A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda?

A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda?

by Virginia Bernhard

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  In 1609, two years after its English founding, colonists struggled to stay alive in a tiny fort at Jamestown.John Smith fought to keep order, battling both English and Indians. When he left, desperate colonists ate lizards, rats, and human flesh. Surviving accounts of the “Starving Time” differ, as do modern scholars’ theories. Meanwhile, the… See more details below


  In 1609, two years after its English founding, colonists struggled to stay alive in a tiny fort at Jamestown.John Smith fought to keep order, battling both English and Indians. When he left, desperate colonists ate lizards, rats, and human flesh. Surviving accounts of the “Starving Time” differ, as do modern scholars’ theories. Meanwhile, the Virginia-bound Sea Venture was shipwrecked on Bermuda, the dreaded, uninhabited “Isle of Devils.” The castaways’ journals describe the hurricane at sea as well as murders and mutinies on land. Their adventures are said to have inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A year later, in 1610, the Bermuda castaways sailed to Virginia in two small ships they had built. They arrived in Jamestown to find many people in the last stages of starvation; abandoning the colony seemed their only option. Then, in what many people thought was divine providence, three English ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay. Virginia was saved, but the colony’s troubles were far from over. Despite glowing reports from Virginia Company officials, disease, inadequate food, and fear of Indians plagued the colony. The company poured thousands of pounds sterling and hundreds of new settlers into its venture but failed to make a profit, and many of the newcomers died. Bermuda—with plenty of food, no native population, and a balmy climate—looked much more promising, and in fact, it became England’s second New World colony in 1612. In this fascinating tale of England’s first two New World colonies, Bernhard links Virginia and Bermuda in a series of unintended consequences resulting from natural disaster, ignorance of native cultures, diplomatic intrigue, and the fateful arrival of the first Africans in both colonies. Written for general as well as academic audiences, A Tale of Two Colonies examines the existing sources on the colonies, sets them in a transatlantic context, and weighs them against circumstantial evidence. From diplomatic correspondence and maps in the Spanish archives to recent archaeological discoveries at Jamestown, Bernhard creates an intriguing history. To weave together the stories of the two colonies, which are fraught with missing pieces, she leaves nothing unexamined: letters written in code, adventurers’ narratives, lists of Africans in Bermuda, and the minutes of committees in London. Biographical details of mariners, diplomats, spies, Indians, Africans, and English colonists also enrich the narrative. While there are common stories about both colonies, Bernhard shakes myth free from truth and illuminates what is known—as well as what we may never know—about the first English colonies in the New World.

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Editorial Reviews

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"If her title invokes Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1859), the allusion is apt. She links the two colonies in a tale of death and resurrection and compares them, often highlighting Virginia's greater struggles." — Matthew Pursell, The Journal of Southern History

“Drawing on new research and her own extensive knowledge of early Virginia and Bermuda, Virginia Bernhard elucidates the colonies' interwoven histories. Along the way, she solves many of the conundrums that have long perplexed scholars and general readers. This is a rich, lively, and reliable narrative and an important contribution to Atlantic studies.”—Alden T. Vaughan, author of Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776

“Virginia Bernhard, who has previously published an outstanding book about slavery on Bermuda, offers the reader a gripping story. She relates the fascinating tale of these two critical locales in England’s early efforts to build a successful colonial empire. I found myself eagerly turning the pages, particularly because she skillfully guides the reader back and forth between the two colonies, revealing how so many of the people involved were instrumental to both settlements. Her portrayal of the intrigue, the rapid development of factional disputes on both Bermuda and at Jamestown, is well done. The focus is properly on the personalities and how individual decisions made a significant difference.”—Larry Gragg, author of The Quaker Community on Barbados: Challenging the Culture of the Planter Class

“Many in Bermuda and Virginia, the sites of England's first and second colonies in what became the vast British Empire, and beyond will welcome the appearance of A Tale of Two Colonies. The interaction of the settlers on the edge of a vast continent and in a remote, uninhabited island is a fascinating story that Professor Bernhard, with her long experience of both places and their records, has rendered in delightful and highly readable volume.”—Edward Harris, MBE, National Museum of Bermuda

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Meet the Author

Virginia Bernhard, Professor Emerita of History at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, is the author or editor of seven books. Her most recent book is Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616–1782 (University of Missouri Press). She lives in Houston.

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What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda?

