Had I plantation of this isle.
—Gonzalo, The Tempest
On hot August nights as the fire in the center of the castaways’ camp turned to embers, the Sea Venture survivors may have heard what sounded like sprites in the dark. When all was quiet, the distinct calls of thousands of birds could be heard as they flew over the camp. Warblers, thrushes, swallows, plovers, and sandpipers were among the migrants passing over the island each night on long flights from the continent to lands far to the south. Some would rest on Bermuda, and during the day the castaways would occasionally see a flash of color in the brush. Among the migrants, too, were dragonflies that came from the Virginia coast to winter on the mid-Atlantic isle.
As William Strachey had during the weeks on the Sea Venture, he spent most of his time on Bermuda among the elite voyagers of the company—Thomas Gates, Reverend Richard Buck, Captain Newport, and Mistress Horton. Within this group Strachey joined in quietly disparaging the laborers and artisans of the company. The lesser sort, he said, were guilty of overharvesting palmetto trees for their berries and cabbagelike heads, even in places where there was no need to clear the land. “Many an ancient burger was therefore heaved at and fell not for his place but for his head, for our common people whose bellies never had ears made it no breach of charity in their hot bloods and tall stomachs to murder thousands of them.”
Many of those whose “bellies never had ears” suffered diarrhea when they gorged on palmetto berries. Luckily, the castaways discovered that another native Bermuda plant offered a cure for the malady they called the flux. The bay grape bears clusters of edible berries among red-veined leaves. Strachey described the grape as “a round blue berry, much eaten by our own people—of a styptic quality and rough taste on the tongue like a sloe—to stay or bind the flux.”
There was another use of the bounty of the palmetto tree that made trips to the privy a little easier to take, though perhaps no less frequent. The castaways missed having alcoholic drinks, and some of the more creative among them tried fermenting the produce of the island as a substitute. The palmetto tree yields a sap that when mixed with water makes a sugary drink. When fermented, it turns to a liquor that was a tolerable alternative to English beer. The settlers took to calling the palmetto drink “bibby” and indulged in it often.
The castaways made a second spirituous liquor from berries of another Bermuda tree. Cedars grew in large groves in the valleys, Strachey said, “the berries whereof our men seething, straining, and letting stand some three or four days made a kind of pleasant drink. These berries are of the same bigness and color of currants, full of little stones and very restringent or hard building.” The berries were eaten raw as well. Jourdain added, “There are an infinite number of cedar trees (the fairest I think in the world) and those bring forth a very sweet berry and wholesome to eat.”
Many other useful plants grew on the island, not all of them native. The Spanish had planted at least three crops that still grew in patches. Jourdain reported that the Sea Venture voyagers discovered good quality tobacco, and, while they are not mentioned in the chronicles, olives and pawpaws had been growing on the island for more than a decade. Jourdain also found another potential crop—native mulberries and a new variety of silkworm feeding on the leaves that he hoped might produce threads that could be made into cloth. The find was notable because English explorers were eager to develop a silk industry to replace expensive imports from Asia.
With the addition of plant foods the Bermuda larder was becoming ever more ample, though summer temperatures in the low eighties meant only a small supply of meat could be stored. The Sea Venture castaways had only limited opportunity to use the traditional preservation technique of salting. Among the casks rescued from the ship were two or three of brine that could be boiled down to make salt. Gates ordered a salt-boiling operation set up under a palmetto-leaf roof, and, according to Strachey, “kept three or four pots boiling and two or three men attending nothing else in a house (some little distance from his bay).” When the brine in the casks ran out, seawater was used, though because it had a lower salt content it required more boiling and more firewood—a full cord to produce 4.5 bushels of salt. The salt-house fire, a continuously burning signal fire on the beach, and the campfire made woodcutting and log carrying a steady occupation in the Sea Venture camp.
Castaway carpenters also cut cedar trees for use as lumber, an activity possible only because the grounding of the Sea Venture allowed the retrieval of tools from the ship. One of the books Strachey brought on the ship reported that the Spanish had already transported Bermuda cedar boards to their Caribbean colonies and found them useful, albeit prone to splitting and difficult to handle. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo wrote that the wood of the Bermuda cedar was resistant to shipworms when used in seagoing vessels. The largest cedars growing on the island were fifteen feet in circumference, though the woodcutters selected more manageable specimens in their forays for lumber.
