Making landfall at Jamestown

Jamestown (Jamestown, Virginia)EnglandLondon (England)DeathGovernmentMissing PersonsSocial Issues

The story so far: Shipwrecked en route to Jamestown, passengers and crew of the Sea Venture spent 10 months marooned on Bermuda. They built two ships to take them to Virginia.

Setting Sail
On March 30, 1610, the castaways towed the Deliverance to a small island where the channel was deep enough to launch. They built a stone causeway to protect the ship while waiting for the Patience to be finished.

At the end of April, Captain Matthew Somers, the nephew of Admiral George Somers, brought the Patience alongside the Deliverance. Provisions and ammunitions were loaded onto both ships.

Somers and Christopher Newport used a small boat to guide the ships through the reefs. All they awaited now was the right wind.

On May 10, the Deliverance departed, followed by the Patience. There was a brief scare when the Deliverance hit a rock, but it was the rock instead of the boat that was crushed. Both ships headed out to sea.

Left behind were six dead, including the infant Bermuda Rolfe and the executed Henry Paine. There were also two alive on the island: Christopher Carter and Edward Waters, both unrepentant mutineers.

Virginia, finally
The former castaways, including by some accounts five women, arrived in Jamestown just a few weeks later. As they had feared, it was a much less pleasant place than Bermuda.

Seven of the ships from Somers' fleet had made it to Jamestown the year before, but many of their passengers, along with many of the original settlers, had since died.

John Smith, who had provided the colonists with leadership and, through his dealings with Pocahontas and her people, food, had left Jamestown after being injured in a gunpowder explosion. The winter of 1609-1610 became known as the "Starving Time." By the time Somers got there, only 60 colonists remained alive and the settlement was near ruin.

Sir Thomas Gates, finally able to assume the role of governor, decided to abandon the colony. Everyone crowded on board the Deliverance and the Patience as well as two other ships docked at Jamestown. They headed down the James River, bound for England.

Before they could reach the Chesapeake Bay, they learned that Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, was sailing up the James in three ships with 150 new settlers along with food and supplies. In what became a profound turning point in history, West ordered Gates to turn around.

Back to Bermuda
West's provisions, which were greater than what Somers had brought from Bermuda, staved off starvation, but meat was still scarce in Jamestown. Somers offered to take two ships to Bermuda and bring back some of the wild hogs.

His motives have been disputed. Butler, or whoever wrote "A History of the Bermudaes," suspected Somers was more interested in colonizing Bermuda than in aiding Jamestown. But West had no doubt that "this good old gentlemen, out of his love and zeal, most cheerfully and resolutely undertook to perform this dangerous voyage."

The governor told him to go.

Somers took the Patience, Samuel Argylle and the Discovery. Three days later, a storm blew them off course. Argylle made it back to Jamestown while Somers reached Bermuda, where he was reunited with Carter and Waters. Somers and his crew filled the Patience with fish and meat, but more storms (and in the more cynical view, more exploring) prevented them from returning to Jamestown.

By the end of the summer there was another problem. Somers was sick, with what is unclear. One sailor blamed "a surfeit of pig." Another thought he was "overtoiling himself." On Nov. 9, 1610, Somers died in Bermuda.

Back to England
His crew dropped any plans to return to Virginia. Instead, they cut out Somers' heart, buried it in Bermuda, and put his body aboard the ship to take back to England.

By one account, Matthew Somers secretly stowed away his uncle's body so that he could prove he was dead, though that hardly seemed necessary since there were plenty of witnesses. Besides, it's hard to imagine that no one else on a small ship noticed a body on board. Whatever his reasons, Matthew Somers brought the body back to Lyme Regis, where he inherited a substantial portion of his uncle's substantial estate.

Reports of the island paradise convinced others that Bermuda was well worth colonizing, especially compared to the horrors of Jamestown. In 1612 the English established the first permanent settlement there.

"The Tempest"
William Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, was an investor in the Virginia Company, as were others in the playwright's circle, and in the London of 1610, Somers' expedition was the talk of the town.

A few months after Somers was buried, Shakespeare's "The Tempest" was first performed. Prospero's island was set in the Caribbean, but colonization was clearly one of the play's themes and there were plenty of indications. Ariel's mention of "the still vexed Bermoothesz'' referenced Somers' journey.

Shakespeare may have read William Strachey's "A True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates." Strachey's account wasn't published until 1625 (probably because the Virginia Company wasn't eager to circulate stories about Jamestown's travails), but the manuscript was completed in 1610. It's also possible Shakespeare read Silvester Jourdain's "A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils," published in 1610.

Rediscovery
In 1958, the wreck of the Sea Venture was discovered, still wedged into a coral reef. There was little left of the ship or its cargo. One gun and cannonball were found, along with shot for small arms. There were also some Spanish jars, stoneware from Germany and ceramics and cooking pots much like what had been found excavating Jamestown.

One of the discoverers of the Sea Venture was Edmund Downey, a direct descendent of George Yeardley, a passenger in 1609.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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