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A freshly researched account of the dramatic rescue of the Jamestown
The English had long dreamed of colonizing America, especially after Sir Francis Drake brought home Spanish treasure and dramatic tales from his raids in the Caribbean. Ambitions of finding gold and planting a New World colony seemed within reach when in 1606 Thomas Smythe extended overseas trade with the launch of the Virginia Company. But from the beginning the ...
A freshly researched account of the dramatic rescue of the Jamestown
The English had long dreamed of colonizing America, especially after Sir Francis Drake brought home Spanish treasure and dramatic tales from his raids in the Caribbean. Ambitions of finding gold and planting a New World colony seemed within reach when in 1606 Thomas Smythe extended overseas trade with the launch of the Virginia Company. But from the beginning the American enterprise was a disaster. Within two years warfare with Indians and dissent among the settlers threatened to destroy Smythe’s Jamestown just as it had Raleigh’s Roanoke a generation earlier.
To rescue the doomed colonists and restore order, the company chose a new leader, Thomas Gates. Nine ships left Plymouth in the summer of 1609—the largest fleet England had ever assembled—and sailed into the teeth of a storm so violent that “it beat all light from Heaven.” The inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the hurricane separated the flagship from the fleet, driving it onto reefs off the coast of Bermuda—a lucky shipwreck (all hands survived) which proved the turning point in the colony’s fortune.
LONDON DREAMS In the spring of 1606, Sir Thomas Smythe’s Philpot Lane house fairly buzzed with activity. His family’s principal residence served as a gathering spot for London’s ambitious merchants and gentlemen who dreamed of spreading their wealth and power and Christian faith beyond the boundaries of their small island nation. Smythe played such a central role in the city’s leading overseas trading operations that he used the ground floor of his home for offices for the Levant, East India, and Muscovy Companies, and, most recently, the newly chartered Virginia Company. Upstairs he maintained a museum of sorts, displaying the exotic—and, he no doubt hoped, enticing—discoveries that mariners in his employ brought from the faraway voyages he helped finance. Captains who needed temporary housing between expeditions slept at the Symthe home. Sailors gathered there seeking jobs, and mariners’ wives sometimes boarded there while their husbands were at sea.1
It was fitting that the architects of England’s first empire congregated at Smythe’s home. That rare combination of a bold dreamer and a tireless doer, Smythe was at the turn of the seventeenth century the most accomplished businessman in all of London. He served at one time or another as the principal leader of every important commercial enterprise in the city: the Levant, East India, and Muscovy Companies, the Merchant Adventurers, and the French and Spanish Companies. He helped fund expeditions to Ireland, explorations seeking a Northwest Passage, and even a voyage to Senegal. Renowned as a shrewd and supremely competent entrepreneur, Smythe was also respected as a decent and charitable man and a devout Christian. No one was better qualified to oversee the new company that King James chartered that April, the company that would bring about En gland’s American empire.2
By the time he involved himself in the Virginia Company, the forty- eight- year- old Smythe knew, from dearly bought experience, how to negotiate the diplomatic and .fiscal complexities of launching an overseas enterprise. Monarchs, no less than investors and mariners, had to be won over to the risky idea; exhaustive planning and shrewd promotion were required; lives and fortunes would almost surely be sacrificed before profits came. Overseas adventuring, then, was not for the faint of heart.
Thomas Smythe was the perfect man for the job, because challenges and setbacks—inevitable in foreign trades—did not deter him. Involved in creating the profitable Levant Company at the age of twenty- three, Smythe shortly became a very rich and important man in London. In the 1590s, he worked as a trade commissioner with the Dutch and helped fund the conquest of Ireland, and by 1600 he was an alderman and sheriff of London. But his friendship with the Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth’s suspicions of Smythe’s participation with Essex in a failed coup led to his downfall. He was arrested in 1601, along with Essex and their mutual friend and William Shakespeare’s principal patron, the Earl of Southampton, and locked in the Tower of London. Elizabeth’s death in 1603 brought redemption. Elizabeth’s successor, King James, pardoned Smythe, knighted him, and the following year appointed him ambassador to Russia.3
In a matter of months, Smythe went from tower prisoner to the toast of Moscow. He was commissioned as ambassador in June 1604 and met the emperor in Moscow that October. Thousands of Russians lined the road as he headed into the city. He and his men rode in on horses adorned with "Gold, Pearle, and Precious Stone; and particularly, a great Chaine of plated Gold about his necke." Three emissaries of the emperor attended to Smythe’s every need, assuring him "that if his Lordship wanted any thing, they all, or any one of them, were as commanded, so readie to obey therein." Smythe’s delegation first saw the emperor "seated in a Chaire of Gold, richly embroidered with Persian Stuffe: in his right hand hee held a golden Scepter, a Crowne of pure Gold upon his head, a Coller of rich stones and Pearles about his necke, his outward Garments of Crimson Velvet, embroidered very faire, with Pearles, Precious Stones and Gold." While at court, they feasted on lavish meals served on silver and gold platters "piled up on one another by halfe dozens." Despite all this impressive pageantry, Smythe did not waste much time at his post. As soon as he secured additional special trading rights for the Muscovy Company, Smythe resigned and returned to London in September 1605. That fall he turned his attention across the Atlantic.4
