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Devil’s Land

The still-vexed Bermudas.

—Ariel, The Tempest

On the morning of July 29, 1609, sunrise awoke William Strachey to the saturated colors of leaves waving in the fresh breeze of a departed hurricane. What he noticed immediately was the hot and humid air. Sand stuck to his damp face and hands as he raised himself from his sleeping place on the ground. All around him men, women, and children slumbered. The relief of being on land struck him anew as he rediscovered that he was safe after four terror-filled days.

Strachey stood up and walked to a small water barrel at the edge of the campsite and dipped a drink. Being able to quench his thirst was another refreshing change. Soon after arriving on the previous afternoon the first people in camp had dug a shallow well. Heavy rains had soaked the island and it was not necessary to dig deep to find what Strachey called “gushings and soft bubblings.” Everyone in camp had quenched their thirst, and buckets and the barrel had been filled for the next day. Strachey noticed that the water in the well had already drained away during the night. The hole would have to be deepened or an alternative water source found.

After taking a moment in the woods Strachey walked down to the beach. A heavy surf broke on the sand and the sky was clear. He walked on to the point of rocks just north of the camp. From there he could see that the shore formed almost a square corner just north of the camp. The crescent beach where the boats were pulled up extended about eight hundred feet to the south before merging with a rocky shoreline. To the west the northern coast of the island ran as far as he could see. With the exception of the pinkish sand of the beach, the shoreline was sharp black rock. Foam covered the water as waves crashed down. Palms and cedars lined the shore in both directions.

The beach in front of the camp faced northeast toward England, three thousand miles across the Atlantic, while Virginia lay six hundred miles to the west. Bermuda is an archipelago consisting of one main island and many small ones. The castaways had come to rest at the extreme northeastern point of the archipelago, on the medium-sized island that would later become known as St. George’s. The main land mass lay beyond the castaways’ isle, beginning on the other side of a sheltered bay and extending ten miles to the west in the shape of a giant hook.

Strachey had read about Bermuda in his travel books. The castaways were the only humans there, as the island had never been reached by people from the New World. Europeans had known of Bermuda since 1505, but its dangerous shallows had kept ships at a distance, and it was never occupied. A few had shipwrecked and left their marks, but all had departed after brief stays. What was notable was Bermuda’s reputation as a bewitched place. During the last minutes before the wreck, the sailors of the Sea Venture had lamented their fate even as they bailed and pumped to get the ship close to the island. The island, they said, was a place of strange nighttime noises and supernatural storms.

“We found it to be the dangerous and dreaded island, or rather islands, of the Bermuda,” Strachey wrote. “Because they be so terrible to all that ever touched on them, and such tempests, thunders, and other fearful objects are seen and heard about them, that they be called commonly the Devil’s Islands, and are feared and avoided of all sea travelers alive above any other place in the world. Yet it pleased our merciful God to make even this hideous and hated place both the place of our safety and the means of our deliverance.”

Fellow Sea Venture passenger Silvester Jourdain would also write of the apprehension of the castaways. Seafarers avoided Bermuda “as they would shun the Devil himself,” Jourdain wrote. “The islands of the Bermudas, as every man knows that has heard or read of them, were never inhabited by any Christian or heathen people, but ever esteemed and reputed a most prodigious and enchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, storms, and foul weather, which made every navigator and mariner to avoid them.”

A call to gather brought Strachey back to camp. All were now awake, and the Sea Venture cook, Thomas Powell, was preparing what little food had been brought from the ship. The castaways had been told to prepare for a meeting with Governor Thomas Gates. Presently the castaways formed a half circle around Gates as he addressed the crowd. The mariners would row back to the ship and retrieve everything they could. As they did that, the passengers would form teams and spread out from the camp in search of food and water. Several leaders were chosen and the voyagers broke into groups and prepared to go in assigned directions.

Strachey joined a team of gentlemen who left the camp and pushed through the underbrush. In his speech Gates had not mentioned the sailors’ stories of enchantment that virtually all the castaways had now heard, but his manner, the bright sunshine, and focused activity had dispelled the apprehensions of most for the moment. The sun rose higher and the day grew even hotter as the moist tropical air the hurricane pulled behind it settled over the island. While the searchers found no brooks or springs, they soon discovered a pond. They waded in and tasted the water and detected no salt. A lack of running water put the body of water in a category Strachey described as “fens, marshes, ditches, muddy pools.” The water tasted good, though, and there was no hint of contamination. As a later settler would note, rainwater percolated through Bermuda’s limestone to produce pond water that “drinks always sweet like milk.” Strachey and his fellows headed back to camp to tell of their find and retrieve buckets to fill.

