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Aboard for Jamestown

Though fools at home condemn ’em.

—Antonio, The Tempest

Sun broke through an overcast sky to illuminate the Virginia fleet as it rode the current of the Thames River on May 12, 1609. The port of Woolwich was a lively spot on any day, but on this one it was especially so as workers prepared for a transatlantic voyage. Aromas of river mud, canvas, and sweat were in the air as workers moved trunks from carts to rowboats for transfer to the moored ships. Seven vessels were bound from London to the English colony of Jamestown—the Sea Venture, the Diamond, the Falcon, the Blessing, the Unity, the Lion, and an unnamed ketch.

William Strachey traveled a day’s carriage ride from Crowhurst to Woolwich, a town of docks and warehouses ten miles downriver from England’s largest city. In his first view of the fleet, the Sea Venture stood out. The newly constructed flagship had a blunt stern and a pointed bow adorned with a figurehead. At a hundred feet and three hundred tons, the ship was the largest of a fleet that would eventually number nine vessels and carry five hundred colonists and a hundred and sixty mariners across the Atlantic. The most prominent people of the expedition would ride on the Sea Venture, and Strachey would be among them. It was a Friday afternoon, and on Monday the fleet would depart for the New World.

The British colony of Jamestown had been established two years earlier. The English had been slow to get into the colonial business, but watching the Spanish and Portuguese fleets return laden with treasure had been too much to resist. In May 1607 three vessels had landed just over a hundred colonists on a Virginia riverbank. Early reports had reinforced the perception that the settlement had the potential to yield treasure. Officials who received them were only too happy to share the rosy descriptions, though privately they admitted they were probably too good to be true. “We are fallen upon a land that promises more than the land of promise,” one official wrote in 1607. “Instead of milk we find pearl, and gold instead of honey.” Convoys known as the First and Second Supplies had carried additional settlers to Jamestown. Despite the good reports, though, the influx was hardly keeping pace with the mortality rate. Neither of the first two fleets approached the size of this one, the Third Supply. The Virginia Company hoped this new infusion of people and provisions would fortify their outpost in the New World.

In the spring of 1609 the Virginia Company was at the height of its recruiting power as a result of a revision of its charter. King James had agreed to shift the company from royal to private control, giving the Virginia Company sole command of the enterprise and providing the king deniability if the Spanish objected, since they also claimed Virginia. The royal treasury would still receive a large share of any profits—20 percent of gold and silver and 6 percent of other minerals. An additional effect of the new charter was to increase Britain’s territorial claim in America from ten thousand square miles to more than a million. The revision also altered the way in which the colony would be run. During the first two years a colonial council governed Jamestown, but the roundtable method had produced only strife in the wilds of America. Now leadership would be vested in a single governor, Thomas West, Lord Delaware. Delaware was unable to go abroad immediately, however, so Thomas Gates was named interim governor and put in charge until Delaware could launch another expedition a few months later.

To ensure that the Third Supply reached its quota of colonists, the Virginia Company published several promotional pamphlets in the months before it departed. Jamestown was depicted as a verdant land of welcoming people. In one such pamphlet, Nova Britannia, London alderman Robert Johnson ignored confidential reports from Virginia that told of food shortages and infighting. Instead he described the colony on the James River as an “earthly paradise” in which the first settlers were “ravished with the admirable sweetness of the stream and with the pleasant land trending along on either side.” Even though in reality the settlers and the Powhatans were killing each other with alarming frequency, Johnson reported that the people of Virginia were “generally very loving and gentle, and do entertain and relieve our people with great kindness.” To further allay the concerns of potential colonists, Johnson assured his readers that the ocean voyage to the New World was not to be feared: “Most winds that blow are apt and fit for us, and none can hinder us.”

Two main arguments convinced voyagers to go to Jamestown. The most important was that recruits would share in any profit made in the New World. The suggestion that precious metals would be found had been freely made in the early days of the colony, and the impression persisted even though such claims had been largely eliminated from the company’s most recent promotional literature. While officials were careful not to say so publicly, the grand hopes of the first colonists for gleaming treasure had been all but abandoned by the time the Gates fleet was preparing to leave England. During the first two years of settlement the Virginia Company had been rewarded with a return of only “petty commodities and hope of more.” Promoters had begun to suggest that if gold and silver were not to be had, perhaps the flow of commodities could be enhanced until it was not so petty.

The most obvious raw material America offered was lumber, of which deforested England had little. The virgin forests of Virginia promised masts for ships and planks for houses. The wood could also be used as fuel to make secondary products like pitch, soap, turpentine, and glass. Virginia plants might yield oils, dyes, medicines, perfumes, wines, and textiles. There were fish and furs as well. Mines held the potential of iron and copper. Johnson in Nova Britannia listed a score of products imported from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean that could instead be produced by England in Virginia. If this was accomplished, he wrote, England might rightly expect “this little northern corner of the world to be in short time the richest storehouse and staple for merchandise in all Europe.”

