Our revels now are ended.
—Prospero, The Tempest
While William Shakespeare was destined to be remembered as the greatest writer of his age, William Strachey would enjoy no such fate. Despite his determined efforts to acquire a patron, he was unable to interest a benefactor in financing the publication of his history of the exploration of Virginia. The reality was that while Strachey had been in Jamestown for a reasonably long period, he had only ventured beyond the palisade a few times in the rear guard of major expeditions. The most successful author on the subject, John Smith, had gone into the wilds many times and was himself the source of much of what was known about Virginia. Strachey simply did not have the experience to match Smith’s eyewitness accounts of the early years of the colony.
In later years a detention for debt left Strachey begging for money in a note to a friend: “This last dismal arrest hath taken from all my friends something and from me all I had,” he wrote, “and today I am to meet with some friends at dinner returned from Virginia, and God is witness with me I have not to pay for my dinner, all my things be at pawn.” Strachey’s wife, Frances, died sometime after his return from Jamestown and he married a second time. He lived to see his son William wed, but also to endure the death of his granddaughter Helen at four months of age in April 1620.
Late in life Strachey wrote a poem that reflected thoughts of his own mortality: “My hour is come, false world adieu / That I to death untimely go. / Thy pleasures have betrayed me so.” He died in June 1621, and four years later Samuel Purchas published his letter to the “Excellent Lady” in a collection of travelers’ accounts entitled Purchas His Pilgrimes. Strachey’s work appeared under the title “A True Reportory of the Wracke, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight.” The manuscript was subsequently lost, leaving the 1625 book as the only version of the text that would endure. Strachey died without the literary legacy he had longed for, save one to which he paid little heed—his account of a shipwreck on an enchanted isle had inspired a magical drama by a playwright who would someday be considered a literary master.
The Tempest remained a London favorite for years after its debut. King James liked the play so much that he ordered it performed on the royal stage eighteen months later for the celebration of the wedding of his daughter Elizabeth on Valentine’s Day, 1613. To give it a fresh feel, two songs were added for the encore performance. “Full Fathom Five” and “Where the Bee Sucks” enlivened the wedding spectacle. The venue for the show was again the Masquing House, and again it was a great success.
The Virginia Company continued a defensive posture against the ridicule its enterprise received in the London theaters. A 1612 company publication lamented that “the malicious and looser sort (being accompanied with the licentious vain of stage poets) have whet their tongues with scornful taunts against the action.” Now William Shakespeare was also a target, for in his popular Tempest the audience surely recognized the Sea Venture story. What probably bothered officers of the Virginia Company more than Shakespeare’s dissection of their Golden Age aspirations was King James’s obvious appreciation of the play.
Whether or not Shakespeare meant to announce his retirement in Prospero’s soliloquy, The Tempest was his final solo work. He coauthored three more plays with John Fletcher—All Is True, or Henry VIII; The Two Noble Kinsmen; and the lost Cardenio. About the time he finished The Tempesthe moved from London to Stratford-upon-Avon to live in what a contemporary called a “gentlemanlike” home called New Place, a rambling dwelling fronted by sixty feet of vine-covered walls and appointed with ten fireplaces and a bay window. The playwright continued to spend time in London, however. In March 1613 he purchased an apartment near the Blackfriars Theater as a real estate investment, and perhaps also as a place to stay on visits to London.
Three months after Shakespeare’s apartment purchase, on June 29, 1613, the King’s Men suffered a catastrophe that could have been an even greater disaster for English literature. During a performance of All Is True, sparks from a stage cannon set the roof of the Globe ablaze. “Some of the paper or other stuff wherewith one of them was stopped did light the thatch,” a Londoner wrote to a friend soon after, “where being thought at first an idle smoke and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of the virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.” Luckily the company’s playbooks were carried from the house as the fire spread. If they had not been, the only copies of half of Shakespeare’s works would have burned with the theater.
