Blown off course by a Monster storm in 1609, the crew of a single ship miraculously saved themselves, rescued Jamestown and restored English support for colonization in the New World — and inspired Shakespeare.
It had once been hailed as “Earth’s only paradise,” but now England’s first American colony at Jamestown was coming to ruin. Since its founding in 1607, “James Cittie” had suffered a series of disasters. Fractious dealings with the natives, crop failures and rival factions among the colonists had strained the embryonic settlement. Headstrong colonial governor John Smith was variously in chains or preparing to be hanged. Spanish threats likewise loomed.
Jamestown’s sponsors, the privately owned Virginia Company, had already sent two official relief missions, but the colony’s fortunes continued to worsen. Desperate, they poured everything they had into the Third Supply Relief Mission. When that fleet was hit by a horrific tempest while en route to the colony, it seemed like all was lost. But paradoxically, this was the hurricane that saved America.
The 240-ton merchant vessel Sea Venture, flagship of the nine-ship fleet carrying some 600 new settlers and abundant provisions to Jamestown, had sailed from Plymouth harbor on June 2, 1609. To lead this vital mission, the Virginia Company had sent the very best to rein in the persistent mismanagement of the colony. In command was stalwart Admiral Sir George Somers. War hero against the Spanish Main and England’s “lion at sea,” he had come out of retirement and personally outfitted the ship. Captain Christopher Newport, Britain’s most experienced New World sailor, was on his fourth voyage to Jamestown. Sir Thomas Gates had been appointed the new governor of the colony and carried an astonishing decree from King James himself. It ceded authority over the colony from the crown to the Virginia Company. In a way, it provided provisional American independence in 1609.
Yet now the would-be saviors of Jamestown were fighting for their own lives. An Atlantic hurricane, a new danger for English sailors, struck the fleet on July 24, separating Sea Venture from the other vessels. “A hell of darkness turned black upon us,” bemoaned expedition scribe William Strachey. As the storm overwhelmed them, waves as high as mountains broke over the ship, “swelling and roaring as if in fits, covering the ship from stern to stem, like a garment.” Lightning crackled and the ghostly lights of St. Elmo’s fire leapt between the masts. Many of the men, women and children aboard had never been to sea before. “Prayers might well be in the heart and lips,” Strachey lamented, “but [they were] drowned in the outcries.”
Now hundreds of miles off course, Sea Venture was literally coming apart at the seams. Day and night, everyone from the commanders to the passengers furiously bailed, hauling tons of water from the ship’s flooding hold, but their Herculean effort was all in vain. By noon on July 28, “water was growne five feet deepe above the ballast.” Men were floating. They were going down.
Then, “when no man dreamed of such happiness,” Strachey reported, Admiral Somers spotted land, so close he could see trees swaying. But the sea floor, rising quickly beneath them, threatened to split the ship before they could reach shore. Calling on every skill, Somers steered hard, veering between two outcropping rocks. The ship wedged fast and splintered. Sea Venture was destroyed.
It must have seemed like a miracle. Braving the breakers in longboats, everyone was able to make it to shore. Passenger John Rolfe’s wife, “who was with childe,” was probably carried into the boat. A resourceful mate even rescued the admiral’s dog. Despite the potentially murderous storm, there had been no fatalities among roughly 150 aboard.
Yet by rights, all were facing imminent death. “We had struck ground,” Strachey chronicled, “at the Bermoothawes…a place so terrible that they be called the Devil’s Islands…and are feared above any place in the world.” Indeed, ever since the explorer Juan de Bermúdez discovered the isles a century before, Spanish mariners had reported hearing the devil’s agonizing screams echoing offshore. The castaways would hear them too.
The hellish din was the call of seabirds, endless flocks of them, mostly Bermuda petrels, hovering overhead and eventually providing an abundant food source. “A kind of webfooted fowle,” Strachey wrote, amazed. “In the air and over the sea, and [making] a strange howling…[o]ur men would take twenty dozen in two hours…and a great store of eggs.”