In August two boat-building operations commenced. English carpenters constructed a flat-bottomed boat that Strachey compared to a Venetian gondola. The boat allowed the castaways to transport substantial cargoes across water. This was important because it allowed the hog hunters to more easily venture to the main island. Jourdain described Somers’s returning with more than thirty live hogs on the wide bottom of the craft. The gondola was used for offshore fishing when heavy angling thinned near-shore stocks. Crustaceans and shellfish were collected and brought to camp in the boat as well. “We have taken also from under the broken rocks crayfishes oftentimes greater than any of our best English lobsters, and likewise abundance of crabs, oysters, and whelks,” Strachey said. “True it is, for fish in every cove and creek were found, snails, and schools in that abundance as (I think) no island in the world may have greater store or better fish.”
Among the fishermen who brought in the Bermuda catch were Namontack and Machumps. During the summer they dug out two canoes of Bermuda cedar. A single log was used to make each canoe, the center of the tree being slowly removed by burning with coals and scraping with shells and stones. A colonist who saw canoes in Virginia called them “a kind of boat they have made in the form of a hog’s trough.” The canoes added two more vessels to the Sea Venture’s miniature fleet of gondola, longboat, and skiff. Once the considerable task of hollowing out the first canoe was complete, the Powhatans were able to put their fishing skills to work. Namontack and Machumps fished both with fish-bone hooks and bow and arrow. A third method was to trap fish behind a weir staked across a tidal race. At high tide the fish would pass over the porous barrier of brush, then at low tide the barrier would break the surface and trap the catch behind it. Fishermen then used nets made of bark and animal sinew to collect the corralled fish. Powhatan weirs were “enclosures made of reeds and framed in the fashion of a labyrinth or maze set a fathom deep in the water,” Strachey said, “with diverse chambers or beds out of which the entangled fish cannot return or get out.”
While the gondola and canoes were useful for on-island activities, they did nothing to help the castaways leave Bermuda. No ships had appeared on the horizon by mid-August. Surely if those on the other ships of the Third Supply had survived the hurricane, they now thought the Sea Venturewas at the bottom of the sea. The castaways on Bermuda were hundreds of miles from the point at which the flagship lost contact with the other vessels. The chance that they had made it to land would be considered so slight and the resources of Jamestown would be so scant that no rescue ship would be dispatched to look for them. The castaways would have to devise their own means of deliverance. To that end, Gates formulated a dual plan to transport the voyagers from their unintended sanctuary.
First the castaways would fit Sea Venture’s longboat with a cabin and sail and send it to Jamestown as soon as possible. Construction would also begin on a larger vessel, a pinnace capable of carrying half the stranded party. The new vessel would sail to Jamestown and send back the pinnace that was routinely left at the colony for use in coastal exploration. No large ships would be available because those of the Sea Venture fleet—if they made it through the storm—would have long since returned to England with the produce of Virginia.
Four carpenters were on Bermuda, the most accomplished of whom was Richard Frobisher. Strachey described him as “a painful and well-experienced shipwright and a skillful workman.” Frobisher set up a work site in a small bay a half mile south of the main camp. The spot was thereafter referred to as Frobisher’s Building Bay, or simply Building Bay. The first task was the fitting out of the longboat, which at twenty-one feet was little more than an oversized rowboat. The boat was hauled onto the beach and the carpenters began transforming it into a miniature sailing vessel. “We made up our longboat in fashion of a pinnace,” Strachey reported, “fitting her with a little deck made of the hatches of our ruined ship, so close that no water could go in her, gave her sails and oars, and entreating with our master’s mate Henry Ravens (who was supposed a sufficient pilot) we found him easily won to make over therewith as a bark of adviso for Virginia.”
Gates wrote letters to the leaders of Jamestown and others to be forwarded to the Virginia Company in London. After two weeks or so of work the reconstruction was complete, and toward the end of August the tiny vessel was sailed the half mile up the coast to the camp for stocking. Ravens was pleased with the handling of the boat and said he was ready to put to sea. The longboat was packed with food and water, fishing equipment, clothes, bedding, and weapons. Then Ravens, according to Strachey, “the twenty-eighth of August being Monday, with six sailors and our cape-merchant Thomas Whittingham, departed from us out of Gates his Bay.” Two days later the castaways were disappointed to see the tiny sail return to view off the north shore and the longboat come back to camp. Incredibly, even though the vessel drew only twenty inches, it could not clear the reefs to the north and west of Bermuda. The men rested two days, restocked the longboat, and departed to the east through the channel the Sea Venture had traversed on the way in. This time Ravens made it to sea, Strachey said, “promising if he lived and arrived safe there to return unto us the next new moon with the pinnace belonging to the colony there.”
