Common section

CHAPTER EIGHT

New Life

’Twas a sweet marriage.

—Sebastian, The Tempest

Autumn days were noticeably cooler for the Sea Venture survivors. During October and November temperatures averaged in the high sixties and cold fronts crossed the island with clouds and rain. Day and night the fires burned on the beach, though there was no sign of a rescue ship sent by Henry Ravens. The coming of cool weather brought concern that if the stay on Bermuda stretched into winter, the bounty of the island might wane and hardships might increase. The prospect of a winter in exile caused the more pessimistic among the shipwreck survivors to be watchful for signs that the devil was afoot on the island, after all. Perhaps he would materialize in the rains and winds of the dead season.

The first voyager to hear a cahow in the autumn night might well have thought that evil spirits were at hand. The gull-sized seabirds (also known as Bermuda petrels) had frightened Spanish sailors who briefly touched on the island in October 1603. Diego Ramirez reported that when he anchored off Bermuda, “at dusk, such a shrieking and din filled the air that fear seized us.” The sailors first attributed the noise to devils, Ramirez said, but after realizing that the banshees were plump fowl rather than hellish specters the men clubbed five hundred and brought them back to the ship for food.

Six years later the night calls were again heard on Bermuda as the cahows returned to the island to nest in late October and early November. The Sea Venture castaways, having lived on Bermuda three months, were apparently more reserved than the Spanish in their reaction. Hunters followed the growing flocks of cahows to what would become known as the Bird Islands to the south. “A kind of web-footed fowl there is,” Strachey said, “of the bigness of an English green plover, or sea-mew, which all the summer we saw not, and in the darkest nights of November and December (for in the night they only feed) they would come forth, but not fly far from home, and hovering in the air and over the sea made a strange hollow and harsh howling.”

The cahows nested in holes in the limestone soil of the islands, which prompted Strachey to compare them to rabbits living in dens in a stony field. “Their color is inclining to russet with white bellies (as are likewise the long feathers of their wings russet and white). These gather themselves together and breed in those islands which are high and so far alone into the sea that the wild hogs cannot swim over them, and there in the ground they have their burrows like conies in a warren and so brought in the loose mould though not so deep, which birds with a light bough in a dark night (as in our lowbelling) we caught. I have been at the taking of three hundred in an hour, and we might have laden our boats.”

The traditional hunting technique of lowbelling, or hunting at night with torches to stupefy prey, proved an effective technique on Bermuda. Little effort was necessary after landing on the Bird Islands, however, as the birds seemed perfectly willing to come to the hunters. “Our men found a pretty way to take them,” Strachey said, “which was by standing on the rocks or sands by the seaside and hollowing, laughing, and making the strangest outcry that possibly they could, with the noise whereof the birds would come flocking to that place and settle upon the very arms and head of him that so cried, and still creep nearer and nearer answering the noise themselves, by which our men would weigh them with their hand and which weighed heaviest they took for the best and let the others alone, and so our men would take twenty dozen in two hours of the chiefest of them, and they were a good and well relished fowl, fat and full as a partridge.

“There are thousands of these birds and two or three islands full of their burrows,” Strachey said, “whither at any time (in two hours’ warning) we could send our cock-boat and bring home as many as would serve the whole company, which birds for their blindness (for they see weakly in the day) and for their cry and hooting we call the sea owl. They will bite cruelly with their crooked bills.”

The Bird Islands were one of many features the Englishmen named as they explored the island by foot and boat. In addition to naming Gates Bay where the expedition came ashore, the castaways designated the channel out to sea Somers Creek. A promontory on an island to the south the castaways passed on the cahow hunting trips also received a name. Strachey may have been the first to climb to its lookout point, as the castaways built a signal fire and shelter there and took to calling it Strachey’s Watch. Somers duly marked all of these locations on a map he was making as he led hunting parties throughout the islands of the Bermuda archipelago. “Sir George Somers, who coasted in his boat about them all,” Strachey said, “took great care to express the same exactly and full and made his draft perfect for all good occasions and the benefit of such who either in distress might be brought upon them or make sail this way.” In giving the reason for the creation of a map—to aid English mariners—Strachey made it clear that Somers expected to leave Bermuda in the near future. The castaways would continue to work toward that goal.