Away from London in his retirement, Shakespeare was preoccupied with the marriage of his daughter, just as Prospero was obsessed with Miranda’s matrimonial fate in The Tempest. Lacking the ability of Prospero to cast spells, the playwright was less able to ensure the happiness of his daughter Judith. She and local vintner Thomas Quiney married without the permission of the church during Lent in early 1616 and were excommunicated for doing so. The apparent reason for their hurried wedding became clear a short time later, when Quiney admitted to a premarital affair with an unmarried woman who had died in childbirth. As a result of the confession, Shakespeare rewrote his will to give Judith’s portion of his estate directly to her rather than to her husband. The bulk of his estate went to his other surviving child, daughter Susanna, who had a stable marriage (the playwright’s third child, a son named Hamnet, had died young). During the same revision of the will, Shakespeare added his only bequest to his wife Anne, notoriously leaving her only his second-best bed, a brief reference scholars have plumbed ever since for clues to the playwright’s enigmatic relationship with his spouse.
Within a month of writing his will, William Shakespeare was dead. On April 25, 1616, the playwright’s body was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. The only known documentation of the cause of death is a note written a half century later by the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon: “Shakespeare, [poet Michael] Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Shakespeare ended his life as a successful playwright whose popular entertainments had made him relatively wealthy. At his death he had not the remotest idea that posterity would lionize him as the most eloquent voice in the English language.
The Tempest remained in the King’s Men manuscript playbook for seven years, until 1623, when the troupe consented to the publication of the First Folio. Since buyers would best remember Shakespeare’s most recent triumph, The Tempest was placed first in the volume of his collected works. The text from the playbook was published complete with stage directions that were probably written for the Whitehall debut, and consequently The Tempest is considered one of the least adulterated of Shakespeare’s works (since no manuscripts of any of his plays survive, all of the texts are based on published copies). In the introduction to the First Folio, Ben Jonson indulged in the usual exaggeration of such prefaces, but in this case the hyperbole proved true. Of Shakespeare, Jonson said, “he was not of an age, but for all time!”
The triumph of The Tempest prompted other playwrights to write New World dramas. George Chapman’s Memorable Maske of the Two Honorable Houses of Inns of Court debuted at the 1613 wedding alongside Shakespeare’s returning play. Chapman felt no need to transform the raw material of exploration as Shakespeare had done. An island in Memorable Maske is populated by “Virginians” rather than magical characters with New World roots. The action follows rather obviously what Chapman apparently believed the king wanted to see—his fictional New World society included princes and knights who acted like aristocrats of the Old World. A delegation of those noble Virginians traveled to England to attend the wedding of the king’s daughter. At the height of the drama, flats were rolled back to reveal a Virginia gold mine filled with glittering ore. Chapman’s intuition that a more straightforward story line would please the king turned out to be incorrect, as James preferred the subtlety of Shakespeare to the overt wish fulfillment of Chapman.
Much to his annoyance, Ben Jonson also found the durable popularity of The Tempest difficult to ignore. In the introduction to the published version of his 1614 play Bartholomew Fair, Jonson uses a light touch in trying to fend off criticism that his Fair lacks a character like Caliban. “If there be never a servant-monster i’ the fair, who can help it?” he asks, adding of himself in the third person, “He is loth to make nature afraid in his plays, like those that beget tales, tempests, and such like drolleries.” After Shakespeare’s death, Jonson relented and attempted a Tempest-like play of his own with News from the New World Discovered in the Moon. The 1620 work featured a Golden Age society on the moon that sent emissaries to earth. In an allusion to The Tempest, Jonson has a character use one of Caliban’s nicknames: “O, I, moon-calves! What monster is that, I pray you?” Another character then answers, “Monster? None at all; a very familiar thing like our fool here on earth.”
A third playwright also imitated Shakespeare’s New World master-work. John Fletcher eventually took his predecessor’s place as the primary dramatist of the King’s Men. As the troupe continued to stage The Tempest, Fletcher tried to exploit its popularity by writing The Sea Voyage . The new drama was indebted to both The Tempest and the Sea Venture accounts, featuring “Happy Islands” that were simultaneously a paradise and a frightful place.
Bermuda also emerged in the work of John Taylor the Water Poet, a master of nonsense verse whose pamphlets parodying contemporary authors enjoyed a large popular market in the years following the Sea Venture wreck. Taylor mocked the travel accounts of writer Thomas Coryate with his “Epitaph in the Barmooda tongue, which must be pronounced with the accent of the grunting of a hog.” The poem consisted of unintelligible doggerel lines modeled on New World languages that each ended in a grunted “ogh.” Taylor lampooned Bermuda’s new image as a heavenly place by attributing a “translation” of an accompanying “Epitaph in the Utopian tongue” to a fictional “Caleb Quishquash, an Utopian born, and principal secretary to the great Adelontado of Barmoodoes.”