The London that Sir Thomas Smythe returned to in the fall of 1605 was a city for dreamers, with palaces and cathedrals every bit as awe inspiring as what he saw in Moscow. London was unequivocally the cultural and commercial center of the nation. As one visitor aptly put it, "London is not in En gland, but En gland in London."5 For the lucky few born to privilege, London offered a life of elegance and sophistication The new king’s wife, Queen Anne, loved the arts and patronized musicians and poets and painters. She commissioned royal favorites such as Ben Jonson to stage elaborate court masques, and regularly entertained scores of velvet- clad gentlemen and their jewel- draped wives at pageants and lavish feasts at Whitehall Palace. The recently designed Gray’s Inn Gardens, laid out by Sir Francis Bacon and using cuttings brought by Sir Walter Raleigh from America, provided the city’s elites a setting at once majestic and bucolic for evening strolls. St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the longest nave in all of Europe, stood at the western end of the city boundary, dominating the skyline. Young gentlemen in training studied law at the Middle Temple. Ornately carved wooden beams framed the main dining hall; light pouring in from stunning stained glass windows, then as now, would illuminate the serving table constructed from timbers taken from the Golden Hinde, the ship on which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe from 1577 to 1580. History, power, and ambition all resided in such places. The kind of men who lived in this part of London, not surprisingly, believed that the world could—and even should—be theirs.6
But the real heart of London lay not in landmarks like the Middle Temple or Whitehall, but rather in the vigorous, ambitious, and youthful culture of the city. Some two hundred thousand people called London home at the turn of the seventeenth century. Despite exceedingly high mortality rates, the population had exploded during the Elizabethan era. Even as the plague swept the city in waves, immigrants kept coming: desperate and determined young people left the hinterlands of England to start over and find a different destiny in London. As the city grew, it remained decidedly youthful: a great proportion of citizens were under thirty.7
London was still walled then, although its burgeoning population was pushing against the stone boundaries and spilling over into the "suburbs" outside the city proper and across the Thames. Within the city walls, what once had been open fields now bustled with carpenters’ shops and glass factories; former churchyards and abbeys became marketplaces. Streets were busy and dirty. Mud, garbage, and even human waste made crowded neighborhoods foul smelling and ripe for disease. And it was very loud: church bells clanged incessantly and wagons clattered along the city’s crowded streets all day long, making "such a thundering as if the world ran upon wheels," and competing with the voices of peddlers hawking their wares and preachers giving open- air sermons.8
Like the gentlemen who strolled through Gray’s Inn Gardens and prayed in the front pews of St. Paul’s, the working classes and impoverished newcomers—the "rabble" of London—also dreamed. Many wanted new opportunities, better lives, adventure. And London gave them the chance to remake themselves. Fifteen times larger than any other city in England, London offered its citizens anonymity and the economic opportunity to achieve more than their "place" would have otherwise allowed. Tudor- Stuart England was fairly obsessed with class: men were born to a status and there they would remain, whether tinker or king. Even a person’s attire was supposed to conform to this rigid ranking, and sartorial laws made wearing the wrong fabric or color illegal. Elites successfully policed the social order in the countryside, where everyone knew everyone else, as well as among the coat of arms–obsessed aristocracy in London. But the London street was another matter entirely: there, strangers could remake themselves and escape the rank they had been born to .ll. All that was required was a spirit of competitiveness, individualism, and daring.9
London’s culture reflected the ambitious, risk- taking youthfulness of its citizens. It was, as one resident aptly put it, "the Fair that lasts all year."10 Taverns, drunkenness, gambling, and violence were everywhere. At least a hundred bawdy houses and brothels operated in the suburbs of London, beyond the city walls or along the south bank. Bear- baiting was wildly popular. For this macabre spectacle, restrained bears were whipped, attacked by dogs, and sometimes gradually slaughtered before cheering crowds. Occasionally bears and bulls were baited together, and owners of the rings could heighten an animal’s rage (and a crowd’s plea sure) by attaching .reworks to its back. Another imaginative proprietor tied a monkey to a pony’s back and then unleashed the dogs. One patron reported, "To see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape . . . is very laughable." Cockfights, boar fights, even horse- baiting drew paying customers eager to see the latest, bloodiest game in town. Sometimes they became surprise participants themselves, as did one unlucky spectator at a bull- baiting session: the bull gored a dog and tossed the bloody, dying animal onto her lap. City residents also watched football games and tennis and wrestling matches and frequented neighborhood fairs, where they could see puppet shows, street performers, and human "freaks" while drinking and gambling.11
Meanwhile, the city’s thriving press offered adventures for the mind. London was home to an active reading public with capacious tastes. Over a hundred publishers and an untold number of booksellers worked there, most within the shadow of St. Paul’s. Stationers’ Hall, which licensed all books published within the city, sat just a few steps from the cathedral. And more than a dozen bookshops operated in St. Paul’s churchyard, with sellers peddling sermons delivered there alongside travel stories that romanticized ocean voyages to foreign places, particularly the widely admired collections of Richard Hakluyt, and plays, including the works of the stage’s greatest dreamer: William Shakespeare.12