And while the island “be never inhabited by Christian or Heathen,” hogs had apparently swum ashore from Spanish galleons wrecked decades before, or perhaps the creatures had been dropped off as a kind of living larder for the sailors who might land later. Now the pig progeny blanketed the island, yielding an inexhaustible supply of pork. From the island’s lush forests came “mulberries, cedar berries, and the prickle peare.” The waters held “fish so abundant that if a man steppe into the water, they come round him.” Along with “plentie of tortoises,” mounds of exotic fare soon covered the new arrivals’ tables.
First “rude cabbenes” and then more reputable structures took shape: The castaways were Bermuda’s first, if accidental, residents. By now their Elizabethan clothes were in tatters, but Christmas was balmy here compared with London. They built a church, framed from native beams and thatched with palmetto leaves; according to legend, a ship’s bell salvaged from Sea Venture, hung in a tree, served as its steeple. There they mourned at funerals—including those of Rolfe’s wife and daughter—celebrated a wedding and baptized two newborns. For unlike Jamestown, here order remained. When three settlers challenged Governor Gates’ authority to rule on the island (after all, they had not reached the mainland), their mutiny was put down.
The castaways even stayed true to their mission. They began to prepare to continue on to Jamestown. Salvaging spars, rigging and one precious iron bolt from Sea Venture before it sank completely, they commenced to build new vessels. The island’s endless forests—“The fairest I have ever seen,” one castaway recorded—yielded choice cedar planks for the hulls. Under Robert Frobisher, the only shipwright among them, a 30- ton pinnace slowly took shape by the shore. It was dubbed Patience for their great ordeal.
Next they built an 80-ton bark, christened Deliverance to honor their unlikely survival. Privilege of rank fell aside, as knights and noblemen hammered and sawed beside farmers and former shop clerks, who could scarcely have imagined the adventure to which they’d signed on. Castaway Silvester Jourdain later praised old Admiral Somers, claiming, “Hee laboured from morning untill night, as duelie as any workeman.”
Ingenuity abounded. Barrels of wax from a long-wrecked Spanish galleon helped caulk the ship’s seams. Great slabs of Bermuda limestone became ballast, rolled into the hulls to weigh the vessels down against the fury of ocean waves. On May 10, 1610, nearly nine months after wrecking on its shore, 142 hardy (and no doubt sunburned) travelers bade their island paradise goodbye. Then they boarded their homemade boats and set off for Jamestown.
In fact, the castaways were sailing toward a second storm— part natural, part man-made. Even as the Bermudans were building their idyllic colony, a combination of greed and circumstance continued to wrack Jamestown.
On May 23, 1610, nearly a year after being given up for lost, the Bermuda castaways neared Jamestown. They were excited to reach port, believing their ordeal was over. Instead, they were greeted by a scene beyond belief. Of the 600 original settlers, only about 60 were left alive. Many were too weak to stand. “We are starved,” the half-corpses muttered, unable to help themselves. There was no water—the colony’s wells had dried up and collapsed.
When the rest of the relief fleet, minus the Sea Venture, had limped into port after the hurricane the previous August, news that Somers, Gates and Newport had apparently drowned had only worsened the struggle for power in the colony. Within weeks, Governor John Smith was stripped of his rank and sent back to England, charged with numerous crimes. His health broken by injuries and furious over his ouster, Smith brought news of the apparent deaths and the deepening troubles to Virginia Company’s already worried investors.
Without Gates’ firm hand to guide them, some new arrivals from the main relief party deemed themselves “too gentlemanly” for farm work, and neglected the crops. Others pursued a fool’s errand of mining for gold. Hoped-for provisions had been lost in the storm, and weeks spent “trying” Governor Smith (and not storing up crops) had left the colony’s autumn harvest quickly consumed. The stresses put the colony teetering on war with the native chief Powhatan, who recognized his chance to finally rid himself of these foreign encroachers. Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas tried to ease the tensions. She was a brave and resourceful princess, far more complex than the caricature she was to be made into. John Smith once praised her as “the instrument to pursurve this colonie from death.”