The other voyagers who rode the Sea Venture through the hurricane lived out their lives on both sides of the Atlantic. George Somers would be celebrated as the founder of Bermuda. The last anyone in England or Jamestown had heard from the admiral was just before he lost touch with Samuel Argall in the fog off the coast of Sagadahoc in the summer of 1610. Somers had volunteered to go to Bermuda to restock Jamestown with food, and did in fact go on to the mid-Atlantic isle after losing contact with Argall. The admiral had reached Bermuda late in the summer of 1610, perhaps after stopping briefly on the Connecticut shore. The two mutineers who had hidden in the woods and stayed behind had greeted Somers’s pinnace and rejoined his company. Somers and his crew had spent six weeks hunting hogs, turtles, and birds to bring back to the Virginia colony.
The hunt had suddenly halted in early autumn when Somers was taken ill after a meal of fire-roasted pork. The admiral probably suffered from a lethal variety of food poisoning now known as necrotizing enteritis, or “pig-bel.” Vulnerability to clostridial bacteria in undercooked pork is especially acute when feasting follows a period of protein deficiency. Somers would have suffered through bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting before dying on November 9 of what his fellows described as “a surfeit in eating of a pig.”
Somers’s nephew Matthew had assumed command, ordering his uncle’s body embalmed instead of buried, with the intention of bringing it home to England. In accord with a knightly tradition that dated back to the Crusades, the embalmers removed Sir George Somers’s heart for a separate interment. The body itself was preserved in a wooden box under a heavy layer of salt from the Bermuda salt house. Removing the internal organs was a normal part of the embalming process, but in this case it served a ceremonial as well as a practical purpose. Somers would leave his heart on the island that had provided him salvation in the midst of a terrible tempest. “His heart and bowels were there buried,” a contemporary wrote a decade later, “a great cross of wood being pitched over his grave.”
During the months that followed Somers’s death, a debate ensued in the Bermuda camp. Having seen the desperate straits of the Virginia colony firsthand, none of the men on the island wanted to return there. The problem was one of honor, since the admiral pledged to return with food that all the colonists on Bermuda knew was essential for the survival of Jamestown during the upcoming winter. Arguments over the campfire resulted in a stalemate that lasted through the winter. Finally in late spring the men of the Bermuda expedition seem to have justified to themselves that no matter how terrible the winter had been, Jamestown’s need for food was lessened with the coming of the spring. Thus the decision was made to sail for England. The returning colonists hoped that their report of the attractiveness of Bermuda as a settlement site would overshadow any condemnation they received for failing to supply the colony the previous fall. In the spring the Patience departed for England, this time leaving behind three volunteers to hold a claim to the island.
Matthew Somers headed for his uncle’s homeport of Lyme Regis in Dorset, far from London and thus insulated from the criticism of the Virginia Company. The timing of the arrival of the Patience served the returning colonists well. Word of their return reached London at about the time that the convoy under Thomas Gates departed for Jamestown in the late spring of 1611, and so the perception was that Jamestown would soon be well supplied. They had been correct, too, that most of the discussion surrounding their return would be about the possibility of settling Bermuda rather than about their decision not to return to Virginia.
The body of George Somers was interred in the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum on June 4. John Smith later described the service. “His body by his friends was honorably buried, with many volleys of shot and the rights of a soldier,” Smith said. “And upon his tomb was bestowed this epitaph:
Alas Virginia Somer so soon past
Autumn succeeds and stormy winter’s blast,
Yet England’s joyful spring with April showers,
O Florida, shall bring thy sweetest flowers.”
The next month the admiral’s estate was divided among his heirs. After bequests to the poor of Lyme Regis and to servant George Bird, the property of the childless knight was divided between his widow, Joan, and his nephews and nieces. Soon after his funeral, the Reverend William Crashaw published an appreciation of the departed mariner, recalling “Sir George Somers, that famous seaman, our worthy admiral, that true and constant friend to Virginia, who in his old age left a pleasant seat in Dorsetshire, a good living, and an easy life to live and die for the good of Virginia.”
