A grandparent and grandchild search for the Sea Venture—the supply ship that ultimately saved the James Fort colony in 1610—and discover their family’s ‘First Virginian’ on the way
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Bermuda - Beach
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Bermuda - Chub Head
Dozens of stray buoys that washed ashore now hang from a tree
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Bermuda - Ocean
The blue skies and turquoise waters of the ocean
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Diploria labyrinthiformis, also known as "brain coral"
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Bermuda - Coral
Dasya, or red seaweed, and a single Eunicea coral colony on a Bermuda south shore patch reef
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Bermuda - Snorkeling
Snorkeling in Bailey’s Bay
He chose the trip. I’d promised my grandchildren I’d take each one on a special adventure when they turned twelve. Now, it was long-legged, blue-eyed Will’s turn and he chose Bermuda. “For two reasons,” he told me. “I want to snorkel those coral reefs and also, because of the ship-wreck.”
I knew he was talking about the Sea Venture. We are descendants of a traveler on that ill-fated sailing-ship, the flagship in a convoy of nine vessels that left England on June 2, 1609, headed 700 miles across the Atlantic to deliver desperately-needed provisions to the two-year-old Virginia settlement known then as “James Fort.” We’d read about the tempest that battered the convoy and flooded the Sea Venture’s hold causing her to founder on the reefs of Bermuda. We knew the survivors rowed ashore in their small boats and spent almost 10 months on the deserted island. I liked Will’s choice: snorkeling and a personal look at the site of this important Virginia story.
Our venue was a Road Scholar program called “BERMUDA – International Snorkeling the Coral Island.” In a lively party of teenagers and grandparents, we settled in for a week’s stay at the BIOS (Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences) located in St. George’s, Bermuda, very close to the beach where the Sea Venture survivors came ashore.
Before our historical sleuthing could begin, however, came snorkeling. I’d pictured Will and me floating in the emerald waters of a calm lagoon surrounded by palm trees with a bank of pink coral just below our finger-tips. Well, I got that one wrong. After a brief dip in a peaceful bay to try out our snorkeling equipment, we headed out to sea.
Bermuda is made up of 180 small islands and rocks. What we generally call “Bermuda” is the main island, about 22 square miles in size (about the size of Manhattan). The island rises from the sea atop an extinct volcano which is capped by limestone from fossilized sand dunes, built up over centuries by corals that thrive in these clear warm waters. The marine biologists at the BIOS call this flat volcano top the “platform.” With its the deceptively shallow waters, this platform holds and hides the reefs and the skeleton timbers of many a sunken vessel from earlier centuries.
As land disappeared some 10 miles behind our motor boat, my heart began to pound. Were we going to swim out here in the ocean?
We were. Anchored in deep water, we tumbled into the waves. Will and the other young ones in our party were like baby seals: Heads down and flippers flashing, they followed the guides out of sight around the great reef rocks. Most of the adventurous grandparents followed. Personally, I was content to just be ‘out there,’ with the motor boat was still in sight. Once accustomed to the tug of the current and waves crashing over one’s head, it was unbelievably glorious to look down through the crystal green waters at living coral – which is not all pink, but brown and green and yellow. And, more than that, to swim with the fish ….blue angels with their yellow-tipped tails and stripped parrot fish and sergeant majors marked by vertical dark strips. Among the pleasures of staying at the BIOS were the informative lectures by the marine biologists about the reef fish and coral which we discovered is a living thing, part animal and part plant. We’d also learned what to avoid – certain corals that sting, as well as the lion-fish and the barracuda.
Back on the motor boat returning from this ocean swim, I watched for the island to appear on the horizon and thought of the long-ago travelers on the Sea Venture, caught in that terrible storm at sea and separated from their sister ships. They’d not seen land for weeks. The Sea Venture, with its high stern castle and wide wooden hull, sported 16 cannons and was jammed tight with supplies for those desperate ones waiting at James Fort. These ships were the Virginia Company’s Third Supply Relief Fleet. Their supplies included five tons of salt beef and cheese and bushels of peas and there were pens holding chickens and pigs and probably a few goats.