While she might have salved Indian–settler relations for a while, “little wanton” (as her name meant in Algonquin) couldn’t protect the colony from an even greater threat. If storm had challenged the castaways, drought doomed Jamestown. Modern tree-ring analysis reveals that the “Starving Time,” which befell the colony in 1609-10, coincided with the worst dry spell to hit the Tidewater region of Virginia during the past eight centuries.
As food dwindled for everyone, a cruel form of inflation took effect: Goods once bartered for a canoe full of corn from the natives now fetched just a handful of grain. Trading soon descended into raiding, with both sides resorting to terrorism. When acting colonial president John Ratcliffe approached Powhatan’s braves to barter, he was killed instead. The drought forgave nothing, and respected no station.
Gentleman settlers once too fine for work now boiled their frilled collars to eat the starch. They ate insects. Then the horses. Then each other. “A savage we slew and buried,” one colonist confessed, “but the poorer sort took him up again, and ate him.” Another settler was accused of the unspeakable: murdering and butchering his wife. It was a descent into madness.
Such was the scene encountered by Gates, Somers, Newport and their castaway companions. In a world turned upside down, men from a shipwreck saved men on dry land. From Deliverance’s hold, stores of salted petrel and pork, carried from Bermuda, helped bring Jamestown’s stricken back to life. Gates demonstrated the same leadership as on the island, cheering the colonists. Still, he did not believe Jamestown could continue. On June 7, 1610, everyone boarded the ships to return to London. Seeking to erase the entire episode, many Jamestowners argued for setting their failed, wretched colony ablaze. But believing that “honest men as ourselves may one daye inhabite here,” Gates forbade it.
They had nearly reached open water when they were shocked to meet an English fleet. It was Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, arriving with provisions for a last-ditch rescue that allowed them all to return to Jamestown. Had Somers, Gates and Newport not arrived two weeks earlier, De La Warr would have been too late. The colony’s last survivors would have already expired. The implication is clear. The Bermuda castaways had saved the American experiment.
Admiral Somers quickly volunteered to sail back to Bermuda for provisions. Whether the trip proved too arduous, or because he suffered “a surfeit in eating a pig,” as one report claimed, the aging seaman fell gravely ill after reaching the island. His last wish was that his heart be buried in this wild place that he and his comrades had so accidentally colonized. In his honor, their lands were dubbed “the Somers Islands,” a name still used for the modern Bermuda chain. Then Patience and Deliverance, with the admiral’s pickled body aboard, continued across the Atlantic. They were among the first American-built ships to reach Europe. At first the strange vessels drew stares in Lyme Regis port. “We are your lost flocke,” the crew announced, “still alive.” Jaws dropped.
After all that had gone wrong at Jamestown, the Virginia Company rushed to trumpet the good news. Its True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia reached eager Londoners’ hands by November 1610. In its pages and in other celebratory tracts, the Bermuda mariners became heroes of almost biblical proportion. “Even as God heard Jonah crying out of the belly of Hell,” one account assured, “in the last period of necessitie, Sir George Summers descryed land.” Their shipwreck was ordained and protected, “as the ship fell betwixt two rockes, that caused her to stand firme, and not immediately be broken.” In this metaphor, the seabirds hovering over the island flew “even as God sent an abundance of Quayles to feed his Israel.”
“Consider all these things together,” the Virginia tract observed. “If they had fel by night, what expectation of light? If they had not found Hogs…they would have perished by famine. If there had not beene timber, they could not have transported themselves to Virginia.” Surely such survival transcended luck; it was providence. “All were preserved,” a now-anonymous chronicler noted, “every man…almost a yeare, when all the world held them deade.” Then the dead had saved the living. A storm had become an instrument of salvation.
“If any had said that the Barmuda Ilands are not only habitable, but also fertile, plentifull, and secure,” one scribe opined, “oh how loudly he have beene laught at!” Now Gates, Somers and Newport were judged equal to Columbus. “Oh happie men, who find God & his Angels where the world thought had beene nothing but the Devill.”
