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
The story of the British ship Sea Venture is one of history’s most remarkable sagas, an almost unbelievable tale of shipwreck, endurance, and human resourcefulness. But it is more than that. The fate of the survivors of the Sea Venture reverberates in literature, in political theory—in the very founding of America.
The story began in 1609; James I, the first Stuart King, sat on the throne of England, but the culture and spirit of the time were still very much those of the Tudor world of Queen Elizabeth. The adventures of Drake and Hawkins and the victory over the Spanish Armada were still fresh in English minds. So too was the failure of Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt to settle the American coast at Roanoke. It was not at all certain that Britain’s challenge to Spain’s control of the New World would succeed.
A tenuous new settlement had been established at Jamestown near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Two bitter winters, a meager food supply, and difficulties with the Indians had just about wiped out the colony. Now, with the king’s blessing, a massive effort under Lord De La Warr was to be made to restore and replenish the colony and so maintain Britain’s foothold on the North American continent. With a new charter designed to encourage private individuals to invest and “adventure their persons” in the great undertaking, the Virginia Company of London was dispatching a relief fleet of supplies and nearly a thousand people to bolster Jamestown to a level of self-sufficiency.
And so, after two weeks of loading, the Sea Venture sailed from Woolwich in London in mid-May 1609. She was new, full-rigged, and race-built. At three hundred tons she dwarfed the Susan Constant , which had taken the first passengers to Virginia, and the Mayflower , which would later carry colonists to New England. She was the flagship of a fleet of nine vessels—perhaps the largest colonizing flotilla ever assembled; she and six other vessels of the fleet sailed from London to Plymouth, where they were joined by the other two ships. Here Sir George Somers, admiral of the fleet, came on board and was joined by Sir Thomas Gates, the newly appointed lieutenant governor of Virginia, who was to act as governor until Lord De La Warr arrived. Foreseeing that disputes over command might arise between them, the two decided to travel together so such issues might be more readily resolved. The gaunt and bearded Gates was a stern soldier of fortune from the Dutch wars. Somers, an old sea dog who had fought the Spanish in the Caribbean, remained dapper and amiable at nearly sixty years of age. The vessel itself was commanded by Britain’s most able navigator, Capt. Christopher Newport, a one-armed mariner who already had taken passengers to Virginia. These leaders, together with other gentlemen, their servants, select tradesman, and ordinary folk to the total of one hundred and fifty men, women and children, were the human cargo of the Sea Venture .
The fleet departed June 2, stopped briefly at Falmouth to get favorable winds, then within a week was clear of Land’s End and on the high seas. Except for sickness due to heat and overcrowding, the voyage passed without incident until the flotilla was only eight days from the Virginia coast. Then the winds began to blow; the ocean became so choppy that the Sea Venture had to cut loose a pinnace it had been towing. The other ships had difficulty keeping the flagship in view; and on the morning of July 24, as the storm mounted, they lost sight of her entirely. Each of the ships, save one ketch that broached and sank, set off on its own and eventually found its way to Virginia. There, as weeks stretched into months and autumn passed with no word as to the fate of the flagship, it was assumed, first in Virginia, and then in London as the vessels returned, that the Sea Venture had been been lost, together with the leaders and all its crew and passengers. The loss was strongly felt, for no one in Virginia knew who was in charge. The colony was in danger of starvation, abandonment, or both.
The men and women of the Sea Venture , however, were still very much alive.
Eyewitness accounts by two men, Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey, tell the story. Strachey’s account—the fuller, far richer one—appeared in a letter he addressed to an “Excellent Lady,” probably the wife of a Virginia Company official. It is particularly notable for its descriptive passages: they contain images and phrases William Shakespeare adapted for The Tempest . Shakespeare knew members of the company and possibly Strachey himself. There is little doubt that he had access to the letter before it became publicly known.
Let us follow the poetic Strachey for a bit: “The cloudes gathering thicke upon us, and the windes singing and whistling most unusually … a dreadfull storme and hideous began to blow from out the northeast, which, swelling and roaring as it were by fits, some houres with more violence than others, at length did beate all light from Heaven; which, like a hell of darkenesse turned black upon us, so much the more fuller of horror, as in such cases horror and feare overrunne the troubled and overmastered senses of all…”
For two days the storm blew in so great a tumult that they could not imagine it getting any worse. Yet still it came, “not onely more terrible, but more constant, fury added to fury, and one storme urging a second more outrageous than the former… nothing was heard that could give comfort, nothing seene that might encourage hope.”