On the same day that Ravens left the first time—August 28—carpenters laid the keel of the new pinnace. The vessel would be built within wooden stocks just above the tidal zone in Building Bay. A boardwalk around the construction cradle ensured that the surf did not dampen the feet of the builders while they worked. Construction at the water’s edge was necessary to make it possible to pull the completed pinnace off the stocks when the tide was highest. The keel was forty feet long and made from an oak beam scavenged from the Sea Venture. Construction likely progressed as described by John Smith in one of his two primers on nautical methods. “First lay the keel, the stem, and stern in a dry dock or upon the stocks and bind them with good knees, then lay all the floor timbers,” Smith wrote. Only the most experienced shipwright should attempt to build a vessel, he said. “The lengths, breadths, depths, rakes, and burdens are so variable and different, that nothing but experience can possibly teach it.” Fortunately the Sea Venture castaways had such an experienced wright in Richard Frobisher.
Strachey, who was a devoted disciple of Gates, told of the governor setting a good example for the workmen building the pinnace. Rather than simply order them to cut lumber for the construction project, Gates did some of the heaviest work himself in order to model how he expected his charges to act. “The governor dispensed with no travail of his body nor forbore any care or study of mind,” Strachey said, “persuading as much and more an ill-qualified parcel of people by his own performance than by authority, thereby to hold them at their work, namely to fell, carry, and saw cedar fit for the carpenters’ purpose.”
The work proceeded well, but Gates’s rescue plan did not please everyone in the castaway camp. Though the voyagers had been recruited by a promise of riches in Virginia, they had heard whispers of the bloody resistance of the Powhatans. Here they stood on an unclaimed island of plenty. Little time passed before it became clear to some that they could live on Bermuda in relative comfort until a passing vessel afforded an opportunity to present themselves in England as the founders of an island colony. Gates discouraged talk of such a plan, believing the obligation of all lay with the Virginia Company that had financed the fleet and to whom everyone on the island had pledged loyalty. Notwithstanding the appeal of Bermuda and the potential hardships of Jamestown, Gates contended that every person who rode the Sea Venture was bound by contract and reputation to go to Virginia. If he had not insisted that every possible means to do so be pursued, Strachey said, “I am persuaded we had most of us finished our days there, so willing were the major part of the common sort (especially when they found such a plenty of victuals) to settle a foundation of ever inhabiting there.”
The desire to stay was so persistent among “the common sort” that at the beginning of September a second challenge to Gates’s authority arose. The insubordination first manifested itself in a reluctance to work on the construction of the pinnace. “Some dangerous and secret discontents nourished amongst us had like to have been the parents of bloody issues and mischiefs,” Strachey said. Sailors were the first to conspire, and they were then joined by landsmen. The argument that persuaded others to join was that “in Virginia nothing but wretchedness and labor must be expected with many wants,” Strachey said, “there being neither that fish, flesh, nor fowl which here at ease and pleasure might be enjoyed.”
The plot was betrayed to Gates on September 1 and six men—John Want, Christopher Carter, Francis Pearepoint, William Brian, William Martin, and Richard Knowles—were brought before Gates for trial. The plan of the mutineers was to separate from the main group and establish homesteads for themselves on another of the islands of the Bermuda archipelago. They had hoped to draw into the conspiracy a carpenter named Nicholas Bennit, whom Strachey characterized as “a mutinous and dissembling imposter.” Gates decided that the fittest sentence would be to banish them to a small island with just enough provisions to sustain themselves. “They were condemned to the same punishment which they would have chosen (but without smith or carpenter) and to an island far by itself they were carried and there left,” Strachey said.
Earlier a murderer had walked free, and now mutineers were exiled instead of being hanged. For the second time Gates had exercised unusual restraint in punishing capital offenses. The governor’s compassionate streak endeared him to some of the castaways, but to others it revealed him as unable or unwilling to impose a deserving sentence, or, once imposed, to carry it out. Only to the six banished mutineers did the punishment seem quite severe enough as the skiff pushed off from their island prison to return to the main camp.