London was the kind of place where the son of a down- on- his- luck glover without a university education could, through talent and drive, become the most celebrated figure in all of literature. The city embraced and inspired Shakespeare, and he in turn entertained and moved its citizens. No man of the theater enjoyed more renown in Tudor- Stuart London than Shakespeare. He drew 1,500 to 2,000 paying customers a day to his theater, the Globe. Everyone in town enjoyed his work, from royals to the "rabble." Six days after his coronation, King James commissioned Shakespeare and his players to perform "for the recreation of our loving subjects" and recognized them as "the King’s Men." For the next ten years they mounted plays at court on an average of fourteen times a year.13
Shakespeare may have delighted much of London, but some found his work, to say nothing of his customers at the Globe, unseemly. Shakespeare’s company attracted the so- called lesser sorts, and, in the eyes of some aristocrats and ministers, served up disgusting spectacles of violence and debauchery. It did not help that his play house was located in Southwark, a rather colorful neighborhood. Respectable gentlemen complained about the "vagrant and lewd persons" attending the Globe and the nearby bear- baiting rings and brothels. At St. Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit just outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, popular Protestant ministers such as William Crashaw and William Symonds railed against the craven, sinful playwrights and actors just across the Thames, putting them in the same category as the despised Roman Church. "Papists" and "players" were the enemies of "true" Christians—Anglicans—and were linked together in numerous sermons because of their skilled deceptiveness. By 1606, Crashaw and Symonds were promoting the founding of an American colony as the will of God and condemning the "papists" and "players" who opposed His mission.14
This sort of anti- Catholic vitriol, decades in the making, was born out of both religious conviction and political intrigue. For nearly half a century preceding the founding of the Virginia colony, devout English Protestants increasingly viewed Catholics as a sinister element, spiritually bankrupt and dangerous to the nation. When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, she participated in the growing tendency of evangelical Protestants to link English Protestantism with national interest and view Catholics as their prime enemy. In 1568 Elizabeth imprisoned her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many Catholics believed to be the rightful sovereign of England. Mary’s imprisonment so roiled her sympathizers that they embarked upon an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1569. This marked the first of several attempts on Elizabeth’s life by members of the persecuted Catholic community. In 1570, in the wake of the failure of this uprising and the continued incarceration of Mary, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and freed English Catholics from any allegiance to her. While Pius hoped to destabilize the Elizabethan regime, he in fact rendered English Catholics traitors to their nation—at least that was how the politically powerful Protestants saw things. By the 1580s, anyone attending Catholic mass could be imprisoned for a year; converting someone to Catholicism was high treason. Meanwhile, English Catholics in exile in Europe began secretly sending Jesuit missionaries to England to keep the faith alive and hopefully bring En gland back into the fold of the Roman Church. Like the plots against Elizabeth, these missionary efforts only confirmed in Protestants’ minds how dangerous and disloyal Catholics were.15
The death of Elizabeth and accession of James in 1603 gave mo mentary hope of toleration to En gland’s Catholics because the new king was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. But shortly after James’s coronation he ratified a law extending Elizabeth’s policies regarding Catholics. A small group of Catholics, upset with James’s failure to usher in changes, planned to kidnap the king, take over the Tower of London, and hold him captive there until he relented. That laughable folly was followed by a far more dangerous and plausible plot two years later. In the early hours of November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested, bringing to light the Gunpowder Plot: an elaborate plan to blow up the House of Lords while the royal family was in attendance. Jesuit missionaries and their converts were quickly singled out as the perpetrators, and a raft of new anti- Catholic legislation sped through Parliament that year. Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and principal minister to King James (and soon to be an influential leader in the Virginia Company), was vehemently anti- Catholic and shepherded the new laws. After 1605, Catholics were not to come within ten miles of London; they were forbidden from receiving commissions in the navy or army and from working as doctors, lawyers, and clerks; Protestants entertaining or employing known Catholics were fined; Catholic homes could be searched at will, and Catholics were forbidden from owning armor or guns.16
The treatment of Henry Garnet, a Jesuit and one of the chief conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, reveals the depths of Londoners’ contempt for traitors and their rage over the Catholic- led effort to attack the English government. It took a jury only fifteen minutes to convict him of treason, and that was how long the executioner let him hang before Garnet’s heart was cut out and shown to the crowd that filled St. Paul’s churchyard—a poetic location for his execution if ever there was one. Garnet’s limbs were severed and displayed to the spectators as well, and his head cut off and impaled on a stake on London Bridge to serve as a warning to other would- be traitors.17 When Rev. Crashaw preached at St. Paul’s Cross against Catholic enemies, his audience would have easily remembered they were standing where the blood of men such as Garnet—an English Catholic and traitor to his country and king—was spilled.