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1951-0

Chapter One


In the teeming, brawling, bustling London of the early 1600s, more than two hundred thousand people lived and worked. It was the fastest-growing city in Europe and a major world port. On the wide Thames River, small boats went up and down, oars moving like the legs of water bugs, and east of London Bridge, dozens of large ships rode at anchor. Warehouses full of spices and silks, pottery and bronze, and other exotic foreign goods lined the riverbanks. This was the heyday of the great trading companies: The Levant Company traded in rugs, wine, and fruits from the Mediterranean. The Muscovy Company brought furs and wax from Russia. Sable and seal fur made cloak linings and trimmed robes and gowns; beaver pelts went into felt for hats. Wax, melted and usually imprinted with a signet ring or stamp, sealed letters and lent importance to documents. Thousands of pounds of sealing wax were used in England every year. The largest and richest of the trading companies, the Exxon-Mobil of its day, was the East India Company. Chartered in 1600, it had a monopoly on trade with India, bringing spices, silks, and cotton cloth from exotic places like Madras and Bombay. In 1608 Sir Thomas Smith, one of that company's directors, was about to become the guiding force of the Virginia Company. As the company's treasurer, he was organizing the largest expedition England had yet sent to the New World.

On a chilly day in March 1608, Don Pedro de Zuñiga, Spain's ambassador to the Court of St. James's, sat hunched over a desk in his house at Highgate. He had been living in London for three years, but he still missed the warm sunshine of his homeland. The ambassador was finishing a laborious task, writing a letter in code to his sovereign in Madrid. When it was done, he blotted the ink carefully with sand, folded the paper, and sealed it. The imprint of his signet ring in the soft red wax would ensure that his letter was handled carefully. It was an urgent message, but he did not expect an immediate reply. Diplomatic exchanges between London and Madrid often took as long as three months. Zuñiga wrote to King Philip III that the English were sending eight hundred men to Virginia, and, the ambassador said, "it seems to me necessary to intercept them on the way."

Spain had good reason to be concerned. By the mid-1500s Spanish fleets of up to seventy ships were transporting hundreds of tons of gold and silver from Mexico and Peru every year. Masters of these galleons sailing home from the West Indies followed the coast of North America to latitude 33 degrees. Then they headed eastward toward a landmark in the vast Atlantic, Bermuda. Even though it was a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere, Bermuda served as a guide for convoys of Spanish galleons crossing the Atlantic. This tiny island, twenty-four square miles in size, was about to be inhabited, with unintended consequences. But Virginia was already inhabited, and the English there were in a prime position to prey on the Spanish treasure fleets.

The latest English expedition to Virginia was not due to depart until the next year. The flagship Sea Venture and the rest of the large fleet would not sail until May 1609. How had Zuñiga come by this information? King James I had not yet signed the Virginia Company's new charter, and the company had not yet made public its grand plan. But the Spanish ambassador had his sources.

Don Pedro de Zuñiga, the first resident Spanish ambassador to England, was a member of what has been called the most efficient and talented diplomatic corps in Europe. When Spain and England signed a peace treaty in 1604, Spain's Philip III chose his ambassador carefully. Zuñiga had been Philip III's chief huntsman, and Philip, knowing James I's fondness for hunting, sent his favorite huntsman as ambassador, along with six "beautifully outfitted horses" as a present to the English king. Zuñiga soon became a hunting companion of James I. The shrewd ambassador also maintained a secret, handsomely paid network of seven "pensioners of Spain," that is, English spies. Among them were the brilliant but unscrupulous Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton and member of the Privy Council; the devious courtier and secretary of state, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury; and a Mrs. Drummond, "first lady of Queen Anne's bedchamber." Today all that remains of Zuñiga's—and his successors'—intrigues is a paper trail of letters in the Spanish archives. Written in diplomatic cipher, the letters document Spain's constant clandestine efforts to destroy England's outposts in Virginia—and, later, in Bermuda.

American historians knew nothing of this correspondence until Alexander Brown published The Genesis of the United States in 1890. Brown discovered the collection of letters in the Spanish archives in Seville and persuaded a scholar named Maximilian Schele de Vere at the University of Virginia to translate them. That meant deciphering about fifty thousand words of archaic Spanish. De Vere did it, but not without grumbling. "There is no punctuation," he said, "no stop, no mark of interrogation, no sign to judge where a sentence begins or ends. Then, there are no accents ... and accents are fully as important as letters in Spanish. Finally, the copyist was evidently not as careful as he might have been; some words are repeated, some manifestly omitted, and some are probably given wrong." That was De Vere's opinion, but Irene A. Wright, who worked with the same documents in Seville in the 1920s, said that "De Vere's statement of the difficulties of translation is greatly exaggerated." The Colorado-born Wright, who explored Mexico in 1895 at age sixteen with three hundred dollars in gold coins sewn into her skirt for spending money, was an intrepid scholar of Spanish history. While she was working in the Spanish archives, she met Henry Wilkinson, who was working on his history of Bermuda. He despaired of finding anything useful in the archives, which were not indexed. But Wright searched, and she discovered that in 1611 King Philip III had ordered his officials to prepare a summary of "all that was known about Bermuda." This lucky find was, said Wilkinson, "the most satisfactory of documents." Thanks to the perseverance of Alexander Brown, Maximilian de Vere, Irene Wright, and Henry Wilkinson, documents of Spain's surveillance of England's New World colonies became accessible outside Seville. The documents prove, as Brown said, that in the seventeenth century, "Spanish spies were everywhere." Had they been more successful, this book might be written in Spanish instead of English.

