June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
The Elizabethans and America: Part II -- The fate of the Virginia Colony rested on the endurance of adventurers, the financing of London merchants, and the favor of a courtier with his demanding spinster Queen.
In the marvelous 1580s everything was beginning to ripen together in the heat of the tension between England and Spain. Poetry and the drama that had been so sparse and backward were coming to a head with Sidney and Spenser and Marlowe; the first Elizabethan madrigals appear in the very year the war against Spain begins. And this is the moment when the idea of American colonization takes shape and wing—or, perhaps I should say, takes sail.
The person who had first undertaken to carry out the idea, as to which there had been so much discussion and so many abortive gestures in the direction of it, was Humphrey Gilbert. And from the Crown’s patent he was granted in 1578 sprang the ultimate achievement. That patent gave him license for six years “to search, find out and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.” That was the regular formula, in pursuance of the government’s consistent stand on American settlement.
Humphrey Gilbert had been from the days of his youth a personal servant of Queen Elizabeth, from the time when, as Princess, she was in disgrace with her sister Mary. We know little of Gilbert’s expedition of 1578, which was secret, very mixed in its make-up—to which some genuinely piratical elements were attached and which turned out a complete failure. It is thought that he was aiming at settlement in Florida. The Queen contributed a ship of her own, the Falcon: captain, Walter Raleigh. I cannot help thinking she must have known him, certainly have known of him, long before the traditionally romantic account of her sudden falling for him—to which we have all subscribed.
Walter Raleigh was no new man: he came from a very old family which had already made its place by the time of Henry II. But by Raleigh’s time the family had lost must of its property and become rather impoverished—a most humiliating and irritating situation, especially for an ambitious young man, to feel that you are somebody and haven’t a bean. Something of this irritation may be seen all through Raleigh’s career: he was always a man in a hurry, conscious of his gifts and abilities, yet always made to wait on circumstances—and maddened by frustration. And there was a yellow streak in Raleigh too—he was a great liar—a rift in him by which perhaps came the genius, for men have the qualities of their defects. There is no doubt of the genius; he bore all the stigmata of it.
Raleigh’s mother was by birth a Champernowne, and widow of a Gilbert, so that these Gilberts—John, Humphrey, Adrian—were half brothers of Walter and Carew Raleigh. The Gilberts were brought up at Greenway on the Dart, the family seat being Compton Castle, that delightful rose-red H-shaped house of the fourteenth century, near Torquay, of which the roofless hall has been restored by Commander Walter Raleigh Gilbert in recent years. Humphrey Gilbert was some fifteen years older than Raleigh, and to him the young Walter owed his lead in sea enterprises and ideas of American colonization. Where Gilbert led—at Oxford, in France and Ireland, at sea, over America—Raleigh followed. They had strong family characteristics in common: they were impulsive and intemperate, impatient of any opposition (they had all the more to put up with). They were not very nice men, but they had fascination and they were well educated. They were men of ideas—indeed with them ideas went to their head—and they had great imagination: they were projectors.
Gilbert’s failure and, no doubt, the Queen’s intimate knowledge of his defects of temperament made her reluctant to support his last and most elaborate project, which has been described as branching out into “a maze of individual and corporate enterprises for the conquest and settlement of North America. …” She held Gilbert to be “a man noted of not good hap by sea”; however, against her better judgment, she relented and gave him permission to go. Before he left, with characteristic graciousness, she sent him by Walter Raleigh—now in the first flush of favor—her good wishes, with a jewel for token, “an anchor guided by a Lady.” She asked him to leave his portrait with Raleigh for her; she did not invest in the voyage. Gilbert went, took possession of Newfoundland, lost his flagship with all his stores, and was drowned in the barque Squirrel on the way home.
Walter Raleigh was the heir to Gilbert’s colonizing projects, the man who carried them into execution. But it was entirely his favor with the Queen that gave him the resources to put his plans into operation: the prestige and opportunities of his position, the support and service he could now command, the gifts of lands and licenses, the cash. Notice that the Queen’s favor was not given for nothing: there was an implied contract of service. It was her way of attaching men of ability to the service of the state, and from the men she delighted to favor, the state got good service. In all Raleigh’s efforts for Virginia she was behind him: she backed him, she provided his resources. In addition, she made her own direct contribution.
In preparation for Raleigh’s first Virginia colony, the geographer Richard Hakluyt wrote his Discourse of Western Planting: “Certain Reasons to induce her Majesty and the state to take in hand the western voyage and the planting therein.” It was an extremely able state paper, unique in that age in putting forth a complete argument for colonial expansion, on every ground—economic, political, strategic, religious—with a plan for its execution and a program of settlement. Raleigh got Hakluyt an audience with the Queen, to whom he presented it on his knees. No doubt she read it: it was meant for her eyes, and was never printed until our own time. But she was not persuaded.
