The Sea Venture

The Sea Venture

The Sea Venture

May 15th 1609, Woolwich, London:
A flotilla of 7 ships set off from Woolwich, the Third Supply heading for Jamestown, Virginia.
The Swallow – Capt. Moone and Master Somers
The Diamond – Capt. John Ratcliffe and Capt King
The Unitie – Capt. Wood and Paster Pett
The Falcon – Capt. John Martin and Master Francis Nelson
The Lion – Capt Webb
The Blessing – Capt Gabriel Archer and Capt. Adams
and the flagship:
The Sea Venture – Capt. Christopher Newport

The Sea Venture carried Sir Thomas Gates, who was to be Governor of Virginia. Woolwich was one of 6 Royal Naval dockyards of the time, about 5 miles East of the City of London.

Woolwich Shipyard by Nicholas Pocock

Woolwich Shipyard by Nicholas Pocock

June 2nd 1609, Plymouth, England:
Two more ships joined the fleet
The Virginia – Capt. Davis and Master Davis
The Catch – Master Matthew Fitch
Admiral Sir George Somers joined the Sea Venture at Plymouth. His plans were to remain in Virginia in charge of the new colony’s fleet of ships.

June 2nd-8th 1609, Falmouth, England:
Strong winds forced the ships to stop at Falmouth.

June 14th 1609, off the coast of Cornwall:
Admiral Somers decided to use the shorter northern route, supplies would last and they wouldn’t meet the Spanish. The more usual southern route was down from the Canary Islands to the West Indies and then up to Virginia on the east coast.

June, 1609, Somewhere in the Atlantic:
Sickness broke out on several of the ships, perhaps yellow fever or plague, 32 people were thrown overboard (presumably after they died).
The small pinnace in the fleet could not keep up so it was towed by the Sea Venture.

July 23rd 1609, mid-Atlantic:
Crews were struggling, it was hot, and after 8 weeks at sea they were tired.

July 24th 1609, mid-Atlantic:
Caught in bad weather. Pinnacle cast adrift. Sails furled.

July 25th 1609, 30 º N:
With hurricane-strength winds the Sea Venture began to leak having lost caulking from between the planks as the ship was tossed about. The water in the hold was rising.
St Elmo’s Fire, a glowing ball of light was seen through the rigging, the sailors were scared.
Crew and passengers were divided into 3 groups, one hour shifts, watching, bailing, lightening the load. The starboard guns were jettisoned.
The ships were separated, The Sea Venture was on it’s own.

“For four-and-twenty hours the storm in a restless tumult had blown so exceedingly as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence; yet did we still find it not only more terrible but more constant, fury added to fury… Winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them … I had been in some storms before … Yet all that I had ever suffered gathered together might not hold comparison with this: there was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.”  William Strachey

“Our ship became so shaken, torn, and leaked that she received so much water as covered two tier of hogsheads above the ballast.” Silvester Jourdain

July 28th 1609, 32.30 º N 64.78 º W:
Land ahoy!
Bermuda. The Isle of Devils. Or, as Strachey (1625) described it :
“the dangerous and dreaded island, or rather islands, of the Bermuda”

The reef was difficult to navigate and the ship fast sinking so Admiral Somers ordered Captain Newport to ground the ship on rocks just off the eastern end of the island, in sight of land. About ¾ mile offshore, they were at least safe from the storms. The ship, however, was in a bad state, not at all seaworthy, so they abandoned the ruins and took what they could.

150 people and 1 dog* (reportedly – see below) came ashore.

The Ship
Most accounts describe the Sea Venture as built at Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1608 but a book published in 2013 by JR Adams, “A Maritime Archaeology of Ships”, concludes there is no evidence to support this. Certainly a ship “Seaventure”, a cloth-trading ship in the lowlands, was built in 1603 and the name was not all that common at the time. Perhaps it was this ship that was commissioned by the Virginia Company.

A 300 ton vessel with a broad beam well suited to carry passengers and supplies. She was bigger than the more famous Mayflower. She was armed with 20 cannons, and four handheld firearms like muskets.