The sails lay bound and useless on deck; any attempt to raise so much as foresail sent the vessel wallowing out of control. “The sea swelled above the clouds,” said Strachey, “and gave battel unto Heaven.” A huge wave broke over the decks, enveloping the vessel “like a garment or a vast cloud.” Water poured down the hatches with such violence that the whipstaff was torn from the helmsman’s hands, swung wildly from side to side, and sent him sprawling. Others seized the damaged gear, but six to eight men were not enough to hold the ship to her course.
“A greater affliction” was soon visited upon the vessel. From almost every joint, the ship “spued out her okam” so that water rose swiftly in the hold. Terror “turned the bloud” of even the bravest mariners. Soon all the seamen, candles in hand, were creeping along the ribs of the vessel, searching every corner and listening for the sound of running water. “Many a weeping leake was this way found, and hastily stopt,” the open ruptures stuffed with strips of beef or whatever was available. “But all was to no purpose; the leake (if it were but one) which drunke in our greatest seas and took in our destruction fastest, could not then be found, nor ever was, by any labor, counsel, or search.” Governor Gates assigned every man to take a turn working the plunger or passing the buckets, while water gushed in from the gunner room and food locker, the pumps having got clogged with wet biscuit. Strachey remarked on the way the “better sorts” and the “common sorts” worked together, gentlemen like Yardley and Hamor, Bagwell and Graves and himself, side by side with ordinary passengers, like Hopkins and Blount and Eason and Jones, who had never stood so close to quality. For three days and four nights they labored as the ship rolled and groaned, “testifying how mutually willing they were yet by labor to keep each other from drowning, albeit each one drowned whilst he labored.”
All the while, Admiral Somers kept watch on the poop, without sleep or food, directing the steersman as best he could, although, under the shrouded skies, there was no gleam of sun or star to help determine the ship’s bearing. One night Somers “had an apparition of a little, round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze, half the height from the main mast and shooting from shroud to shroud… running sometimes along the main yard to the very end and returning. ” Strachey’s description of St. Elmo’s Fire was inspiration for Shakespeare’s airy spirit, Ariel, whose antics were depicted as “now on the beak,/Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin;… on the topmast,/The yards, and bosprit would I flame distinctly, then meet and join…”
The bilge continued to deepen, and Somers ordered the ship lightened. Passenger trunks, the heavy main-deck cannon, barrels of beer, and hogsheads of oil and cider all went over the side. The seamen turned to cut down the masts but were so exhausted they could hardly wield their axes. Some abandoned hope then and fell down to await the end “wherever they chanced first to sit or lie.” Others, “having some good and comfortable waters in the ship, fetched them and drunk one to the other, taking their last leave one of the other,” and apparently got soundly drunk.
In the haze of dawn the admiral saw a dark line on the horizon. It was land; an indistinct shore only a few miles off and closing fast. The passengers stared and started to bail again. As dawn broke they saw rolling hills and delicate fernlike trees bending in the wind and, beneath them, sharp crags and treacherous white water. The helmsman bore up. The boatswain heaved his lead and called the soundings. It was just four fathoms and there were outcroppings of dark coral ahead. Somers guided the ship through the shoals until she rose, ruptured, and fell to lodge fast between huge rocks.
The longboats were put out and rowed ashore. By nightfall all one hundred and fifty passengers were safe on the land.
They found themselves on the dreaded “Devils’ Isles,” also known as the Bermudas, which had been feared and avoided by seamen since Spaniards had discovered them a century before. They comprised many islands connected in a curved chain or sea hook and surrounded by large areas of underwater coral that made them a trap for unwary vessels.
Everything that could be salvaged was brought off the wrecked vessel. Then, while the women and children sought a habitable clearing, the men went off in different directions to explore and search for sustenance. Admiral Somers took the longboat and a few men to cruise about the main islands, mapping places as he went. The archipelago turned out to be about twenty miles long and one to three miles wide. It had a number of fine bays, among them two that would make large, protected harbors. All seemed peaceful, but there were signs of former shipwrecks, and the wild hogs that roamed about had no doubt come there in those unfortunate vessels. The shallows were filled with fish; they swarmed about the ankles whenever one stepped into the glass-clear water. The rockf ish were so fat and sweet that each was enough to feed two men; and there were mullet that could be taken with a seine as well as pilchards and groupers. Crabs and oysters were plentiful on the tidebanks and crayfish among the rocks. The big tortoises on the shore could each provide meat for twenty people as well as a great store of oil for cooking.