It was this city, of William Crashaw and William Shakespeare, of sophisticated gentlemen and indigent laborers, of bear- baiting and Catholic hating, that imagined and made England’s first empire. Men like Sir Thomas Smythe saw riches and glory in America, and he convinced fellow businessmen to wager their money there; Rev. Symonds and his followers interpreted it as a call to fulfill God’s greatest design for En gland; and the out- of- work, wishful artisans and laborers, along with more than a few of the criminals, agreed to sail the Atlantic, dreaming, like Smythe and Symonds, of a new life in Virginia.
And what a fanciful dream it was. Virginia would fulfill the noble ambitions that advocates of colonization had promoted for decades: "the advancement of Gods glorie, the renowne of his Majestie, and the good of your Countrie."18 It would provide a passage to the Far East and easy access to the world’s most desirable markets. Englishmen might discover in Virginia another Mexico, filled with gold and silver mines. Certainly, they believed, they would find endless numbers of "merchantable" commodities, including flax, hemp, silkworms, alum, pitch, tar, turpentine, cedar, walnuts, deer, iron, copper, pearls, dyes, and sugar cane.19 From this new Eden, England could create a self- sufficient economy, or as promoters explained: "our monies and wares that nowe run into the handes of our adversaries or cowld frendes shall passe unto our frendes and naturall kinsmen and from them likewise we shall receive . . . our necessities." Using the rich resources available in Virginia, England would also build fleets of ships and use them to expand their maritime interests and defend themselves against foreign rivals. And as Walter Raleigh had promised, "hee that commaunds the sea, commaunds the trade, and hee that is Lord of the Trade of the world is lord of the wealth of the worlde."20
Advocates for colonizing Virginia also promised many rewards beyond the strictly Financial. "True" Christians would convert the "heathen" Indians and introduce them to government and civilization.21 Down- and- out English subjects could escape the poverty and disease rampant in London and start over in a bounteous, healthy land, where barley and oats grew even when "but fallen casually in the woorst sort of ground." Becoming colonists would be good for artisans unable to compete for jobs in London. Criminals could work for a new life rather than simply rotting in jail. And ex- soldiers had another chance for glory without hiring themselves out as mercenaries. Such men could "rather chose to spend themselves in seeking a new world, than servilely to be hired but as slaughterers in the quarrels of strangers." And, of course, success in Virginia would speed the demise of Spain’s domination of the Americas. En gland’s cruel, Catholic enemies would at last be defeated.22 By way of Virginia, England might rule the world.
