Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
The first “permanent” settlement in English North America could hardly have been a worse squeaker. The tragic saga that began in 1607 is now well known, given the tercentennial celebrations last year and the worthy effort to set the record straight vis-à-vis the popularity of the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. Most Virginia settlers died, while the few who lived endured unspeakable mayhem, murder, disease, cannibalism, brutal warfare with Indians, and the heartbreak of false rescue.
History professors Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith of the University of Tennessee and University of Kentucky, respectively, follow the fortunes of nine English ships that set sail to bolster Jamestown in 1609 with 600 “passengers, livestock, and provisions . . . the largest [fleet] England had ever sent across the Atlantic” in The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America (Holt, 336 pages, $26).
Encountering a “hurricano” of unprecedented fury, most got badly battered but sailed on, while the flagship Sea Venture nearly foundered. Her passengers and crew escaped death only after Capt. Christopher Newport chose to run aground on the feared and notorious “Isle of Devils.”
This was Bermuda, which, when the Sea Venture’s entire company got ashore safely, turned out to be a paradise: a cluster of coral islands richly wooded, watered with fresh springs, and abounding in fish, native birds, and feral pigs left by previous mariners. After Newport and company built two new ships and continued their mission to Virginia, Bermuda became everything that miasmic and hostile Jamestown was not: a prospering colony that gave England a secure and permanent outpost in the New World at a time when she had nearly lost all to Spain and Portugal.
While reiterating much of Jamestown’s story, Glover and Smith present a roster of intriguing adventurers—Newport, William Strachey, George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates—all more engaging than self-promoter John Smith, the Barnum of the Chesapeake. They also vividly describe the venture-capitalist nature of the Virginia Company, which ultimately failed, and the commercial environment of Jacobean London. Further, they explain England’s rivalry with Spain in the New World and convincingly argue that a driving force among the English was their belief that Anglican Christianity was the true faith that must vanquish Catholic heresy. The facts that idyllic Bermuda remained unclaimed until Britons settled it, that no lives were lost in the Sea Venture shipwreck, and that its people went on to save Jamestown simply proved that “God is English.” The nationality of the Creator notwithstanding, these events inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and these historians have written them into an exciting, instructive yarn.