Seabirds large as good pigeons laid eggs as big as hens’ eggs; besides the native cahows, there were duck and teal, pimlicoes and white herons. All were tame and curious. One could walk among them or whistle and they would come by the hundreds. There were no fresh streams, but the castaways soon found usable rainwater settled in low areas or lying just below the surface. Basic meal, vinegar, and the like, salvaged from the ship, was put in the common store as were the hogs brought ashore to supplement the wild ones captured on the island. No one worried about planting crops in the thin red soil; everything needed existed in a natural state.
Gates and a large party undertook to provide shelter for themselves on the northeast island (now St. George) near where they had landed. While the men cut and trimmed young cedar for their cabins and furniture, women stripped off palm fronds to thatch the roofs and provide bedding.
Gates’s overriding concern from the moment he set foot on Bermuda was to fulfill his double role as company official and governor—to save his party of survivors and get them on to Virginia. He immediately ordered the scavenging of the Sea Venture . Whatever could be removed—sails, timber, iron parts—he had brought ashore and secured before the ship broke up and slipped off her rock cradle into deep water.
Next he sought a way to send news of their plight. He had one of the longboats outfitted with a deck and sail and ordered master’s mate Henry Ravens and six men to sail to Virginia and return within a month with a larger vessel. Ravens set out on August 28 and, after spending three days trying to negotiate the difficult shoals, finally got clear and disappeared beyond a sunny horizon.
For two months Strachey and a team burned fires on a promontory overlooking the sea and kept a constant vigil. But though they “gave many a long and wished looke round about the horizon,” it was in vain. Nothing further was heard from Ravens’s party.
On the day Ravens sailed, Gates began his most ambitious project—the construction of a ship that would take his whole party to Virginia. He was confident that he had craftsmen capable of doing the job: Richard Frobisher was one of the most experienced shipwrights of the day; Nicholas Bennett and his crew of carpenters were one of the finest teams of workmen ever assembled.
These men were not mere servile commoners. Their skills were matched by strong personal convictions of their own worth and independence, for Elizabethan and early Stuart shipbuilders were guildsmen like the great castle builders of medieval times. They learned the secrets of their trade from their fathers and passed them on through apprenticed sons. They did not pre-plan a ship as we would today; they followed a number of rules that they had committed to memory and adapted these to the job at hand.
First they took stock of their supplies. From the wrecked ship they had oak timbers for beams and planks for the new ship’s bow and ribs. These would have to be supplemented with cedar from the island. A barrel of pitch and another of tar had been saved, and old hemp cable sails and tarpaulin could be used for caulking. But the iron nails taken from the wreck were rusty and unusable and would have to be melted down and remade in a forge built for the purpose. Tools were no problem; Bennett’s carpenters had all brought theirs ashore when they came off the wrecked vessel.
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.”
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.
A deeper discontent seemed to have infected one Stephen Hopkins, a fellow to be reckoned with since he had considerable knowledge of the scriptures “and could reason well therein.” A qualified clerk and a family man, Hopkins had been selected earlier by Minister Bucke to read psalms at the Sunday assembly. He had gotten into a heated dispute with two companions who reported him as being an advocate of seditious and irreligious views. Hopkins’s views were indeed such as to “shake the foundation” of the small community. A garrulous, headstrong man, he proclaimed loudly that he was not just advocating delay in construction of the ship and not just advocating a break with authority to gain better treatment. No, he was advocating that all the ordinary folk use the occasion of the wreck to dissolve the existing official relationship. He was advocating both personal and religious independence of company and church control. “It was no breach of honesty, conscience, nor religion to decline from the obedience of the Governour,” he argued, “or refuse to goe any further led by his authority except it so please themselves.” The governor’s authority was for Virginia, not these islands. And the company’s contractual hold on them had terminated when the wreck occurred. No longer indentured, they were “freed from the government of any man.” Even the lowest among them was now subject solely to his own conscience and bound by it only “to provide for himselfe and his owne family.”
