- 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
A construction site was selected with easy access to the sea, close to the salvage from the wreck but a considerable distance from the new timber that would have to be provided. A wharf, a dock area, and a hardstand were marked off. It was here that the shipwright’s skill came to the fore. In laying out the frame, he first marked off the center transverse of the vessel. Everything else followed from this. Its size and shape determined the configuration of the completed ship, though refinements could be made as the construction progressed. Half sections of the frame were laid out in circular arcs or “sweeps” drawn right onto the leveled earth.
Once the section of greatest beam was set, the graduation of the ribs fore and aft was worked out, partly by formula and partly by sight, the curve being essentially that of the belly of a great fish—which was part of the shipwright’s secret art.
Even before the design sections were complete, crews of men had been put to felling trees, hewing and sawing them into beam sections and boards and hauling them to the site.
The assembly progressed from day to day, but the work did not go smoothly. There was difficulty with the labor force. Strachey, who acted as secretary to the governor, could not readily account for it. The whole “parcel of people,” he said, were reluctant to apply themselves to the task which was, indeed, arduous. And Gates was never satisfied; he was impatient, demanding. He could not leave supervision to the shipwrights but injected himself into “every mean labor.” Rising early and quitting late, he spared “no travail of his body nor … care of mind” to prod the workmen to greater efforts. But they were drawn to it “as the tortoise to the enchantment,” performing only under the pressure of their commander’s example. Strachey obviously attributed the problem to the sloth of the commoners, who had found life on the island too easy. But he had to admit that some of the same “affections and passions” were held by the better sort. He began to suspect more sinister reasons, “some dangerous and secret discontents.”
Looking beneath Strachey’s bias, however, it is clear that something more profound than overwork was involved in the relationship between the governor and the people. It may have been the kind of class strife that had already begun in England with the Puritan movement, a struggle that would soon erupt in civil war and cost a king his life. But a more immediate cause may be found in another work of Strachey’s, his Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall , by which the company was governed. This treatise reflects the first transfer of British common law to America. Its basis was the Charter of 1609, which provided that colonists would be subject to ordinances “agréable to the lawes … of this our realme of England.” But in recognition of the difficulty of enforcing discipline so far from home, it provided for the exercise of “full and absolute power … to correct, punishe, pardon, governe and rule all such subjects. ” And further, with respect to rebellion and mutiny, it authorized the government to “proceede by martiall lawe… as of most dispatch and terror. ” In effect it gave Gates “an absolute command.”
Hopkins’s radical views were indeed such as to “shake the foundation’ of the small community.
And “dispatch and terror” describe his use of the Lawes . The laws decreed: for speaking irreverently, death; for taking the name of God in vain, having a bodkin thrust through the tongue; for disrespect to a preacher, whipping; for slander, being tied hand and foot every night for a month; for bearing false witness, death; and so on. But it was not these criminal offenses that caused the trouble; it was something else. Gates had promised, when the work on the ship began, to pay the workers who were unable to scavenge for their food a daily allowance from the company stores.
The first of what Strachey called “bloody issues and mischiefs” was discovered among the men working on the pinnace. They were accused of trying to persuade Bennett and others to abandon work on the ship, break with Gates, and remove to another island from which they would try to force the governor to make them better allowances. Carter, Pearepoint, Brian, Martin, Knowles, and Want were singled out as the culprits. They were manacled and brought before the assembled congregation to answer to the charge of conspiracy. Minister Richard Bucke, chief witness against them, accused their leader, John Want, an Essex man, of being a separatist, possibly one of the Puritans causing so much difficulty with the established church in England. Thus did dissatisfaction over wages become, by way of religion, a criminal charge. As punishment Gates gave them all what they seemed to desire—banishment to another island, one small and remote, where, as Prospère threatened Ferdinand, “Sea-water shalt thou drink; thy food shall be … wither’d roots, and husks,” and they would have time to repent before they starved.