Shipwreck, Survival, and the Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World
By Kieran Doherty
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Kieran Doherty
All rights reserved.
"Preparations Most Urgent"
In the spring of 1609, all London was filled with talk of Virginia. Businessmen who gathered in the nave of old St. Paul's and in the vast courtyard of the Royal Exchange spoke excitedly of the profits that might be theirs if they invested in a new scheme to settle the rich lands named in honor of the Virgin Queen. Sailors on the docks and boatmen on the Thames traded in wild tales of the riches that waited in the lands of the Chesapeake. Gentlemen and poets who met in the Mermaid Tavern and other London watering holes mused late into the night, night after night, of Virginia, nothing but Virginia. Preachers spoke of the chance to do God's work while finding opportunity in that far-off country the Almighty had set aside for England. The unemployed and desperate, whose minds raced at the thought of owning their own land, made hurried plans to leave crowded, dirty, smoky London for a better life, no matter what the dangers.
Profits, freedom from want, and the possibility of escape from desperate lives, all these things and more seemed possible in this place called Virginia. Though most who dreamed of emigrating knew as little of the distant lands across the Atlantic as they knew of the moon, they were willing to believe the lines that had been written by the poet Michael Drayton, giving voice to the hopes and dreams of the first Virginia settlers who had left England for the New World in late 1606:
Earth's only paradise!
Where nature has in store
Fowl, venison, and fish,
And the fruitful'st soil
Without your toil,
Three harvests more,
All greater than your wish.
It mattered little to these westward-looking Englishmen that many of those who had already made the journey from England to the lands they called Virginia found death instead of opportunity. It mattered little that in the two years since a group of English settlers struggled ashore in Virginia to establish a settlement they called Jamestown no fortunes had been made, no gold or pearls or silver had been discovered. This was a new day, a new opportunity for all to gamble their money (or their very lives) in the hopes that England would finally, after a long history of failure, establish a profitable, secure, and lasting presence in that far-off land most could not even begin to imagine, a settlement where dreams could come true.
One Londoner who saw Virginia as a place he might find financial salvation was William Strachey, a failed civil servant, poetaster, and sometime playwright. The son of a successful gentleman with landholdings in rural Essex, Strachey had studied law at Gray's Inn, but cut his training short to spend his time scratching out mostly unpublished verse and socializing with London's literary set. Strachey particularly enjoyed London's lively and rambunctious playhouses. He was a stockholder in Blackfriars Theatre and a regular playgoer who was almost certainly friendly with the company's actors, including William Shakespeare. Strachey was also acquainted with other well-known dramatists and poets of his time. In a letter, the poet John Donne called Strachey "allways my good friend." He was close enough to Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright, to write a dedicatory verse included in the quarto version of Jonson's play Sejanus, performed by Shakespeare's company in 1603 and published in 1605. Strachey's circle of friends almost certainly also included George Chapman, a collaborator with Jonson in the writing of Eastward Ho!, a somewhat scandalous play about the Virginia colony.
Living a literary gentleman-poet's lifestyle took so much of Strachey's time in the early 1600s that he seems not to have had many hours to devote to the business of making money. And what with evenings at the theater and afternoons spent in Southwark watching cockfights and bearbaitings and hours spent drinking and swapping lies with his friends, Strachey found himself forced to borrow heavily from London's moneylenders. In 1606, in an attempt to claw his way free from the morass of debt in which he found himself, he used family connections to land a job as secretary to the ambassador to Constantinople and traveled with his employer to the Turkish capital. His hopes of recouping his fortunes in the foreign service ended in near disgrace and even deeper indebtedness, however, when he had a falling out with the ambassador and was forced to borrow money to return to London.
By the spring of 1609, Strachey — he was aged thirty-six or thirty-seven by then — was so deep in debt that he feared imprisonment. Sometime that spring, a friend who had been jailed as a debtor wrote a letter to Strachey pleading with him for aid. Strachey replied that he was "haretly sorrie" he was unable to help, adding that he was himself in danger of being sent to prison "for want of present money." In fact, Strachey's situation was perilous. As the weather warmed that spring and the Thames thawed and began flowing again after one of the coldest winters ever, he knew that each time he dared to quit his lodgings for even a brief foray into the street, he ran the risk of an unpleasant scene with a creditor or — worse — arrest and a stint in the Clink or one of London's other infamous gaols.