In late September the weather turned wet and windy and the misery of the banished mutineers increased accordingly. The boats that brought the exiled men rations returned to camp with word that the six were quarrelsome and bored and tired of subsistence living. In his account of the end of the banishment, Strachey takes pains to demonstrate that the governor was justified in paroling the mutineers. “Our governor (not easy to admit any accusation and hard to remit an offence, but at all times sorry in the punishment of him in whom may appear either shame or contrition) was easily content to reacknowledge them again.” The ostracized men were reunited with the company and the castaway party was whole again.
Namontack and Machumps probably shed the uncomfortable clothes of England when they reached Bermuda. In the woods again, they resumed the lives they had led in Tsenacomoco. The Bermuda episode was an unusual interlude of cooperation in the era of contact between English and Powhatan people. For the first time they had been thrown together in a land foreign to both. On the island the two Powhatans led relatively autonomous lives, setting up their own camp some distance from the main settlement. The hurricane had been a harrowing experience for them. Their lack of control over the boat and the terrified looks on the faces of the English had been hard to endure. Even this strange land was a welcome relief.
The Powhatans’ first weeks on the island were likely spent in manufacture. The canoes were the most time-consuming project. They may have made arrows, but the wood on Bermuda was not right for bows, and so they would use the ones they had unless they came across trees as strong and flexible as the witch hazel or locust of Virginia. William Strachey was especially interested in learning about the Powhatans of Virginia, and he sometimes visited their fire and talked to them in a mix of English and Powhatan. On the visits the Powhatans and Englishman were wary of each other and concealed mild distaste for the opposite cultures. Much of the initial conversation was spent in learning words. They often resorted to hand signals, but nevertheless managed to converse on a wide range of subjects. Strachey hoped his journals would form the basis of his narrative of the New World, albeit one with an unexpected mid-Atlantic detour.
Initially Namontack and Machumps would have hunted birds in the woods near the camp. White-tailed deer were their main quarry at home, but the only large animals on the island were feral pigs, and so they became the prey. The canoes Namontack and Machumps hollowed out by their fire allowed them to roam throughout the archipelago. This they did freely, going to the main island, where there were large flocks of birds and herds of pigs. One canoe was left with the English for their use, and the two from Tsenacomoco took the other to distant hunting grounds. They would return in two or three days with a canoe laden with pigs, fish, and fowl. Much of the food would be given to the English, still leaving plenty for the Powhatans.
On one of the hunts away from the camp Namontack apparently came to an unexplained end. Machumps never admitted to knowing any details about the disappearance of his companion, if in fact he did know anything beyond Namontack’s having never returned from a foray into the brush. All Machumps seems to have said was that Namontack disappeared. When Machumps returned to camp alone, the English apparently assumed that his companion was still away hunting. When Namontack had not come back for several days, Machumps’s explanation seems to have been that his companion never showed up at a meeting place and a search revealed nothing of his fate.
An accident could certainly have befallen a man hunting in an unknown land. The Powhatan method of hunting demanded the rapid pursuit of wounded prey. Namontack may have sunk an arrow in a hog and taken up the chase across unfamiliar terrain. Perhaps he tripped on broken limestone and hit his head. Maybe he was hunting along the shore and slipped while traversing rocks. If he had fallen in the ocean and drowned his body could have been washed away. Another possibility is that the man from Tsenacomoco discovered one of Bermuda’s two hundred limestone caves, the longest of which runs for more than a mile underground. Namontack may have come across a cavern entrance, gone inside, fallen, and died.
Such a scenario is apparently what Machumps expected the English to believe, either because he thought it true or he wanted an alibi. They were suspicious that he knew more than he told. The Englishmen’s attempts to extract information across a significant language barrier proved ineffective. Their suspicions would remain unanswered. The English were not inclined to launch a search for a lost man of another culture, especially when resources were needed for hunting and finding a way off the island. In the absence of proof, Machumps was allowed to continue to live in his camp and contribute to the general larder, but the English now kept a close watch on his activities. After all, he might be a liar and a murderer.
As time passed the story of Machumps and Namontack was retold and embellished. Eventually Machumps would be cast as the perpetrator of a grisly murder. “Some such differences fell between them,” John Smith would write years later, “that Machumps slew Namontack, and having made a hole to bury him, because it was too short, he cut off his legs and laid them by him, which murder he concealed.” Sensationalized with gore it became a fantastic tale indeed, but one that seems exaggerated in light of Machumps’s continued residency among the English. They may have suspected foul play, but if they could prove it—even by the low standard required in a cross-cultural case—they would not have hesitated to execute him.