Only weeks after the arrival of Patience and Deliverance, readers could follow every detail in the words of the survivors themselves. By October 1610, castaway Silvester Jourdain had already published his own Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the “Isle of Devils,” perhaps the first bestseller about colonial America. William Strachey became America’s first ace reporter, penning his 112-page True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight. Though meant for the Virginia shareholders, news this enticing could not be contained. The saga of England’s first successful colonists was devoured by the public. From seeing whales and catching swordfish to plucking pearls from the island’s blue waters, their adventures helped kindle a fascination with the beauty and danger of new lands. “The Lost Flocke Triumphant” were extolled in church sermons and cheered in taverns. Stories of shipwreck and deliverance filled the air in 1611 London, rekindling faith in colonization and introducing an icon of redemption to English society. Even as King James prepared to issue a new version of Holy Scripture (the King James Bible), here was a modern miracle.
If a tale so filled with coincidence and so providential almost suggests a play, it apparently did, in the mind of William Shakespeare, who likely drew on this real tale of storm and survival to craft his final masterpiece, The Tempest. In fact the connection is so tantalizing that modern scholars have even used it in attempts to verify the identity of Shakespeare himself. We know the Stratford playwright was well acquainted with several key Virginia Company investors. Strachey had been his fellow poet in London. Some say the bard knew Admiral Somers. The completed play, filled with magic and double-meanings, tells a tale of storm and shipwreck on a fearsome island, which transforms to a paradise, saving all. While its writer takes much poetic license and draws from many different sources, the play’s effect on an audience buoyed by Sea Venture’s triumph is unmistakable.
“Mercy on us! We split, we split!” cry the players in the shipwreck scene. In the original staging, rolling cannon balls and other 17th-century “special effects” would conjure images uncannily like Sea Venture’s sinking. A magical spirit, Ariel, intones “the Still-vex’d Bermoothes” and threatens to “divide and burn in many places on the topmast”—like St. Elmo’s fire? Once on their mysterious island, the play’s castaways encounter seemly magical beauty and dine on exotic cuisines. Mutinies are put down. An “undrowned nobleman,” believed lost at sea, returns a savior. And all are saved in the end. “Oh brave, new world, that has such people in it!” the beautiful princess Miranda proclaims. Like pop-culture references in a modern Hollywood film, such wry double-meanings could only draw roars of approval from the play’s original audience.
Even that could not match more perfectly. The Tempest was first performed at Whitehall Palace, on November 1, 1611, before King James I—the king for whom Jamestown was named, and just saved. “We are such stuff,” the play’s main character winks, “As dreams are made on.” Sometimes called his “American play,” it was Shakespeare’s last, suggesting the glories of a new world to come.
And perhaps its agonies as well. The play’s native is “Caliban,” an anagram for “cannibal” (Savage Indian, or desperate Englishman?). Another scene mocks the cruel practice of displaying captured natives on London’s streets. “Tempests” are also conflicts between people. Shipwrecks are when worlds collide. Some hurricanes are political storms.
But the colonies would enjoy one last respite from these troubles, again by way of Bermuda. In 1616 Pocahontas arrived in London—not as a captive, but as a princess from a distant land. Squiring her was her new husband, widowed Bermuda castaway John Rolfe, who had fallen in love with Pocahontas at Jamestown. In the wake of Sea Venture’s triumph, “the girl who saved Jamestown” and the “undrowned hero” who saved it again sparked a sensation. In resplendent robes, Pocahontas was presented at royal court, and she dazzled nobility at balls outshining even those in Shakespeare’s play. (The bard himself had died two months earlier, missing his chance to meet a reallife version of the princess in his play.) Her marriage to Rolfe, and the birth of their son, even offered the brief promise of a peaceful union between colonists and natives.
With abundant food, mild winters and no natives to battle or exploit, Bermuda, the place all had feared, proved the paradise Jamestown wasn’t. While the New World remained a risky venture, it was castaway Jourdain’s “healthfullest and most pleasing island” that loosened English purse strings to invest in America. So much so that peddlers on London’s streets clamored to buy lottery tickets hawked to raise money to further the colonies. An official expedition to colonize Bermuda was marshaled by 1612. By 1620 the first English parliament in the New World was convened there, beginning British government in America. (Bermuda remains a British commonwealth today.) English successes at Plymouth (1620), Massachusetts Bay (1629) and other settlements all sprang from this early, if accidental, foothold.
