The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

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9780805090253: The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

"A rip-snortin' story of shipwreck, intrigue, horror, courage, risk, luck and will . . . gripping."?Publishers Weekly

The English were latecomers to America, and their initial attempts to establish an overseas empire met with dismal failure. In 1609, another disaster set the final course of this dramatic history, when the Sea Venture, the ship dispatched by London investors to rescue the starving settlers at Jamestown, collided with a ferocious hurricane and was shipwrecked off the coast of Bermuda. This riveting historical narrative describes how the 150 castaways were seduced by the island's unexpected pleasures for almost a year and were later riven by mutinies when ordered to continue on to Virginia. Ultimately they built boats with their own hands and arrived safely in Jamestown to face the daunting task of rebuilding America's first permanent colony.

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About the Author:

Lorri Glover is the author of two books on the early South, including Southern Sons: Becoming Men in the New Nation. She is a professor of early American history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Daniel Blake Smith is the author of An American Betrayal, The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown, Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth Century Chesapeake Society, and many articles on early American history. Formerly a professor of colonial American history at the University of Kentucky, Smith now lives in St. Louis where he works as a screenwriter and filmmaker.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One  

LONDON DREAMS   In the spring of 1606, Sir Thomas Smythe’s Philpot Lane house fairly buzzed with activity. His family’s principal residence served as a gathering spot for London’s ambitious merchants and gentlemen who dreamed of spreading their wealth and power and Christian faith beyond the boundaries of their small island nation. Smythe played such a central role in the city’s leading overseas trading operations that he used the ground floor of his home for offices for the Levant, East India, and Muscovy Companies, and, most recently, the newly chartered Virginia Company. Upstairs he maintained a museum of sorts, displaying the exotic—and, he no doubt hoped, enticing—discoveries that mariners in his employ brought from the faraway voyages he helped finance. Captains who needed temporary housing between expeditions slept at the Symthe home. Sailors gathered there seeking jobs, and mariners’ wives sometimes boarded there while their husbands were at sea.1

It was fitting that the architects of England’s first empire congregated at Smythe’s home. That rare combination of a bold dreamer and a tireless doer, Smythe was at the turn of the seventeenth century the most accomplished businessman in all of London. He served at one time or another as the principal leader of every important commercial enterprise in the city: the Levant, East India, and Muscovy Companies, the Merchant Adventurers, and the French and Spanish Companies. He helped fund expeditions to Ireland, explorations seeking a Northwest Passage, and even a voyage to Senegal. Renowned as a shrewd and supremely competent entrepreneur, Smythe was also respected as a decent and charitable man and a devout Christian. No one was better qualified to oversee the new company that King James chartered that April, the company that would bring about En gland’s American empire.2

By the time he involved himself in the Virginia Company, the forty- eight- year- old Smythe knew, from dearly bought experience, how to negotiate the diplomatic and .fiscal complexities of launching an overseas enterprise. Monarchs, no less than investors and mariners, had to be won over to the risky idea; exhaustive planning and shrewd promotion were required; lives and fortunes would almost surely be sacrificed before profits came. Overseas adventuring, then, was not for the faint of heart.

Thomas Smythe was the perfect man for the job, because challenges and setbacks—inevitable in foreign trades—did not deter him. Involved in creating the profitable Levant Company at the age of twenty- three, Smythe shortly became a very rich and important man in London. In the 1590s, he worked as a trade commissioner with the Dutch and helped fund the conquest of Ireland, and by 1600 he was an alderman and sheriff of London. But his friendship with the Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth’s suspicions of Smythe’s participation with Essex in a failed coup led to his downfall. He was arrested in 1601, along with Essex and their mutual friend and William Shakespeare’s principal patron, the Earl of Southampton, and locked in the Tower of London. Elizabeth’s death in 1603 brought redemption. Elizabeth’s successor, King James, pardoned Smythe, knighted him, and the following year appointed him ambassador to Russia.3

In a matter of months, Smythe went from tower prisoner to the toast of Moscow. He was commissioned as ambassador in June 1604 and met the emperor in Moscow that October. Thousands of Russians lined the road as he headed into the city. He and his men rode in on horses adorned with "Gold, Pearle, and Precious Stone; and particularly, a great Chaine of plated Gold about his necke." Three emissaries of the emperor attended to Smythe’s every need, assuring him "that if his Lordship wanted any thing, they all, or any one of them, were as commanded, so readie to obey therein." Smythe’s delegation first saw the emperor "seated in a Chaire of Gold, richly embroidered with Persian Stuffe: in his right hand hee held a golden Scepter, a Crowne of pure Gold upon his head, a Coller of rich stones and Pearles about his necke, his outward Garments of Crimson Velvet, embroidered very faire, with Pearles, Precious Stones and Gold." While at court, they feasted on lavish meals served on silver and gold platters "piled up on one another by halfe dozens." Despite all this impressive pageantry, Smythe did not waste much time at his post. As soon as he secured additional special trading rights for the Muscovy Company, Smythe resigned and returned to London in September 1605. That fall he turned his attention across the Atlantic.4