Knowing that an abundance of fowl awaited the cooks each day allowed the voyagers to turn their thoughts from subsistence to the patterns of a more secure existence. One of those whose attention wandered to new pursuits was George Somers’s cook, Welshman Thomas Powell. During the fall Powell grew close to one of the few single women on the island, Elizabeth Persons, the servant who had come aboard the Sea Venture in the service of Mistress Horton. Powell’s cooking chores kept him close to camp most of the time, and since Horton never strayed far from her cabin, Persons was always nearby. The two developed a friendship through the summer and by fall it turned to something more. If they followed English custom, Thomas and Elizabeth would have bundled together—slept clothed in a single bed—in a thatched cottage during their courtship. Whether they bundled or not, on November 26, four months after the Sea Venture brought the castaways to the island, Richard Buck officiated at the wedding of the cook and the servant. The ceremony took place on a Sunday, the day of the week favored by Jacobean wedding couples.

Out of necessity the event was a simple affair. The bride would have worn a traditional wreath of flowers in her hair and carried a coin in her shoe for good luck. A square “care cloth,” or wedding canopy, would have sheltered the couple during the ceremony. The wedding feast surely included the recently plentiful cahows roasted over the fire. Powell himself likely prepared the banquet, which may also have featured grilled fish complemented by roasted hearts of palm and fresh picked palmetto berries. A recent vintage of fermented bibby likely completed the convivial table. Though the customary plums and almond paste were lacking, a suitable island version of a wedding cake was undoubtedly created. For good luck the wedding couple would have kissed over the bride cake before serving it to their guests. At the end of the evening when the couple was escorted to their cabin, Persons may have thrown a stocking to her friends as a final gesture. The only record of the event that communicates the festive spirit of the day is John Smith’s secondhand report: “amongst all those sorrows they had a merry English marriage.”

The easy availability of food also allowed the castaways time to search for treasure. The valuables sought were pearls from the Bermuda lagoons and ambergris washed up on the beach. Ambergris is a waxy substance from the intestines of sperm whales that was highly valued as an ingredient of perfume. Mariners were always on the lookout for the stuff, since even a small lump would bring a fine return in London. According to Jourdain, the Sea Venture survivors found what they were seeking: “There is great store of pearl and some of them very fair, round, and Oriental, and you shall find at least one hundred seed of pearl in one oyster. There hath been likewise found some good quantity of ambergris, and that of the best sort.” Strachey also reported the discovery of pearls during the voyagers’ stay on the island, judging the gems as good as those of the West Indies.

Divers looking for pearl oysters had an opportunity to view the underwater wonders of Bermuda. “In the bottom of the sea,” John Smith wrote, “there is growing upon the rocks a large kind of plant in the form of a vine leaf but far more spread with veins in color of a pale red, very strangely interlaced and woven one into another, which we call the feather.” The anonymous colonist of a few years later reported another underwater marvel in the bays. “There is one very strange fish, and beautiful to behold. We call it an angelfish (as well as it may be), for as you see the picture of an angel made, so is this, and it shows of many colors both in the water swimming and out of the water and as a dainty a fish of meat as a salmon, or rather better.”

Pearls, ambergris, and exotic sea life notwithstanding, the camp of the castaways was not without a continuing undercurrent of tension. The rift caused by the mutiny remained, widening the traditional gulf between mariners and landsmen. The split took the form of segregated campfires within the common clearing, separately planned survival strategies, and an absence of cross-camp chatter. The men at the head of the factions, Admiral George Somers and Governor Thomas Gates, were knights restrained by the genteel traditions of the day, and that restraint veiled the depth of the division. The career seamen formed the core of one group, while the elite landsmen were at the center of the other. Laborers and artisans split between the two factions to some extent, though most remained with the landsmen. The splinter group was that of Somers and his mariners. Seamen traditionally lived a world apart from others of all classes, and so it was on Bermuda. Despite the great disparities of wealth and class among the landsmen, the elite and the poor of the city were familiar with each other and stayed together, albeit as a layered group.

