Sea Venture

Sea Venture

The "Sea Venture" was a 17th-century English sailing ship, the wrecking of which in Bermuda is widely thought to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare's "The Tempest". She was the flagship of the Virginia Company, and was a highly unusual vessel for her day.

The Virginia Company

The proprietary Virginia Company of London had established the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, and delivered supplies and additional settlers in 1608, raising the colony's population to 200, despite many deaths. The entire operation was characterized by a lack of resources and experience. The Company's fleet was composed of vessels which were less than optimal for delivering large numbers of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, and the colony itself was threatened by starvation, disease, and warfare with native peoples.

Despite the delivery of supplies in 1608 on the First and Second Supply missions of Captain Christopher Newport, it seemed certain, at that time, that without a major relief effort, the colony at Jamestown would meet the same fate as two earlier failed English attempts to settle in North America, the Roanoke Colony and the Popham Colony.

The investors of the Virginia Company of London expected to reap rewards from their speculative investments. With the Second Supply, they expressed their frustrations and made demands upon the leaders of Jamestown in written form. They specifically demanded that the colonists send commodities sufficient to pay the cost of the voyage, a lump of gold, assurance that they had found the South Sea, and one member of the lost Roanoke Colony.

It fell to the third president of the Council to deliver a reply. Ever bold, Captain John Smith delivered what must have been a wake-up call to the investors in London. In what has been termed "Smith's Rude Answer", he composed a letter, writing (in part):

"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 awe 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." [cite web
title=WPA Guide to Virginia: Virginia History
publisher=University of Virginia

Smith did begin his letter with something of an apology, saying "I humbly intreat your Pardons if I offend you with my rude Answer..." [cite web
title=Smith's "Rude" Letter to the Virginia Company (1608)
publisher=Library of Congress

There are strong indications that those in London comprehended and embraced Smith's message. Their Third Supply mission was by far the largest and best equipped. They even had a new purpose-built flagship constructed, the "Sea Venture", placed in the most experienced of hands, Christopher Newport.

The construction of the "Sea Venture"

In response to the inadequacy of its vessels, the Company built, probably in Aldeburgh, the "Sea Venture" as England's first purpose-designed emigrant ship. She displaced 300 tons, cost £1,500, and differed from her contemporaries primarily in her internal arrangements. Her guns were placed on her main deck, rather than below decks as was then the norm. This meant the ship did not need double-timbering, and she may have been the first single-timbered, armed merchant ship built in EnglandFact|Jun 2008|date=June 2008. The hold was sheathed and furnished for passengers. She was armed with eight nine-pounder demi-culverins, eight five-pounder sakers, four three-pounder falcons, and four arquebuses. The ship was launched in 1609, and her uncompleted journey to Jamestown appears to have been her maiden voyage.

The loss of the "Sea Venture"

On June 2, 1609, the "Sea Venture" set sail from Plymouth as the flagship of a seven-ship fleet (towing two additional pinnaces) destined for Jamestown, Virginia as part of the Third Supply, carrying 500-to-600 people (unclear whether that number includes crew, or only settlers). On July 24, the fleet ran into a strong storm, likely a hurricane, and the ships were separated. The "Sea Venture" fought the storm for three days. Comparably-sized ships had survived such weather, but the "Sea Venture" had a critical flaw in her newness, as her timbers had not set. The caulking was forced from between them, and the ship began to leak rapidly. All hands were applied to bailing, but the water continued to rise in the hold. The ship's guns were reportedly jettisoned (though two were salvaged from the wreck in 1612) to raise her buoyancy, but this only delayed the inevitable. The Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers himself, was at the helm through the storm. When he spied land on the morning of July 25, the water in the hold had risen to nine feet, and crew and passengers had been driven past the point of exhaustion. Somers deliberately drove the ship onto the reefs of what proved to be Bermuda in order to prevent its foundering. This allowed all 150 people aboard, and one dog, to be landed safely ashore. [Horn, James (2006). "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America", pp. 158-60. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465030947.]

"Deliverance" and "Patience"

The survivors, including several company officials (Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates, the ship's captain Christopher Newport, Sylvester Jordain, and secretary William Strachey), were stranded on Bermuda for approximately nine months. During that time, they built two new ships, the pinnaces "Deliverance" and "Patience", from Bermuda cedar and parts salvaged from the "Sea Venture", especially her rigging. It had been intended to build only one vessel, the "Deliverance", but it soon became evident that she would not be large enough to carry the settlers and all of the food (salted pork) that was being sourced on the islands. While the new ships were building, the "Sea Venture"'s longboat was fitted with a mast and sent under the command of Henry Raven to find Virginia. The boat and its crew were never seen again. Other members of the expedition died, or were killed, or born before the "Deliverance" and the "Patience" set sail on 10 May, 1610. Among those left buried in Bermuda were the wife and child of John Rolfe, who would found Virginia's tobacco industry, and find a new wife in Powhatan princess Pocahontas. Two men, Carter and Waters, were left behind to maintain the claim of the islands for England, but the remainder arrived in Jamestown on 23 May.