Efforts to fulfill those incredible promises began with a simple document. King James issued the charter, or "letters patent," that created the Virginia Company and the American colony on April 10, 1606. It actually defined the boundaries and purposes of two colonies, overseen by two separate organizations: one based in London and the other in Plymouth. With the stroke of a pen, James gave the two companies’ leaders full rights to "Virginia"—which at the time meant most of the territory north of Spanish Florida. Specifically, they were allowed to found settlements anywhere between the 34° and 45° north latitude, which was, in essence, from the Cape Fear River in North Carolina through Maine. To avoid any potential conflict between the two groups, the London branch was allowed to create its colony only between the 34° and 41° (somewhere between the Cape Fear and New York City), while the Plymouth group was supposed to settle between the 38° and 45° (more or less from the Potomac River to Bangor, Maine). To guard against overlapping claims, the two groups were required to establish settlements at least one hundred miles apart.23
According to the charter, eight men, four in London and four in Plymouth, would lead "divers others of our loving subjects" in attempting "to deduce a colony of sundry of our people into that part of America, commonly called Virginia." Thomas Gates, George Somers, Richard Hakluyt, and Edward Maria Wingfield were the named members of the London operation. Thomas Hanham, Raleigh Gilbert (the son of Humphrey Gilbert and nephew of Walter Raleigh), William Parker, and George Popham ran things out of Plymouth, for "all others of the towne of Plymouth in the countie of Devon and elsewhere" in the West Country.24
George Popham headed the Plymouth group, and he got them off to a quick start. Referred to in the charter as the "second colony," they, not the Londoners, actually commissioned the first expedition. Henry Challons, sailing the Richard from Plymouth with thirty- one men and bound for the northern regions of Virginia, made it as far as the Straits of Florida before being captured by the Spanish in November 1606 (a month before the London group sent out their first ships). The men on board the Richard were imprisoned and the ship sank. It was a total loss to the Plymouth investors, who never fully recovered from that setback. They tried again in June 1607. George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert went themselves this time, along with a hundred or so settlers, to make sure the effort succeeded. Their colony, Sagadahoc, was short- lived. Popham died in February 1608, and Gilbert and the remaining colonists, now fewer than fifty in number, abandoned America after less than a year, escaping on a pinnace they built there, called the Virginia. The effort for a "second colony" and the idea of a separate Plymouth group of colonial investors collapsed by the summer of 1608.25
As the brief and unhappy experience of the Plymouth group demonstrated, there was a lot more involved in making a colonial dream a reality than simply convincing King James to sign some papers. To be certain, the London group had several advantages over the Plymouth group. The men behind the company were an exceptionally talented—and, it turned out, lucky—lot. Together Thomas Gates, George Somers, and Edward Maria Wingfield had served in virtually every significant foreign cause over the past two de cades. Wingfield was a fierce soldier and former prisoner of war who had fought in the Netherlands and in Ireland. Somers had spent most of his life at sea, sailing the Atlantic like Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh and commanding raids in the Ca rib be an before taking a seat in Parliament. Gates had also fought in the Caribbean and the Netherlands; he studied law at Gray’s Inn and served as ambassador to Vienna. Hakluyt, London’s famous chronicler of foreign travels and tireless advocate for New World colonies, completed the group. Collectively these four men understood intimately what it would take—in terms of public promotions, domestic and international negotiations, seafaring, and sheer force—to make Virginia happen. In a brilliant move they brought on London’s greatest businessman, Thomas Smythe, to oversee operations. And to transport the first voyagers they hired their nation’s most experienced captain: Christopher Newport.
Still, believing that Virginia could work required a great leap of faith, for despite all their talents and experience, these men and their project confronted a long history of ill- fated ventures.
The men who acquired the 1606 patent from King James and oversaw the company it created knew well the bleak past of English efforts in America. Many others had tried before them, and all had failed. No one understood that history better than Richard Hakluyt the younger. He was the nation’s most prolific compiler of travel narratives, and mariners carried his works around the world, finding in them inspiration and guidance. He was also, along with the elder kinsman who shared his name, a vigorous promoter of colonies—as opposed to simply overseas trading ventures. He felt certain that settling English citizens in America would pay his country rich dividends, and he used his skills as a writer and connections at court to push that dream, knowing well that the odds were not in his favor.26
Famous explorers, including the half brothers Walter Raleigh and Humphrey Gilbert, tried to carry out the plans of men like Hakluyt in the late Elizabethan era, with generally demoralizing outcomes. In 1578, Elizabeth granted Gilbert the right to explore America, which he did, raising the ire of Spain and achieving nothing of consequence for En gland. Gilbert tried to claim Newfoundland, but the English, just like the French, Spanish, and Portuguese who also .shed there, could not or would not spare the forces truly necessary to control the trade. He paid for his ambitions with his life. On his way home from Newfoundland in September of 1583, Gilbert was lost at sea.27
Raleigh took over Gilbert’s charter upon his death, and, with the help of his friend Richard Hakluyt, managed to convince Queen Elizabeth to let them attempt a settlement in America. In 1585, one hundred or so English subjects settled the Roanoke colony, on a small island off the coast of present- day North Carolina. But they had bad luck almost from the start: infertile soil kept them from feeding themselves, and the Indians, quickly disgusted with the colonists and hoping to starve them out, withheld corn. The beleaguered colonists left the colony in 1586, hitching a ride with English privateers on their way home from raiding in the Ca rib be an. A second group of colonists were deposited in Roanoke the following year, with promises of a speedy return with more supplies. But fate intervened. England and Spain were in a full- scale war by that time, which kept ships and men otherwise occupied for several years. Raleigh finally sent relief only to find the settlement abandoned again, the colonists’ fate then as now unknown. Raleigh’s destiny is known: King James had him arrested in 1603, retained in the Tower of London for thirteen years, and eventually beheaded.28
So while in some quarters enthusiasm for an American colony was strong, the experiences of men who pursued those ambitions were hardly encouraging. When King James took the throne in 1603, decades of plans and expeditions had done little more than invite the wrath of Spain and imperil the lives of sailors. Certainly privateers had made money raiding Spanish ships in the Caribbean, and the fishing off Newfoundland was profitable. But after forty years of talking and trying, the English still had established no colonies in the Americas. In fact, they had failed in every Atlantic enterprise they had tried before 1600. In addition to the debacle in Roanoke, they had pursued futile efforts to discover a Northwest Passage, claim a share of Caribbean trades, and traffic in African slaves. Their sole "success" came in the costly, bloody conquest of Ireland.29
Such failures had not deterred the likes of Smythe and Hakluyt. In the face of nearly unequivocal failure, they and a small cohort of merchants and gentlemen continued to keep faith that England could not only break into but eventually control the high seas— and with it, America.