The argument was that only the resources of the state could accomplish the colonization of America. There was something in that: so many were to fail, fall by the wayside, having ventured everything and lost; the sacrifices in wealth and manpower, in suffering, privation, and human life, were immense and terrible. But—a state enterprise? In that age everyone plundered the government and every governmental undertaking. The Queen knew that better than anyone. Had she not often had occasion to utter a cri de coeur against the “insatiable cupidity of men”? Then, too, a state enterprise meant a head-on collision with Spain, a frontal challenge from which no retreat was possible. Failure would mean a total loss of prestige to the state. There can be no doubt that the Queen was right to put it aside, and there it remained unknown till our day.
But this did not mean that she was not as anxious as anyone that colonization should succeed. Ultimately it did, under a characteristically mixed English form of enterprise, with private and public elements, and the Crown making a quasi-official contribution. The colonizing Queen made a good profit on her investments, and not least important, she contributed the symbolic name to Virginia.
Everything with this politic woman meant something. The permission to use the name was not mere coquettishness, not only the suggestion of romance which, genuine enough in that day, it has come chiefly to signify for us. It was, like everything with her, an intensely personal act, calling attention to an aspect of her personality which, if not unique in a ruler, was an unforgettable element in her fame. But it was also politics, a characteristically ambivalent notice to the world that she personally was involved as well as the Crown of England; her good name pledged. It was therefore an unmistakable underlining of her claim, which could not chivalrously be disregarded, a warning to others to keep off.
The name caught on at once—it evidently had life in it—with the poets no less than the seamen, the politicians, and merchants. In these same eighties, while Ralph Lane was writing from Virginia to her Secretary Walsingham of the “assurance of her Majesty’s greatness hereby to grow by the addition of such a kingdom as this is to the rest of her dominions,” Raleigh’s friend Edmund Spenser was writing:
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever view?
In April, 1584, Raleigh dispatched two barques, under Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow, to reconnoiter a site for a colony in the southern section of the North American coast. They went out by the southern route via the Canaries and West Indies and then up to Cape Hatteras to the low-lying coast of what is now North Carolina, where among the shoals and lagoons they pitched on an island which they considered a promising site. The advantages of an island for purposes of defense are obvious, and the fact that it was situated among those sounds, with about the most difficult navigation in the world, afforded it some protection from Spanish attentions. Amadas and Barlow brought back a lyrical account of the country and its commodities, and also two lusty young Indians of standing, Wanchese and Manteo, the first of whom was to belie these sanguine hopes, the second to remain ever faithful to the English. In that, the pattern of so much in the subsequent story of relations between the races was foreshadowed early.
That same year, while they were away, Raleigh’s first big colonial effort was taking shape. In December the bill confirming his letters patent was before Parliament, and on second reading was handed over to a committee with an interesting membership. There were the Queen’s Vice-Chamberlain, Sir Christopher Hatton; her principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham; Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir William Courtenay, Sir William Mohun, and other West Country members specially interested in these matters. Upon third reading, the bill, “after many arguments and a proviso added unto it, passed.” No one has observed that this long proviso was directed against the expedition undertaking hostilities by sea or land; no doubt that was due to Lord Burghley’s influence, and represented a concession to his point of view. By the time the little fleet set sail, open war with Spain made the proviso out of date—and privateering on the way home more than paid the expenses.
The Queen at this time not being able to part with Raleigh, the command was handed over to his cousin. Sir Richard Grenville. There are things to be said against Grenville, all (and rather more than all) said by his second-in-command, Ralph Lane, a cousin of Sir Edward Dyer and an equerry to the Queen—but he did the job. He made a successful cruise to the West Indies, where he took on board horses and kine to stock the colony, and plants, including sugar, to plant. At the end of June he landed the colony on Roanoke Island. He remained there for a month exploring and prospecting, and then hovered off Cape Hatteras for another month—watching out for what he could find, I suppose—at the end of which he set sail for England. On September 18 “the general came with the prize to Plymouth and was courteously received by divers of his worshipful friends.”
That expedition to plant the first colony in America had an interesting membership. In addition to Grenville and Ralph Lane, there was the brilliant young navigator Thomas Cavendish from Suffolk, the second Englishman to make a successful voyage round the world. Also upon it were Thomas Hariot—the first scientist in the country—and John White, one of its best draftsmen, cartographer and illustrator of the expedition. Most of the leading spirits were West Country relations or neighbors of Grenville and Raleigh: one observes among the names an Arundell, a Stukeley, a Prideaux, a Bonython, a Kendall and, I am glad to say, Anthony Rouse, a friend of Drake.
