- 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 arrival of the two vessels should have been the occasion for great celebration, but the colony was in dire straits. Everyone at the fort was sick and hungry and they told of even worse conditions at Jamestown. Thus when Gates and Somers proceeded up the river and dropped anchor at the Jamestown wharf on May 23, they already knew what they would find. Capt. George Percy and an enfeebled aide were the only ones there to meet them. Percy was more than glad to relinquish control of the settlement to Gates. The governor went directly to the church and had the bell rung. Those who could walk crept forth from their houses, some supported on the arms of others. Minister Bucke, viewing this pitiful congregation, delivered a sad and mercifully short blessing. The town and fort were in a deplorable condition. The palisades had fallen down, the ports were open, the gates hanging off their hinges. Most of the houses stood empty, their owners dead of starvation or fever. The people were afraid to venture far beyond the fort lest they be set upon by Indians. The newly arrived passengers were happy to share with their starving fellows the food they’d brought from Bermuda. But they had not brought much and had expected to find plenty when they arrived. Instead they found the stores at Jamestown almost gone. There would be no harvested crops before the end of summer. The sturgeon were no longer running in the river. Nor was there hope of bartering with the Indians, who were themselves near starvation.
Gates, Somers, Newport, and Percy—the leaders—held a council to determine what to do. There was meal enough remaining to afford each person one small cake a day for about a fortnight and then only if the meal was mixed with mushroom and sod. Beyond this there was nothing. The only course was to take everyone aboard the four pinnaces and abandon the colony. They would go to the Newfoundland fishing banks, where many ships would be arriving for the spring catch. There they could get passage back to England.
They had boarded the vessels and started downriver when fate intervened. Lord De La Warr’s fleet of three vessels, the long-awaited new commander, and relief from home had just arrived in the bay. The two fleets met.
De La Warr ordered Gates’s party to turn back. Assuming the role of governor himself, he brought all the ships up to Jamestown, where, amid much pomp and ceremony, he took charge of rebuilding the fort and restoring the colonists to health. Sufficient supplies had been brought in to replenish the settlement and get crops started. It only remained to build their stores for the lean time before harvest.
Sir George Somers had the solution to that. He proposed to return to Bermuda to get fish, fowl, and live hogs to help the colony over the lean weeks. His own health had begun to fail, and it was decided that his nephew, Capt. Matthew Somers, would accompany him, and Capt. Samuel Argall would sail with them in another vessel. The two ships departed on June 19. Somers in his small cedar craft, the Patience , of which he was justly proud, drifted down the James River on the receding tide, rounded the cape, and set out upon the Atlantic. His sails caught high winds that soon proved too much for Argall’s vessel, forcing the latter back to Jamestown. Somers sailed on unerringly to Bermuda and his destiny.
The island was bursting with all the life and beauty he had found when his ship had wrecked there almost a year before. Carter and Waters were alive and healthy, and he readily forgave them for their transgression. He looked at the garden he’d first planted on the island and there resolved to establish a plantation for himself and his friends. But first he had to get food back to Virginia. Wild hogs were rounded up and cooked for salting. The Patience was loaded. On the site of what would be St. George’s town, there was a final feast before setting sail. The admiral ate his fill of pork and became ill “of a surfeit. ” He died that night.
Capt. Matthew Somers had his uncle’s heart removed from his body and buried on the island near his garden. The body he placed in a cedar chest and secretly carried aboard ship: some superstitious sailors might not have gone had they known it was aboard. As it was, they forced the young Somers to set his course for England instead of for Virginia.
The tiny Patience put in to Whitchurch in Dorsetshire some weeks later, where the friends of Somers “had his remains honourably buried, with many vollies of shott, and the rites of a souldier.”
Meanwhile, the difficulties that had begun on Bermuda—the fight of the “Conspirators” for individual freedom—continued in the New World. When reports of the trouble got back to London just behind the news of the Bermuda survivors, the company was compelled to publish a book explaining it. A True Declaration of Virginia described the problem in the metaphor of a tempest, explaining that the first storm, by exiling Gates and denying the colony leadership, gave rise to the second, a “tempest of dissension,” in which every man in Virginia would “be his own commander.”