- 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
They found themselves on the dreaded “Devils’ Isles,” also known as the Bermudas, which had been feared and avoided by seamen since Spaniards had discovered them a century before. They comprised many islands connected in a curved chain or sea hook and surrounded by large areas of underwater coral that made them a trap for unwary vessels.
Everything that could be salvaged was brought off the wrecked vessel. Then, while the women and children sought a habitable clearing, the men went off in different directions to explore and search for sustenance. Admiral Somers took the longboat and a few men to cruise about the main islands, mapping places as he went. The archipelago turned out to be about twenty miles long and one to three miles wide. It had a number of fine bays, among them two that would make large, protected harbors. All seemed peaceful, but there were signs of former shipwrecks, and the wild hogs that roamed about had no doubt come there in those unfortunate vessels. The shallows were filled with fish; they swarmed about the ankles whenever one stepped into the glass-clear water. The rockf ish were so fat and sweet that each was enough to feed two men; and there were mullet that could be taken with a seine as well as pilchards and groupers. Crabs and oysters were plentiful on the tidebanks and crayfish among the rocks. The big tortoises on the shore could each provide meat for twenty people as well as a great store of oil for cooking.
Seabirds large as good pigeons laid eggs as big as hens’ eggs; besides the native cahows, there were duck and teal, pimlicoes and white herons. All were tame and curious. One could walk among them or whistle and they would come by the hundreds. There were no fresh streams, but the castaways soon found usable rainwater settled in low areas or lying just below the surface. Basic meal, vinegar, and the like, salvaged from the ship, was put in the common store as were the hogs brought ashore to supplement the wild ones captured on the island. No one worried about planting crops in the thin red soil; everything needed existed in a natural state.
Gates and a large party undertook to provide shelter for themselves on the northeast island (now St. George) near where they had landed. While the men cut and trimmed young cedar for their cabins and furniture, women stripped off palm fronds to thatch the roofs and provide bedding.
Gates’s overriding concern from the moment he set foot on Bermuda was to fulfill his double role as company official and governor—to save his party of survivors and get them on to Virginia. He immediately ordered the scavenging of the Sea Venture . Whatever could be removed—sails, timber, iron parts—he had brought ashore and secured before the ship broke up and slipped off her rock cradle into deep water.
Next he sought a way to send news of their plight. He had one of the longboats outfitted with a deck and sail and ordered master’s mate Henry Ravens and six men to sail to Virginia and return within a month with a larger vessel. Ravens set out on August 28 and, after spending three days trying to negotiate the difficult shoals, finally got clear and disappeared beyond a sunny horizon.
For two months Strachey and a team burned fires on a promontory overlooking the sea and kept a constant vigil. But though they “gave many a long and wished looke round about the horizon,” it was in vain. Nothing further was heard from Ravens’s party.
On the day Ravens sailed, Gates began his most ambitious project—the construction of a ship that would take his whole party to Virginia. He was confident that he had craftsmen capable of doing the job: Richard Frobisher was one of the most experienced shipwrights of the day; Nicholas Bennett and his crew of carpenters were one of the finest teams of workmen ever assembled.
These men were not mere servile commoners. Their skills were matched by strong personal convictions of their own worth and independence, for Elizabethan and early Stuart shipbuilders were guildsmen like the great castle builders of medieval times. They learned the secrets of their trade from their fathers and passed them on through apprenticed sons. They did not pre-plan a ship as we would today; they followed a number of rules that they had committed to memory and adapted these to the job at hand.
First they took stock of their supplies. From the wrecked ship they had oak timbers for beams and planks for the new ship’s bow and ribs. These would have to be supplemented with cedar from the island. A barrel of pitch and another of tar had been saved, and old hemp cable sails and tarpaulin could be used for caulking. But the iron nails taken from the wreck were rusty and unusable and would have to be melted down and remade in a forge built for the purpose. Tools were no problem; Bennett’s carpenters had all brought theirs ashore when they came off the wrecked vessel.