Thursday, December 23, 2004


The journey to save Jamestown


The Virginia Gazette
By Paul Aron
December 22, 2004

As 2007 approaches, the nation will focus on the three famous ships that carried British settlers to Jamestown. Yet it was another journey to Jamestown, begun two years later, that nearly killed several major figures in the colony.

While some historians credit the later voyage with saving the starving settlement, it ended by almost abandoning the colony altogether.

The tale, one of a shipwreck, castaways, murder, mutinies and mystery, played out off the North Carolina coast and reverberated in Virginia and London, perhaps even pushing the quill of William Shakespeare.

The mission
The Sea Venture left England in June 1609, one of eight ships bound for Jamestown. George Somers was in command. His mission was to bring supplies and settlers to the colony in Virginia.

Somers was an admiral in the British Navy who had defended the Irish coast against the Spanish. He was also a privateer in the Azores and in South America, where he looted Spanish colonies and ships.

In London, he met members of Shakespeare's company, including the famous playwright. He also met members of the Virginia Company and became one of its officers. He invested some of his overseas plunder in the company as it made plans to explore and colonize North America.

So it was that in 1609 Somers set sail from Plymouth Harbor to bring supplies and settlers to the fledgling colony at Jamestown. He commanded the largest fleet to set out for Virginia.

Somers was on board the 300-ton Sea Venture, as were Thomas Gates, who had been appointed governor of the colony, and Christopher Newport, who had already captained three voyages to Jamestown, including the first.

Newport was well aware of the dangers, but he was confident they were leaving early enough in the shipping season to beat any tropical storms.

On June 2, the passengers who boarded included artisans, farmers and a few gentlemen and ladies accompanied by their servants. Among them was John Rolfe, who would later marry Pocahontas.

All told, there were 150 passengers and crew on board. Rather than the usual southern swoop by the West Indies, the fleet followed a more direct route to Virginia. By staying farther north, Somers hoped to shorten the trip and, more importantly, avoid the Spanish. It almost worked.

They were only about seven or eight days from Virginia when on Monday, July 23, the sky darkened.

The storm
Morning brought little light and deafening winds roaring in from the northeast. William Strachey, one of the passengers, described it in his 1610 account, “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight.”

The storm, Strachey wrote, “was not only more terrible but more constant, fury added to fury.” The Sea Venture was towing a small pinnace, the Virginia, which seemed as likely to smash into it as to follow it.

Somers decided it was safer to cut it loose. That was the last they saw of the Virginia, and they must have feared they would never see the colony after which it was named.

Even the more experienced travelers were, according to Strachey, “not a little shaken.” Almost everyone on board became wretchedly seasick. Passengers were praying or screaming, but you couldn't hear them.

The wind drowned out other sounds. Somers ordered eight men to try to hold the whipstaff, the lower end of which was connected to the tiller, but it was impossible to steer the ship.

The lever whipped back and forth so quickly that it bruised many of the men and eventually detached itself and smashed into pieces, one of which hit Somers.

The rain kept coming Strachey had been in storms before, in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, but this was different. “All that I had ever suffered gathered together might not hold comparison with this,” he wrote. “There was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.”

The rain kept coming. “Waters like whole rivers did flood in the air,” he added. Worse, the water was coming in from below as well as from above. The Sea Venture had apparently sprung a leak, in fact a lot of them.

By Wednesday, the water had risen nearly five feet, and the crew feared they were as likely to be drowned in the ship as in the sea. Frantically, holding candles above the rising water, they searched for holes, plugging them with whatever was hand, in one case a slab of beef.

Somers quickly divided the crew and passengers into three groups, about 45 men in each, and assigned the groups to sections of the ship. The men took turns bailing and pumping until the pumps gave out. They worked for an hour, gentlemen and commoners, officers as well as crew, then rested an hour.

This went on for three days and three nights, with no stopping to sleep or eat. There was little to eat anyway, since the food and drink in the hold was under water. All told, Strachey guessed, they returned 2,000 tons of water to the sea. They also tossed overboard much of their food and luggage. But the water kept rising, reaching their chests as they continued to bail.

However many leaks they plugged, there were more, or maybe one large one no one could find. St. Elmo's Fire On Thursday night Somers spotted what Strachey described as “an apparition of a little, round light, like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze.” It seemed to start halfway up the main mast and then shoot across the ropes toward the ship's sides and, sometimes, back again. This lasted three or four hours. There wasn't enough light to see anything, but passengers and crew alike “observed it with much wonder and carefulness.” By morning, it was over.

These jets of light were known as St. Elmo's Fire, and Somers may have rightly seen them as a hopeful sign. The atmosphere did not usually become so charged with electricity until near the end of a storm.

And Friday morning the skies did clear, and the rain slowed to a misty drizzle. But the water was now 10 feet high in parts of the ship, and the Sea Venture seemed likely to sink within hours. In despair, the men stopped bailing.

They opened what little was left to drink, “taking their last leave one of the other until their more joyful and happy meeting in a more blessed world,” wrote Silvester Jourdain, another passenger, in “A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils.”

Jourdain's fellow passengers “committed themselves to the mercy of the sea.” Exhausted, most of them fell asleep wherever they happened to be.

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