In 1612, Bermuda was renamed the “Somers Islands” in honor of the deceased admiral. The name persisted for a while, often spelled as Summer Isles to emphasize the mild climate, but it never supplanted the name Bermuda. In 1619, Governor Nathaniel Butler ordered a memorial stone installed over the island burial place of Somers’s heart. In the inscription he took the liberty of adding a year to the death date, apparently for rhyming purposes:
In the year 1611,
Noble Sir George Somers went hence to heaven;
Whose well tried worth that held him still employed,
Gave him the knowledge of the world so wide.
Hence it was by heaven’s decree, that to this place
He brought new guests, and name to mutual grace.
At last his soul and body being to part,
He here bequeathed his entrails and his heart.
Back in England Matthew Somers engaged his aunt in a long legal battle over his uncle’s estate, which ended only with Joan Somers’s death in 1618. Matthew continued his litigious ways in later years—a counterclaim in a future lawsuit alleged that he pursued a “riotous and disorderly course of living.”
Soon after returning to Jamestown, Thomas Gates sent his now-motherless daughters home with Christopher Newport on the Starre. “He hath sent his daughters back again,” a London official wrote to a colleague in December 1611, “which I doubt not is a piece of prognostication that himself means not to tarry long after.” That assumption proved incorrect, however, and Gates remained in Jamestown for three more years. While Thomas Dale ruthlessly drove his men to build Henrico and Bermuda Hundred, Gates used a lighter hand to develop the original settlement of Jamestown. Among his accomplishments was the construction of a governor’s house with a hearth made of Bermuda limestone from the ballast of the Deliverance or the Patience. Gates finally returned to England in April 1614. When war between Spain and the Netherlands resumed in 1621 he returned to his command in the Low Countries, dying of fever at Schenck in September 1622.
Joan Pierce, who saw her husband William come back from the dead when the Sea Venture survivors arrived in Jamestown, prospered in Virginia. Her husband became a wealthy planter, and together they enjoyed the success all Virginia-bound colonists had hoped to achieve. John Smith reported in 1629 that on a visit to London, Joan Pierce told of her prosperity in the wilderness. “Mistress Pierce, an honest industrious woman, hath been there near twenty years and now returned saith she hath a garden at Jamestown containing three or four acres where in one year she hath gathered near a hundred bushels of excellent figs and that of her own provision she can keep a better house in Virginia than here in London for three or four hundred pounds a year, yet went thither with little or nothing.” The Pierces’ daughter, Joan, married John Rolfe after the death of his second wife, Wahonsonacock’s famous daughter, Pocahontas.
The brief Spanish incursion at Point Comfort in 1611 was a monumental event in the life of English pilot John Clark, who was taken away on the Spanish ship. Clark was kept prisoner in Cuba and Spain until he was exchanged for his counterpart, Diego de Molina, in 1616. Four years after gaining his freedom he sailed to the New World on the Mayflower. Also on board the Pilgrims’ ship was Stephen Hopkins, the Bermuda rebel who returned to England soon after reaching Jamestown. Since Clark was a mariner, he returned to England with the Mayflower, whereas Hopkins and his family remained in Plymouth to live and die and eventually be revered as Pilgrim founders.
While the seventeenth century passed and the people associated with the Sea Venture died off, The Tempest of William Shakespeare endured. Characters of the play were given permanent places in the literary universe when in 1851 an astronomer named a newly discovered moon of Uranus after the sprite Ariel. In 1948 a sister moon of the same planet became Miranda. Then when improved telescopes yielded a spate of new discoveries between 1997 and 2001, Uranus was given moons named Caliban, Sycorax, Prospero, Setebos, Stephano, Trinculo, Francisco, and Ferdinand. For all time a celestial blue giant will be circled with the characters of Shakespeare’s otherworldly play.
As The Tempest underwent a transformation from popular entertainment to literary masterpiece, scholars began to interpret the work as the playwright’s commentary on the colonial experience. In 1797 an observer first suggested that Shakespeare drew on Virginia travel narratives in writing the Tempest. In 1808, Silvester Jourdain was identified as a source, then much later, in 1892, William Strachey’s letter home was proposed to be one as well. In the twentieth century The Tempest became firmly established as Shakespeare’s New World play.
Ironically, a direct descendant of William Strachey attempted unsuccessfully to ensure that the play was not placed among the transcendent works of the English language. Literary critic Lytton Strachey’s 1906 article “Shakespeare’s Final Period” declared The Tempest a mediocre work. Fourteen years earlier the work of the critic’s ancestor was suggested as a progenitor of the play, though whether Lytton Strachey knew of William Strachey’s apparent influence on the work he was assessing is unknown.