Left to himself in command, Lane responded with a violent outburst against Grenville, full of the usual Elizabethan persecution mania and complaining of the unruliness of “the wild men of mine own nation,” let alone living among savages. It is clear that what they needed was a Grenville to keep them in order; it is also clear that the Queen’s equerry was not the type, and indeed he does not appear again in colonial enterprises.
It is not my purpose to tell once more the story of this first English colony in America, what happened to the hundred or so men—that became the usual number dispatched in these early efforts at settlement—upon Roanoke Island during the year almost that they remained there. But in fact, everything goes back to that first colony, to the colonial experience they gathered there, the knowledge as to the physical conditions, the flora and fauna, the products of the soil—above all, what they learned about Indian life, native ways and food, the difficulties of relations with the Indians.
The fundamental lesson that early colonists failed to learn was the absolute necessity of getting down to cultivate the soil. But we must remember to what an extent they consisted of rag, tag, and bobtail who would not learn anything, idle and listless, recalcitrant to all discipline. (Here is where the grand advantage of the Puritans came in, when it came to their turn, in moral fiber and self-discipline.) The dependence of the early colonists on the Indians for food supplies naturally created acute troubles between them, for there was not enough to go round. Their relations, the characters of the Indian chiefs, the troubles between the natives and the newcomers, provide the chief interest of the story.
Raleigh’s promised supply ship was late in getting to sea; meanwhile, Grenville was fitting out a larger expedition upon the North Devon coast. The Roanoke colonists were ready to remain and wait, when their nerve was suddenly broken by one of those tornadoes that that coast enjoys—and the prime defect of Roanoke was that it had no satisfactory harbor. When in June, 1586, Drake arrived off the coast with a powerful fleet from his West Indian expedition, on which he had wrought so much destruction, he offered to take the colonists back with him, and on a sudden impulse they decided to accept. If Lane had been a stronger man, he would have stuck it out. … And this provides one of the tantalizing “ifs” of history; for immediately after they had gone, Raleigh’s supply ship turned up, looked for the colonists and, not finding them, returned with her provisions to England. A fortnight after that, Grenville arrived with three ships well-provided. He himself traveled “up into divers places of the country” seeking for news of the colony in vain.
Then, “unwilling to lose the possession of the country which Englishmen had so long held, after good deliberation,” he left a post of fifteen men on Roanoke provisioned for two years, to hold the fort. He has been criticized for a wrong decision; but we do not know his circumstances or his instructions. It looks clear to me that he was expected to reinforce the existing colony, not plant a new one, nor is it likely that his people would volunteer to make a new settlement unprepared. The real point is that Drake’s unintended taking off of the colonists completely upset the planned synchronization of Raleigh’s efforts and spoiled the best chance of settlement. After that everything went wrong.
In 1587 Raleigh sent out his second colony—actually it was the fourth voyage he had set forth—under John White. This had a somewhat different plan: it was not intended to supersede Roanoke but to supplement it with a settlement on the Chesapeake, and Raleigh gave White, as governor with twelve assistants, a charter to found the city of Raleigh in Virginia—a measure of self-government. Raleigh’s directions were never carried out, for the sailors refused to carry the colonists to the Chesapeake and insisted on landing them on Roanoke. The colonists insisted on John White returning for further supplies, and that was the last that was ever heard of them. Some think that they perished on their way through the forest to the Chesapeake, and that is likely enough: in their fate forerunners to how many countless pioneers who perished in the American wilderness.
In the spring of 1588, Raleigh sent out a couple of small pinnaces, which never got across the Atlantic in the disturbed conditions of that memorable summer. At Bideford, Grenville was fitting out his strongest expedition yet, three tall ships and four barques. But with the Armada on the way he was not allowed to go: his Virginia voyage countermanded, he was ordered to take his ships around to Plymouth and serve under Drake. In 1589, everything in the West Country went into the big Lisbon expedition under Drake and Norris, which was England’s riposte to the Armada.
These years were full of work and activity for Raleigh and Grenville. As Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, Raleigh was responsible for the land defenses of the county most exposed to invasion. He was kept busy in the west, at court, and in Ireland. In 1591 Grenville was killed in the last fight of the Revenge, celebrated by Raleigh in unforgettable prose. The next year, with tension relaxed, Raleigh fell into utter disgrace with the Queen. Everything that he had so far been able to do was due to his favor with her: he had no independent position or footing, he was not a peer of the realm with estates and a feudal dependence, he had no fortune of his own. It all depended on his position with the Queen.
A man like Raleigh had a difficult razor-edge to walk. The Queen liked very masculine types—though they also had to be intelligent. The language in which this maiden lady delighted was the language of love: a difficult situation for these high-spirited, highly sexed men, supposed to be in love with her, though of course it was a platonic relationship, always at a certain distance. Nothing more exacting than to be admitted to so privileged an intimacy and at the same time to keep your distance and your head. For their vestal virgin who presided over it all was a jealous deity: they could have neither the Queen nor anybody else. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, particularly the hot flesh and blood of these Elizabethan courtiers. One after the other lost his balance, toppled over, and fetched up for a spell in the Tower.