The nine vessels, carrying roughly six hundred souls, had intended, for security reasons, to stay in sight of each other, which meant traveling at the speed of the smallest ship. The little fleet had sailed slowly north across the Atlantic, moving only slightly faster than a man could walk. And then, without warning, came the horror of that storm (which we’d now call a hurricane.) The rough seas separated the Sea Venture from her sister ships. For four long days, the fragile vessel endured high seas, shrieking winds, a sky black as ink, pelting rain and a leaking ship. Desperate, the crew of the Sea Venture tried to stop the flow of water into the hold by pressing pieces of raw beef into the cracks. Nothing worked. The vessel settled lower and lower in the water. Disaster followed. Their ship plunged into a v-shaped opening between two reefs and wedged between massive coral heads that began to tear at the hull.
Yet, miraculously, there was land in sight. This island, which appeared to the weary passengers on the Sea Venture as only a gray streak on the horizon, was known to be haunted. Sailors on ships passing near Bermuda over the years had heard wild moans and odd cries coming from the shore and kept their distance. Still, going ashore was the only recourse. The fleet’s admiral, Sir George Somers, 60 and an experienced mariner, was in charge of the convoy and the captain of the Sea Venture. His second in command was 49-year-old Christopher Newport. Although he’d lost his right arm in a sea battle with Spanish treasure ships years before, Captain Newport was resourceful. Go ashore they would. But, not without peril. Few, if any, in the party could swim.
As I leaned forward in the motor boat and watched the gray smudge that was Bermuda turn into a picture of low lush trees and pale pink-tinged beach, I could picture the Sea Venture’s two small boats making their way back and forth from the ship to the island, crowded with men in buckled shoes, holding their muskets at the ready, and women in full skirts and bonnets clutching baskets and children, every-one bedraggled and exhausted from their battle with the storm. More importantly, everyone was hungry, weak and fearful. One hundred and fifty souls, some of them seamen, most of them not. Indeed, the Sea Venture was carrying several women including young John Rolfe’s pregnant wife.
“Let’s find St. Catherine’s beach where the survivors landed,” said Will a few days later. And so, on our free afternoons—between snorkeling trips—we made our way into the town of St. George.
The capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, a town lying midway down the island. It’s the seat of government and it’s where the big cruise ships anchor. But, St. George is the island’s historical heart. St. George is a town in one of Bermuda’s nine parishes. It’s a small town of narrow streets with names like Featherbed Alley and Old Maid’s Lane. The houses are small and pink and green, some of the streets are cobbled and there are gardens filled with native plants, hibiscus and frangipani. Near the dock is King’s Square filed with restaurants and pubs and small shops. There is a small hotel and several bed and breakfast establishments. Will and I visited the St. George’s Historical Society Museum on Duke of Kent Street and the National Trust Museum on Duke of York Street. Our favorite was the World Heritage Centre at Queen’s Warehouse on Pennon’s Wharf where we watched a short film and studied a small glass-fronted cabinet that held some small items … a button, some coins, a broken piece of pottery, believed to come from the Sea Venture.
On a low hill-top just above the sea north of town rises the ancient Fort St. Catherine which dates to 1614 . Below, toward the east, lies St. Catherine’s Beach and Gates’ Bay. The bay was named for Sir Thomas Gates who was traveling on the Sea Venture with the mission to serve as interim governor of the James Fort colony until the arrival of the appointed governor, Lord De La Ware. Gates is said to have been the first of the ship-wrecked survivors to step ashore.
What did the survivors find here? No sign of human life. A palmetto and cedar forest and mangroves, a peat marsh and wild birds in great abundance. There was plenty to eat. A man could reach out his arm and a cahow bird might land upon his palm. Majestic stalking herons and abundant fishing, green turtles and hermit crabs were everywhere. But, there were no devils, not a one. The cries heard by sailors on ships passing near the island over the years were from the thousands of birds nesting in the trees and from the wild hogs that lived on the island, the descendants of pigs left there by early Spanish explorers.