The London that Sir Thomas Smythe returned to in the fall of 1605 was a city for dreamers, with palaces and cathedrals every bit as awe inspiring as what he saw in Moscow. London was unequivocally the cultural and commercial center of the nation. As one visitor aptly put it, "London is not in En gland, but En gland in London."5 For the lucky few born to privilege, London offered a life of elegance and sophistication The new king’s wife, Queen Anne, loved the arts and patronized musicians and poets and painters. She commissioned royal favorites such as Ben Jonson to stage elaborate court masques, and regularly entertained scores of velvet- clad gentlemen and their jewel- draped wives at pageants and lavish feasts at Whitehall Palace. The recently designed Gray’s Inn Gardens, laid out by Sir Francis Bacon and using cuttings brought by Sir Walter Raleigh from America, provided the city’s elites a setting at once majestic and bucolic for evening strolls. St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the longest nave in all of Europe, stood at the western end of the city boundary, dominating the skyline. Young gentlemen in training studied law at the Middle Temple. Ornately carved wooden beams framed the main dining hall; light pouring in from stunning stained glass windows, then as now, would illuminate the serving table constructed from timbers taken from the Golden Hinde, the ship on which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe from 1577 to 1580. History, power, and ambition all resided in such places. The kind of men who lived in this part of London, not surprisingly, believed that the world could—and even should—be theirs.6

But the real heart of London lay not in landmarks like the Middle Temple or Whitehall, but rather in the vigorous, ambitious, and youthful culture of the city. Some two hundred thousand people called London home at the turn of the seventeenth century. Despite exceedingly high mortality rates, the population had exploded during the Elizabethan era. Even as the plague swept the city in waves, immigrants kept coming: desperate and determined young people left the hinterlands of England to start over and find a different destiny in London. As the city grew, it remained decidedly youthful: a great proportion of citizens were under thirty.7

London was still walled then, although its burgeoning population was pushing against the stone boundaries and spilling over into the "suburbs" outside the city proper and across the Thames. Within the city walls, what once had been open fields now bustled with carpenters’ shops and glass factories; former churchyards and abbeys became marketplaces. Streets were busy and dirty. Mud, garbage, and even human waste made crowded neighborhoods foul smelling and ripe for disease. And it was very loud: church bells clanged incessantly and wagons clattered along the city’s crowded streets all day long, making "such a thundering as if the world ran upon wheels," and competing with the voices of peddlers hawking their wares and preachers giving open- air sermons.8

Like the gentlemen who strolled through Gray’s Inn Gardens and prayed in the front pews of St. Paul’s, the working classes and impoverished newcomers—the "rabble" of London—also dreamed. Many wanted new opportunities, better lives, adventure. And London gave them the chance to remake themselves. Fifteen times larger than any other city in England, London offered its citizens anonymity and the economic opportunity to achieve more than their "place" would have otherwise allowed. Tudor- Stuart England was fairly obsessed with class: men were born to a status and there they would remain, whether tinker or king. Even a person’s attire was supposed to conform to this rigid ranking, and sartorial laws made wearing the wrong fabric or color illegal. Elites successfully policed the social order in the countryside, where everyone knew everyone else, as well as among the coat of arms–obsessed aristocracy in London. But the London street was another matter entirely: there, strangers could remake themselves and escape the rank they had been born to .ll. All that was required was a spirit of competitiveness, individualism, and daring.9