This was not the first time such radical views had been expressed, nor the first time they were spoken by an Englishman. But it was certainly the first time they were voiced in the Western Hemisphere and with the force of such personal commitment. Strachey, however, saw this merely as a base attempt to gain personal profit, for both pearls and ambergris had been found on the island and were very valuable. Once free of the governor’s control, the conspirators would set up a private colony of their own.
At the tolling of the bell, everyone assembled before the governor’s Corps de Garde , and the prisoner, in manacles, was brought forth to face his accusers. The charge of conspiracy against him was entered as a religious offense. Hopkins denied that he had advocated separatism from the Anglican Church, claiming that he only wanted reform. And he denied that his position on secular matters constituted mutiny against the Crown. These were separate matters of conscience that every man should judge for himself. To this the governor responded that he appeared “both the captaine and the follower” of his own mutiny; and thus found, it was not seen why he should not pay “with the sacrifice of his life.”
The governor duly passed sentence, and Hopkins was made ready for execution. But with death facing him, Hopkins’s argumentative bent gave way to instincts of self-preservation. Though a man of principle, he had no desire to become a martyr. “So penitent he was,” wrote Strachey, “and made so much moane,” that the better sort sitting on the martial court, including Newport, and Strachey himself, were moved to make “humble entreaties and earnest supplications” in Hopkins’s behalf. The governor commuted his sentence.
Despite these incidents, life on the island had for most of the survivors settled into a routine: rising before dawn, morning public prayer and the meting out of punishments, work on the ship or in gathering food, evening prayers, reporting for punishment, and bed. Only rarely was there time for fun or sport; but there was enjoyment in hunting hogs with the company dog and in a game of taming wild pigs by going among them and rubbing their stomachs until they grunted and lay down with pleasure.
Minister Bucke had the opportunity to perform all the rites of the church: on Christmas he celebrated communion for all; on the twenty-sixth of November he officiated at the marriage of Admiral Somers’s cook, one Thomas Powell, to Elirabeth Persons, a maidservant of Mistress Horton; on the eleventh of February he christened the daughter of John Rolfe and gave her the name Bermuda; and on the twenty-fifth of March he christened the son of Edward Eason and gave him the name Bermudas.The Rolfe child died,as did four other people, all of whom Minister Bucke buried with appropriate rites.
In November chill winds blew in from the sea. Ripe berries were no longer available for the picking, and the wild hogs grew thin and meager. Gates ordered a further reduction in allowances and cut out the distribution of ship staples entirely. The situation was only partially relieved by the arrival of the seabirds, the cahows, which swarmed in during the night and flew above the camp making their strange, lonely cries. Soon they were laying eggs in narrow burrows between the rocks where the hungry hogs sought them out in competition with hungry men.
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.
For weeks the pinnace had stood in the stocks while her timbers dried and set into shape. But as the tides of late winter rose, she was lifted and buffeted and almost carried away. The governor ordered a hundred loads of stone brought from the neighboring hills and placed about her ribs. Toward the end of February she was ready for caulking. Old hemp cables were forced into the seams and coated over with pitch up to the top of the bilge. The ship bottom was cleaned with lime made from roasted and crushed whelk shells. At the end of March the hull was ready for launching. They buoyed her with casks fore and aft, released her from her wharf cradle, and with lines running to the bank, towed her on the morning tide. When she had settled into the water and was swimming free, everyone sighed with relief. The governor christened her Deliverance .
They towed her unrigged to the inside of the island near ponds of freshwater and a channel running to the sea. There they stepped her masts and readied her sails. A short time later Somers launched his pinnace and brought her around into the same channel. Considering the primitive conditions under which she had been built, she, too, was a handsome vessel, with a good draft and strong keelson. He called her Patience . The salvaged stores of meal and food were stowed aboard the vessels together with barrels of dried fruit and salt pork that had been gathered and processed on the islands. Beer and cider kegs were refilled with fresh water.
As his final act before quitting Bermuda, Gates had a memorial built on the main island. It consisted of a cross made from the timbers of the wrecked Sea Venture , inset with a British coin, and bearing a metal plate that proclaimed in Latin and English the castaways’ discovery of the island and their deliverance from the sea.
