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Of Raleigh And The First Plantation
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
That winter the colonists had enough novelties, excitements, dangers, consolations, to last them a lifetime. They kept Christmas in bad weather, “among the savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowl and good bread, nor never had better fires in England than in the dry smoky houses of Kecoughtan.” Relations with the Indians had all the complexity of contacts between races at very different levels of civilization, by turns friendly and hostile—or rather, the same emotions in the same breast, so that a sharp lookout had to be kept all the time. The company at home insisted on the coronation of Powhatan, the leading chief of the area, against Smith’s better judgment: of “subtle understanding and politic carriage,” he was rendered all the more difficult to deal with.
The most dangerous moment came when the small group of Germans in the colony conspired, characteristically, to betray it. They surreptitiously smuggled weapons to the natives and hoped to betray the colony to Spain. Equally characteristically, they got what was coming to them; a brace who got away to Powhatan had their brains beaten out for their treachery to the English. Then the Indians gave a masque, or entertainment, in the woods, after which their women pursued the embarrassed Smith with their pressing endearments. Or Powhatan’s pretty daughter Pocahontas, not yet however nubile, would turn cart wheels naked in the streets of Jamestown to delight the hearts of the planters.
At home in England a wave of interest in Virginia was rising to the height of a national enterprise. The undertaking was gathering way and was launched in 1609 with the second charter, the effective instrument in the creation of Virginia. For this incorporated the Virginia Company that governed the colony and saw it through its infancy to a permanent existence, and separated it from the Plymouth Company, concerned now only with the north. The Virginia Company drew upon a most impressive array of support that can truly be said to represent the nation. It came to include 56 city companies and some 659 individuals—21 peers, 96 knights, 28 esquires, 58 gentlemen, 110 merchants, 282 citizens, and so on. To read the names of the adventurers is like hearing a roll call of the most active elements in the society of the last years of Shakespeare. There they all are, from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Shakespeare’s own patrons, the Earls of Southampton, Pembroke, and Montgomery, through many names with more distant echoes, for there are Cecils and Cromwells and Chamberlains, Lord North along with the Spencer ancestor of the Churchills, while the Winston ancestor took shares later; Anglican bishops alongside of Puritans and Catholics; famous figures in the life of London down to an obscure Cornish squire like William Roscarrock, living there on the Atlantic coast near Padstow; or Gabriel and John Beadle, two poor gentlemen who went out to Virginia in the first supply (1608). Everybody who was anybody seems to have been in it, except the poets—and they as usual were short of cash.
The jealous attentions of the Spanish ambassador Zuñiga were aroused. Amazed at the response to Virginia in English society, he wrote home to Philip III that “fourteen earls and barons have given 40,000 ducats, the merchants give much more, and there is no poor little man nor woman who is not willing to subscribe something … Much as I have written to your Majesty of the determination they have formed here to go to Virginia, it seems to me that I still fall short of the reality.”
For Virginia itself the effective change made by the second charter was the appointment of a governor with real power and authority, advised but not displaceable by the council there. The governor appointed, Lord De la Warr, was to follow Sir Thomas Gates, who meanwhile went as his deputy, with Sir George Somers as admiral of the fleet of eight ships that left Plymouth in May. This had some six hundred colonists on board, including one hundred women: the largest expedition for America until the mass emigration to Massachusetts started in 1630.
The sailing of Somers’ little fleet has been described as “the true beginning of one of the great folk movements of history,” but Virginia’s ill luck held good. To avoid Spanish attentions and a long sea voyage, Somers’ fleet took a direct course across the Atlantic from the Canaries. They ran into a hurricane, and Somers’ flagship was cast away upon the coast of Bermuda, though all the folk were saved. The “still-vexed Bermoothes” were thought by the Elizabethans to be haunted by evil spirits. Out of the fusion of those two inspirations—for several accounts of it circulated at home—came The Tempest.