London’s culture reflected the ambitious, risk- taking youthfulness of its citizens. It was, as one resident aptly put it, "the Fair that lasts all year."10 Taverns, drunkenness, gambling, and violence were everywhere. At least a hundred bawdy houses and brothels operated in the suburbs of London, beyond the city walls or along the south bank. Bear- baiting was wildly popular. For this macabre spectacle, restrained bears were whipped, attacked by dogs, and sometimes gradually slaughtered before cheering crowds. Occasionally bears and bulls were baited together, and owners of the rings could heighten an animal’s rage (and a crowd’s plea sure) by attaching .reworks to its back. Another imaginative proprietor tied a monkey to a pony’s back and then unleashed the dogs. One patron reported, "To see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape . . . is very laughable." Cockfights, boar fights, even horse- baiting drew paying customers eager to see the latest, bloodiest game in town. Sometimes they became surprise participants themselves, as did one unlucky spectator at a bull- baiting session: the bull gored a dog and tossed the bloody, dying animal onto her lap. City residents also watched football games and tennis and wrestling matches and frequented neighborhood fairs, where they could see puppet shows, street performers, and human "freaks" while drinking and gambling.11

Meanwhile, the city’s thriving press offered adventures for the mind. London was home to an active reading public with capacious tastes. Over a hundred publishers and an untold number of booksellers worked there, most within the shadow of St. Paul’s. Stationers’ Hall, which licensed all books published within the city, sat just a few steps from the cathedral. And more than a dozen bookshops operated in St. Paul’s churchyard, with sellers peddling sermons delivered there alongside travel stories that romanticized ocean voyages to foreign places, particularly the widely admired collections of Richard Hakluyt, and plays, including the works of the stage’s greatest dreamer: William Shakespeare.12

London was the kind of place where the son of a down- on- his- luck glover without a university education could, through talent and drive, become the most celebrated figure in all of literature. The city embraced and inspired Shakespeare, and he in turn entertained and moved its citizens. No man of the theater enjoyed more renown in Tudor- Stuart London than Shakespeare. He drew 1,500 to 2,000 paying customers a day to his theater, the Globe. Everyone in town enjoyed his work, from royals to the "rabble." Six days after his coronation, King James commissioned Shakespeare and his players to perform "for the recreation of our loving subjects" and recognized them as "the King’s Men." For the next ten years they mounted plays at court on an average of fourteen times a year.13

Shakespeare may have delighted much of London, but some found his work, to say nothing of his customers at the Globe, unseemly. Shakespeare’s company attracted the so- called lesser sorts, and, in the eyes of some aristocrats and ministers, served up disgusting spectacles of violence and debauchery. It did not help that his play house was located in Southwark, a rather colorful neighborhood. Respectable gentlemen complained about the "vagrant and lewd persons" attending the Globe and the nearby bear- baiting rings and brothels. At St. Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit just outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, popular Protestant ministers such as William Crashaw and William Symonds railed against the craven, sinful playwrights and actors just across the Thames, putting them in the same category as the despised Roman Church. "Papists" and "players" were the enemies of "true" Christians—Anglicans—and were linked together in numerous sermons because of their skilled deceptiveness. By 1606, Crashaw and Symonds were promoting the founding of an American colony as the will of God and condemning the "papists" and "players" who opposed His mission.14

This sort of anti- Catholic vitriol, decades in the making, was born out of both religious conviction and political intrigue. For nearly half a century preceding the founding of the Virginia colony, devout English Protestants increasingly viewed Catholics as a sinister element, spiritually bankrupt and dangerous to the nation. When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne in 1558, she participated in the growing tendency of evangelical Protestants to link English Protestantism with national interest and view Catholics as their prime enemy. In 1568 Elizabeth imprisoned her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many Catholics believed to be the rightful sovereign of England. Mary’s imprisonment so roiled her sympathizers that they embarked upon an unsuccessful rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1569. This marked the first of several attempts on Elizabeth’s life by members of the persecuted Catholic community. In 1570, in the wake of the failure of this uprising and the continued incarceration of Mary, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and freed English Catholics from any allegiance to her. While Pius hoped to destabilize the Elizabethan regime, he in fact rendered English Catholics traitors to their nation—at least that was how the politically powerful Protestants saw things. By the 1580s, anyone attending Catholic mass could be imprisoned for a year; converting someone to Catholicism was high treason. Meanwhile, English Catholics in exile in Europe began secretly sending Jesuit missionaries to England to keep the faith alive and hopefully bring En gland back into the fold of the Roman Church. Like the plots against Elizabeth, these missionary efforts only confirmed in Protestants’ minds how dangerous and disloyal Catholics were.15

The death of Elizabeth and accession of James in 1603 gave mo mentary hope of toleration to En gland’s Catholics because the new king was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. But shortly after James’s coronation he ratified a law extending Elizabeth’s policies regarding Catholics. A small group of Catholics, upset with James’s failure to usher in changes, planned to kidnap the king, take over the Tower of London, and hold him captive there until he relented. That laughable folly was followed by a far more ...

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