There was another economic goal of the Virginia explorers, but by 1609 it too was a fading prospect. The Virginia Company hoped to find a river passage through the continent of North America to the spice markets of India and China. If a passage could be found and controlled, the investors would become very rich indeed. Those prospects seemed to be enhanced by early reports from the Powhatans—undoubtedly garbled in translation—that a great body of water lay west of Jamestown. A possible explanation is that their trade networks extended north to the Great Lakes or south to the Gulf of Mexico. English exploration of the rivers so far had led only to narrowing channels and impassable rapids. While the hope of a route to the East Indies remained active, it too was becoming ever more distant as the Gates fleet prepared to sail.

The pamphlets of the Virginia Company quietly shifted their emphasis in another way also, from suggestions of easy fortunes to appeals about the glory of conquest. The settling of Jamestown, they said, was an opportunity to convert the Powhatans to Christianity. Ministers who favored the mission proclaimed from their pulpits that England had a duty to spread the Gospel to the New World. Reverend William Symonds was an enthusiastic backer of the Virginia experiment and had no problem attacking critics who saw the colonists as an invading force: “If these objectors had any brains in their head but those which are sick, they could easily find a difference between a bloody invasion and the planting of a peaceable colony in a waste country where the people do live but like deer in herds.” Any opposition must be Catholic in origin, Symonds said. “Certainly our objector was hatched of some Popish egg.”

Robert Johnson also answered detractors who saw the Virginia colonists as trespassers. “As for supplanting the savages, we have no such intent,” he wrote. “Our intrusion into their possessions shall tend to their great good and no way to their hurt, unless as unbridled beasts they procure it to themselves.” Johnson claimed that descendants of the Powhatans would thank the English for the gift of the European way of life. “Their children when they come to be saved will bless the day when first their fathers saw your faces,” he told potential colonists. The message hinted at ominous consequences if the inhabitants of the New World resisted the imposition of a foreign culture.

Another commentator, Richard Hakluyt, used the metaphor of an artisan creating a fine work to explain how the voyagers would respond if the Powhatans refused to cooperate. “To handle them gently while gentle courses may be found to serve, it will be without comparison the best,” Hakluyt wrote. “But if gentle polishing will not serve, the one shall not want hammerers and rough masons enough, I mean our old soldiers trained up in the Netherlands, to square and prepare them to our preachers’ hands.” Symonds also endorsed the use of guns and armor if the gifts of Christianity and Western civilization were not readily accepted. To argue otherwise, he said, was to argue that a parent should be denied the option of corporal punishment.

For as much ink as was devoted to the glory of converting the Powhatans, that element of the discussion had little practical application for most of the men and women who made the decision to go to the New World. They only paid true heed to the economic argument, the contention that riches were to be found and anyone with a stake in the enterprise would share in the wealth. To be sure, in the two years since the founding of Jamestown there had been plenty who dismissed the idea that Virginia held treasure, the most vocal being those who had no intention of ever leaving England. The critics did their speaking on street corners and in coffeehouses, however, rather than in printed pamphlets.

Virtually the only criticism that made it into print was the satire of the playwrights of London who regularly parodied the Virginia expeditions. Ben Jonson’s 1605 Eastward Hoe lampooned the expectations of those preparing to go to Virginia. The character of Seagull echoed the wildest hopes of the Jamestown colonists. “Gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us, and for as much red copper as I can bring I’ll have thrice the weight in gold,” he said. “Why, man, all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold, and all the chains with which they chain up their streets are massy gold; all the prisoners they take are fettered in gold; and for rubies and diamonds, they go forth on holidays and gather ’em by the seashore to hang on their children’s coats and stick in their caps.” Ironically, as plays like Eastward Hoe parodied dreams of Virginia treasure, they also raised the expectations of potential colonists. In a plague-ravaged city with little economic opportunity, the promise of the overseas expedition seemed an even better bet with the subtle nudgings of the stage players. Every one of the voyagers who rode the rowboats to the vessels of the Third Supply during the last weekend in port had heard the condemnations of the critics and the parodies of the wags. They had simply chosen to consider them in the best possible light.

William Strachey was one of the few colonists whose interest in the Powhatans was a major reason for voyaging to Virginia. His views about the need to impose Christianity upon them were just as vehement, but his real interest lay in recording details about the indigenous culture of the people he met. Strachey was as self-interested as the voyagers who still hoped to find gold and silver in Virginia. He intended to gather material for a book and return home to find fame as a New World chronicler. Strachey planned to learn all he could about the Powhatans’ food, clothing, medicine, marriage customs, childhood rites, holidays, and burial practices. The treasure he expected to bring back was a journal of observation rather than pockets full of shiny nuggets.

The three men who would lead the expedition to Virginia were, according to one participant, “three most worthy honored gentlemen.” Thomas Gates was the newly appointed acting governor of Virginia; George Somers was the admiral of the fleet and would command the ships at sea; and Christopher Newport was the vice admiral and captain of the Sea Venture. Somewhat inexplicably, all three would sail on the flagship. Apparently the comfort of traveling on the better appointed lead ship overrode any concern that the loss of the vessel would leave the colony bereft of its leaders. The decision would be one that Thomas Gates would have to answer for in the future. Exacerbating the possible consequences of the move, three sealed boxes with instructions for running the colony under the new charter were also carried on the flagship.