The sailors had already returned in the longboat and skiff with useful salvage. Live hogs and the few remaining undamaged containers of food and drink were the first things brought to shore. On the first run of the day the mariners had collected equipment that would be of immediate use—guns for hunting, line and nets for fishing, and containers for water. The remainder of the space in the boats was filled with chests, chairs, cooking utensils, rope, and tools. “We saved all our lives and afterwards saved much of our goods, but all our bread was wet and lost,” George Somers said. As the Virginia Company would later report, the salvage crews would eventually strip the ship and leave behind “nothing but bared ribs as a prey unto the ocean.”

Fishing equipment from the Sea Venture was immediately prepared for use. A team headed by George Somers waded into the waters off the beach and found them filled with life. Within minutes of dropping lines they were pulling in fish by the dozen. Silvester Jourdain said the castaways found “many kind of fishes and so plentiful thereof that in half an hour he took so many great fishes with hooks as did suffice the whole company one day. And fish is there so abundant that if a man step into the water they will come round about him so that men were fain to get out for fear of biting. These fishes are very fat and sweet.”

By midafternoon teams had beaten a path to the pond and filled every available container. Somers’s men were bringing in scores of fish. The campsite, too, was taking form. The sailors brought in rope and canvas and the voyagers strung sails between trees to serve as awnings. Under one canvas roof near the fire a rude kitchen was set up. The well was dug deeper and was again supplying limited water. Separate privies for men and women were dug and equipped with benches at secluded spots out of sight of the camp.

Toward the end of the day a great fish feast commenced in the camp of the voyagers. Among the species eaten were many of those listed by early settlers as teeming in the island’s waters—rockfish, hogfish, amber-fish, hedgehogfish, cunnyfish, old wives, snappers, groupers, cavallyes, mullets, mackerels, pilchers, and breams. Thomas Powell oversaw the cleaning of the exotic fish and the roasting of them on the campfire. As each came crackling from the flames it was laid on a plate or leaf and passed through the crowd. Deep draughts of fresh water followed. In a few hours the stomachs of the castaways were full.

Surveying the camp during the banquet of strange fish, the survivors of the Sea Venture looked around at a tiny village that was well appointed beyond all expectation. The sailors had already brought ashore all manner of goods from the ship, including mattresses and blankets, furniture, and chests filled with personal goods. To have these precious items at hand rather than at the bottom of the sea made their situation relatively comfortable. The castaways marveled at their good luck. Despite the desperate times of the hurricane, the Sea Venture’s passengers were indeed fortunate.

The history of the island as a supernatural land was always at the back of the castaways’ minds, so much so that when they heard rustling in the brush during dinner some surely thought they were hearing one of Bermuda’s fabled devils. The commotion in the underbrush did indeed turn out to be a monster, but a monstrous hog rather than a savage and deformed being. The famished domestic swine from the ship had been allowed to root about loose for food, and their presence had not gone unnoticed. “We had knowledge that there were wild hogs upon the island at first by our own swine preserved from the wreck and brought to shore, for they straying into the woods, a huge wild boar followed down to our quarter,” Strachey said.

The presence of hogs on Bermuda was not a surprise to some among the shipwreck survivors. One of the books Strachey brought on the voyage included an account by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo of an unsuccessful attempt by Juan Bermúdez in 1511 to stock his namesake island with hogs as a mid-Atlantic larder for passing ships. Another Spaniard, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, was apparently successful in a similar attempt in 1563. A Spanish captain who landed on the island in 1603 reported that hogs left by Avilés had prospered. Diego Ramirez found large herds when he paused to repair a damaged ship six years before the Sea Venture wreck. The hogs had trod out wide paths to watering holes, and trees along the trails were worn where the animals rubbed their backs against the bark.

After dinner around the campfire the sailors devised a plan to capture the boar. The animal turned out to be remarkably unafraid of humans, Strachey said, and “at night was watched and taken in this sort. One of Sir George Somers’s men went and lay among the swine, when the boar being come and groveled by the sows he put over his hand and rubbed the side gently of the boar, which then lay still, by which means he fastened a rope with a sliding knot to the hind leg and so took him and after him in this sort two or three more.”