Protestant England and Catholic Spain had long been enemies, and though they made peace in 1604, trust was not part of the treaty. In 1605 a group of English Catholics tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the "Gunpowder Plot" of November 5. By chance, the cache of powder barrels in the cellar underneath the House of Lords was discovered in time, but the fears of Catholic conspiracies continued. Spain was not involved in the Gunpowder Plot, and Ambassador Zuñiga did his best to quell English suspicions. The Spanish, in turn, had their own reasons to distrust the English. The ignominy of Spanish Armada's defeat at the hands of the English in 1588 still rankled. Besides that, English "sea dogs" like Francis Drake and others had been plundering Spain's New World treasures since the 1570s, and such memories died hard. Now, if the English got a foothold in Virginia, what was to keep them from using it to prey on treasure-laden Spanish ships from the West Indies? Philip III had been worried about the Virginia venture since the beginning, when James I issued letters patent to the newly formed Virginia Company in 1606. By January 1607 Ambassador Zuñiga had written a long letter to his king, summarizing the plans for colonizing Virginia. He had heard that the English planned to send two ships each month until they had "two thousand men" in their new colony. Not exactly. Sometimes Zuñiga's sources were wrong, but the ambassador kept his king informed as best he could.

Philip III, Spain's sandy-haired, foppish young monarch, who had come to his throne in 1598 at age twenty, was far from inexperienced in matters of state. When the heir to the Spanish throne was only fifteen, his father, Philip II, had made him sit in on daily meetings of the Council of State to learn about foreign affairs. In June 1607 the young king had written to Zuñiga of his fears of the Protestant English "establishing their kind of religion there." Furthermore, said Philip, "It has appeared right to prevent these plans and purposes of the English by all available means ... and to ascertain the root of this matter ... whether it progresses; who aids them and by what means." The Spanish king instructed Zuñiga to express his royal concern that King James would allow his subjects "to try and disturb the seas, coasts, and lands of the Indies." A few weeks later Zuñiga reported his conversation with England's king on this matter: James I declared, said Zuñiga, that "no advantage from it all came to him, and that if his subjects went where they ought not to go, and were punished for it, neither he nor they could complain." The king of England had shrugged off all responsibility for what went on in Virginia. This was not a comforting thought for the king of Spain.

Spanish galleons laden with silver and gold from Mexico and Peru followed the Gulf Stream up the Atlantic coast—sailing within easy range of Virginia-based attackers in Chesapeake Bay. Now England's James I, the darkly serious, thoughtful scholar, was washing his hands of the hundred-odd men and boys in Virginia. What they did would be on their own heads, and he was not to blame. England and Spain were, after all, at peace. But Philip III was surrounded by advisers who urged him to do "whatever was necessary to drive out the people who are in Virginia ... [and] not to let anyone hear what is being done."

The Spanish were not the only ones keeping secrets: in London the members of the Privy Council and the Virginia Company kept to themselves all information they received about England's colonial ventures abroad, and they imposed a strict censorship on the fledgling Jamestown settlement. But Zuñiga had his London informers, and from them he gathered that "the main thing they [the English in Virginia] find to do in that place is to fortify themselves and to sail as pirates from there." In coded letters and confidential documents, Spanish officials would worry about English pirates for the next fifteen years.

One of the bearers of secrets for the English was Capt. Christopher Newport, who landed the first colonists at Jamestown in April 1607. He had made the crossing from England to Virginia twice more in 1608, each time bringing letters and reports—all of which the Virginia Company classified as top secret. Places of settlement, numbers of colonists and natives, descriptions of the land, and locations of harbors and rivers were closely guarded. No wonder the Spanish were suspicious. Had the English found gold? Silver? Maps were kept under lock and key, and none were to be made public without approval of the royal Privy Council or the Virginia Company Council.

In the late summer of 1608, this wall of censorship and secrecy was about to be breached. In August a pamphlet for sale at a bookseller's stand in St. Paul's churchyard soon became the talk of London. This little forty-four-page book was the first printed report of what had happened to England's new colony in far-off Virginia. Thanks to Captain Newport and his sailors, rumors had been flying all year: Indian attacks, grisly deaths, quarrels among the colonists. Now A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note as hath happened in Virginia, written by a colonist named John Smith, claimed to set the record straight. The young officer's tale of disaster and derring-do made for sensational reading, and those who could not read could hear about it in London's taverns and on the streets. Smith told of "discontented humours" among the colony's leaders and "such famine and sickness, that the living were scarce able to bury the dead." Indians were by turns curious and hostile. They admired Smith's compass, but killed a colonist "with 20 or 30 arrows in him." This was not exactly the kind of thing to attract new investors and colonists, which is what the Virginia Company desperately needed. A True Relation was true enough, but who had made it public?

