The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith may be the most significant book I will ever read.
The significance goes back fifteen years. I was young—twenty-one. At least, that is my story. I was young and dumb and, well, I met a woman who rocked my world. She was something else, entirely—all woman. I had never been with one before. I was hooked and I held on.
We began living together after a few months. Conjuring Nic Cage in Raising Arizona, I would say those were the salad days. A few months after that, we were pregnant and—once again conjuring Raising Arizona—things changed. The story is so common it is cliché, but I lived it and it felt entirely uncommon to me. I simply did not know how to handle a marriage; fatherhood; a career. I never had a good role model. My parents split before I could even remember. The last time my mother was my primary care giver was first grade. The last time my dad took care of me was second grade. I was married when my daughter was a year old and my thirteenth anniversary will pass with divorce papers on file.
Things were rocky for years. I was out of the house briefly in 2001. We talked about ending it in 2003. We were living separately in 2007, for a time. We stayed for the kid and that was probably a mistake, but it was one of those things that I could not be told—do not stay for the kid—I had to live it. I was immature. I had to grow. For my part, I tried, but trying was not enough in the end. As Yoda says, Do or Do Not.
And what the hell does all this have to do with The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown? Well, the mother of the future ex-Mrs. Ed Nerd has, year after year, been gracious enough to include us in her vacation plans. This year, it was a family gathering in the historic triangle of Virginia—Williamsburg, specifically. Thirteen fateful years before, we actually honeymooned at the Williamsburg Inn—a gorgeous 5-star hotel with a performer in period costume playing a glass armonica in the lobby. The glass armonica, incidentally, was invented by Benjamin Franklin.
Williamsburg served as the Colonial Capitol of Virginia from 1699—from 1607, the capitol was Jamestown—until 1780. Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was the Governor when they decided to move to Richmond. Another historical figure made a little more solid during my trip to Williamsburg was the pirate, Blackbeard. As a man, Blackbeard may have been called Edward Teach or Thatch. However, as Blackbeard, he knew how to put on a show. Apparently, he was fond of rolling lit hemp—that is what the ghost tour guide said, hemp—in his beard before boarding his victims’ ships. He had a fifty-fifty arrangement with the local Governor at the time, but broke it when he tried to woo the Governor’s daughter by sending her the severed hands of her fiancé.
Enter Robert Maynard who devised a plan to lure Blackbeard onto a ship and then surprise him with reinforcements hidden in empty wine barrels and crates. Blackbeard was shot and beheaded. His men were executed in Williamsburg. Allegedly, Blackbeard’s corpse floated around the ship three times after being thrown overboard and before sinking. His skull has since become a point of mystery. The skull was displayed as a warning to other pirates before decaying and ultimately ending up with Maynard. Apparently, the skull got so much use as a souvenir that they had part of it encased in silver and used it as a kind of goblet. Mysteriously, of course, the skull disappeared. Those who care, theorize the skull may still reside with a fraternity at the University of Virginia or the College of William and Mary. Incidentally, the College of William and Mary was founded under the banner of the Church of England and is the second oldest college in the United States, behind Harvard—founded by reformers within the Church of England, who we know today as Puritans.
Anyway, a trip to Jamestown was in order and we decided to pick a 111-degree day to go. If only an air-conditioned snack shop existed to greet the first Jamestown settlers in 1607. Things would have been a lot easier for them. It made things just a little easier for us. My daughter picked up a replica flintlock hand gun as a souvenir from the air-conditioned gift shop. I picked up a book and that book can be no other: The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown. It was one of many books in the gift shop. I had never heard of it before.
I have to shamefully admit that my strongest perceptions of Jamestown, prior to reading the book, were from Disney’s ‘Pocahontas.’ John Smith, after he had already published his maps and accounts of Jamestown and after he had already published his maps and accounts of what he called New England, wrote about Pocahontas saving his neck only after she arrived in England, a celebrity, as Mrs. John Rolfe. She took the name Rebecca upon her baptism. Incidentally, John Rolfe was the first man responsible for loading a ship with tobacco in Virginia and sending it on to England.
John Smith led Jamestown for its first couple of years. It was not a land of milk and honey, but they were getting by. Smith forged a heavy-handed, but stable relationship with the locals. However, the privately-held, royally chartered Company of Virginia wanted to see Jamestown thrive as soon as possible. They were not necessarily under delusions that they would turn a profit immediately, but by 1609, they sent a fleet of ships to bolster Jamestown’s fortune-making potential. The lead ship, the Sea Venture, carried three very important men—Captain Christopher “Newport News” Newport, Admiral “St. George” George Somers, and Governor Thomas Gates—and one scribe.