Raleigh was pretty free with women; at last he fell seriously in love with one and was caught; another Elizabeth, a Throckmorton and—what made it worse—a maid of honor to the Queen. It became evident, I think, that Raleigh had, in the technical sense, behaved badly: he compromised her, or they compromised each other. To the Queen, for psychological reasons that one can understand though perhaps not wholly sympathize with, the offense was unpardonable—after such protestations of love, a passion on an altogether higher plane, for her. Raleigh made it worse by denying that he had any intention of marrying the lady. The Queen clapped them both in the Tower and had them ignominiously married, no one knows when or how. She never admitted Lady Raleigh to her presence again; for her, poor lady, it was a prelude to a lifetime of trouble. I hope that Raleigh’s fine phrase when condemned to death by James—“I chose you, and I loved you, in my happiest times”—made up a little for it with her. They seem to have remained always in love; perhaps it was just as well, though Raleigh may have had some doubts when, for the next five years, the Queen kept him away from court and all influence, in the prime of his powers.
In the last years of the Queen’s reign Raleigh came back to his place at court, though things were never quite the same between them again. In 1600 he was made governor of Jersey, and local tradition there credits him with beginning the trade between the Channel Islands and Newfoundland. Raleigh was preparing to renew his contacts when James came to the throne, and Raleigh not long after was condemned for treason. He spent practically the rest of his life in the Tower; not a very good base from which to conduct colonial enterprises. However, he maintained his interest and his belief in the future of Virginia. “I shall yet live to see it an English nation,” he wrote grandly from imprisonment.
How to strike a balance in estimating Raleigh’s colonial achievements, his services to America? He was criticized in his own day, as he has been in ours, for not doing more. That splendid intellect but not very nice man, Francis Bacon, who was not above kicking a man when he was down, wrote in his essay “Of Plantations,” “it is the sinfullest thing in the world to forsake or destitute a plantation once in forwardness, for besides the dishonour, it is the guiltiness of blood of many commiserable persons.” Everyone would know whom he had in mind. But Hakluyt, who knew all the facts and was in a better position to judge, says simply that Raleigh was disheartened by the great expense and by the unfaithfulness of those he employed, “after he had sent (as you may see by these five several times) colonies and supplies at his own charges and now at length both himself and his successors [are] thus betrayed.”
We have seen something, not only of his difficulties and disappointments, the obstacles in the way, but of the sheer impossibility of getting his orders executed on the other side of the Atlantic in his own enforced absence. Armchair critics of today often do not have the imagination to appreciate the physical and other conditions upon which achieving anything in the Elizabethan Age depended, how much men were at the mercy of circumstances, of wind and weather, of personal caprice or royal favor, the undependability of agents, the perversity of things.
Yet Raleigh’s efforts did bear fruit: a people’s memory is more generous, and perhaps speaks more truly, than the professors’. Raleigh put Virginia on the map. The first Roanoke colony was of prime formative significance; subsequent colonial enterprise in America built on that foundation. By his position at Elizabeth’s court he gave the most powerful impetus in practice to the idea of English settlement in America. Even his patronage of smoking tobacco, giving it social cachet, was not without its effect in helping Virginia’s staple product, the crop by which she ultimately achieved economic viability.
The approaching end of the war with Spain, at the turn of the century, made it certain that the English would now resume their efforts to settle in North America. After all, that was what they had fought Spain for—with success. The Queen would not make peace without guarantees for the Netherlands and the principle of the open door in America. On that, negotiations had broken down in 1598 and 1599. When they were renewed, after her death, Spain was in a still weaker position to insist, and peace was made in London, the negotiations dominated by Cecil, who represented the continuity of Elizabethan policy. The government obtained all that it wished in regard to the Netherlands. With regard to America, there was no agreement. The Spaniards refused to accept the English position of freedom of trade with all parts not in effective occupation: hence the continuance of “war beyond the line,” i.e., the Pope’s line, and the subsequent romantic and bloody history of the buccaneers. On the subject of English colonization, most important of all, nothing was said. The English were not going to admit that it was a subject for discussion. The only implication to be drawn was that they would now go ahead.