Sadly for people who like to build model ships from kits, there is no kit for building The Sea Venture.

A model of Sea Venture in Bermuda Maritime Museum

A model of Sea Venture in Bermuda Maritime Museum

On Board
Sir Thomas Gates, Governor for Virginia
Sir George Somers, Admiral of the flotilla
Sir George Yeardley, another Captain, veteran of Dutch wars
Robert Rich, a shareholder, steward of family interests, returned to Bermuda later.
Rev Richard Bucke, chaplain
William Strachey, Secretary-elect of Virginia, wrote account, from which story is known
Silvester Jourdain, wrote account of the storm
Thomas Powell, cook
Robert Walsingham, cockswain
Robert Frobisher, shipwright, has a bay named after him on Bermuda
Nicholas Bennit, carpenter
Henry Ravens, master mate; believed lost at sea when he sailed for help
Thomas Whittingham, believed lost at sea along with Ravens.
Edward Eason and his wife – baby boy born on Bermuda
John Rolfe and his wife – his 2nd wife was Pocahontas
Christopher Carter – sailor from Buckingham, England; Bermuda’s first long term resident
Robert Waters – stayed on Bermuda (deserted the main group)
Edward Chard – stayed on Bermuda (deserted the main group)

There is no complete list of the people on board, others not listed did not return to the island. Some, including Jeffrey Briars, Henry Paine and Richard Lewis, are reported to have died on Bermuda – they may have been in the group that sailed for help in the long boat. One Elizabeth Persons married Thomas Powell while stranded on the island.

Apart from the last 3, the survivors subsequently sailed onto Virginia, a tale of 2 much smaller ships, mutiny, murder and desertion.

The Wreck
But that wasn’t the end of the Sea Venture, as in 1958 Ned Downing found the wreck off St George’s island. He was guided in where to look by William Strachey’s first hand account of the voyage that had been published in 1625: “within a mile under the southeast point of the land”. The discovery came fortuitously one year before the 350th anniversary. Teddy Ticker was commissioned to excavate the wreck. There was some argument about whether this actually was the correct wreck, not laid to rest until 1978 by Allan Wingood.

The treasure was sparse – much of the usable timber and furnishings had been ferried ashore by the original crew in 1609 and then later 2 cannons were hauled ashore to provide defences when they returned and settled the island. Confirmation seems to have come from a pewter spoon, a German stoneware jug and a single 4-pounder gun. There were some puzzling issues such as the amount of cast iron shot found seemed too little for a ship of this size but maybe this was jettisoned during the storm.

The Tempest
Then there is the debate about Shakespeare’s play The Tempest – was it based on the story of the Sea Venture or not?

The Tempest was written probably in 1610/1611 since the first performance was 1st November 1611. The news about the Sea Venture reached England in late 1610, first with an account by Silvester Jourdain, A Discovery of the Barmudas. Strachey’s A True Reportery was not published until 1625, after his death, but it was dated July 15 1610 and some argue that, as a friend of members of the Virginia Company, Shakespeare would have had earlier access to this account. Having just read through the play (the things I do for this blog) it seems that the only connection is the storm and I am quite happy to accept that Shakespeare could have got the ideas from accounts of the Sea Venture and used poetic licence to write the rest of the story. But people have written their dissertations on this and it has triggered a degree of academic mud-slinging:
Yes he did
No he didn’t

*The dog?
When I first looked at this, the only place a dog was mentioned was wikipedia, which immediately cast some doubts. But The Mary Rose had a ship’s dog – the skeleton is on display at Portsmouth, so why not the Sea Venture? Ships had cats since Egyptian times, until the Royal Navy banned them in 1975 (health and safety of course). So why didn’t the ships cat survive? And what about the ship’s chicken? A few hours and several web pages later:
“…our people would go hunting with our ship dog…” Strachey

So it is true – 150 people and a dog!










Further Information:
A Maritime Archaeology of Ships by Jonathan Adams
Sea Venture: The Downing Wreck Revisited by A Mardis Jr 1981
Royal Museums Greenwich 
A True Reportory by William Strachey, 1625


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