Despite the fires on Strachey’s Watch, by late in the fall of 1609 neither Ravens nor rescuers from Virginia had appeared. “Two moons were wasted upon the promontory before mentioned,” Strachey said, “and gave many a long and wished look round about the horizon from the northeast to the southwest, but in vain, discovering nothing all the while, which way soever we turned our eye, but air and sea.” Everyone knew that the pinnace under construction in Building Bay was not large enough to take everyone to Virginia. The fact that half the castaways would remain behind had been the subject of campfire discussion since late summer, and—despite the desire of some in the company to stay on the island and build a colony there—rumors of such a parting exacerbated the splintering of the company. The assumption by the laborers was that the elite voyagers would take the skilled workmen and the best mariners and sail to safety, leaving them behind. That assessment was undoubtedly accurate and sowed resentment in those who thought they would be abandoned for months or years, perhaps even for the rest of their lives.

In late autumn Somers proposed a new approach to the goal of getting away. “The seven and twentieth of November,” Strachey reported, “when then well perceiving that we were not likely to hear from Virginia and conceiving how the pinnace which Richard Frobisher was a-building would not be of burden sufficient to transport all our men from thence into Virginia (especially considering the season of the year wherein we were likely to put off), he consulted with our governor that if he might have two carpenters (for we had four, such as they were) and twenty men over with him into the main island, he would quickly frame up another little bark to second ours for the better fitting and conveyance of our people.”

Strachey’s description of the governor’s reaction to the new plan is overstated, hinting that the writer declined to describe an air of unease in the relationship between Gates and Somers. “Our governor with many thanks (as the cause required), cherishing this so careful and religious consideration in him (and whose experience likewise was somewhat in these affairs), granted him all things suitable to his desire and to the furthering of the work.” Somers was assigned “twenty of the ablest and stoutest of the company” for his construction crew, probably composed of the two carpenters and his most trusted mariners. The new strategy was attractive to all, not the least because it separated the seamen from the landsmen and put an end to the daily irritations associated with the rift in the company. Neither leader apparently worried that isolation might increase the alienation of the mariners and embolden their opposition to the governor. Somers’s construction crew packed their personal belongings and disassembled their palmetto-leaf huts, packed them into the boats, and rowed to a site on the main island and there created a new camp. Thereafter couriers rowed between the two bases and carried written messages between Gates and Somers.

In the absence of grumbling mariners at the main camp a lighter mood prevailed. On Christmas Eve Richard Buck celebrated Communion. The next day Strachey came across a sign of yuletide renewal on frost-free Bermuda. “At Christmas,” he said, “I saw young birds.” As December turned to January, though, the weather was more foul than fair. “These islands are often afflicted and rent with tempests, great strokes of thunder, lightning, and rain in the extremity of violence,” Strachey said. “The three winter months, December, January, and February, the winds kept in those cold corners and indeed then it was heavy and melancholy being there.” Early in January a winter storm nearly destroyed the vessel under construction in Building Bay. Only by wading in the surf and reinforcing the cradle did the carpenters save the pinnace. The near-disaster prompted Gates to order the heaviest work of the Bermuda sojourn, the dragging of rocks into the bay to build a breakwater around the construction site.

Despite the division into two camps, in the early months of 1610 mutinous currents still flowed through the ranks of the castaways. Now that a second vessel was under construction and everyone on the island would be able to leave together, the rebels’ old concerns about abandonment were replaced by an unbridled wish to colonize the island. Among the reluctant workers in Gates’s camp was Stephen Hopkins, the shopkeeper who was serving as Reverend Richard Buck’s assistant. Around the campfire and on work details Hopkins tried to convince his fellows that they were no longer under an obligation to the Virginia Company. The London overseers had promised them safe passage to Jamestown, Hopkins argued, and that promise had been broken when the Sea Venture wrecked. The company had defaulted on the contract and left the people on the ship free to do as they saw fit. Not only were the castaways no longer obliged to the Virginia Company, Hopkins said, but in light of the discovery of the potentially lucrative resources of Bermuda, they had a new obligation to claim Bermuda for the company. Similarly, they owed it to their families to seize the opportunity for enrichment they had discovered by chance and at great risk to their lives.