Already, exploratory voyages to the coast had been resumed, and with a clear sense, expressed in the narratives, of the continuity with those of the 1580s. The French, also, now released from civil war and from war with Spain by the Treaty of Vervins (1598), took up once more their long-suspended colonial ambitions, and there followed the first settlement in Acadia, at Port Royal. In these years the great Champlain was exploring these coasts and in 1608 clinched French power in the St. Lawrence with the founding of Quebec. Already the intrepid navigator Henry Hudson was scouring the Arctic ice from Greenland to Spitsbergen to find a way through to the East, and the next year (1609) was exploring the Hudson and the Delaware river valleys on behalf of the Dutch. A new phase of international rivalry for North America was beginning.
In 1606 a body chiefly of West Countrymen came together to petition James I for license to plant a colony—Raleigh’s rights having lapsed by his condemnation for treason. From this patent the subsequent colonization sprang, in the northern part of Virginia (i.e., New England) as well as the south. For it constituted two companies to carry out the twin projects envisaged in north and south. The southern company was to plant between 34 and 41 degrees north, and was backed mainly from London. The northern colony was to plant between 38 and 45 degrees north; it was backed mainly from Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth, but came to be known as the Plymouth Company. The strength of the Plymouth Company, it was hoped, would lie in its fishing interests; the London Company’s in finance. Finance and fishing—there could be no doubt which would emerge the stronger. Though there was some interaction between the two, and more friction, I leave the Plymouth Company to a later article: from it sprang, if in various ways and in varying degrees, the colonization of New England.
Money and management were to be supplied by the city of London; and here the merchants weighed in, above all the East India magnate Sir Thomas Smythe, to whom the establishment and survival of the colony at Jamestown is chiefly due. It is significant that where the independent and ill co-ordinated resources of courtiers, gentlemen, and merchants had not answered earlier, the resources of the City merchants, made more maneuverable by the mechanism of the joint-stock company, succeeded. One must pay tribute to the unfaltering leadership of these merchant magnates—both Smythe and his opponent, Sir Edwin Sandys, with their supporters in the City—in all the discouragements and disasters that befell Virginia, for its ill luck continued, on the Chesapeake as at Roanoke. Lesser men would have given up in despair, would have had to for want of resources. But these men had, no less important, resource, resilience, flexibility: they turned their hands to anything rather than see it fail. And this time they saw it through.
The little fleet of three ships, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, with the usual complement of 100 men, sailed in December, 1606, under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. Now a man of forty, who had been concerned in the capture of the Madre de Dios, richest of the prizes in the war, he was one of the best-esteemed sea captains of the day.
Newport brought his ships safe into the Chesapeake without let or hindrance. George Percy, brother of Raleigh’s companion in the Tower—the “Wizard Earl” of Northumberland, tells us of “fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.” They picked on the site of Jamestown, low and marshy as it was, unhealthy as it proved to be, because, being almost an island, it was defensible. There they constructed their fort. In obedience to their instructions they explored up the James River, till they were checked at the falls where now Richmond is.
We note the continuing stress upon finding a passage through to the Pacific; they were continually led to hope by stories of the Indians about a sea just beyond the mountains, and hope was not entirely extinguished until the end of the century. It is tribute to Captain John Smith’s sense that he describes the bounds of Virginia as on the east “the great ocean; on the south lieth Florida; on the north Nova Francia; as for the west thereof, the limits are unknown.” To discover them constituted the saga of the American people, and not until a couple of generations ago was the process, set in being by the Elizabethans, complete. In that sense, looking over the last prairie country to be settled, going through Rockies or Cascades, we may feel ourselves for a moment linked, in touch, with those first Elizabethans who started it all.
Theirs were the sacrifices; and the cost in human life in the first two decades of Virginia was terrible. No doubt this first venture was experimental and exploratory. Captain John Smith says that they had eaten up their provisions on too long a sea voyage, had arrived too late to plant, and in any case were insufficiently provided. He adds philosophically, “such actions have ever since the world’s beginning been subject to such accidents, and everything of worth is found full of difficulties, but nothing so difficult as to establish a commonwealth so far remote from men and means, and where men’s minds are so untoward as neither do well themselves nor suffer others.” In other words, there was what is called the human factor—and it proved very human.
There is no point in entertaining illusions about it—these voyages transported the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, even the better-than-average proved selfish and listless and would not work to save themselves, let alone others. Famine and the marshes bred disease, and men began to die. Without any concentration of authority, bickerings and quarrels increased. By the end of the first winter, they were down to 38 men left alive.
Then the first supply arrived just in time, for they might have given up. (The colony planted contemporaneously by the Plymouth Company in the north at Sagadahoc did give up and went home.) With two supplies sent out in 1608 things began to look up; buildings that had been burned down were repaired, and the colonists began to plant a little. Faced with a second winter of privation, Captain John Smith, “whom no persuasions could persuade to starve,” came to the fore and as president took matters forcefully in hand. “If any would not work, neither should he eat”; he threatened to drive those who would not work into the wilderness.
By these means, and by his own energy and force of character, Smith carried the colony successfully through the second winter with few losses.