In the five years just before the chartering of the Virginia Company, London’s merchants had seen a modest reversal of fortune. They started by successfully challenging Dutch and Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade through the East India Company, which was chartered in December 1600. The first profitable cargoes from that enterprise arrived in London in 1603, and the second followed in 1606. Merchants’ experiences with the East India Company gave them hope for the Virginia Company. Many of the same men invested in both projects, and profits from the former encouraged them to pursue the latter. The men who funded both ventures also learned from the East India Company to be patient. Between 1600 and 1606, leaders struggled with shortfalls in capital and subscribers reluctant to pay what they had pledged. The years between the first and second fleets were quite lean, and some nervous investors pulled out.30 But the resolve of men like Smythe did not falter, and their persistence paid off: by 1606 the East India Company was profitable and the principal backers rich and renowned. Those first difficult years provided a lesson in resolve that the Virginia Company’s leaders would need in spades.
Of course, Virginia marked a major shift for London’s merchants, from running trading enterprises to creating a colony. The motivations for their other companies were fairly simple: to bring lucrative goods to En gland and sell English wares abroad. But founding a colony was another matter entirely. Colonies required more money and wider public support and needed to balance the ambitions of both the architects of the effort and the people on the ground.
A successful expedition to the coast of North America in 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold gave English entrepreneurs the confidence that they could make this transition. The happy news that Gosnold’s crew brought back fueled enthusiasm for adventuring to North America. The northern coastline was so filled with valuable fish that Gosnold named it "Cape Cod." One of the men traveling with him published a tract praising the wonderful potential of colonizing the region: it overflowed with trees to be harvested and animals to be hunted and afforded "the greatest fishing of the world." While extracting all the natural resources, the English could, the author assured his readers, "plant Christian people and religion."31
And yet for every success, there seemed to be a disheartening setback. Just months after Gosnold’s much- celebrated voyage, Captain Bartholomew Gilbert sailed to America, but never saw home again. Gilbert and several of his men had just made it onto the shore when "the Indians set upon them." They died within sight of the rest of the crew, which "had much a doe to save themselves and [their ship]." The survivors made it home in late September 1603; the depressing stories they circulated around London stood in sharp contrast to the cheery Gosnold reports.32
London’s Fishmongers’ Company could not even get their ship out into the Atlantic. In March 1606, just a month before James issued the Virginia Company charter, a group of merchants, including members of the Fishmongers’ Company, pooled their resources and hired a ship and captain to exploit the rich fishing grounds off the northern coast of America. But the captain turned out to be a crook. He stole supplies from the ship and sold them, pocketing the money. At one port, he "invited many of the towne on borde to drincke and make merry." It was quite a party: the crew and some thirty guests consumed a hogshead of beer in a single night. The captain, meanwhile, "interteyned" three young "maide servantes." While escorting them back to shore he ordered a cannon .red, whereupon the incompetent crew aimed in the wrong direction and "tore downe" the upper deck. He was finally arrested, but not before all the fishmongers’ resources had been squandered.33
There was, then, much to lose in wagering on America. But the leaders of the Virginia Company were sure there was also much to gain, and by the winter of 1606 they were ready to take their chance.