The reading of Shakespeare’s last play as a commentary on Britain’s colonial aspirations reached a peak in the 1960s and 1970s when the attention of critics focused on Caliban as the indigenous person and Prospero as the European oppressor. Leo Marx in his 1964 book The Machine in the Garden crystallized the concept of the Tempest as “a prologue to American literature.” During the final twenty years of the century a new line of inquiry reemphasized the play’s classical roots. Critics began to argue that the colonial interpretation imposes a modern viewpoint on to a historical text, rendering Prospero’s island “a kaleidoscope” or “a complex Rorschach blot that exposes its observers’ habitual presuppositions.” Yet in the twenty-first century the colonial reading remains firmly embedded in Tempest scholarship and in the costumes and manners of Tempestcharacters onstage.
Also in the twentieth century a controversy about Shakespeare’s identity found new life. The lack of copious documentation of the playwright’s life long ago led to the suggestion that someone other than William Shakespeare authored the plays attributed to him. The leading candidate as an alternate author is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Proponents of that theory, however, must overcome the obstacle that de Vere died in 1604, five years before the Sea Venture wrecked on Bermuda. Consequently, advocates of de Vere are in the position of either denying that The Tempest was inspired by the Bermuda chronicles or denying that the play was written by “Shakespeare” (both approaches have been attempted). Despite the arguments of de Vere supporters, mainstream Shakespeare scholars remain convinced that the best interpretation of the documentary record is that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, the King’s Men actor, was the author of the plays.
The work of William Strachey attracted new attention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well. The comprehensive history of Virginia that Strachey wrote (and to a large extent copied from John Smith) after returning to England was finally published after more than two centuries in 1849 as The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia. Fifty years after that his True Reportory was reprinted in a 1907 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimes, and scholars began to recognize Strachey’s importance as an observer of colonial life. While Historie of Travaile owes much to John Smith, True Reportory is largely original and has earned its author a reputation as an unflinching observer (despite his bias in favor of colonial leaders). One modern scholar calls True Reportory “magnificent—it has some sentences which for imagination and pathetic beauty, for vivid implications of appalling danger and disaster, can hardly be surpassed in the whole range of English prose.” Another designates it “one of the finest pieces—clear, specific, descriptive, critical—in the literature of the whole period of seventeenth-century American enterprise.” Strachey is said to be “notably good as an interpreter of Indian life, being both shrewd and sympathetic in his comments.” His original dictionary of the Powhatan language included in Historie of Travaile has particular importance: “The large Strachey vocabulary of Powhatan Indian words—with six times as many as are to be found in Smith’s writings—is invaluable for modern students of Algonkian languages.”
The stories that Strachey and his fellow Sea Venture chroniclers told inspired writers and artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, just as they did those of the seventeenth. In 1840 Washington Irving wrote two essays on the wreck, noting that his interest was especially drawn to the founding of the Bermuda islands because he “could trace, in their early history, and in the superstitious notions connected with them, some of the elements of Shakespeare’s wild and beautiful drama of The Tempest.” Irving unfortunately slipped once and identified the wrecked ship as the “Sea Vulture” and made the exaggerated claim that a “bitter feud” on the island resulted in “a complete schism” between Gates and Somers. The Irving essays are best known for their depiction of the men Matthew Somers left behind as “the three kings of Bermuda.”
Rudyard Kipling learned of Shakespeare’s connection to Bermuda when he took a cruise to the island in 1894. In 1896 he wrote a letter to the editor of the Spectator suggesting that the playwright might have overheard the Sea Venture story from a sailor in a London tavern. Kipling believed that the wind in the Bermuda coral caused the strange sounds of Prospero’s island and a particular cave on the shore near Hamilton was a likely model for the magician’s cell. Kipling went on to imagine that a castaway taking refuge under the ribcage of a whale skeleton inspired the scene of Trinculo hiding under Caliban’s cloak. Thirty-four years later Kipling incorporated his ideas into a poem entitled “The Coiner.” In it he pictured Shakespeare meeting Sea Venture sailors at a tavern in 1611 and hearing about the Bermuda shipwreck. Shakespeare buys them drinks to keep them talking about their “seven months among mermaids and devils and sprites, and voices that howl in the cedars o’ nights.” The sailors eventually fall asleep and awake the next morning to find that coins had been left in their pockets. They congratulate themselves on their luck, without realizing that Shakespeare—the “coiner” of the title—got the better of the deal by acquiring a story he would turn to gold on the London stage.