They must have worried about the fate of the other ships in their convoy. They had no way of knowing that the smallest vessel, the Catch, had been lost at sea. Or, that the Diamond, Blessing, Falcon, Untie, Lion and Swallow survived the storm and would reach the Chesapeake in August of that year, 1609.
Meanwhile, they were survivors, miraculously alive. They settled in, making their encampment a few yards inland from what is now known as St. Catherine’s beach. They fashioned small dwellings with palm-leafed roofs and began to explore, and to hunt, to collect berries and set out gardens. They fished, marveling at the abundance of marine life in these waters that included bream and mullets and crabs and oysters and rockfish and turtles. Weeks passed. They celebrated Christmas in a make-shift church they built with cedar, palmetto and the bell of the wrecked Sea Venture. No doubt the survivors were grateful to be alive, but life was not easy. No ships appeared on the horizon. No one was coming to their rescue. There were disagreements. And, there were deaths. John Rolfe’s young wife gave birth to a daughter they named Bermuda. This little one was christened in February, 2010. Sadly, mother and child died and were buried in the sands of her island namesake, Bermuda.
Sir George Somers was adamant—they would continue to Virginia. He was busy supervising the building of a 30-ton penance to be called Patience. Sir Thomas Gates commanded a team of survivors in building an 80-ton baroque they named the Deliverance. Both ships were constructed from spars and riggings of the wrecked Sea Venture and local cedar. I read somewhere they built these vessels “without a single new nail.” There is a replica of the Deliverance in the town center of St. George’s. Will and I were astonished at how small the vessel was. After 42 weeks on the island, the two ships were loaded with salt pork from the island hogs, dried fowl and fish and produce from their gardens. Then, leaving behind three men who’d agreed to stay on the island, 142 survivors bravely boarded these fragile boats, intent upon completing their journey to Virginia.
It took 10 days for the two little ships to reach the Chesapeake and then a week’s journey up the James River. What they found in the settlement called James Fort in May, 1610, was shocking. Only 60 people, ill and starving, were alive out of the 1,500 who had come out from England.
The Bermuda survivors were now the rescuers. Ironically, the foodstuff they’d brought was the gold that would keep the little colony alive, just barely, until the arrival of Thomas West, Lord De La Ware, who arrived in June with three ships and some 150 new colonists and supplies.
Sir George Somers offered to return to Bermuda in the Patience to collect more provisions, knowing there was a plentiful supply waiting there of fish and wild hogs and fowl. The little vessel reached Bermuda safely but Sir George became ill and died on the island. His nephew, Matthew, who’d accompanied him, knew how much he loved this island. He had his uncle’s heart cut out and buried in Bermuda soil and the rest of his body sent back to England.
Will and I had the good fortune to meet with two Bermuda historians, Dr. George Cook and William S. Zuill. We talked about the Sea Venture and Bermuda’s great contribution to the settlement at Jamestown and ultimately to Virginia and to the United States.
Accounts of the story of the survivors reached England and, it’s widely believed, led to William Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest.” For certain, those accounts stirred England’s interest in the island of Bermuda. Three years after the wreck of the Sea Venture, hopes for a successful Bermuda colony are said to have swayed King James to renew the Virginia Company’s Third charter which was enlarged to include the island of Bermuda, as well as the still fragile, still struggling James Fort.
That year, 1612, the Plough with 60 settlers aboard landed on the island and the town of St. George was established. The hopes of this Bermuda colony to grow tobacco proved futile as the soil was not favorable. The island is now the oldest self-governing British colony and thrives because of its beauty and incredible marine life.
‘James Fort’ became Jamestown seven years later in 1619. The island newspaper, the Royal Gazette reported that the St. George Foundation and the Jamestown City County Board of Supervisors have agreed to ‘twin’ their communities in order to strengthen their historical bonds..
Our time in Bermuda was ending, and Will and I were about to make our own journey to Virginia. He was tanned from the sun and our hours of swimming in the reefs. As we left the island and flew over the sapphire waters of the Sargasso Sea – Bermuda is near the western fringes of the sea – Will turned to me and began to talk about our ancestor, Samuel Jordan who was from Dorset, England and is reported to have sailed on the Sea Venture and to have been a part of this great Bermuda adventure.
