The Wreck of the Sea Venture

“Historic Voyage, Sea Venture and Consorts at Sea 1609,” a 1984 oil painting by Deryck Foster. Photo Credit: http://www.historyisfun.org/

“Historic Voyage, Sea Venture and Consorts at Sea 1609,” a 1984 oil painting by Deryck Foster. Photo Credit: http://www.historyisfun.org/

Following the failures of the first American colonies of Roanoke and Popham, a third venture by the Virginia Company of London landed a colony on an island peninsula which was named James Fort. The colony consisted of 104 men and boys, who arrived on May 14th 1607 on three ships led by Captain Christopher Newport, the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed. The position was chosen by the first council leader, Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, for its strategic position nestling on a curve in the James River, which he felt would give advance warning of any invasion from Spaniards, and for its lack of native inhabitation.
The reason for this became startlingly obvious quite quickly. There was no fresh water supply, the ground was swampy which would cause problems with raising crops and there was an abundance of mosquitoes. It could be argued that the new colony were ignorant of these issues, as they were not man of labour for the most part, and further that they failed to take into account the significance of the lack of native population. It was a naïve decision, and one that was to cause much devastation over the next few years.
As they arrived too late in the year to begin any crops, the initial hope was that they would be able to gain any provisions by way of trade with the local indigenous populations, and rely on intermittent re-supply from England for the rest, however although they met with initial moderate success trading with the Paspahegh tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, the deal soon went sour. The chief of the tribe, Wahunsenacawh, hoped to move the colony to another area nearby and welcome them into his confederacy, so that they could make metal tools for him in exchange for his assistance. This didn’t happen, and the relationship deteriorated quickly.
Raids soon followed, causing several deaths within the colony, and lack of provisions and disease took further toll. First and Second supply ships over the next year brought limited further provisions, and European craftsmen in particular glassworkers, from Germany, Poland and Slovakia, which enabled the colony to start producing glass for export, however the extra mouths to feed negated the supplies being brought. Hunger was still a major issue. The German contingent soon defected to join the Powhatans, taking the colony’s weapons with them.
A planned Spanish attack was encouraged by these Germans, who enticed the Natives to join in, however the well-timed arrival of a vessel by Captain Samuel Argall, on the Mary and John in July 1609, drove off the Smaller Spanish ship La Asuncion de Cristo, which had been sent by the Spanish Governor of St Augustine, Pedro de Ibarra to gain information on the colony, its size and fortifications.
Captain Argall brought with him correspondence from the London Company expressing their disappointment that the colony appeared not to be living up to its expectations. A list of demands were included for the colonists to comply with. Amongst these were the requests for a large chunk of gold, and the remains of at least one of the failed Roanoke colonists. Losing his temper somewhat, Captain John Smith responded with a terse request for them to send craftsmen who knew what they were doing to enable them to build properly within their colony, and farm successfully. The men who had sailed with the first group of settlers were for the most part gentlemen who had no experience of building a colony, and their manservants who had none of the required skills to enable them to help. In the first year they had managed only to build a mainly wooden fortified enclosure, within there were several small huts for living quarters.
With threats from the natives that they would attack and kill any colonists found outside of the fort, a threat that was been carried out on numerous occasions, farming on the land surrounding the fort was a dangerous under-taking.
When the London company investors received Smith’s response, along with a graphic description of the severe hardships the colonists were facing, they were gracious enough to be embarrassed with their lack of foresight and understanding, and immediately made preparations to send a further supply convoy with realistic food supplies, materials, an population reinforcements who had the necessary labour skills for the success of the venture. This convoy of seven ships, with two accompanying pinnaces set sail for James Fort in late 1609.
Meanwhile back at the colony, the provisions left behind by Argall were to prove the only reason the colony was able to continue. Without them, it is doubtful anybody would have survived the winter of 1609, a time that would become known as the ‘Starving time’. John Smith was severely injured in an explosion of unknown origin and forced to return to England. It has been theorised that Smith was a strict leader within the colony, but that it was only as a result of his continued success alone in trading with the natives for food, assisted by the Chief’s daughter Matoaka which improved his popularity somewhat.
One of Smith’s fiercest rivals within the colony was Captain Gabriel Archer, who had not been elected to the council following the settlement being struck. He was one of the group, alongside Smith and John Ratcliffe responsible for the removal of Wingfield as first president yet remained critical of Smith and other leaders. Archer had even called for the execution of Smith but his grounds were not successful. Shortly after this, the explosion took place, and with Smith en route back to England, his successor George Percy proved incompetent. Percy had been one of Wingfield’s supporters, but was not a leader. Consistently ill and lacking the drive and other qualities need to lead the settlers, the colony began to collapse. He was unsuccessful with his attempts to continue Smith’s relationship with the Powhatan, who seeing the rife hunger within the colony, knew it was only a matter of time before it failed.
In England, Newport set sail on June 2nd 1609, heading the convoy on the flagship Sea Venture, a significant ship, bought and purposely built for the mission. The investors of the company finally understood Smith’s message of desperation and ensured that this third supply was by far the largest and most comprehensive, containing further colonists with necessary skills, including women and families to increase numbers, plenty of food, grains, tools and materials.
