Chronicles of America 

The Starving Time

Again winter drew on at Jamestown, and with it misery on misery. George Percy, now President, lay ill and unable to keep order. The multitude, "unbridled and heedless," pulled this way and that. Before the cold had well begun, what provision there was in the storehouse became exhausted. That stream of corn from the Indians in which the colonists had put dependence failed to flow. The Indians themselves began systematically to spoil and murder. Ratcliffe and fourteen with him met death while loading his barge with corn upon the Pamunkey. The cold grew worse. By midwinter there was famine. The four hundred--already noticeably dwindled--dwindled fast and faster. The cold was severe; the Indians were in the woods; the weakened bodies of the white men pined and shivered. They broke up the empty houses to make fires to warm themselves. They began to die of hunger as well as by Indian arrows. On went the winter, and every day some died. Tales of cannibalism are told . . . .This was the Starving Time.

When the leaves were red and gold, England-in-America had a population of four hundred and more. When the dogwood and the strawberry bloomed, England-in-America had a population of but sixty.

Somewhat later than this time there came from the pen of Shakespeare a play dealing with a tempest and shipwreck and a magical isle and rescue thereon. The bright spirit Ariel speaks of "the still-vex'd Bermoothes." These were islands "two hundred leagues from any continent," named after a Spanish Captain Bermudez who had landed there. Once there had been Indians, but these the Spaniards had slain or taken as slaves. Now the islands were desolate, uninhabited, "forlorn and unfortunate." Chance vessels might touch, but the approach was dangerous. There grew rumors of pirates, and then of demons. "The Isles of Demons," was the name given to them. "The most forlorn and unfortunate place in the world" was the description that fitted them in those distant days:

All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement
Inhabits here: some heavenly power guide us
Out of this fearful country.

Source: William Shakespeare, The Tempest

When Shakespeare so wrote, there was news in England and talk went to and fro of the shipwreck of the Sea Adventure upon the rocky teeth of the Bermoothes, "uninhabitable and almost inaccessible," and of the escape and dwelling there for months of Gates and Somers and the colonists in that ship. It is generally assumed that this incident furnished timber for the framework of The Tempest.

The storm that broke on St. James's Day, scattering the ships of the third supply, drove the Sea Adventure here and there at will. Upon her watched Gates and Somers and Newport, above a hundred men, and a few women and children. There sprang a leak; all thought of death. Then rose a cry "Land ho!" The storm abated, but the wind carried the Sea Adventure upon this shore and grounded her upon a reef. A certain R. Rich, gentleman, one of the voyagers, made and published a ballad upon the whole event. If it is hardly Shakespearean music, yet it is not devoid of interest.

. . . The Seas did rage, the windes did blowe,
Distressed were they then;
Their shippe did leake, her tacklings breake,
In daunger were her men;
But heaven was pylotte in this storme,
And to an Iland neare,
Bermoothawes called, conducted them,
Which did abate their feare.

Using the ship's boats they got to shore, though with toil and danger. Here they found no sprites nor demons, nor even men, but a fair, half-tropical verdure and, running wild, great numbers of swine.

And then on shoare the iland came
Inhabited by hogges,
Some Foule and tortoyses there were,
They only had one dogge,
To kill these swyne, to yield them foode,
That little had to eate.
Their store was spent and all things scant,
Alas! they wanted meate.

They did not, however, starve.

A thousand hogges that dogge did kill
Their hunger to sustaine.

Source: William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Ten months the Virginia colonists lived among the "still-vex'd Bermoothes." The Sea Adventure was but a wreck pinned between the reefs. No sail was seen upon the blue water. Where they were thrown, there Gates and Somers and Newport and all must stay for a time and make the best of it. They builded huts and thatched them, and they brought from the wrecked ship, pinned but half a mile from land, stores of many kinds. The clime proved of the blandest, fairest; with fishing and hunting they maintained themselves. Days, weeks, and months went by. They had a minister, Master Buck. They brought from the ship a bell and raised it for a church-bell. A marriage, a few deaths, the birth of two children these were events on the island. One of these children, the daughter of John Rolfe, gentleman, and his wife, was christened Bermuda. Gates and Somers held kindly sway. The colonists lived in plenty, peace, and ease. But for all that, they were shipwrecked folk, and far, far out of the world, and they longed for the old ways and their own kin. Day followed day, but no sail would show to bear them thence; and so at last, taking what they could from the forests of the island, and from the Sea Adventure, they set about to become shipwrights.

And there two gallant pynases,
Did build of Seader-tree,
The brave Deliverance one was call'd,
Of seaventy tonne was shee,
The other Patience had to name,
Her burthen thirty tonne . . . .

. . . The two and forty weekes being past
They hoyst sayle and away;
Their shippes with hogges well freighted were,
Their harts with mickle joy.

Source: William Shakespeare, The Tempest

And so to Virginia came . . .

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