Those who heard Hopkins’s whispered urgings around the fire were put in a difficult position. After all, Gates had already made it clear that no talk of altering the course of the expedition would be tolerated. Just by listening to Hopkins they became complicit in his scheme. The traditional punishment for plotting against a commander was death, and while Gates had so far shown restraint, no one knew how long his patience would last. A fear of the consequence of discovery drove Samuel Sharpe and Humphrey Reede to report Hopkins’s activities to Gates, and on January 24 the agitator was put on trial in a hearing called by the tolling of the ship’s bell.

After testimony against him, Strachey said, Hopkins was “full of sorrow and tears, pleading simplicity and denial.” The accused man had left his wife Mary and children Elizabeth, Constance, and Giles back in the village of Hursley in the Hampshire countryside. The misery his execution would cause them was now the subject on which Hopkins focused his impressive rhetorical skills. Strachey was one of those who was moved enough to appeal to Gates for leniency. “So penitent he was and made so much moan alleging the ruin of his wife and children in this his trespass, as it wrought in the hearts of all the better sort of the company who therefore with humble entreaties and earnest supplications went unto our governor whom they besought (as likewise did Captain Newport and myself) and never left him until we had got his pardon.” Gates was indeed proving to be a pliant leader, now tolerating a murder and two mutinies without imposing harsh punishment.

After the turmoil of the second mutiny trial, the attention of the castaways was turned in a new direction with the impending birth of the first native Bermudian. The wife of voyager John Rolfe was nine months pregnant and expected to deliver a child soon. A palmetto tent was prepared for Goodwife Rolfe by the other married women of the camp, including Mistress Horton, the just-married Elizabeth Persons Powell, and the wife of Edward Eason, who was herself seven months pregnant. A mattress was laid on a Bermuda-built bed for Goody Rolfe’s benefit. At the base of the bed a stool was set for the woman who would act as midwife. Just outside the entrance a fire was kept burning.

At the first pangs of labor, Goody Rolfe sent for her attendants. As a seventeenth-century childbirth manual advised, “the time of delivery being at hand, they must prepare themselves as followeth, which is forthwith to send for their midwife and keeper, being far better to have them too soon than too late.” As early labor progressed, Rolfe was encouraged to walk slowly around the clearing to hasten the process. The traditional labor-time nourishments of separate cups of broth and egg yolk (in this case perhaps from one of the first cahow eggs of the season) were offered to her.

As labor progressed and Rolfe was put to bed, one of the attendants may have followed the traditional method of assisting the birth: “Sometimes the midwife, etc., may gently press the upper parts of the belly, and by degrees stroke the child downward, the which pressing down with discretion will hasten and facilitate the delivery.” In the wilds of Bermuda not all the traditional remedies of a well-stocked midwife’s cabinet were available. The women attending Rolfe likely had no oils of lilies, violets, or roses to use as balms. Surely they did not have ingredients for one traditional mix often prescribed to hasten labor: white wine, mistletoe, and mummy (the dried flesh of mummies—purported to be Egyptian but often domestic and of a more recent vintage—ground fine and sold as medicine).

At the height of labor, one of the attendants surely held Rolfe’s hand as others encouraged her to push. The midwife was advised “to give her women good encouragement, desiring them to hold in their breath by stopping their mouths, and to strain downward.” When the child finally arrived she was found to be a girl. The cord was cut—close, rather than long for a boy, according to tradition—and a cloth compress was tied around the infant’s stomach to protect the cord stump while it was still attached. Rather than the traditional scenting of the compress with oil of roses, Rolfe’s attendants may have initiated a tradition that would persist on Bermuda, the use of a potpourri compress of cedar sawdust on the navel of the newborn. “The child being thus anointed, shifted, and well dried and wrapped up, there must be given to it some small quality of wine mixed with sugar,” the contemporary childbirth manual says. On Bermuda a spoonful of palmetto bibby may have been the first thing the baby tasted.