That winter the colonists had enough novelties, excitements, dangers, consolations, to last them a lifetime. They kept Christmas in bad weather, “among the savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowl and good bread, nor never had better fires in England than in the dry smoky houses of Kecoughtan.” Relations with the Indians had all the complexity of contacts between races at very different levels of civilization, by turns friendly and hostile—or rather, the same emotions in the same breast, so that a sharp lookout had to be kept all the time. The company at home insisted on the coronation of Powhatan, the leading chief of the area, against Smith’s better judgment: of “subtle understanding and politic carriage,” he was rendered all the more difficult to deal with.
The most dangerous moment came when the small group of Germans in the colony conspired, characteristically, to betray it. They surreptitiously smuggled weapons to the natives and hoped to betray the colony to Spain. Equally characteristically, they got what was coming to them; a brace who got away to Powhatan had their brains beaten out for their treachery to the English. Then the Indians gave a masque, or entertainment, in the woods, after which their women pursued the embarrassed Smith with their pressing endearments. Or Powhatan’s pretty daughter Pocahontas, not yet however nubile, would turn cart wheels naked in the streets of Jamestown to delight the hearts of the planters.
At home in England a wave of interest in Virginia was rising to the height of a national enterprise. The undertaking was gathering way and was launched in 1609 with the second charter, the effective instrument in the creation of Virginia. For this incorporated the Virginia Company that governed the colony and saw it through its infancy to a permanent existence, and separated it from the Plymouth Company, concerned now only with the north. The Virginia Company drew upon a most impressive array of support that can truly be said to represent the nation. It came to include 56 city companies and some 659 individuals—21 peers, 96 knights, 28 esquires, 58 gentlemen, 110 merchants, 282 citizens, and so on. To read the names of the adventurers is like hearing a roll call of the most active elements in the society of the last years of Shakespeare. There they all are, from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Shakespeare’s own patrons, the Earls of Southampton, Pembroke, and Montgomery, through many names with more distant echoes, for there are Cecils and Cromwells and Chamberlains, Lord North along with the Spencer ancestor of the Churchills, while the Winston ancestor took shares later; Anglican bishops alongside of Puritans and Catholics; famous figures in the life of London down to an obscure Cornish squire like William Roscarrock, living there on the Atlantic coast near Padstow; or Gabriel and John Beadle, two poor gentlemen who went out to Virginia in the first supply (1608). Everybody who was anybody seems to have been in it, except the poets—and they as usual were short of cash.
The jealous attentions of the Spanish ambassador Zuñiga were aroused. Amazed at the response to Virginia in English society, he wrote home to Philip III that “fourteen earls and barons have given 40,000 ducats, the merchants give much more, and there is no poor little man nor woman who is not willing to subscribe something … Much as I have written to your Majesty of the determination they have formed here to go to Virginia, it seems to me that I still fall short of the reality.”
For Virginia itself the effective change made by the second charter was the appointment of a governor with real power and authority, advised but not displaceable by the council there. The governor appointed, Lord De la Warr, was to follow Sir Thomas Gates, who meanwhile went as his deputy, with Sir George Somers as admiral of the fleet of eight ships that left Plymouth in May. This had some six hundred colonists on board, including one hundred women: the largest expedition for America until the mass emigration to Massachusetts started in 1630.
The sailing of Somers’ little fleet has been described as “the true beginning of one of the great folk movements of history,” but Virginia’s ill luck held good. To avoid Spanish attentions and a long sea voyage, Somers’ fleet took a direct course across the Atlantic from the Canaries. They ran into a hurricane, and Somers’ flagship was cast away upon the coast of Bermuda, though all the folk were saved. The “still-vexed Bermoothes” were thought by the Elizabethans to be haunted by evil spirits. Out of the fusion of those two inspirations—for several accounts of it circulated at home—came The Tempest.
The castaways found it pleasant and healthful, with plenty to eat; and there they passed an agreeable winter, while building a couple of pinnaces to take them to Virginia. The rest of the fleet, with four hundred of the people, had arrived there in a battered condition and went through a terrible winter. This was the real “starving time” in Virginia history. By the time their leaders arrived from Bermuda in the spring, of all the four hundred and those there before, only some sixty remained alive. No doubt they brought disease with them, after so exhausting a journey, but the main reason for the disaster—it was no less—was the absence of leadership, of all authority and discipline. Elizabethans simply could not operate without it. With their leaders wrecked in Bermuda—for all they knew, drowned—the colony went to pieces.
Provisions and livestock were all consumed; the Indians refused trade except for the colonists’ arms, implements, and utensils, and then turned on them, till “there remained not past sixty men, women and children, most miserable and poor creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish …” There was, in fact, an instance or two of cannibalism.