While the leaders would all ride on the Sea Venture, only Newport was on the ship when William Strachey arrived at Woolwich. Somers and Gates would come aboard when the ship put in to Plymouth, England, to take on supplies. At age forty-nine, Newport was a veteran privateer. His adventures began thirty years earlier when as a nineteen-year-old sailor he jumped ship in Brazil and made his way home on another vessel. John Smith called him “a mariner well practiced for the western parts of America,” by which he meant the western Atlantic. Newport was celebrated in maritime circles for capturing the heavily laden Spanish treasure ship Madre de Dios in 1592, and for bringing home a live alligator for the king in 1605. Most of his accomplishments came after he lost his right arm in a skirmish with the Spanish in 1590. The vice admiral would be in charge of the Sea Venture at the pleasure of Somers, who outranked him.

Strachey had met few mariners during life in London and the English countryside. The sailors who would run the ships of the Third Supply were among the coarsest class of English society, and, as Smith said, their job demanded that they be tough when conditions turned stormy: “Men of all other professions in lightning, thunder, storms, and tempests with rain and snow may shelter themselves in dry houses by good fires and good cheer, but those are the chief times that seamen must stand to their tacklings and attend with all diligence their greatest labor upon the decks.” While the mariners of the first transatlantic fleets were essential personnel at sea, they were only bystanders to the settlement of the New World. Their job was to deliver people and cargo to Virginia, pick up marketable goods collected and manufactured abroad, and carry them back to England.

The passengers who climbed aboard the Sea Venture were a varied group. The Virginia Company was pleased to tell prospective voyagers that “persons of rank and quality” like Strachey would be aboard the ships. John Smith was not so charitable in his assessment of the wealthy adventurers. The gents who had gone on the original voyage had not adjusted well to the wilderness setting. They soon missed “their accustomed dainties with feather beds and down pillows,” he said, and once in Jamestown their only objective had become to commandeer ships and return to England.

Though Strachey would probably have denied it, he was just the type of adventurer Smith was criticizing. From his first days on the Sea Venture at Woolwich, Strachey was disdainful of the artisans and laborers who were also aboard. In his accounts he would write of “common people” whose actions were guided by “hot bloods.” The rabble was invariably compared to the company’s “gentlemen of quality and knowledge of virtue.” Strachey would blame the problems of the expedition on “the idle, untoward, and wretched number” who would share the confines of the Sea Venturewith “the better sort of the company.”

The flagship would carry its share of the “wretched number.” The Virginia Company was so in need of recruits that it allowed even penniless laborers to sign on. Just as Strachey had done, they could offer themselves as colonists and be awarded one share of Virginia Company stock simply for going to Jamestown. The laborers, however, were expected to do the heavy work of the colony while the gentlemen served as the leaders. Anyone agreeing to go without putting up cash was expected to “go in their persons to dwell there” and “thither to remain,” though in reality many returned to England without forfeiting their shares. After seven years those in this class were to receive the same percentage of profits and land due to those who acquired shares through purchase. This practice made the Virginia expedition an opportunity available to anyone willing to voyage abroad, even the poorest laborers of London.

The Third Supply would also carry a mix of the tradesmen the Virginia Company had sought in its advertisements. The wide range of crafts-men solicited confirms that industry was expected to thrive at Jamestown. The Virginia Company was looking for druggists, gardeners, tile makers, fish processors, vine growers, soap makers, miners, sugarcane planters, pearl drillers, and charcoal makers, just to name a few. While the company hoped to attract established professionals, few experienced artisans could be convinced to abandon hard-won situations in England for the wilds of the New World. Most who joined were on the margins of their professions. Members of the livery companies of London—the unions of the day—were among the greatest supporters of the Virginia enterprise because the fleets cleared the city of unskilled pretenders to their crafts. Fifty-five companies provided funds for the upcoming expedition.

There were indeed many pretenders to the trades in London. A fundamental change in the English economic system—the fencing of farmland and the eviction of peasant farmers in favor of employees of landlords—was creating throngs of poor. Growing crowds from the countryside would soon increase the population of London from a hundred and fifty thousand to a quarter million. Robert Johnson even suggested that wealthy investors should look on the Virginia enterprise as a way to save money on the construction of English prisons: “Our land abounding with swarms of idle persons, which having no means of labor to relieve their misery, do likewise swarm in lewd and naughty practices, so that if we seek not some ways for their foreign employment we must provide shortly more prisons and corrections for their bad conditions.” The Virginia Company was better than its word. As the sailing date of the Third Supply drew near and the quota of tradesmen remained unfilled, unemployed workers were accepted in place of experienced tradesmen. The blend of gentlemen, sailors, artisans, and laborers would prove a volatile mix.

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