During the next two weeks many more hogs were taken and penned in enclosures at the camp. The Bermuda hogs were descendants of wild boars from the forests of Europe, a fierce breed that lacked the docility modern pigs have acquired through selective breeding. Living for generations on an island without predators had dulled their sense of danger, however, and the Sea Venture dog proved an efficient hunter. “Our people would go a-hunting with our ship dog,” Strachey said, “and sometimes bring home thirty, sometimes fifty, boars, sows, and pigs in a week alive.”

The fauna of Bermuda was proving useful, as was the flora. The leaves of the palmetto trees around the camp were the first plants used by the voyagers. The fan leaves spanned up to ten feet in width and breadth. Within two weeks of landing several castaways had constructed huts of wood frames covered with leaves. The individual structures provided privacy at family campsites around the main camp. “With these leaves we thatched our cabins,” Strachey said. “So broad are the leaves, as an Italian umbrello, a man may well defend his whole body under one of them from the greatest storm rain that falls. For they being stiff and smooth as if so many flags were knit together the rain easily slideth off.”

The palmetto palm tree also provided food. The castaways noticed that the wild hogs ate the berries that grew in clumps below the sprays of leaves. They tried them themselves and found them palatable. The base from which the leaves sprouted was found to be edible as well. Each tree yielded a twenty-pound head that could be eaten raw, grilled, or boiled. “Roasting the palmetto or soft top thereof, they had a taste like fried melons, and being sod they eat like cabbages,” Strachey said.

Palmetto berries were not the only succulent treats awaiting the castaways. On exposed parts of the island the castaways found growing among the limestone boulders a cactus with an edible pear. Though one had to be careful getting past the spines of the hull, Strachey said, the reward was a center filled with maroon juice. “A kind of peas of the bigness and shape of a Katherine pear we found growing upon the rocks, full of many sharp subtle pricks (as a thistle) which we therefore called the prickle pear, the outside green but being opened of a deep murrey, full of juice like a mulberry and just of the same substance and taste. We both eat them raw and baked.”

As the voyagers gathered food, they also explored the islands. What they found was a natural fortress that was as easy to defend as it was difficult to approach. Accompanying the discovery that Bermuda was a secure sanctuary, Strachey said, was the confirmation that it was “desolate and not inhabited.” This was not a real surprise, either, given its distance from inhabited lands and its dangerous reputation. Still, in their first weeks after the shipwreck it dawned on the voyagers that they had discovered a well-stocked mid-Atlantic bastion that was theirs for the taking. An historian who wrote about the Sea Venture wreck in 1705 bluntly stated the main attraction of the place: “The best of it was, they found plenty of provisions in that island and no Indians to annoy them.”

Yet for all its good points, Bermuda was not quite a paradise. While there were no rival humans to compete with the Sea Venture castaways, there were inhabitants of another kind to annoy them. “They were long and slender-leg spiders,” Strachey said, “and whether venomous or no I know not, I believe not, since we should still find them amongst our linen in our chests and drinking cans but we never received any danger from them.” Nathaniel Butler, who would come to Bermuda a few years later, would note that the spiders were so big that they would occasionally catch sparrows in their webs. “They are here of a most pleasing and beautiful aspect, all over as it were decked with silver, gold, and pearl,” Butler said, “and their webs (woven in the summer upon trees) are found to be perfect silk.”

Within days of the wreck the voyagers planted a garden near the camp using English seeds brought in from the Sea Venture. Sprouts appeared, Strachey said, but the plants grew no further. “Sir George Somers in the beginning of August squared out a garden by the quarter and sowed muskmelons, peas, onions, radishes, lettuce, and many English seeds and kitchen herbs. All which in some ten days did appear above-ground.” Grubs killed the plants, he said. Butler later reported other pests. “The mosquitoes and flies also are somewhat over-busy, with a certain Indian bug called by a Spanish appellation a caca-roach, the which creeping into chests and boxes eat and defile with their dung (and hence their Spanish name) all they meet with.” Summer flies were the closest things to devils on Bermuda, according to an anonymous account by another colonist of a few years later. “Whereas it is reported that this land of the Bermudas with the islands about it (which are many, at the least a hundred) are enchanted and kept with evil and wicked spirits, it is a most idle and false report. God grant that we have brought no wicked spirits with us or that there comes none after us, for we found none so ill as ourselves,” he said. “No, nor any noisome thing or hurtful, more than a poor fly which tarries not above two or three months.”

