The Sea Venture and the Reestablishment of Jamestown

By Ginny Gotlieb
“The Sea Venture in a heavy Sea in 1609,”
painting by Christopher Grimes
The Virginia Company’s Third Supply to Jamestown was to have finally put the colony on solid footing.  Seven ships with five to six hundred people left Plymouth, England June 2, 1609.  The lead ship, the Sea Venture, the first ship designed specifically to carry emigrants, was on her maiden voyage.  It included Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers, Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates, the colony’s governor, and Captain Christopher Newport.  But, alas, less than a week from reaching Virginia the fleet was separated in a terrible storm that raged for several days. The Sea Venture, with nine feet of water in her hold, wrecked on the reef of a reputedly haunted island, known to mariners as “The Devil’s Island”.  Maps of the time encircled it with sea serpents.
The shipwreck in The Tempest, Act i, Scene 1,
in a 1797 engraving based on a painting by George Romney
The uninhabited island we know as Bermuda proved a benign and beautiful place to winter with abundant food and cedar to built two small ships rigged with sails from the Sea Venture.  However, over the course of this winter in paradise, discord among the survivors led to charges of mutiny on two occasions.  Debates about the course of action were exacerbated by differences in class and even religious outlook.  One challenge to authority came from Stephen Hopkins, later a Mayflower passenger, who was condemned to death, a sentence later commuted after “the better sort” pleaded for his life.  A contemporary report noted that “the sea and land commandours [Somers and Gates], being alienated one from another (a qualetye over common to the English)…produced, not only a separation of the company (even in this extremitie, even in this straight place), but an affection of disgracing one another, and crossing their designes.” (A Land As God Made It, James Horn, p.163)
Meanwhile, the other six bedraggled ships had arrived in Jamestown in August of 2009, tripling the colony’s population at a time when food was running low.  Most of the ships’ provisions were spoiled or lost and many men were sick. Interim Governor John Smith faced multiple challenges to his authority, as that “qualetye over common to the English” of alienating each other and working at cross purposes was in evidence here as well.  That winter in Jamestown the colonists suffered through “The Starving Time”, as they struggled with the Indians, each other, and discordant leadership following the departure of Captain John Smith in the fall of 1609.  By May 1610 when Gates and Somers finally appeared at Jamestown a mere sixty colonists survived – barely.  Gates had expected a more vibrant settlement and had brought only enough food from Bermuda to last the sea voyage to Virginia.  Realizing that they could not go on, Gates made the decision to abandon the colony.  He had the cannon buried at the front gate of the palisade, boarded the survivors on his ship and on June 7, 1610 headed down the James River.  By chance or providence, the following afternoon they were met by Lord De La Warr’s expedition and ordered to return to Jamestown.  As John Smith later wrote, “God… would not have it [the colony] so abandoned.” (Horn, p. 180).
Crew member, Silvester Jourdan published a pamphlet in London in October 1610 entitled “A Discovery of the Bermudas, otherwise called the Isle of Divels”. William Strachey, a stockholder in Blackfriar’s Theater, London, wrote a first person account of the hurricane that destroyed the Sea Venture that was widely circulated in London before Shakespeare wrote his last play, “The Tempest”.  The play was performed before King James at Whitehall as early as 1611. This wondrous show of spirits and dukes, duplicity, magic and confusion, contemplates the nature of man, the reality and artificiality of social hierarchy, and the responsibilities of governing.  There is a love story subplot.  It ends with a theme of acceptance and reconciliation, an “awareness of normal humanity after it has been purged of evil”. (Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, Leonard Dean, p.460).  Perhaps the play is a fitting metaphor for the crucible that formed a new nation.
Because May 2010 was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Sea Venture in Jamestown, there have been interesting theatrical productions of “The Tempest” in Los Angeles and San Diego this year.  If you missed these, there are several movie versions.  Most recently, Helen Mirren stared in the normally male lead role of Prospero/Prospera in a feminist interpretation of “The Tempest” directed by Julie Taymor, just released in December 2010. 
Arrival of Lord Delaware, painting by Sidney King
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