Records show that some years after arriving in James Fort, Samuel Jordan established Jordan’s Journey, a small outlying plantation on the south side of the James River. This land grant ,patented in 1620, was near the land grant of his fellow adventurer on the Sea Venture, the widowed John Rolfe, who would marry the Indian princess, Pocahontas. Samuel Jordan was a representative to the first legislative session in Jamestown and his name is included on the list of the ‘Ancient Planters’ of Virginia.
“Our first Virginian,” said Will.
I nodded. I too was thinking of Samuel Jordan and the sons he’d left behind in England who soon followed him to Virginia. And, their sons and daughters. And now … here’s our Will. And his younger brother, waiting at home in Winchester. And his three Leesburg cousins. Today’s young Virginians.
Thank you, Samuel Jordan. Thank you, Bermuda.
POST-SCRIPT: Records listing the names of those who sailed on the Sea Venture are scant and incomplete. Most historians and almost all Virginia Jordan family genealogy records list Samuel Jordan aboard that vessel, ship-wrecked on Bermuda and arriving in James Fort (Jamestown) in May, 1610. Circumstantial evidence offers support : Sir George Somers, Samuel Jordan, his life-long friend William Pierce and his cousin, Sylvester Jordaine, were all from the small sea-coast town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. It’s reasonable to think they sailed together on the same vessel, the Sea Venture.
READING ABOUT THE SEA-VENTURE
THE STORY OF BERMUDA AND HER PEOPLE by W.S. Zuill
SIR GEORGE SOMERS, A MAN AND HIS TIME by David F. Raine
SEA VENTURE – SHIPWRECK, SURVIVAL AND THE SALVATION OF THE FIRST ENGLISH COLONGY IN THE NEW WORLD by Kieran Doherty
THE SEA VENTURE STORY by P.M. Wright
THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare
St. George Foundation - www.stgeorgesfoundation.com
Bermuda4U - www.bermuda4u.com
A Discovery Of The Bermudas, Otherwise Called The Isle of the Devils, by Sylvester Jourdain.
A True Reportory Of The Wreck and Redemption Of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, Upon and From the Islands of the Bermudas, by William Strachey.
(Both of these accounts can be found in A Voyage To Virginia In 1609—Two Narratives, edited by Louis B. Wright. Venture).
FAST FACTS ABOUT BERMUDA
- Bermuda lies some 720 miles from Virginia in the North Atlantic, (not the Caribbean.) The island is bathed by the Gulf Stream and is semi-tropical. July is its hottest month (averaging 79 to 89 degrees) and March its coolest (averaging 59 to 68 degrees).
- Bermuda’s drinking water is collected from rainwater falling on the white limestone roofs and is stored in limestone tanks under each home and hotel. It’s perfectly safe to drink.
- The Bermuda dollar is tied to the American dollar and is directly interchangeable. It’s not necessary to exchange US dollars..
- Bermuda’s citizens number approximately 56,000. The population is 60% of African origin, 25% of British origin 15% of Portuguese origin. The island has a literacy rate of 98%, and clams a high standard of living. Most Bermudians work in service related employment because of the large tourist industry which is a mainstay of the island’s economy.
TO DO: Diving: 400 ship-wrecks are to be found off the coast of Bermuda; fishing and snorkeling; exploring the history in St. George and the shopping in Hamilton; touring around on a rented motor-bike (they drive on the left); visiting the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute, which holds an outstanding collection of sea shells gathered from around the world; sitting on a deck, beach or verandah with a Dark and Stormy beer or a Rum Sizzle in one’s hand, while enjoying the coral-tipped sand, the amazing sunsets and the blue-green waters of the island.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Carey Roberts has written three books, Tidewater Dynasty: The Lees of Stratford Hall, Touch a Cold Door, and Pray God to Die, and has contributed to a number of magazines and newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. She lives in Leesburg, Virginia.