Still, it is safe to assume that Strachey managed to sneak from his lodgings to meet with friends, probably to try to borrow funds or simply to escape the tedium of his rented rooms. It would be surprising if he did not, on occasion, make his way along Cheapside, London's main market street, to the turning that led to the door of the Mermaid Tavern, where his friends Jonson and Donne were frequent visitors. Perhaps it was there that Jonson told him — it was advice he gave to others — that the only hope for any man in debt was to flee "to Constantinople, Ireland, or Virginia" if he wanted to rebuild his life and repair his credit. Strachey had already tried his luck in Turkey, and failed. Now, while Ireland may have beckoned, it must have seemed to the impoverished poet that Virginia offered a better chance to escape his creditors and perhaps, just perhaps, his best opportunity, if not for riches, then for security and freedom.
And in 1609, he was ready to risk all to find blessed freedom from the financial woes that threatened to send him to the prison he called "that place of dead men ... that Golgotha." Of course, he had heard of Virginia. He was obviously fond of the theater, fond enough to put some of his money at risk as a shareholder of the Blackfriars Theatre Company. He said, in a court deposition, he visited the theater "sometymes once, twyce and thrice in a week." Given his love of theater, it would have been remarkable if he had not been in the audience at least once when Eastward Ho!, coauthored by his friends Chapman and Jonson, was staged in 1605. He would have heard Captain Seagull, one of the characters in the play, cozen two young men not unlike himself into signing on for a voyage to Virginia where Indians, in Seagull's words, were so in love with the English "that all the treasure they have they lay at their feet." Like the other Londoners in the audience, Strachey would have been enthralled by the description of the land across the sea. And he must have gasped when Seagull went on to describe the treasure that waited. "I tell thee," Seagull said, "gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us; and for as much red copper as I can bring, I'll have thrice the weight in gold. Why, man, all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold; ... and for rubies and diamonds, they go forth on holidays and gather them on the sea shore, to hang on their children's coats."
By 1609 Strachey, like other Englishmen, knew that Seagull's words were not true. He knew that no diamonds had been found on Virginia's beaches, that no golden chamber pots had been discovered. But he also knew that the land across the Atlantic still held hope for men like himself who wanted to flee their problems in search of a new opportunity. And so, in the spring of 1609, William Strachey decided that Virginia was the answer to his troubles.
* * *
Virginia — the Americas — had not always beckoned to England and Englishmen. Though an English ship under the command of Genoese mariner John Cabot visited Newfoundland in 1497, just five years after Columbus stumbled across the New World, there had been no serious attempt to establish an English presence in the Americas until 1583. In that year, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a brilliant navigator and explorer, led a fleet of ships to Newfoundland in what proved to be an ill -fated attempt to build a settlement. The settlers soon found the weather too harsh and cold for their liking and, after the flagship of Gilbert's fleet was lost with most of the expedition's supplies, turned tail for home. During the voyage back to Plymouth, the fleet ran into a fierce North Atlantic gale. Gilbert and his vessel, Squirrel, were lost at sea with all hands.
Following Gilbert's death, his patents to establish a settlement were transferred to his half brother, Sir Walter Ralegh. Ralegh (sometimes spelled Raleigh) was an avid backer of colonization who never visited the New World. Instead, he put his considerable fortune to work trying to establish a settlement in the vast territory he named Virginia in honor of the queen who had made him powerful and wealthy. His efforts to colonize Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina ended tragically when what is now the famous "Lost Colony" vanished without a trace.
Following Ralegh's failure to establish a colony on Roanoke Island, no real attempt to settle the region known as Virginia was made for almost two decades. As Ralegh and Gilbert proved, it was a difficult matter for a private individual to finance the creation of a settlement. And Ralegh's beloved Virgin Queen was far too cautious with her funds to finance a colonial venture, even if England's long-running war with Spain had left enough coin in the royal treasury to cover the expense. Then, in 1603, everything changed.
Early in the morning of March 24 of that year, Elizabeth I, the queen whose reign was expected to outlast the moon and sun, died in her private chamber in Richmond Palace. The queen's death and the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England brought quick peace between England and Spain; freed private capital that could be used to finance foreign settlements; and made soldiers and sailors available, indeed desperate, for employment. Suddenly, English capitalists were looking hungrily at Virginia as a potential outlet for English woven goods, as a possible source of gold and other riches, and, it was hoped, as a shortcut to the Spice Islands of the Indies. By that time, English merchants had experience taking profits from foreign trade through the formation of joint stock companies like the Muscovy Company. Now they hoped to do the same in Virginia.
These merchants were achingly aware of the tragedies that had befallen Cabot and Gilbert and all the settlers of the Lost Colony. Some of them had backed Gilbert's ventures and Ralegh's, too. But, they told themselves, this was a new age. With ample financing and with the right men at the helm, Virginia would be settled and profits would be theirs for the taking.