The playwrights so popular in London had a field day with the wild promises made about America. In 1605, the play Eastward Hoe! went through three printings, demonstrating the popularity of the farcical depiction of pompous adventurers and drunken sailors exaggerating their Atlantic exploits. Blowhard caricatures of men like Hakluyt and Smythe bragged that, thanks to bounteous riches from the New World, even "their chamberpotts are pure gould" and "all the prisoners they take are fetered in gold."34 For years, Virginia backers would struggle against the "jests of prophane players and other sycophants." Ministers in particular disdained the playwrights and actors who lampooned colonization, calling them "the scum & dregs of the earth." Such denunciation did nothing to temper the popularity of the theater; one contemptuous cleric regretted "some profane persons affirm they can learn as much both for edifying and example at a play, as at a sermon." And what Londoners learned from plays like Eastward Hoe! Was that Virginia was not a paradise, but a joke.35
King James was not quite the friend that Gates, Somers, Wingfield, and Hakluyt needed, either. At first, the accession of James had seemed like an unqualified advantage to the businessmen and explorers eager to colonize America. As long as Elizabeth reigned, Sir Walter Raleigh still retained his exclusive claim to the North American mainland. James changed all that by simply revoking Raleigh’s patent. James also negotiated peace with Spain, which helped open the door for the English to settle in America.36
But then the new king’s first publication after taking the throne denounced tobacco, one of the New World’s most lucrative commodities.37 And James, just like Elizabeth, concerned himself foremost with Europe an power politics; overseas commercial pursuits finished a distant second, and he rejected ideas that threatened his diplomatic agenda. The charter he issued, for example, affirmed Spanish sovereignty over the parts of America they settled and forbade his subjects from entering any such territory. And he offered no financial support to the Virginia Company and no assurance that he would defend them in case of Spanish invasion. Chartering the company was as far as he would go, and even that required a good deal of cajoling. Christopher Newport tried courting the king’s favor, bringing two crocodiles and a boar back from the Ca rib be an in 1605 and presenting them to James at court. The gesture delighted the king but did little to reorder his priorities.38
As they planned their colony, company leaders made a number of missteps that turned out to be far more damaging to their prospects than the playwrights’ jeers or the king’s caution. The governmental structure laid out by the charter in 1606 was overly complicated and an invitation to corruption and chaos. They also failed to exploit the religious zeal and strident anti- Catholicism of the ministers at St. Paul’s Cross.39
Dreams of an Edenic Virginia furthered their undoing in 1606 and 1607. The men who designed the colony in England appeared to have no idea about the reality that would face the settlers they sent over. The charter spent an inordinate amount of time describing the seal of the colony (which, of course, bore King James’s likeness), and the design of the government went into elaborate detail about inheritance laws and judicial processes.40 The orders drafted by the Virginia Council, the thirteen- man governing body of the company, for organizing their colony were equally unrealistic. They called for the orderly division of men into three work groups: some would construct buildings, some plant food, some serve as guards. As for the colonists’ housing, they were advised "to set your houses even and by a line, that your streets may have a good breadth, and be carried square about your market place, and every street’s end opening into it." So certain were members of the company of the terrific natural resources in Virginia and the ease with which they could be acquired that they directed Captain Christopher Newport, on his return from Virginia, to bring home "ships full laden with good merchandizes."41
The men in London completely misunderstood the native Virginians. The charter gave the colonists full rights to "all the lands, woods, soil, grounds, havens, ports, rivers, mines, minerals, marshes, waters, fishings, commodities, and hereditaments, whatsoever." What of the Indian nations living in those regions? They were dismissed as "such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God." Furthermore, the charter promised, the colonists coming to America "may in time bring the infidels and savages, living in those parts, to human civility, and to a settled and quiet government."42 This proved to be as disastrous an idea as it was arrogant.
Finally, Virginia enthusiasts failed to secure widespread public support for their colonial plans. A 1605 petition to Parliament seeking assent to an American enterprise called for the proposed colony to be publicly funded. It was more likely, the petitioners reasoned, that "better men of [be]haviour and qualitie will ingage themselves in a publique service, which carrieth more reputacon with it, then a private, which is for the most parte ignominious in the end." The petitioners were so ambitious as to believe that, with the nation behind colonizing Virginia, quick profits would make it "no harde matter . . . to persuade every County according to the proportion of bignes and abilitie to builde barkes and shippes of a compotent size and to maintaine them."43
None of this happened in 1606. Parliament passed on funding the venture, and the Crown also withheld financial support— although it retained the right to one- fifth of any gold or silver found in the colony. The company did not even appear to solicit investments from the general public. Instead, the work of launching the American colony fell to a small group of men, undertaking an adventure, as one observer put it, "as rather beseemed a whole State and Commonwealth to take in hand." Small wonder, then, that many Londoners concluded that settling a colony in Virginia "was a thing seeming strange and doubtfull in the eye of the World."44
And then there was the small matter of Spain.
The Spanish ambassador in London, Don Pedro de Zúñiga, took a dim view of the Virginia Company’s intention to blatantly violate his country’s claim over America. The Spanish, as one diplomat put it, looked out for their American interests "with no less watchful eyes than to the government of their own wives." Not surprisingly, then, as soon as Zúñiga heard about the Virginia undertaking in the early spring of 1606, he sought an audience with James to demand that the king compel his subjects to cease their illegal behavior. He also immediately wrote his sovereign, Philip III, about the necessity of stopping the project in its tracks.45
How exactly Spain might go about doing so was the problem. Communications between London and Madrid were slow and unreliable, and Philip, no less than James, wanted to avoid another war. Moreover, officials in Madrid, like their counterparts in London, knew how often Englishmen had failed in executing such bold ideas. There was every reason to believe that the Virginia colonists would doom themselves, as others before them had done, without any need for a Spanish assault.