The infant girl was baptized soon after birth. Mistress Horton served as a witness at the ceremony. “The eleventh of February we had the child of one John Rolfe christened, a daughter,” William Strachey said, “to which Captain Newport and myself were witnesses, and the aforesaid Mistress Horton, and we named it Bermuda.” Bermuda Rolfe’s legal status as an Englishwoman was arguably in question. The Virginia Company charter stated that any child born in the colony would be treated for “all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within this our kingdom of England.” The charter said nothing, however, regarding children born in other foreign places.

Englishwoman or Bermudian, on the warmest February days Bermuda Rolfe was brought outside in a bundle and laid on a dappled spray of palmetto leaves to take in the breezes of the island. After all, as a later anonymous colonist said, the air of her namesake island was clean and sweet and good for all ages. “Young children do thrive and grow up exceeding well,” the colonist wrote, “the climate is so temperate and agreeable to our English constitutions.”

The bounty of Bermuda continued to feed the Sea Venture castaways through the winter. Early in 1610 the cahows the castaways had hunted since October now began to nest, and the collectors who went to the Bird Islands returned with a new delicacy for the cooks. Cahow eggs had white shells and were nearly indistinguishable from hens’ eggs, Strachey said. Scrambled or fried over the fire, they were a welcome reminder of home.

Green turtles that had been taken occasionally in the summertime returned in greater numbers in the winter and they too laid eggs. The Sea Venture, in fact, had come to rest in one of the most active sea-turtle nurseries of the Atlantic. Hundreds of the huge animals came ashore in February, each of which provided a meal for as many as seventy people. The timing of the arrival of the turtles was fortuitous, because the palmetto berries had gone out of season and the hogs that subsisted on them were growing thin.

The sea turtles were hunted nocturnally as well, according to a later colonist named Richard Norwood: “We take them for the most part at night, making a great light in a boat to which they will sometimes swim and seldom shun, so that a man standing ready with a staff in his hand which hath at one end a socket wherein is an iron less than a man’s finger four-square and sharp with a line fastened to it, he striking this iron into the upper shell of the turtle it sticks so fast that after she hath a little tired herself by swimming to and fro, she is taken by it.”

The average sea turtle weighed three hundred pounds. After they were towed to shore four men were needed to drag each one onto the sand, where they were flipped over and left alive until eaten. In a macabre addendum, Norwood described the death throes of the sea giants: “They will live, the head being cut off, four and twenty hours, so that if you cut the flesh with a knife or touch it, it will tremble and shrink away. There is no meat will keep longer, either fresh or salt.” Sea turtles also yielded oil, which provided a medium for cooking, but the prize was the meat in the shell. “The flesh that cleaveth to the inside of this, being roasted against the fire, is excellent meat, almost like the marrow of beef, but the shell itself harder than horn. She hath also a shell on her belly, not so hard, but being boiled it becomes soft like the sinews or gristle of beef.”

In February and March cool weather continued, Strachey wrote: “The mornings are there (as in May in England) fresh and sharp.” New kinds of animals were found with regularity. The birds were the most remarkable. “Fowl there is great store: small birds, sparrows fat and plump like a bunting, bigger than ours; robins of diverse colors, green and yellow, ordinary and familiar in our cabins, and other of less sort. White and gray herons, bitterns, teal, snipe, crows, and hawks, of which in March we found diverse aeries, goshawks and tiercels, oxen-birds, cormorants, bald-coots, moorhens, owls, and bats in great store.” Once in March Gates and another gunner shot two swans over an island pond.

The castaways had been on Bermuda for eight months. Despite the turmoil of the mutinies, they had managed to create an island community that by wilderness standards was remarkably prosperous. Castaway society was a version of English culture with its hard work and class conflict. The unusual elements of island existence, though, were almost all good—swan spit roasted over a fire, bibby shared around a camp table, birds on the nest at Christmastime, and an existence remarkably free of disease. They had found a wonderful place, and many still did not want to leave.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!