Sir Thomas Gates had a cross erected before leaving Bermuda, on which was a copper tablet inscribed in Latin and English:

: "In Memory of our deliverance both from the Storme and the Great leake wee have erected this cross to the honour of God. It is the Spoyle of an English Shippe of 300 tonnes called SEA VENTURE bound with seven others (from which the storme divided us) to Virginia or NOVA BRITANIA in America. In it were two Knights, Sir Thomas Gates, Knight Gouvenor of the English Forces and Colonie there: and Sir George Somers, Knight Admiral of the Seas. Her Captain was Christopher Newport. Passengers and mariners she had beside (which all come to safety) one hundred and fiftie. Wee were forced to runne her ashore (by reason of her leake) under a point that bore South East from the Northerne Point of the Island which wee discovered first on the eighth and twentieth of July 1609."

This was not the end of the survivors' ordeals, however. On reaching Jamestown, only 60 survivors were found of the 500 who had preceded them. Many of these survivors were themselves dying, and Jamestown itself was judged to be unviable. Everyone was boarded onto the "Deliverance" and "Patience," which set sail for England. The timely arrival of another relief fleet, bearing Governor Baron De La Warre, which met the two ships as they descended the James River, granted Jamestown a reprieve. All the settlers were relanded at the colony, but there was still a critical shortage of food. Somers returned to Bermuda with the "Patience" to secure provisions, but died there in the summer of 1610. His nephew, Matthew, the captain of the "Patience", sailed for England to claim his inheritance, rather than return to Jamestown. A third man, Chard, was left behind with Carter and Waters, who remained the only permanent inhabitants until the arrival of the "Plough" in 1612.

The ordeal was recounted by William Strachey, whose account is believed to have influenced the creation of Shakespeare's play "The Tempest", [Vaughan, Alden T., and Vaughan, Virginia Mason (1991). "Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History", pp. 38-40. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052145817X.] and by Sylvester Jordain. [Vaughan (1991), p. 41.]


The "Sea Venture" sat atop the reefs off Gate's Bay long enough to be stripped of all useful parts and materials, not only by her crew and passengers, but by subsequent settlers; what was left of her eventually disappeared beneath the waves. Two of her guns were salvaged in 1612 and used in the initial fortification of Bermuda (one was placed on Governor's Island, opposite Paget's Fort, the other on Castle Island). ["Bermuda Forts 1612-1957", by Dr. Edward Cecil Harris. Bermuda Matitime Museum Press, 1997. ISBN 0-921560-11-7.] After the wreck's submergence, her precise location was unknown until rediscovered by sport divers Downing and Heird in October, 1958. Despite the lack of artifacts to be found, she was positively identified in 1959, in time for the 350th anniversary of the wrecking.

The "Sea Venture" was also the namesake of a cruise liner which operated between the USA and Bermuda in the 1970s for Flagship Cruises, before being obtained by Princess Cruises, which renamed her the "Pacific Princess". She was subsequently used in the television show "The Love Boat". [McKenna, Robert (2003). "The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy", p. 276. McGraw-Hill Professional. ISBN 0071419500.]

ee also

* The Virginia Company
* The Virginia Company of London
* Somers Isles Company
* History of Bermuda
* Colony and Dominion of Virginia
* Jamestown Settlement
* Jamestown, Virginia
* History of Virginia



Two survivors wrote accounts of the wrecking:
* "A Discovery of the Bermudas", by Sylvester Jordain
* William Strachey

Many other references include:
* "Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of The Bermudas or Somers Isles, 1515–1685", Major General John Henry Lefroy.

A recent history is
* "Sea Venture: Shipwreck, Survival, and the Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World", by Kieran Doherty

A booklet was produced after the wreck was rediscovered in 1958 and identified in 1959:
* "The Sea Venture Story", P.M. Wright.

P.M. Wright refers to:"Shippes of the Reign of James 1st", Volumne XIX, Royal Historical Society, by Marsden.

In fiction

* The wrecking is believed to have inspired William Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
* Bermuda resident and novelist, F. Van Wyck Mason, wrote a fictionalised account of the wrecking, "The Sea Venture", first published in 1962.

* 20th-century American author Scott O'Dell wrote and published a fictionalized account of the "Sea Venture" shipwreck called "The Serpent Never Sleeps".
* Children's author Clyde Robert Bulla wrote a fictionalized account of the "Sea Venture" voyage called "A Lion to Guard Us". It focuses on three children sailing to Jamestown to find their father.

External links

* [ The Wreck of The Sea Venture]
* [ Roots Web. Ship Passenger & Immigration Lists: The Sea Venture.]
* [ Nautical Archaeology of the Americas: Sea Venture, 1609.]
* [ English America: The Seaventure, 1609.]
* [ Bermuda Online: Admiral Sir George Somers colonized Bermuda.]
* [ Chesapeake Bay Journal: Lessons from Jamestown 1609-1610: starving in the land of plenty]

Further reading

*A. Bryant Nichols Jr., "Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia", Sea Venture, 2007
*David A. Price, "Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of A New Nation", Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, chapter 10
*Bermuda Forts 1612-1957, by Dr. Edward Cecil Harris. Bermuda Matitime Museum Press, 1997. ISBN 0-921560-11-7.

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