Likewise, Gates’ effective leadership on the island proved that order need not break down in the wilds of the New World. Two years but seemingly a lifetime after accepting the charter from King James, governor-elect Gates finally assumed leadership of Jamestown. The colonists built him a fine stone house. Lawes Divine, Morall, and Martiall, an early treatise on governing in the Americas, was distilled from his and subsequent Jamestown leadership, and committed to paper by William Strachey, who stayed on as secretary of Jamestown. Its rules would seem harsh by today’s standards. Yet the castaways’ shared experiences, from bailing during the storm and colonizing Bermuda to shipbuilding, all shoulder-to-shoulder, seemed to reduce class distinction at Jamestown. Here was a first suggestion that life in the New World might require a more democratic approach.
Much like its accidental discovery, Bermuda would continue to serve as a vital way station, an offshore stopping point where incoming English colonists could be taught a trade, and readied for life in the New World—in effect, America’s first Ellis Island. While forbidding conditions at Jamestown had sometimes garnered only convicts and other “undesirable” colonists, Bermuda’s superior living conditions attracted a higher class of arrivals: middle-class families who would become the first colonial Americans. Being a royalist colony (not strictly Puritan), all could come to Bermuda, an early separation of church and state.
The island would likewise begin American commerce, a fact immortalized in one of history’s most unorthodox coins. Instead of bearing the likeness of King James, Bermuda’s “hogge money” carries the portrait of a rather ugly hog. It is a tribute to the “sweete beasts” that sustained the castaways and resuscitated the starving at Jamestown. On the coin’s reverse, the Sea Venture sails. Initially struck in 1616, this was the first English currency minted for the New World. Bermuda’s penny still carries the hog today, and a petrel, Strachey’s “web-footed fowle,” adorns some of its modern banknotes.
Compared with other metal coinage of the period, however, “hogge money” is quite light. This is because the apparently hand-stamped coins were not scaled against their value in copper or silver (as was customary), but rather against the weight of another precious commodity: tobacco, quite literally, the first “cash crop” of the Americas. This “weede of Dominion” was first introduced to Jamestown (for good and bad) in 1612 by Bermuda castaway John Rolfe.
Other quintessentially American fare share the same provenance. A barrel of seed-potatoes, salvaged from Sea Venture’s flooded hold, produced the first crop of that staple in English America. Varieties of onions, figs, olives and other key foodstuffs were also first planted by the castaways, or discovered on Bermuda itself. Or, like successive colonists, they first were tested in Bermuda’s more forgiving conditions before being introduced on the mainland.
Bermuda’s modern flag seems to illustrate the entire paradoxical tale. Eschewing normal chivalries, its coat of arms depicts the image of a sinking ship, wedged against a rocky coast. Below reads the Latin motto Quo Fata Ferunt (Whichever way the fates should carry us). Even today, this earliest American triumph continues to inform its popular culture. In the 1959 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet, our shipwrecked 17th-century mariners are reimagined as stranded astronauts attempting to colonize space.
In the end, a long-ago storm turned a band of castaways into heroes and helped transform a failed colony into a new nation. Other enduring evidence proves equally striking. In 1959 diving crews off Bermuda’s Discovery Bay located the wreck of the Sea Venture, minus the pieces used by the castaways to build their new vessels. During excavations at Jamestown, the bones of hogs and sea birds native only to Bermuda have been recovered from the 1610 trash pits. Excavators likewise unearthed a collapsed well, and over it, Thomas Gates’ governor’s house, almost a metaphor for the collapse and rebirth of the colony itself. The hearth in Gates’ home had been built from Bermuda limestone—ballast from arriving ships. And nearly four centuries after it apparently slipped from his hand, archeologists at Jamestown recovered expedition scribe William Strachey’s signet ring, the exact tool he would have used to seal his letters that preserve this tale.
Some have even mused that this story of wreck and rescue marks the first incident of the so-called “Bermuda Triangle”: a place where legend says the rules of nature are somehow suspended—where people are lost, but quite magically return. Why even Shakespeare couldn’t have written the tale better.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.