William Strachey wanted to be in show business. He knew Ben Johnson and was probably acquainted with Williams Shakespeare. In 1609, he was on the Sea Venture when the ship ran into a hurricane. The other ships in the fleet were able to avoid the storm, but the Sea Venture was caught in the middle. The mast was broken and the ship was taking on water. The entirety of the ship—all social strata—took turns bailing water until hope seemed lost. And then, of course, land appeared. And it was not just any land, but a special land we now know as Bermuda. It was not unknown at the time. It was called the Isle of Devils and was not easily approachable because of surrounding coral reefs. However, it was uninhabited.
Blindly, luckily, the Sea Venture shipwrecked in such a way that all the supplies, tools, and ship hardware could be salvaged. For ten months, the castaways labored to build two ships from the wreckage and the abundant cedar on the island. The first ship was started by Gates, but then Somers suggested they build another. Gates ship was called the Deliverance. Somers’ ship was called Patience and was made entirely of wood.
Bermuda truly was the land of milk and honey. Food and shelter was abundant from the beginning. The trip was even immediately profitable after the castaways happened on a one-hundred pound chunk of ambergris. Ambergris is some kind of sperm whale by-product used in perfumes back in England. By Strachey’s account, the time in Bermuda was downright pleasant for the castaways. Some became so enamored of the island that they mutinied. One such mutineer was named Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins was brought before Gates, pled his case and was granted mercy. Incidentally, Stephen Hopkins was on the Mayflower and is the only colonist at both Jamestown and Plymouth. And even though it was all for glory of the brutal British Empire, building those ships was still bad-ass.
Gates might have been influenced by the propaganda of the Virginia Company which, in order to raise money, depicted the area as a paradise. Converting savages to the glory of Christianity also held a lot of appeal—God and country, for England’s glory. Gates did not pack a lot of provisions when he set sail for Jamestown, just in time to not save it.
It would have been a lot better for Jamestown if the trailing ships encountered that storm instead of the Sea Venture. Some men—Gabriel Archer, John Ratcliffe—had already been to Jamestown and did not like John Smith. After their arrival, things went to hell, literally. Smith became involved in a power struggle and, coincidentally (per Smith), was injured in a powder explosion. After his departure, Jamestown experienced the Starving Time.
The colonists should have been about 500 strong entering the winter of 1609. Instead, they were only at 320 due to various issues, not least of which were the deadly relations with the Powhatan Indians. The colonists had not planted. They had few food stores and they starved. The Indians contributed to the starving. They would not trade and they slaughtered a herd of wild boar that was meant as a Jamestown food source. For me, there is one indelible image of the accounts of the Starving Time. It is that of a man who cut up his pregnant wife, ate her, and threw the baby in the James River. He was not granted mercy.
The Deliverance and the Patience arrived in the spring of 1610. They were greeted by 60 colonists—an 80% mortality rate—and the initial jubilation turned to despair as the new arrivals only had a couple weeks’ worth of provisions. Gates, after some deliberation, decided to pack everyone up and go back to England. The survivors must have been ecstatic. They wanted to bid farewell to the fort at Jamestown by burning it, but Gates stationed guards to keep that from happening. As the ships were about to make their way to sea, they were greeted by another rescue fleet led by Lord De La Warr. I can only imagine what the survivors felt at that point. After arriving back in Jamestown, the settlers attended church twice a day and there was camp fortification—all this, at the end of a musket.
Ultimately, the Company of Virginia dissolved and the crown took over colonial management. Tobacco thrived and the rest, well, is always open to new interpretations. Most bad news about the colony—mutinies or cannibalism—was suppressed, but news of the Sea Venture’s survival fueled the idea that colonizing the New World was God’s will and that God was, indeed, English. William Strachey’s full account of the Sea Venture was probably circulated amongst the literary types of the time. The authors make a great case that Shakespeare’s The Tempest draws on aspects of the tale of the Sea Venture. However, Strachey’s full account was not printed until 1849.
Apart from all the tension and drama and things I do not care to get into, the vacation was a great history lesson. However, it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back. Shortly after our return, Mrs. Ed Nerd said that she had had enough. She wanted a divorce. I wanted a divorce. It was time to move on. So, that is what I will now do—there is no try. Elizabethan England, Bermuda, Colonial Virginia and Blackbeard’s Skull dance in my head. I was so excited about learning some colonial history that I picked up Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. I have not yet found it to have the same narrative pace as The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown and, more importantly, neither Mayflower nor any other book will ever be associated with the dissolution of my marriage like the book of Glover and Smith. I hope to have a review up soon.