As plans for Virginia moved from mere conversations in Smythe’s home to the actual loading of the ships bound for America, Philip and Ambassador Zúñiga remained unable to decide "what steps had best be taken to prevent" the settlement of Virginia without inviting open conflict. Even after the first colonists arrived in America, Spanish officials were still struggling to acquire accurate information from London and get Philip to act so that "with all necessary forces this plan of the English should be prevented." By that time, however, the plan had become a reality.46
Diplomacy was, of course, hardly Spain’s only weapon. Philip commanded an awesome military, which could easily destroy the tiny outpost that the English set up in the midst of Spain’s vast American empire. Yet, despite the pleas of Zúñiga and other advisers, Philip delayed responding. Ambassador Zúñiga found himself totally exasperated with King James for permitting "his subjects to try and disturb the seas, coasts, and lands of the Indies" and with his own King Philip for refusing to simply quash the colony.47
Spanish inaction in 1606 and 1607 must have puzzled Virginia Company leaders who, when they sent out the first colonists, felt deeply (and rightly so) fearful of a full- out attack. James’s responses to Ambassador Zúñiga, who repeatedly sought an audience to personally protest the plans to violate Spain’s rights, while quite savvy, could not have eased their suspicions. Far from defending the enterprise, James told Zúñiga "that those who went, did it at their own risk and . . . there would be no complaint should they be punished." 48 This cleverly distanced James from what Zúñiga insisted was an unlawful, belligerent act. It also bought the Virginia Company precious time, as Zúñiga and officials in Madrid struggled to decide on an appropriate response to this apparently extralegal colony. At the same time, James affirmed that he intended to go no further in militarily defending the Virginia venture than was mandated by his charter—which was to say not at all.
That Spain neither demanded an end to the Virginia Company before the first boat sailed nor raided and destroyed the settlement once it was founded arguably turned out to be the greatest diplomatic failure of Philip’s reign and the greatest gift the Virginia Company ever received. And in truth they needed all the help they could get.
When the ships commissioned to sail to America were "victualed, riged, and furnished for the said voyage," Virginia Company leaders asked Christopher Newport to take "the sole charge to appoint such captains, soldiers, and marriners as shall either command, or be shiped to pass in the said ships or pinnace." Newport was clearly the best man for the job. By 1606, he had acquired more experience sailing the Atlantic than any captain in England. He had fought the Portuguese off the coast of Brazil, raided Spanish ships in the Caribbean, and even explored Florida. Despite losing his right arm while fighting in the Caribbean, Newport remained a fearless, adroit captain, who rightly held the respect of his employers and his crews. Thomas Smythe and the other leaders of the Virginia Company trusted him to safely carry the first colonists to America. From the time the ships left port until they reached Virginia, he alone retained "sole charge and command" of the entire enterprise—which, as it turned out, was not very impressive.49
For all their dreams and promises, the Virginia Company sent forth quite a modest force. More an expedition than the foundation of a full- scale settlement, the first band of colonists numbered barely a hundred men, with four boys and no women. Three small ships could carry everyone and all their supplies. The three vessels left London on December 20, 1606. The Susan Constant, captained by Newport and lead ship in the convoy, was just over 115 feet long. The Godspeed, under command of the experienced Bartholomew Gosnold, measured less than seventy feet long and fifteen feet across at its widest. The fifty- foot Discovery was a pinnace under the direction of Captain John Ratcliffe. Thirty- nine crewmen crowded onto the ships with the hundred or so colonists.50
Excerpted from The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith
Copyright @ 2008 by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith
Published in 2008 by Publisher H.B. Fenn and Compnay Ltd
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly probited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
List of Illustrations
Ch. 1 London Dreams 9
Ch. 2 "A Grand Enterprise" 37
Ch. 3 Voyage to Hell 76
Ch. 4 Distressing News 97
Ch. 5 The "Isle of Devils" 124
Ch. 6 Trouble in Paradise 149
Ch. 7 Jamestown Starving 171
Ch. 8 Redemption in Virginia 186
Ch. 9 God Is English 212
Ch. 10 "O Brave New World" 245
Posted January 3, 2013
A fascinating bit of history that is often left out. This book gives the full context of the Jamestown Colony - the basic idea is that the colony was a failure until London finally decided to actually send enough colonists and enough supplies over. The writing is interesting, although it's occasionally repetitive.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 6, 2010
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Posted August 1, 2009
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Posted April 4, 2011
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Posted December 13, 2009
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