The Sea Venture and The Tempest bewitched another twentieth-century literary great as well. In 1924 James Joyce mentioned both in his monumental novel Ulysses. Episode Nine of the stream-of-consciousness work is thick with allusions to Shakespeare and includes the following line: “The Sea Venture comes home from Bermudas and the play Renan admired is written with Patsy Caliban, our American cousin.” Joyce was referring to Ernest Renan, who wrote Tempest criticism. Our American Cousin was a nineteenth-century work of the American theater, but the play lacks a character named Patsy and Joyce’s reason for joining it to the name of Shakespeare’s servant monster remains obscure.
Novelist Cothburn O’Neal also discovered the story of William Strachey and The Tempest and in 1954 turned it into his novel The Dark Lady. In a riff on the authorship question, the story features the fictional Rosaline, an illegitimate daughter of Edward de Vere, who is pretending to be a man playing women on the Jacobean stage. Rosaline is also the true author of London’s most popular plays, which she publishes with the cooperation of a King’s Men actor named William Shakespeare. Rosaline, who has a daughter named Miranda, is the “Excellent Lady” who receives Strachey’s letter from Jamestown. When King James discovers that she is the secret author of Shakespeare’s work he forbids her to write any more plays. The novel ends when the inexplicably blond-haired Strachey, conveniently widowed after the death of his wife, Frances, offers to take her away to Bermuda.
Later in the twentieth century other artists drew upon The Tempest as a play about the colonial world. Martinique playwright Aimé Césaire in 1969 debuted a rewritten Tempest he called Une Tempête. The new version transformed Caliban into an African slave and Ariel into a person of mixed race. Césaire succeeded in “unmasking the brutality which underlies colonization,” according to one commentator. “In Une Tempête, Caliban effectively demonstrates that Prospero’s ‘humanism’ is decidedly inhuman (and inhumane) precisely because it does not accord Caliban the status of a human being.”
In the 1990s Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham embraced the colonial theme of the play as well, creating a series of masks and fictional diary entries depicting the pre-Tempest Caliban as a student of Prospero. Durham imagines the young Caliban as obsessed with finding a reflection of his face on a mirrorless island, a metaphor for his search for identity. Just as The Tempest has an undercurrent of cruelty in the relationship between the magician and the monster, so, too, does Durham’s work. “One time Prospero was going to spank me because I was playing with mud,” a fictional diary entry reads. “When I resisted I caused him to accidentally hit me in the nose.”
The radical transformation of the Bermuda landscape that began with the introduction of hogs by the Spanish has continued to the present time. The feral hogs were gone within a few years of settlement. By 1623 the colonial government introduced laws to protect cahows, cedar trees, and tortoises, all of which were threatened with extinction only fourteen years after settlement. Prickly pears and palmettos faced the same threat. Bananas, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, and domesticated mulberries were soon introduced to the island, further stressing native species. Since the colonists arrived, more than a thousand foreign plants have been brought from all over the world. Today Bermuda is home to seventeen species of flora unique to the island, a hundred and sixty species native both to Bermuda and other locations, and thirteen hundred introduced plants. One of the unique species, the Bermuda cedar, was the victim of an introduced insect that reached the island in 1940. A resistant strain of the tree has been developed and reintroduced, and the cedar that provided the wood for the Deliverance and the Patience is today a protected species.
The Bermuda cahow was thought to be extinct for three centuries, but in 1951 ornithologists were delighted to discover that a small breeding population of the bird survived on remote islands. The birds—tame and vulnerable as ever—have been nurtured by conservationists ever since. Now numbering about two hundred, the small flock lives a precarious existence. An attack by a single snowy owl in 1986 killed five birds and was considered a serious blow to the colony. The rescue effort continues with guarded optimism, however, and the haunting night cries heard on the island in 1609 ring ever louder over rocky islets off the Bermuda coast.
