- 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
It now became clear that Gates’s pinnace, which was seasoning in its stocks, would not be able to take everyone to Virginia; and hope of getting relief from the colony had already been abandoned. Somers, who was also concerned about the growing animosity between his people and Gates, decided to build a separate vessel of his own. He asked Gates to lend him two carpenters and twenty workers to construct a small bark on the main island where he camped. Gates obliged and also loaned him tools and materials. Soon the second vessel was promising to catch up with the first.
But a clique of independents was forming among the ship workers who had been stirred up by Stephen Hopkins’s “devilish disquites.” Strachey, perhaps reflecting the fears of the governor, surmised that an even “worse practice, faction, and conjuration (was) a foote,” one which threatened Gates’s life. The plot was thought to involve the whole of Sir George Somers’s company, including some of the men loaned to work on his pinnace. They could be heard turning the question over and over as to whether Gates had the authority, under the circumstances, to pass judgment upon anyone for any reason. Eventually they raised the more dangerous issue of his removal from office. Their debate turned to heated argument. Robert Waters, a sailor, struck Edward Samuel under the ear with a shovel and killed him. The governor sentenced Waters to be hanged the next day and had him bound to a tree for the night. But his fellow sailors slipped past the guard and cut him loose and he escaped into the woods.
This incident enforced the suspicions. As the rumor spread that the dissidents proposed to seize the storehouse with its arms and kill the current leaders, everyone took to carrying weapons. “Every man [was] advised to stand upon his guard, his owne life not being in safety, whilest his next neighbour was not to be trusted.” Gates ordered the sentinels and night wardens doubled.
One evening when Henry Paine, a gentleman, was scheduled to go on watch, the captain of the guard observed him “full of mischiefe, and every houre preparing something or other, stealing swords, adises, axes, hatchets… etc. to make good his owne bad end.” He called upon Paine to report. Words were exchanged, then blows. Paine accused the captain of being a lackey for the governor; the captain said Paine’s insolence could cost him his life. Paine, according to Strachey, responded “with a settled and bitter violence,” using phrases that would “offend the modest ear too much to express.” The governor had no authority over anyone’s life, “and therefore let the Governour (said hee) kisse, etc.”
The captain of the guard wasted no time reporting all of this to Gates, who assembled the company, had Paine brought before him, and called upon the captain to repeat his accusation. Paine was too proud and too honest to deny what he had said. The governor would entertain no testimony on extenuating circumstances. “With the eyes of the whole company fixed upon him,” Gates condemned Paine to be instantly hanged. This time there would be no stay, no repetition of the Stephen Hopkins affair. But Paine was a gentleman, and as such he demanded certain rights: he insisted, even as the hangman’s ladder was being moved into place, that his execution be by firing squad. Strachey reports that “toward the evening he had his desire, the sun and his life setting together.”
The death of Paine had a sudden and unexpected repercussion. When news of the execution reached Sir George Somers on the main island, consternation spread throughout his work crew. Had Paine in his last hours betrayed them as plotters against the governor? In a mass panic the men “forsook their labor and Sir George Somers and like outlaws betook them to the wild woods.”
But once they had rallied and taken courage in the company of those who had fled or been exiled before them, they determined upon a bold course of action. In an audacious petition to the governor, they asked that they be allowed to remain on Bermuda and that he fulfill his promise to allow them sufficient meal to last a year and tools and implements “to defend them from want and wretchedness.”
Gates was confounded. Since the two vessels were nearly complete, he did not require the deserters as workers. But he did need them as seamen to get him to Virginia. And once there, he needed them as servants to fulfill his obligation to the company. He sent a note to Somers, conciliatory in tone, in which he begged the admiral to do anything he could to get the men back. Somers knew Gates’s mood, knew that if the men did not return, the governor would move against them with arms. Acting as intermediary, he worked out a compromise: if the men returned, Gates would agree that none be punished for his desertion, and each would have the option, once he reached Virginia, of going back to Bermuda with Somers. All but Christopher Carter and Robert Waters accepted. They chose to stay in hiding.