Even with spiders, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and flies, Bermuda was turning out to be as fine a refuge as anyone on the Sea Venture could have imagined. What was thought to be a land of devils and brimstone turned out to be a temperate and angelic place. “My opinion sincerely of this island is,” Jourdain said, “that whereas it hath been and is still accounted the most dangerous, unfortunate, and most forlorn place of the world, it is in truth the richest, healthfulest, and pleasing land (the quantity and bigness thereof considered) and merely natural as ever man set foot upon.”

“I hope to deliver the world from a foul and general error,” Strachey wrote. “It being counted of most that they can be no habitation for men but rather given over to devils and wicked spirits, whereas indeed we find them now by experience to be as habitable and commodious as most countries of the same climate and situation, insomuch as if the entrance into them were as easy as the place itself is contenting it had long ere this been inhabited.”

Discord among the castaways also made it clear that despite their good fortune the castaways’ situation was less than perfect. On a hot summer day in August a grudge between two sailors flared into a wrestling match in the sand and fellow sailors formed a circle around the fighters. Before Governor Gates or his lieutenants arrived to stop the fight, Robert Waters picked up a shovel and struck his opponent Edward Samuel in the head, instantly killing him. When Gates determined that Samuel was dead, he ordered Waters held and Samuel’s body buried some distance from the camp. Later in the day he held a tribunal before the assembled voyagers, and after hearing testimony he condemned Waters to be hanged the next morning. The prisoner was tied to a tree under guard within sight of the camp.

Waters’s death sentence caused dissension within the Sea Venture company for the first time since it had formed in London twelve weeks earlier. Relations had been good during the sail, the fight with the hurricane, and the building of the Bermuda camp. Gates’s decision to condemn Waters to death, however, immediately set him at odds with the mariners of the shipwrecked company. The Sea Venture sailors had never expected to be subjected to military control, even the mix of civilian and military authority afforded the governor of the Virginia colony. Their anticipated role had been solely as transport specialists who served at the pleasure of the highest-ranking marine officer. Now unexpectedly marooned in a foreign land they were begrudgingly subject to Gates’s rule. That had been fine during the first two weeks, but now one of their own was condemned to die as the result of a fair fight. They couldn’t watch their shipmate hanged. In the night while Waters’s sentries slept they cut his bonds and took him to a hiding place in the forest.

Strachey learned of the escape with the rest of the camp when a sentry awoke and sounded the alarm. His loyalties and those of the other gentlemen of the company were fully with the governor. To Strachey, Waters’s flight was a grave affront to authority. The conspirators who had cut him free, he said, demonstrated “disdain that justice should be showed upon a sailor, that one of their crew should be an example to others, not taking into consideration the unmanliness of the murder nor the horror of the sin.”

Gates now faced the first open challenge to his authority as leader of the expedition. The split in the company displeased him and he knew that a killer lurking in the woods would have a corrosive effect on morale and discipline. The only way to bring the fugitive in, it seemed, was a major concession to the sailors. Certainly he wanted the matter resolved soon and in a definitive way. Gates sought the counsel of George Somers, who was well positioned to assist. As an educated and wealthy man, the gray-haired admiral had the trust of Gates despite his ties to the sailors. The two men met in a palmetto hut, and after a long talk emerged to announce a solution.

Strachey alone describes the final disposition of the case, and he does so in few words, perhaps because he was a consistent apologist for Gates and thought the outcome did not reflect well on the governor. Waters, Strachey said, “afterward by the mediation of Sir George Somers, upon many conditions, had his trial respited by our governor.” Intervention by the admiral won a sentence reduction that was startling in its leniency—clemency with the only condition being a requirement of good behavior. When Waters returned to the camp to slaps on the back from his compatriots and wary looks from the gentlemen, it was clear to all that Gates had literally allowed a man to get away with murder. Either Somers was a master defender or Gates was an unusually malleable judge. The prevailing opinion of the castaways tended to the latter view. Gates had resolved the murder case, but it came at a high cost to his reputation.

In addition to exposing the leader of the Sea Venture company as a vacillating commander, the Waters case served to expose a division within the ranks of the castaways. Governor Gates and Admiral Somers were forced into adversarial roles neither wanted, and the effect of that split would persist. While the negotiation over Waters’s fate was carried out in decorous terms, the talks placed the two leaders and their constituencies in blocs that cut along traditional lines of soldiers and sailors. The fistfight had pitted mariner against mariner, but its resolution had pitted Waters the sailor against Gates the soldier. Despite the outcome in the sailor’s favor, under the leadership of Gates the mariners would continue to perceive themselves as an aggrieved party and would nurse that sense of grievance as time went on.

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