Bermuda quietly relishes its role in the creation of The Tempest. One island entrepreneur in 1946 exploited Shakespeare’s references to Prospero’s cave by opening an island cavern to tourists, putting up a statue of the playwright, and promoting it as “Prospero’s Cave, the scene of The Tempest.” Many of the island’s subterranean hollows feature sunken rivers that ebb and flow with the tide. In 1978 a scientist found a new species of marine creature in one of the rivers and named it for Shakespeare’s cave-dwelling magician. George Somers received the same honor two years later. Thus did miniature Bermuda creatures become Mesonerilla prospera and Somersiella sterreri.
Somers’ Day is celebrated each year in late July or early August on Bermuda. In 1876 a new plaque was installed to mark the traditional burial place of the admiral’s heart. A thirty-foot column of Bermuda limestone was added on the 1909 tercentenary of the wreck. In 1984 on the three hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary, a statue of Somers by sculptor Desmond Fountain was unveiled in the town of St. George’s near a replica of the Deliverance. The same year, Bermuda issued postage stamps that bear portraits of Somers and Thomas Gates and a picture of the Sea Venturefleet departing Plymouth. Across the sea on the New England coast, another trace of George Somers may have been found. A gold signet ring reputed to bear his family crest was uncovered in the sand of a Connecticut beach in 1924. If the ring did indeed belong to Somers, the likely explanation is that he stopped there while awaiting a breeze to take him to Bermuda for the last time.
In the years that followed the Sea Venture wreck the ship yielded a little more of its cargo to Bermuda before finally being lost below the waves. In 1622 island colonists brought up a gun, an anchor, and bars of iron and lead when Governor Nathaniel Butler ordered divers “to make a discovery upon the rotten ribs of a ship called the Sea Adventure, which (as you formerly heard) had been wrecked about some thirteen years before. The which being found out, and his divers sent down to the bottom (which was three or four fathoms deep) to see what was to be done, at the very first proof there was by great chance discovered a very fair saker.” The gun and other material, Butler said, greatly benefited the plantation.
The remnants of the Sea Venture—said by one historian to be “arguably the most important of Bermuda’s many historic shipwrecks”—lay untouched for the next three hundred and thirty-six years until amateur diver Edmund Downing, a descendant of Sea Venture passenger George Yardley, spent the summer of 1958 searching for the historic hulk. On October 18 he and friend Floyd Heird dove to a wreck near the location described by the chroniclers. The first time down they sighted timbers and ballast of an old ship. A gun was raised to the surface and, perhaps fortuitously, dated by London experts to the eighteenth century. Interest in the wreck consequently waned for twenty years. Then—after Bermuda had passed new legislation protecting historic underwater sites—the Bermuda Maritime Museum undertook a new study of the Downing wreck. This time a painstaking analysis identified the remnants as those of the Sea Venture. Hundreds of artifacts were subsequently raised—a candlestick wedged between two boards, rat and cat bones, a dagger, intact Bartmann bottles, Chinese porcelain, and many others things that had not been touched since a tempest-tossed ship ran for the Bermuda shore on a stormy day in July 1609. The most important artifacts were put on display in an exhibition in the museum’s Treasure House along with a scale model of the Sea Venture.
Across the Atlantic in Jamestown, archaeological remains have also been revealed. Many artifacts lay undiscovered there, too, on the mistaken assumption that the fort site had eroded into the James River. In 1994 archaeologist William M. Kelso and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities initiated a dig to determine whether remnants of the fort might instead lay underground at the edge of the river. Kelso’s work revealed that while the fort had indeed lost a guard tower to the scouring water, most of the palisade stood on what remains intact ground. Kelso and fellow archaeologists of his Jamestown Rediscovery project have since uncovered seven hundred thousand artifacts, a third of which date to the first four years of European occupation. In May 2006 a new museum at the site, the Historic Jamestowne Archaearium, was opened to display the artifacts. Among notable discoveries were Bermuda cahow bones and conch shells from refuse pits; Bermuda limestone blocks used as building material; butchered bones of horses, rats, and snakes from the Starving Time; and a skeleton Kelso and his team identified through forensic clues as being that of colonist Bartholomew Gosnold.
One of the most startling finds in the Jamestown earth was a brass signet ring embossed with an eagle. Research by Kelso’s team at the College of Arms in London tentatively identified a family crest on the ring as belonging to a secretary of the colony whose writings inspired a London playwright to create an ethereal work. The ring apparently slipped from the hand of William Strachey into the dust of Virginia, to emerge in the present as a gleaming reminder of a Jamestown colonist who helped create William Shakespeare’s New World masterpiece.