Chronicles of America 

The Sea Adventure

Experience is a great teacher. That London Company with Virginia to colonize had now come to see how inadequate to the attempt were its means and strength. Evidently it might be long before either gold mines or the South Sea could be found. The company's ships were too slight and few; colonists were going by the single handful when they should go by the double. Something was at fault in the management of the enterprise. The quarrels in Virginia were too constant, the disasters too frequent. More money, more persons interested with purse and mind, a great company instead of a small, a national cast to the enterprise these were imperative needs. In the press of such demands the London Company passed away. In 1609 under new letters patent was born the Virginia Company.

The members and shareholders in this corporation touch through and through the body of England at that day. First names upon the roll come Robert Cecil, Thomas Howard, Henry Wriothesley, William Herbert, Henry Clinton, Richard Sackville, Thomas Cecil, Philip Herbert--Earls of Salisbury, Suffolk, Southampton, Pembroke, Lincoln, Dorset, Exeter, and Montgomery. Then follow a dozen peers, the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells, a hundred knights, many gentlemen, one hundred and ten merchants, certain physicians and clergymen, old soldiers of the Continental wars, sea-captains and mariners, and a small host of the unclassified. In addition shares were taken by fifty-six London guilds or industrial companies. Here are the Companies of the Tallow and Wax Chandlers, the Armorers and Girdlers, Cordwayners and Carpenters, Masons, Plumbers, Founders, Poulterers, Cooks, Coopers, Tylers and Brick Layers, Bowyers and Vinters, Merchant Taylors, Blacksmiths and Weavers, Mercers, Grocers, Turners, Gardeners, Dyers, Scriveners, Fruiterers, Plaisterers, Brown Bakers, Imbroiderers, Musicians, and many more.

The first Council appointed by the new charter had fifty-two members, fourteen of whom sat in the English House of Lords, and twice that number in the Commons. Thus was Virginia well linked to Crown and Parliament.

This great commercial company had sovereign powers within Virginia. The King should have his fifth part of all ore of gold and silver; the laws and religion of England should be upheld, and no man let go to Virginia who had not first taken the oath of supremacy. But in the wide field beside all this the President--called the Treasurer -and the Council, henceforth to be chosen out of and by the whole body of subscribers, had full sway. No longer should there be a second Council sitting in Virginia, but a Governor with power, answerable only to the Company at home. That Company might tax and legislate within the Virginian field, punish the ill-doer or "rebel," and wage war, if need be, against Indian or Spaniard:

One of the first actions of the newly constituted body was to seek remedy for the customary passage by way of the West Indies -so long and so beset by dangers. They sent forth a small ship under Captain Samuel Argall, with instructions "to attempt a direct and cleare passage, by leaving the Canaries to the East, and from thence to run a straight westerne course . .. . And so to make an experience of the Winds and Currents which have affrighted all undertakers by the North."

This Argall, a young man with a stirring and adventurous life behind him and before him, took his ship the indicated way. He made the voyage in nine weeks, of which two were spent becalmed, and upon his return reported that it might be made in seven, "and no apparent inconvenience in the way." He brought to the great Council of the Company a story of necessity and distress at Jamestown, and the Council lays much of the blame for that upon "the misgovernment of the Commanders, by dissention and ambition among themselves," and upon the idleness of the general run, "active in nothing but adhearing to factions and parts." The Council, sitting afar from a savage land, is probably much too severe. But the "factions and parts" cannot easily be denied.

Before Argall's return, the Company had commissioned as Governor of Virginia Sir Thomas Gates, and had gathered a fleet of seven ships and two pinnaces with Sir George Somers as Admiral, in the ship called the Sea Adventure, and Christopher Newport as Vice-Admiral. All weighed anchor from Falmouth early in June and sailed by the newly tried course, south to the Canaries and then across. These seven ships carried five hundred colonists, men, women, and children.

On St. James's day there rose and broke a fearsome storm. Two days and nights it raged, and it scattered that fleet of seven. Gates, Somers, and Newport with others of "rancke and quality" were upon the Sea Adventure. How fared this ship with one attendant pinnace we shall come to see presently. But the other ships, driven to and fro, at last found a favorable wind, and in August they sighted Virginia. On the eleventh of that month they came, storm-beaten and without Governor or Admiral or Sea Adventure, into "our Bay" and at last to "the King's River and Town." Here there swarmed from these ships nigh three hundred persons, meeting and met by the hundred dwelling at Jamestown. This was the third supply, but it lacked the hundred or so upon the Sea Adventure and the pinnace, and it lacked a head. "Being put ashore without their Governor or any order from him (all the Commissioners and principal persons being aboard him) no man would acknowledge a superior."

With this multitude appeared once more in Virginia the three ancient councilors--Ratcliffe, Archer, and Martin. Apparently here came fresh fuel for factions. Who should rule, and who should be ruled? Here is an extremely old and important question, settled in history only to be unsettled again. Everywhere it rises, dust on Time's road, and is laid only to rise again.

Smith was still President. Who was in the right and who in the wrong in these ancient quarrels, the recital of which fills the pages of Smith and of other men, is hard now to be determined. But Jamestown became a place of turbulence. Francis West was sent with a considerable number to the Falls of the Far West to make there some kind of settlement. For a like purpose Martin and Percy were dispatched to the Nansemond River. All along the line there was bitter falling out. The Indians became markedly hostile. Smith was up the river, quarreling with West and his men. At last he called them "wrongheaded asses," flung himself into his boat, and made down the river to Jamestown. Yet even so he found no peace, for, while he was asleep in the boat, by some accident or other a spark found its way to his powder pouch. The powder exploded. Terribly hurt, he leaped overboard into the river, whence he was with difficulty rescued.

Smith was now deposed by Ratcliffe, Archer, and Martin, because, "being an ambityous, onworthy, and vayneglorious fellowe," say his detractors, "he wolde rule all and ingrose all authority into his own hands." Be this as it may, Smith was put on board one of the ships which were about to sail for England. Wounded, and with none at Jamestown able to heal his hurt, he was no unwilling passenger. Thus he departed, and Virginia knew Captain John Smith no more. Some liked him and his ways, some liked him not nor his ways either. He wrote of his own deeds and praised them highly, and saw little good in other mankind, though here and there he made an exception. Evident enough are faults of temper. But he had great courage and energy and at times a lofty disinterestedness.

Back to: Virginia and the Southern Colonies