In 1606 Sir Ferdinando Gorges, an accomplished soldier and the military governor of Plymouth, the city that was home to many of the Elizabethan sea dogs who had spent decades harassing Spanish ships, put together a consortium of merchant-investors who were willing to sign on to his idea to colonize the New World. These investors, along with some of their fellows in London, asked King James I for government approval for their plans to establish colonies in Virginia — then considered to be the entire swath of land running roughly between Spanish Florida and the French colonies in Canada. Backers of the plan included Gorges; Sir John Popham, lord chief justice of England; Sir John and Raleigh Gilbert, sons of the same Sir Humphrey Gilbert who vanished when the Squirrel sank in 1583; Richard Hakluyt, the compiler of the massive Principal Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, a history of English seafaring and exploration that helped kindle interest in New World colonization; the Earl of Southampton (William Shakespeare's patron); and other notables whose names made up a veritable who's who of Early Stuart England.
Those who invested in the Virginia Company were primarily motivated by a desire for profits. There was little of the religious idealism or of the search for personal freedom that motivated the Pilgrims in 1620 and none of the search to create a "City on a Hill" that spurred the Puritans to take ships for Boston in 1630. To these financial backers, the settlement of Virginia was primarily about trade and money.
In April 1606, the king granted a royal charter that created two separate joint stock companies. The Virginia Company of Plymouth (also known as the Plymouth Company) had the right to colonize lands above thirty-eight degrees north latitude (roughly the position of Delaware Bay.). The Virginia Company of London (also known as the London Company) was granted the right to establish colonies between thirty-four and forty -one degrees north latitude (roughly between Cape Fear, North Carolina, and Long Island Sound).
The Plymouth Company's designs soon came to nothing and were to remain dormant until 1620, when a group of religious separatists would establish Plymouth Colony in what would become Massachusetts. The London Company, however, immediately put into action its plan to erect a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay in the southern region of "Virginia." Men were recruited — no women, for this initial attempt at colonization — and ships and supplies were obtained. In December of that year, a fleet of three vessels dropped down the Thames from London. For long weeks, the ships lay anchored in the Downs, just off the southeast coast of England, battered by terrible storms, waiting for favorable weather. Finally, in February 1607, the three ships set out across the wintry Atlantic. After crossing from England to the West Indies and then north along the Atlantic coast, the ships — the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed — dropped anchor in the Chesapeake on April 26, 1607. On board were 104 settlers who had no idea what awaited them in the wilds of Virginia.
Before leaving England, the expedition's leaders had been given specific instructions by the Virginia Company about what to look for when searching for a spot to "plant" their settlement. Among other things, these instructions urged the settlers to look for a site on a river one hundred miles from the sea, to make it difficult for an enemy to attack; to settle on the banks of a river that "bendeth most to the Northwest," to make it easier to find a route to the Pacific Ocean; and to avoid settling "in a low and moist place" that would "prove unhealthful." After exploring for about a month, the English decided to build on a roughly comma-shaped peninsula on the north bank of a river they called the James, in honor of the king. This site met two of the company's criteria — it was located about eighty miles from the river's mouth and was easily defensible — but it failed to meet the third. It was low lying, swampy, insect infested, unhealthy. But to the settlers it seemed ideal, at least at first glance. Landing their supplies, the English set about the business of erecting a triangular, palisaded fort they christened Jamestown.
In the ensuing months, support for the fledgling settlement was haphazard at best. Settlers were dispatched in a slow trickle — a few score at a time — when in fact a torrent of carpenters, husbandmen, fishermen, hunters, and laborers was needed. Many of those who were sent to establish the settlement were unfit, either by breeding or experience, for the trials they would face. About half of those sent to establish the colony were gentlemen unused to hard work, more suited to the drawing rooms of London than a harsh life in the wilds of North America. Captain John Smith, the "president" of the colony during much of its earliest history, regularly complained of the quality of those sent to establish the settlement. The colony, he said, would have been better off if the company in London had sent "one hundred good labourers (in place of) a thousand such Gallants as were sent me, that would doe nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire."
There were other problems in Jamestown. Supplies were lacking. Tents sent to provide shelter for the settlers while they were building permanent dwellings had been used by English soldiers who fought against the Spanish in the long-running wars in the Netherlands two decades earlier. They were rotten, in tatters even before they were raised on the banks of the James River. Settlers were supplied with equipment needed to refine gold and silver but no farm implements. Nobody thought to send lines or hooks or nets to catch the fish that swam thick in the waters near Jamestown and even thicker in the Chesapeake not far away. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sea Venture by Kieran Doherty. Copyright © 2007 Kieran Doherty. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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.