Somers and Newport went off ahead in the longboats, the vessels in loose tandem tow behind them. Avoiding the rocks was tedious, and the anxious passengers, kept back from the rails to stabilize the craft, gasped when the Deliverance struck something. But the coxswain in the longboat gave a quick heave of the line, and the vessel came free. For a day and a half they negotiated the shallows. Then the sails billowed wide and they struck a westerly course in fair seas. For seven days they sailed, the winds sometimes brisk, “sometimes scarce and contrary. ” And the spirits of the passengers, even those who had wanted to stay in Bermuda, were buoyed with the anticipation of joining friends in Virginia. Twice the larger vessel ran on ahead and lost the other and had to wait to let it catch up. The two cedar ships creaked incessantly with the newness of their seams, but they handled well.
On the seventeenth of May the water changed color, and the passengers saw fresh forest buds sweep past on the water. On the twentieth, around midnight, they “had a marvelous sweet smell from shore … which did not a little glad us. ” From the f oretop, at break of day, a sailor cried out at the sight of land. Strachey identified it as the coast of Virginia at Cape Henry. A gentle wind propelled them against the tide into the bay. And there, straight on, lay the headland of Point Comfort. When they were within two miles of it, they saw the smoke and heard the report of a warning shot fired from the fort there. They quickly anchored and sent a longboat in.
When those ashore understood who they were, they were greeted enthusiastically. As friends embraced, some of the survivors’ questions got answered. Yes, their companions and relatives of the Relief Fleet had arrived. Unfortunately most had succumbed to sickness and starvation in the months in Virginia. And no, the longboat sent from Bermuda had not appeared, unless it was the one local Indians said had come out of the sea and which then was destroyed by them.
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.”
Things had gotten worse with both Gates and De La Warr present, so that by the time Sir Thomas Dale arrived to replace De La Warr in 1611, personal liberty was asserting itself in all kinds of deplorable ways. People were skipping Sunday service, neglecting company chores, planting gardens of their own, and “bowling in the streets.” Dale determined to bring the full weight of Gates’s Lawes down upon the backs of the settlers and deal ruthlessly with the situation. Soon work laws were being enforced with starvation and the rack, and other offenses, particularly the voicing of personal views on politics and religion, were punished by mutilation and hanging.
Across the ocean, on Hallowmas night in November 1611, Shakespeare’s new play The Tempest was being presented at Whitehall before King James and his courtiers. On one level this comedy is the tale of a deposed duke who traps and confounds his enemies on a desolate isle. On another level it is a paean to unbridled freedom in which an airy spirit begs to be relieved of further obligations to magic, in which a nobleman contrives a vision of a land without work, contracts, or a sovereign, and in which a monster sings to a drunken libertine named Stephano, “ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom, hey-day, freedom! ’
The relevance of all this to events on the Mayflower has been noted by a few historians, but only incidentally. When the Pilgrim ship arrived at Cape Cod that winter of 1620 and the passengers were waiting to leave the cramped vessel and start life ashore, William Bradford tells us that there were ominous mutterings among the voyagers. These concerned the mode by which they were to be governed. One of the more vociferous dissidents proclaimed that “when they came ashore, they should use their own libertie, for none had power to command them.” The argument was that the patent the company had was for Virginia and not for New England. And since “ye Virginia Company had nothing to doe” with New England, it had nothing more to do with them. There was no contract. Each private person was free to negotiate new arrangements in his individual and separate behalf.
If this sounds very like the claims put forth by the troublemakers on Bermuda, there is good reason. The same glib, scripture-quoting clerk who had prodded the mutineers and had talked himself out of a hanging was on board the Mayflower . Stephen Hopkins was not one of the saintly Pilgrims from Leyden. He had joined the ship at London with his pregnant second wife, a son, and two daughters; and his second son had been born at sea. He was now a gentleman.
Bradford does not name the man whose incisive words prompted the Pilgrims to draw up their famous Compact, which established for the first time in this hemisphere a self-governing union of private citizens. But there is every reason to believe that it was the same Stephen Hopkins who had cried out for personal freedom a decade before on Bermuda. The nature of the man makes the case. Throughout his life as a garrulous and independent Massachusetts tavern keeper, he remained his own man. And his pragmatic liberal views did not change with his rise in status. One of the most prolific of the Plymouth forefathers, he was also one of the most democratic. Among the Mayflower passengers, only Hopkins had been in the New World before; only he knew how powerful was the allure of absolute freedom in the making of a new world from the wilderness of a new continent.