the island, but that he wanted to finish exploring with an eye toward setting up a plantation there, possibly to raise crops, possibly to mine the pearls from the shore's abundant oyster beds. By staying longer, Butler explained, "the place and the worth of it might the better be discerned, and a return nourished."
The Bermuda mutinies foreshadowed the greater revolution that would sweep through Virginia 166 years later. Like crown and colonies to come, Gates and Somers appealed, again and again, to each other's loyalties. It was not only Gates who turned to Somers to quell the mutiny, but Somers who spoke to Gates on behalf of the mutineer Carter and even the murderer Waters.
But this was 1610, not 1776. At no point did Somers openly reject Gates' authority, and when the revolt broke into the open, in both the Strachey and Butler accounts, Somers complied with Gates' entreaties.
Reluctantly, he and his men prepared to leave Bermuda for Jamestown.