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The Disaster that Made the Colonies
on September 21, 2008
Looking back at history, it often seems as if there was some sort of destiny at play, as if things could not have turned out otherwise. That this view is deceptive is one of the lessons in _The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America_ (John Macrae Books / Henry Holt) by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith. Tiny contingencies can make huge differences, is another lesson. And yet another is that a horrendous disaster like a shipwreck may not be such a disaster after all. The authors, both professors of history, have thrown light on an important part of colonial history that other books pass by. It might be that other writers who cover the period are uncomfortable with the way this episode shows how closely the British came to failure in their efforts to make it in the New World, and how vastly different the American adventure could have come out if it were not for a few ill winds.
The authors start with a review to show that England before 1609 had nothing but disasters as they set up their outposts across the Atlantic. The effort to start a colony in Jamestown was a decidedly commercial one, but it was yet another disaster. The Virginia Company had to supply food to the settlers, as they could not supply themselves. It did whatever it could to squelch all the bad news coming from Jamestown, and tried to recruit fresh settlers by emphasizing their religious and patriotic duties. Seven ships sent out faced a hurricane, and the main vessel, the _Sea Venture_, was wrecked upon Bermuda. Those that made it to Jamestown faced "a starving time" during the winter of 1609 - 1610, when extreme deprivation led to horrors including cannibalism. Starvation, disease, and Indians killed off over 80% of the settlers. Those shipwrecked on the _Sea Venture_, however, got off easy. Bermuda, reputed to be an island cursed to sailors because of devils therein, proved to be far closer to Eden than Jamestown ever would, a real paradise with mangroves, palmettos, turtles, fish, and birds that stood around waiting to be caught. Indeed, the great challenge for the leader of this crew, Thomas Gates, was to put down mutinies from the many who having lit upon a better place than Jamestown did not want to continue the voyage. Gates was able eventually to scavenge his wrecked vessel, supervise construction of two smaller ones, and proceed to Jamestown, where they found a fraction of the expected settlers, all eager to get away from their nightmarish colony. Without the arrival of the _Sea Venture_ and the supplies it carried from Bermuda, the colony would have perished, but the settlers convinced Gates it was time to give up on the colony and return to England. It was impossible for him to disagree, but as they sailed out the James River, they by chance met another relief fleet coming in from England. Back to Jamestown they went, saving it and saving England's destiny in the New World.
The Virginia Company, however, did not flourish; it was dissolved in 1624, and most of its investors never saw any returns. The preachers insisted that God had kept settlers from Bermuda before 1610, so that it could be full of goods to be taken on to Virginia, and indeed, the Bermudan colony did well and stood as a defiance to Spain. The wreck of the _Sea Venture_ not only preserved English hopes, but it had a direct effect on literature; the wreck and salvation of the vessel were well known throughout London, and were undoubtedly known by Shakespeare. Glover and Smith analyze the text of The Tempest to show how it was inspired by the wreck. More importantly, they have provided a vivid and often grueling account of the extreme difficulties the settlers faced from Indians, disease, and incompetent leadership. Jamestown had barely survived, but the authors show that after 1610 Britons never seriously considered giving up their empire in the New World.