When Gates arrived he set himself to restore order sternly; but there was little he could do; men went on dying, and there were only four days’ provisions left when the colony gave up and set sail down the river. On their way they met the incoming governor, Lord De la Warr, so long delayed, and they were turned back to Jamestown. Here, under proper authority, they were set to work once more: “every man endeavoureth to outstrip other in diligence: the French preparing to plant the vines, the English labouring in the woods and grounds; every man knoweth his charge, and dischargeth the same with alacrity.”
At home Sir Thomas Smythe needed every ounce of confidence to keep the adventurers to the task. In the absence of any return on their money, with repeated calls for further supplies, the discouragements of all these disasters, the persistent run of ill luck, and the rumors circulating against the colony in consequence, Smythe needed courage and statesmanship of the highest order to pull things round. These he possessed. He was a man of immense capacity and experience, of unhurried judgment and weighty decision, a somewhat impersonal man, who had the confidence of both the city and the court.
Faced with a crisis in those affairs and finding that Bermuda now looked more promising, he called in Bermuda to redress the balance of Virginia. He obtained from the Crown a third charter for Virginia, extending her bounds 300 leagues from the continent to include Bermuda. A Bermuda, or Somers Islands, company was floated on a joint-stock, began to make profits from an immense piece of ambergris found on the coast, and started to colonize.
The new charter permitted a lottery to be started, with prizes, to raise cash. And later the company became chiefly a land company, “its one asset the land that had been bought with the sacrifices of the first ten years.” The company appealed to intending planters with an offer of fifty acres for every person to be sent to the colony; on this basis plantation continued and was extended—whatever the setbacks now, settlement went on.
Within the colony, too, the corner may be said to have been turned with the change from communal arrangements to private ownership. No doubt the first tasks in a new settlement were communal in their nature. But when the soldier-governors allotted every man in the settlement three acres of clear ground to his own, they turned from bowling in the street to cultivating their gardens. Progress was at once to be seen. At the same time, what was to become Virginia’s staple export, tobacco, makes its first appearance. The credit for the first experiments is thought to be John Rolfe’s. He made another experiment, too, which has brought him greater fame: he fell in love with Pocahontas, and she with him. After much deliberation with his friends, and some prayer, he married her properly. This favorably impressed the Indians, and for some years there was a blissful interval of peace and good relations. Rolfe later brought Pocahontas to England, where she “unexpectedly” died—of the climate, perhaps.
Now that the colony had been brought round, the man by whose efforts it had been accomplished, Sir Thomas Smythe, lost control of the Virginia Company and received his dismissal, in the usual way of such things. There always had been a division in the company between the big City merchants and the more numerous small adventurers, between the platform and the floor of the house. (As usual, the platform was generally right, the floor generally wrong.) Again, as usual, the discontented majority found leadership among the magnates: in the Earl of Warwick, in Shakespeare’s Southampton, and above all in Sir Edwin Sandys.
Sandys, who became treasurer of the company in 1619, was a remarkable man. Educated under Richard Hooker at Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, he was much more of an intellectual than Sir Thomas Smythe. He toured Europe with Archbishop Cranmer’s great nephew and dedicated the book he wrote, Europae speculum, to Archbishop Whitgift. We see that his early associations were archiepiscopal. This did not prevent him from being rather a demagogue in the House of Commons, where he was very forward in opposition.
In the Virginia Company Sandys captured the leadership of the lesser shareholders, many of whom, including fifty Members of Parliament, had not paid up their subscriptions. Sandys thereupon resorted to lotteries; he was very ingenious and resourceful, full of energy and ideas, up to anything and everything to raise money. And we must do him this justice: he did infuse new energy into, gave a fresh impetus to, the colony. After his first year of office, James refused to have him renominated: “Choose the Devil, if you will, but not Sir Edwin Sandys.” So Southampton was elected treasurer, though Sandys remained the moving spirit.
Sir Edwin, I fear, was a sharp customer. When it came to depressing reports from Virginia, he and John and Nicholas Ferrars doctored the minutes. An adept at maneuvering votes in council, by 1622 he had got into control of both companies. He now proposed a scheme of salaries for himself and offices for his supporters that was unprecedented. He as director was to receive £500 a year. Smythe, after five years as governor of the East India Company, had refused to accept more than £400 gratuity. For twelve years’ service as treasurer of the Virginia Company he was rewarded with twenty shares; Sandys got as much for one year, and John Ferrars as his deputy, the same amount for three years. It is not the first time that a reformer has been revealed as self-interested.
