“A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her” – the wreck of the “Sea Venture” in 1609, the earlies of Virginia and “The Tempest”

25 July 1609, During a three-day hurricane in the West Indies, Admiral Sir George Somers sailed his flagship “Sea Venture”, part of the “Third Relief” bound for Jamestown, Virginia, on the reefs off Bermuda, inspiring Shakespeare’s “Tempest”.

“If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them. The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch, But that the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek, Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her, Dash'd all to pieces! O, the cry did knock Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perish'd! Had I been any god of power, I would Have sunk the sea within the earth, or e'er It should the good ship so have swallow'd, and The fraughting souls within her.“ (William Shakespeare “The Tempest”)


Miranda witnessing the shipwreck in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” 
as imagined by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) in 1916

There is probably no place on Earth anymore, where a herd of tourists is a noticed for being particularly well dressed. That was a bit different 400 years ago, though, when locals felt compelled to mention: "What good clothes you wear!", “wingandacoa” in their native Carolina Algonquian, upon the arrival of Raleigh’s first settlers in North America. “Wingandacoa”, together with the name of an obviously well-dressed Secotan chief, one “Wingina”, became “Virginia” by order of Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, the oldest recorded English place name in the United States. However, after the greatest colonial empire the world had ever seen somehow got out the wrong side of bed with its first colony in North America. After two failed attempts to settle lush Roanoke Island in the late 1500s and the Virgin Queen’s successor James being quite strapped of funds, the whole undertaking of colonising the New World was privatised, the Virginia Company was founded and with the “First Landing” of Company-sponsored settlers arriving in three ships at Cape Henry and the foundation of Jamestown in 1607, the next round began, almost as staggering as the first two. Disease, starvation and rather lamentable relations with the locals had left 400 of the original 500 settlers dead and the rest was in a rather dismal shape. Shareholder value of the Virginia Company went belly up and something had to be done. Fault analysis provided by Captain John Smith from back there stated: “When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as wee have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.“ It seems that reports and assessments from front-line operatives about the needs of the business were taken serious by the board 400 years ago and, supposedly, they did no half-measures in equipping the third supply mission for Virginia. They even fitted out a purpose-built 300-ton emigrant ship, being able to carry more than 150 people alone across the Atlantic, the “Sea Venture”.

Leaving out “Disease, starvation and rather lamentable relations with the locals” – a 1906 print of Captain John Smith landing in Jamestown, Virginia, 1607. From “The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John.“

“Sea Venture” left Plymouth as flagship of the eight vessels of the “Third Supply” mission on 2 June 1609 on her maiden voyage. There is, however, a trick in in doing no half-measures, for example thinking things through and consider a few details from the beginning to the end of the design stage. In the case of the “Sea Venture” it was that she was not yet ready for sea, her timbers were new and had not set and when the fleet ran into a storm in the West Indies, the 300-ton floating death trap filled up with water faster than all hands on board could bail. Sir George Somers, Admiral of the small fleet, took the wheel himself and drove the ship on the reefs of the island that was sighted on the morning of 25 July. Thanks to Sir George’s rather desperate action, all 150 souls aboard could be brought safely ashore, marooned, though, on an island in the middle of nowhere, later known as Bermuda. Based on Smith’s “rude answer”, the castaways consisted of rather capable hands and managed to survive for the next ten months on Bermuda and constructed two small pinnaces, one-masted 50’ ships displacing about 30 tons, from local cedar and parts salvaged from the wreck of the “Sea Venture”. They left Bermuda in the “Deliverance” and “Patience” in May 1610 and reached Jamestown a fortnight later, out of the fire and into the frying pan. Without the provisions from the “Third Supply”, the colony was indeed dying and Somers decided to ship its 60 survivors on board of his two pinnaces and head back home to England. And just while the two cockleshells sailed out of the James River into Chesapeake Bay, they ran into the next relief fleet under the newly appointed governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, Delaware, who persuaded the people of “Deliverance” and “Patience” to return to abandoned Jamestown with him and make a new start. They did and it was for keeps this time, while Somers, trying to salvage more supplies from the wreck of “Sea Venture” in Bermuda with “Patience”, died en route, allegedly from a “surfeit of pork”, probably scurvy.

Construction of a small pinnace in the early 1600s,
albeit under more favourable circumstances than on Bermuda

The earlies of Virginia and the wreck of the “Sea Venture” naturally spawned a lot of stories and legends. John Rolfe and his first family were aboard the ship, his wife and child died on Bermuda, leaving him free to marry Pocahontas in 1614. And while Rolfe cultivated the first tobacco plants in North America that would eventually make the Virginia Colony profitable and two guns of “Sea Venture” served as the first defences of the English colony of Bermuda after 1612, the arguably most powerful tale salvaged from the wreck was Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, inspired by Ovid, Montaigne, Erasmus and, first and foremost, by the author William Strachey's eye-witness account, exhaustively named "A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warre, Iuly 15. 1610”. The publication of the “True Reportory”, first summarised in a letter to an “Excellent Lady”, was supressed by the Virginia Company, bad PR and all, and not printed before 1625, after the dissolution of the company and Shakespeare’s and Strachey’s death, but somehow, the Bard must have got wind of it, since some passages are almost quoted word for word, admittedly from the rather limited repertoire of imagery of ship wrecks and salvage accessible by landsmen. And since all great world-historic facts and personages appear famously at least twice, “Sea Venture” made her second coming as farce as the namesake of the ship used for filming “Love Boat” from 1977 onwards.

And more about the wreck of the “Sea Venture” on:

John Gadsby Chapman “The Baptism of Pocahontas“ 1840