John Smith had never intended his report—much less the map he sent with it—to be published. But he did send them—or something like them—to another adventurer. Henry Hudson, the English navigator and explorer, referred to "letters and charts which one Captain Smith had sent him from Virginia." Hudson was hoping to discover the Northwest Passage, a waterway through North America to the Far East, and make his fortune. In 1608 he could not get funding from London backers for his explorations, so he signed a contract with the Dutch instead. In September 1609 Hudson explored what is now New York, sailed up the river that is named for him, and claimed the area for the Netherlands. The English were furious. They tried to confiscate Hudson's reports and logbooks, but he managed to keep them for his Dutch employers.

If John Smith's information about Virginia reached Henry Hudson, it also reached someone who rushed it into print for a London audience. Therein lies a mystery. Smith's Relation arrived in London as a forty-page letter he addressed to someone now known only as "Kinde Sir." Smith had given it to a ship captain, Francis Nelson, whose ship, Phoenix, had left Virginia on June 2. The identity of the person to whom Nelson delivered the letter is unknown. The other part of the mystery is the map: a rough map of Virginia, thought to have been drawn by Smith, was included with his letter. Somehow this map, which contains the first known sketch of the fort at Jamestown (a site unknown to archaeologists until 1994), as well as details of Virginia's rivers and harbors fell into the hands of Don Pedro de Zuñiga. He traced it, or had it traced, and sent the copy to Philip III. Who smuggled the map to Zuñiga? No one knows. The tracing, now known as the Smith-Zuñiga map, was discovered in the Spanish archives nearly three centuries later. The original map has disappeared.

Spanish officials were worried. On August 21 the Council of State advised King Philip that "this matter of Virginia is not to be remedied by negotiation, but by force, punishing those who have gone there." By September the king of Spain knew about the True Relation and possessed a map showing the exact location of the Jamestown fort. He wrote to Zuñiga on September 23 urging him to send more papers about Virginia so that he "might the better come to a decision as to what ought to be done." What Zuñiga sent him is not known, but by November the ambassador wrote with great urgency, "It is very important, Your Majesty should command that an end be put to those things done in Virginia.... [T]hey propose (as I understand) to send as many as 1500 men there; and they hope that 12,000 will be gotten together there in time." No wonder the Spanish were uneasy.

Zuñiga would watch and wait as the "Virginia Adventurers," as the investors were called, signed on to a new plan to expand England's fragile colony. Some people still half-believed the lines in a popular satirical play—Eastward Ho!—in which a sea captain says about Virginia, "I tell thee, Gold is more plentiful there than Copper is with us.... [A]ll their Dripping Pans, and their Chamber pots are pure Gold." In 1607 the Virginia Company had sent a goldsmith, just in case. Hopes were high. Virginia enthusiast Sir Walter Cope wrote to the Earl of Salisbury in August that "we are fallen upon a lande, that promises more than the Lande of promisse: Instead of milk we find pearle, & gold Instead of honey." Capt. Christopher Newport had brought back from Virginia "but a barrell full of the earth, but there seems a kingdome full of the ore." Ambassador Zuñiga wrote to King Philip that he had seen "a letter written by a gentleman who is over there in Virginia, to another friend of his, who is known to me, and has shown it to me. He says that from Captain Newport, who is the bearer of it, he will learn in detail how matters are there, and that all he can say is that there has been found a moderate mine of silver and that the best part of England cannot be compared with that country." But the gold was fool's gold, the silver was only a rumor, and so far all that had come from Virginia were some cedar timbers and sassafras roots.

Virginia Company investors desperately needed to show a profit. They must have ground their teeth as they totted up their losses in hundreds of pounds sterling. Not only were they losing money, but the colonists at Jamestown were also losing their lives. Three hundred two men and two women ("Mistress Forrest and Ann Burras her maide") had been sent there so far, but only "about two hundred" people were alive in the spring of 1609. Diseases, such as dysentery, the "bloody flux," and malaria, and Indian arrows were filling rows of hastily dug graves at Jamestown. The colonists tried to keep the deaths secret from the Indians, as instructed by the Virginia Company: "Above all things Do not advertize the killing of any of your men.... [Y]ou Shall Do well also not to Let them See or know of Your Sick men." Under the company's first charter, as an observer wrote some years later, "that plantation went rather backwards than forwards." Despite such setbacks, a new charter and the Sea Venture expedition were expected to turn things around.


Excerpted from A TALE of TWO COLONIES by VIRGINIA BERNHARD Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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