Meanwhile, so engrossed were they in these characteristic amenities of committees, idiotic dissensions, and personal maneuvers that the terrible Indian massacre of that year—in which 350 were killed and 500 more died within the twelvemonth—went unnoticed, so far as remedies went. Sandys and the Ferrarses suppressed information as to the worst miseries the colony endured, and put about misleading reports. But disquiet about Virginia grew, and Smythe’s governor, back from Bermuda, revealed the facts of Sandys’ feverish overshipping of colonists and the fearful mortality in consequence. He had certainly been energetic. In the four years of Sandys’ administration 4,000 had been transported; the net increase to the population was 275. In all, by 1622 some 10,000 souls had gone out to Virginia; of these only 2,000 were alive. As to money, under Smythe £80,000 had been expended; in the far shorter period of Sandys, between £80,000 and £90,000.
No: the effective founder of Jamestown colony was Sir Thomas Smythe.
These facts were revealed by a committee appointed by the Crown, which exonerated Smythe’s administration, going through all the books and figures, and condemned Sandys. There was furious dissension, for of course Sandys retained the support of the Commons. But the government had had enough of it; when Sandys and his allies appealed to the Commons, the Crown recalled the Virginia charters and resumed the government of the colony into its own hands: henceforth this took the classic shape of royal governors with assistants nominated by the Crown, with a representative assembly.
We may take this to end the founding phase in the colony’s history. Up to 1624 the whole cost of the plantation of Virginia was about £200,000, with what little return we have seen. We may profitably contrast the money poured out by England to settle her stock in Virginia with Spain’s ruthless exploitation of the West Indies—the regular drain of treasure from Mexico and Peru.
Within the colony, after such tribulations, all was at last set fair. Even before the last of them, the Indian Massacre of 1622, a most important development in government took place, from which the ultimate form of American government was shaped: the first representative assembly, based on popular election, met there in the tiny church beside the river at Jamestown. A touching scene in its simplicity and yet in all that it signifies—the heart of the political experience of the English-speaking peoples and the peculiar contribution they have to make to the world.
At home the interest displayed in very different quarters tells its own story. In matters of policy James I did not depart from the stand Queen Elizabeth had taken on America, though there were people, Sir Edwin Sandys among them, who were afraid that he might give way to the Spaniards. Anyway, in the first years that mattered most, he had Cecil beside him to guide policy on the Elizabethan lines. James’s own interest did not amount to much. We have an exchange between Southampton and Salisbury in 1609 which shows what they thought. James had heard of the Virginia squirrels that were said to fly, and asked Southampton whether there were none for him, and whether Salisbury had not provided some for him. Southampton would not have told Salisbury, “but that you know so well how he is affected to these toys.” One notices the contrast between the lightheaded James in these matters and the profound and tenacious concern of the great Queen. And indeed nothing could have advertised that contrast more signally to the world than James’s execution of Raleigh at the behest of Spain.
More worthy of respect is the interest of ordinary Englishmen in all walks of life in the new England rising on the other side of the Atlantic. The bishops raised a fund of some £2,000 for an Indian college and for the support of an Indian school, though the company was too short of funds to use them for the purpose. One day in November, 1620, a stranger stepped into a meeting of the court and presented Raleigh’s history of Guiana, with a map and four great books, for the college; twelve months later a stranger again came forward with more books for the college. Most touching of all are the collections made on board the East Indiamen for Virginia. In 1621 at the Cape of Good Hope, the Royal James collected £70 6 s. 8 d. toward building a free school, the highest amount ten marks from Captain Pring, and so down to 1 shilling from the mariners. Two other ships collected 100 marks—in all £192 1 s. 10 d. —that Virginia might have a school. When we think of the hard conditions of those sailors’ lives, and out of their little pay contributing their shillings, we glimpse something of what America meant for those simple English folk.
On the other hand, there is all that the old country meant for the new. Professor Wesley Frank Craven rightly emphasizes that the beginnings of American history can properly be read only forward from the Elizabethan England of which it was an extrapolation, not backwards from modern America. He is writing in particular about the South, though what he says also applies with little change to the North: The historian who would trace the main threads woven into the pattern of Southern life must, therefore, turn first to England. … For it was the Elizabethan Englishman who planned and undertook the settlements to which most of us look back as on our beginnings. The Elizabethan tongue that once rang out across the James and the York may still be heard in certain out-of-the-way spots of the South. The Elizabethan devotion to Protestantism, born of a long defense of Elizabeth’s church settlement and fed on the fiery materials of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, still survives to shape the fundamental tenets of the great majority of Southerners. Even the institutional pattern our forefathers adapted to the peculiar requirements of a new-world environment was more Elizabethan than anything else. Though sheriffs, coroners, constables, justices of the peace, juries, and representative assemblies were ancient parts of the English scene, it was as their place and function had been defined under Elizabeth that the early colonists understood them. Here, too, has the South, ever prompt to recognize individual achievement, discovered the first heroic figures of her history—Elizabeth herself and Raleigh.