At the beginning of July, the convoy hit a storm, possibly a hurricane, which separated the ships from each other. Several subsequently made it to James Fort, where they found the colony in dire straits. Although these new arrivals provided a much needed population boost, the provisions they carried were minimal, as most supplies had been assigned to the Sea Venture which had been lost during the storm. The population, now increased, to around 300 were to succumb for the most part to the later ‘Starving Time’. In the winter of 1609, crop failures from drought led to widespread hunger and disease within the fort. Reduced to half a cup of grain each per day, they resorted to slaughtering the horses, dogs and cats, eventually being forced to catch and kill vermin. As their numbers succumbed to the harsh conditions, the survivors were forced to cannibalism of the dead.
The Sea Venture, alone now, started to take on water, as a result of being a new ship her caulking on the timbers had not set properly in the haste to set sail, and had subsequently disintegrated. Under the command of Admiral of the London Company, Sir George Somers, the decision was taken to ground her when land was sighted as the storm died, and the attempts to bail the water proved futile. Sea Venture was run aground on Bermuda reef on July 27th. This decision saved the lives of everyone on board.
For the next nine months, the survivors worked tirelessly, using materials they found on shore to first build a temporary colony and then to build two new ships, incorporating the sails and rigging from the Sea Venture which continued to break up until it eventually foundered and sank. Living off the supplies on board that they saved, and successful hunting of wild pigs on the island which they salted, the pigs were thought to have escaped or been introduced to the island by previous visitors or possibly swam ashore following a previous unknown shipwreck, the Bermuda colonists were eventually able to strike out for James Fort the following spring.
Their colonisation of Bermuda proved to be a success overall, although there was some loss of life. During their time on the island, a mast and rigging was fitted to the longboat from the Sea Venture, a small group of men were sent out to find Jamestown led by Henry Ravens, Master Mate, and was never seen again. A later mutiny led by Henry Paine led to his death, by shooting. Two other deserters, Robert Waters, who had murdered Edward Samuel possibly during the uprising, and Christopher Carter, escaped from the settlement and were left behind on the island. Their fate is unconfirmed, but as there are no further mentions of them, it is presumed they succumbed to some unknown fate. Three other men are known to have died on the island. The story of the Sea Venture as chronicled in detail by survivor, William Strachey, was subsequently used by William Shakespeare as the basis of his work ‘The Tempest’.
Three children were born on Bermuda during the nine month settlement, all were named Bermuda. One of those children along with two or three siblings from the Buck family all perished, as did baby Bermuda Rolfe, along with her mother. Bermuda Rolfe’s father, John survived the shipwreck and was part of the successful continuation of the Sea Venture’s survivors to Jamestown. He was to prove the saviour of the colony. Edward Chard was left behind on Bermuda to hold the new colony for England.
The two newly built pinnaces, Delivery and Patience reached a severely depleted James Fort in May 1610 to find roughly 60 survivors of the colony, many of whom were too weak from starvation and diseases, dysentery and typhoid were rife, to last much longer. New Governor Thomas Gates, who had been on board the Sea Venture realised the conditions would continue and made the decision to abandon the colony and head back for England. A few weeks later, the remaining settler population were loaded aboard the pinnaces and set off down the river. They were met by Governor Thomas West, 3rd/12th Baron de la Warr in a further supply convoy who ordered them to turn about and took them back to James Fort. Baron de la Warr brought further colonists food and supplies. He would later give his name to the later colony of Delaware, alongside the river of the same name.
Although food would continue to be an issue, for some time, the decision was made to move the settlement further downstream, the new settlement being given the name Jamestown. Relations between the colonists and the natives continued to deteriorate, the Powhatan declaring that they just wanted the English to leave. Eventually, when the Chief’s daughter, Matoaka was kidnapped by Samuel Argall, a peace treaty was reached and things improved.
John Rolfe, a survivor of the Sea Venture had carried with him some tobacco seeds, and finding the native crop to be unappealing, and therefore inviable as an export – not even the Indians would buy it – he experimented with his stock until he achieved success with a sweeter less harsh variety which favoured the local conditions. His crop quickly expanded and became a viable enterprise, the results of which not only made Rolfe a wealthy man, but proved to be the saving grace of the colony, which was built on his success. Rolfe later married Matoaka, nick-named Pocahontas. They would go on to have one son Thomas.
In 1622, the situation once again deteriorated leading to an all-out attack by the natives on Henricus, a centre founded by the colony to offer education to the natives, and the surrounding outposts and their inhabitants. Hundreds of English settlers, mainly women and children were massacred. Jamestown was spared only by an alert from a Virginian Indian employee. In 1624, of the 6000 colonists who had made the journey from England beginning 1607, only 3400 survived.
Several members of the colony returned to Bermuda, in subsequent years to settle there, including George Somers, who died whilst on the island. His nephew Matthew brought his body home to England pickled in a barrel. His heart was alleged to have been buried in the town on the island named for him St George’s. Following incidents of destruction of the original Jamestown, the settlement was moved once again towards the end of the 17th century and later formed part of the triangle including Yorktown and Williamsburg. The original first settlement triangular fort no longer remains, however the church built in the first Jamestown village in 1608 still stands in part.
A current archaeological dig by the Jamestown Rediscovery team, Historic Jamestowne, who are working to conserve and remove as much as possible before the river reclaims the island, has recently uncovered the graves of Captain Gabriel Archer who died during the starving time, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West who were both related to Baron de la Warr and Robert Hunt, the minister who was one of the first wave of settlers to the colony and subsequently built the first church, incidentally Rev Hunt was buried facing west not east as was practice for clergy, so that on the resurrection they would be facing their congregation.

Phoebe