- Historic Sites
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
The castaways found it pleasant and healthful, with plenty to eat; and there they passed an agreeable winter, while building a couple of pinnaces to take them to Virginia. The rest of the fleet, with four hundred of the people, had arrived there in a battered condition and went through a terrible winter. This was the real “starving time” in Virginia history. By the time their leaders arrived from Bermuda in the spring, of all the four hundred and those there before, only some sixty remained alive. No doubt they brought disease with them, after so exhausting a journey, but the main reason for the disaster—it was no less—was the absence of leadership, of all authority and discipline. Elizabethans simply could not operate without it. With their leaders wrecked in Bermuda—for all they knew, drowned—the colony went to pieces.
Provisions and livestock were all consumed; the Indians refused trade except for the colonists’ arms, implements, and utensils, and then turned on them, till “there remained not past sixty men, women and children, most miserable and poor creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish …” There was, in fact, an instance or two of cannibalism.
When Gates arrived he set himself to restore order sternly; but there was little he could do; men went on dying, and there were only four days’ provisions left when the colony gave up and set sail down the river. On their way they met the incoming governor, Lord De la Warr, so long delayed, and they were turned back to Jamestown. Here, under proper authority, they were set to work once more: “every man endeavoureth to outstrip other in diligence: the French preparing to plant the vines, the English labouring in the woods and grounds; every man knoweth his charge, and dischargeth the same with alacrity.”
At home Sir Thomas Smythe needed every ounce of confidence to keep the adventurers to the task. In the absence of any return on their money, with repeated calls for further supplies, the discouragements of all these disasters, the persistent run of ill luck, and the rumors circulating against the colony in consequence, Smythe needed courage and statesmanship of the highest order to pull things round. These he possessed. He was a man of immense capacity and experience, of unhurried judgment and weighty decision, a somewhat impersonal man, who had the confidence of both the city and the court.
Faced with a crisis in those affairs and finding that Bermuda now looked more promising, he called in Bermuda to redress the balance of Virginia. He obtained from the Crown a third charter for Virginia, extending her bounds 300 leagues from the continent to include Bermuda. A Bermuda, or Somers Islands, company was floated on a joint-stock, began to make profits from an immense piece of ambergris found on the coast, and started to colonize.
The new charter permitted a lottery to be started, with prizes, to raise cash. And later the company became chiefly a land company, “its one asset the land that had been bought with the sacrifices of the first ten years.” The company appealed to intending planters with an offer of fifty acres for every person to be sent to the colony; on this basis plantation continued and was extended—whatever the setbacks now, settlement went on.
Within the colony, too, the corner may be said to have been turned with the change from communal arrangements to private ownership. No doubt the first tasks in a new settlement were communal in their nature. But when the soldier-governors allotted every man in the settlement three acres of clear ground to his own, they turned from bowling in the street to cultivating their gardens. Progress was at once to be seen. At the same time, what was to become Virginia’s staple export, tobacco, makes its first appearance. The credit for the first experiments is thought to be John Rolfe’s. He made another experiment, too, which has brought him greater fame: he fell in love with Pocahontas, and she with him. After much deliberation with his friends, and some prayer, he married her properly. This favorably impressed the Indians, and for some years there was a blissful interval of peace and good relations. Rolfe later brought Pocahontas to England, where she “unexpectedly” died—of the climate, perhaps.
Now that the colony had been brought round, the man by whose efforts it had been accomplished, Sir Thomas Smythe, lost control of the Virginia Company and received his dismissal, in the usual way of such things. There always had been a division in the company between the big City merchants and the more numerous small adventurers, between the platform and the floor of the house. (As usual, the platform was generally right, the floor generally wrong.) Again, as usual, the discontented majority found leadership among the magnates: in the Earl of Warwick, in Shakespeare’s Southampton, and above all in Sir Edwin Sandys.