- Historic Sites
The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
The story of the British ship Sea Venture is one of history’s most remarkable sagas, an almost unbelievable tale of shipwreck, endurance, and human resourcefulness. But it is more than that. The fate of the survivors of the Sea Venture reverberates in literature, in political theory—in the very founding of America.
The story began in 1609; James I, the first Stuart King, sat on the throne of England, but the culture and spirit of the time were still very much those of the Tudor world of Queen Elizabeth. The adventures of Drake and Hawkins and the victory over the Spanish Armada were still fresh in English minds. So too was the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt to settle the American coast at Roanoke. It was not at all certain that Britain’s challenge to Spain’s control of the New World would succeed.
A tenuous new settlement had been established at Jamestown near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Two bitter winters, a meager food supply, and difficulties with the Indians had just about wiped out the colony. Now, with the king’s blessing, a massive effort under Lord De La Warr was to be made to restore and replenish the colony and so maintain Britain’s foothold on the North American continent. With a new charter designed to encourage private individuals to invest and “adventure their persons” in the great undertaking, the Virginia Company of London was dispatching a relief fleet of supplies and nearly a thousand people to bolster Jamestown to a level of self-sufficiency.
And so, after two weeks of loading, the Sea Venture sailed from Woolwich in London in mid-May 1609. She was new, full-rigged, and race-built. At three hundred tons she dwarfed the Susan Constant , which had taken the first passengers to Virginia, and the Mayflower , which would later carry colonists to New England. She was the flagship of a fleet of nine vessels—perhaps the largest colonizing flotilla ever assembled; she and six other vessels of the fleet sailed from London to Plymouth, where they were joined by the other two ships. Here Sir George Somers, admiral of the fleet, came on board and was joined by Sir Thomas Gates, the newly appointed lieutenant governor of Virginia, who was to act as governor until Lord De La Warr arrived. Foreseeing that disputes over command might arise between them, the two decided to travel together so such issues might be more readily resolved. The gaunt and bearded Gates was a stern soldier of fortune from the Dutch wars. Somers, an old sea dog who had fought the Spanish in the Caribbean, remained dapper and amiable at nearly sixty years of age. The vessel itself was commanded by Britain’s most able navigator, Capt. Christopher Newport, a one-armed mariner who already had taken passengers to Virginia. These leaders, together with other gentlemen, their servants, select tradesman, and ordinary folk to the total of one hundred and fifty men, women and children, were the human cargo of the Sea Venture .
The fleet departed June 2, stopped briefly at Falmouth to get favorable winds, then within a week was clear of Land’s End and on the high seas. Except for sickness due to heat and overcrowding, the voyage passed without incident until the flotilla was only eight days from the Virginia coast. Then the winds began to blow; the ocean became so choppy that the Sea Venture had to cut loose a pinnace it had been towing. The other ships had difficulty keeping the flagship in view; and on the morning of July 24, as the storm mounted, they lost sight of her entirely. Each of the ships, save one ketch that broached and sank, set off on its own and eventually found its way to Virginia. There, as weeks stretched into months and autumn passed with no word as to the fate of the flagship, it was assumed, first in Virginia, and then in London as the vessels returned, that the Sea Venture had been been lost, together with the leaders and all its crew and passengers. The loss was strongly felt, for no one in Virginia knew who was in charge. The colony was in danger of starvation, abandonment, or both.
The men and women of the Sea Venture , however, were still very much alive.
Eyewitness accounts by two men, Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey, tell the story. Strachey’s account—the fuller, far richer one—appeared in a letter he addressed to an “Excellent Lady,” probably the wife of a Virginia Company official. It is particularly notable for its descriptive passages: they contain images and phrases William Shakespeare adapted for The Tempest . Shakespeare knew members of the company and possibly Strachey himself. There is little doubt that he had access to the letter before it became publicly known.