Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The Voyage and Wreck of The Sea Venture
Model of the Sea Venture in Bermuda Maritime Museum
As I have outlined in previous installments, in the spring of 1609 news from the Jamestown Colony in Virginia was bleak. The colony needed more able-bodied workers, soldiers, food, supplies, and money. The Virginia Company council enlisted churchmen to give sermons on the necessity of colonial “outreach” and used contacts in the Stationers’ Guild to rush these sermons and other pro-Virginia propaganda to press. With hordes of new investors, and a sweeping re-chartering of the enterprise on May 23, 1609, the funds were in place to roll out the Third Supply mission, as it was formally named. Sea vessels were already under construction and now were rushed to completion.
The 1609 fleet comprised eight ships, of which the flagship was the Sea Venture, built by master shipwright, Christopher Newport. The three men in charge of the mission were Admiral Sir George Somers, Samuel Jordan, and Sir Thomas Gates. On board the ships were as many as 600 people. The Sea Venture is said to have been England’s first built-to-order emigration vessel…a tradition that climaxed in the industrial age when thousands of Scots and Irish were forcibly uprooted and relocated to Nova Scotia and other destinations. The Sea Venture displaced 300 tons and had an innovative new design that placed her 24 defensive cannons on the main deck. However, with all this high technology employed, the Sea Venture’s fate was similar to the ill-fated Titanic. Both vessels did not survive their maiden voyages.
The Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth on June 2, 1609, bound for Jamestown, Virginia. Everything was going smoothly until the flotilla ran into a monstrous hurricane. By July 24, the winds had driven the vessels apart from each other and it was each ship for herself. Because the Sea Venture was brand new, the caulking and joining was still loose and the great vessel began coming apart and leaking. They threw the heavy guns overboard. On July 25, with water in the hold rising fast, Admiral Somers spotted land and purposely drove the ship ashore. He wrecked his vessel but discovered Bermuda.
Bermuda's 1987 commemorative $5 coin shows wreck of the Sea Venture
About 150 survivors made it safely to shore, including Lieutenant-General Gates, Christopher Newport, Sylvester Jordain, and the voyage’s clerk, William Strachey. The shipwrecked band stayed on Bermuda (at first called the Somers Isles) for about nine months. Most of their time was spent disassembling what was left of the Sea Venture and using the salvaged rigging, hardware, and other materials -- along with cedar timber from the island -- to build two small ships, which they named the Deliverance and the Patience. The company also sent out one Henry Ravens and a crew in a small boat to try to find the way to Virginia. They were never heard from again. Thus begins the saga of the Bermuda Triangle. Mariners, Steer Clear!
On May 10, 1610, almost a year after setting out from England, the Sea Venture survivors boarded the Deliverance and the Patience and set a course to Virginia, arriving without complications on May 23, 1610. Quite a few Sea Venture colonists had died and were buried in Bermuda including the wife of John Rolfe. This unexpected widower-hood allowed him to woo and win the abducted Pocahontas a few years later. To maintain the Crown’s claim on Bermuda, two colonists were left behind to keep the fort.
National flag of Bermuda and close-up of the Bermuda arms, which show the wreck of the Sea Venture.
Arriving in Jamestown, the Virginia Company discovered that there were only about 60 survivors from the 500 who were crossing on the other ships of the fleet. Many of the original colonists had also died. The time was called the “Great Starving” and was the darkest period in Jamestown’s history. As the emigration of skilled workers was one of the prime reasons for the re-supply mission, this was nothing short of a second disaster. The officers decided the project and plantation was doomed for the moment. They decided to abandon the colony and ship all survivors back to London. So much for stiff upper lips and steely resolve.
But wait, just as the cowardly brigade was sailing down the James River for open seas, they encountered the relief mission of Governor Baron De La Warre! He talked sense into the scurrying scurvy lot, and all turned around back to Jamestown. Needing more fresh food, Admiral Somers volunteered himself to return to Bermuda on the Patience to secure more wild pig. However, Somers died in Bermuda in 1610.
The misadventures of the Sea Venture flotilla were documented by two of the participants, Sylvester Jordain, and William Strachey.
Sylvester Jordain's A Discovery of the Barmudas was printed in 1610. Title page below.
William Strachey’s account (in the form of a letter) wasn’t printed until 1625 (in Purchas his Pilgrimes. v.4. by Samuel Purchas, London, 1625). It is widely known and referenced as "A true reportory..."
It has been a commonplace in English literary criticism that Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, was modeled on these accounts. If this were true, Shakespeare would have had to have seen Strachey’s report in manuscript. However, this common wisdom is almost certainly a falsity. A monumental error. The argument that Shakespeare used these texts would appear to rest on actual similarities between the historical accounts and the narrative in The Tempest.
Research published in the last ten years shows that these alleged parallels are false. Other, earlier books show stronger parallels, and that the likely existence of a staged version of The Tempest, circa 1600, or nine years before the wreck of the Sea Venture, makes such speculation moot.
Here are some web resources if you are interested in looking into this complex matter more closely.
Researcher Nina Green has published an excellent 94-page paper on the web (note- it’s in PDF format) rebutting the claims of Dave Kathman, who is a defender of the Strachey-influenced-Tempest theory. Nina’s argument is comprehensive and well referenced.
Dr. Roger Stritmatter and co-author Lynne Kositsky offered a fresh look on the Strachey claim in 2007: "Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited " Review of English Studies, 2007; 58: 447-472.
Stritmatter and Kositsky wrote another article, "Dating The Tempest: A Note on the Undocumented Influence of Erasmus' "Naufragium" and Richard Eden's 1555 Decades of the New World." This is on the web here: http://www.shakespearefellowship.org/virtualclassroom/tempest/kositsky-stritmatter%20Tempest%20Table.htm
And a summary by my colleague, Mark Anderson here:
The standard view is found in Alden T. Vaughan: William Strachey's "True Reportory" and Shakespeare: A Closer Look at the Evidence Shakespeare Quarterly - Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3, Fall 2008
And, on the web, Dave Kathman's foaming diatribe:
In sum, the voyage and wreck of the Sea Venture was a momentous event in the history of America, of the emerging British Empire, and of the island of Bermuda. The one hero in the mix, De La Warre, became the namesake of the State of Delaware.
Robert Sean Brazil c. June 2, 2009