The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America (John MacRae Books) Hardcover – 5 Aug 2008
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An account of the 1609 rescue of the Jamestown settlers describes the factors that doomed the Virginia Company enterprise, the hurricane that compromised escape attempts, and the shipwreck that proved a turning point in the colony's fortune. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
Top Customer Reviews
The one caveat I have with the book is the title. Although it's called The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown, the colony was on the verge of extinction even after the Sea Venture and the fleet's leaders made it to Jamestown. Governor Gates chose to abandon the suffering colony and the settlers had made it part way down the James River before meeting up with Lord De La Warr's ship, which ultimately saved the colony and changed the course of American history. Had the colony fled before De La Warr got there, it is likely the rescue mission would have aborted its task and left for England.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
The book begins with the chartering of the Virginia Company in London, whose mission it was to find funding for the expeditions. When the Company had difficulty raising money or finding Londoners willing to settle in Virginia, they had to get creative. Colonizing Virginia became "God's calling". Most of the time, though, it must have seemed to the settlers that God had forsaken them.
I thought that the writing was a little repetitive in the early chapters, but once I got deeper in the story, I couldn't put it down. This is not your sugar-coated, school book version of events at Jamestown. I was stunned over and over again at the brutality and the suffering that took place.
They retell the story of the Virginia Company's colony against a backdrop of royal endeavors such as King James sending privateers to raid Spanish ships, seeking the Northwest Passage, conquering Ireland, and the trafficking of African slaves.
This is not the first time these colonist's stories have been told, but there's nothing stale about this book. As every student knows the Jamestown colony did not fair well. Among many woes, a fire nearly destroyed the fort, John Smith recalled, "Some people faced January's bitter colds and such severe frosts with little than the clothes on their backs."
As Ms. Glover's book makes clear, the colonists had wasted much time prospecting for gold instead of farming. Those with a working memory from elementary school history may recall, most of the colonist's health was in grave danger. Many were sick and dying from drinking bad water and living in a marshy area.
The Virginia Company, in response to John Smith's rude letter, dispatched a third re-supply effort in 1609. The flagship of the nine-ship fleet was the state-of-the-art Sea Venture -- England's first dedicated emigrant ship. On board the fleet are Christopher Newport: Vice Admiral of the fleet, Sir George Somers: Admiral of the company, Sir Thomas Gates: next Governor of Virgina, and most important to the authors, William Strachey: A down-on-his-luck poet, seeking a fresh start in Virginia.
The tense description of a hurricane buffeting the fleet generates the first real excitement. "As the ship tossed wildly in the ocean, cries and shrieks issued from the passengers who looked one upon the other with troubled hearts and panting bosoms." The Sea Venture was wrecked on a reef surrounding an uninhabited island. Bermuda was known to sailors as "an enchanted den of Furies and Devils, the most dangerous, unfortunate, and forlorn place in the world." Their all-but-new vessel was ruined, but its passengers and crew had survived.
Far from being "the isle of Devils," the castaways found tame wild hogs, sea turtles, birds, and fish that they could easily kill by the dozens. Bermuda was an island paradise, "fertile, fruitful, plentiful, and a safe, secure temperate, rich, sweet, and healthful habitation for man."
Virginia's next governor, Gates, had no intentions of settling in Bermuda and organized the construction of a rescue boat. At the end of August, a crew of eight volunteers were sent in Sea Venture's jury-rigged longboat, to notify Jamestown, but disappeared forever.
As the weeks and months passed, six more Bermuda castaways died, several children were born and a marriage performed. With all the plenty, factions were forming and disobedience brewing. A group of Somer's men conspired to kill Governor Gates and his supporters, but the mutiny sputtered out after the harsh execution of rebel Henry Paine.
Ms. Glover, who also penned Southern Sons: Becoming Men in the New Nation, dutifully reminds us that settlement on Bermuda was temporary. For the glory of England, Governor Gates set about to convince the group to continue on to Virginia. Two small vessels -- the Deliverance and the Patience were constructed of salvaged materials from the wreck of Sea Venture and native cedar. On May 23, 1610, the colonists arrived in Jamestown.
Only about 100 out of the original 500 colonists in Jamestown were found alive -- and most of them were sick and malnourished. Over the winter of 1609-10 "some Jamestown residents, desperate to stay alive, raided graves and ate the corpses."
The food aboard the Deliverance and the Patience was insufficient to sustain the colony for more than a few days. "Gates accepted the inevitable and agreed with all speed to return to England." On June 7th, the surviving colonists left Jamestown and embarked for England.
Here the story takes an unexpected turn. Only ten miles downstream, the survivors were intercepted by a relief fleet sent by the Virginia Company under the command of Lord De La Warr. Shocked by their poor condition, he "wasted little time in laying many blames upon the gathered colonists. He found the state of affairs in Jamestown revolting, and he held the settlers responsible."
Since the colony was very short of food, Sir George Somers volunteered to sail back to Bermuda and return with as much food as the Patience could carry. Yet another set back to the colony occurs, when he never returns. Tragically, Somers had died on Bermuda in 1610. At this point, his nephew, Matthew, irresponsibly set sail for England instead of Virginia.
This book has a happy ending, however. Gates returned to England with word that the colony was now strong enough to last after Lord De La Warr combined his group with the settlers from the Sea Venture and Jamestown's survivors. The English now believed that God wanted them in America.
Ms. Glover and Mr. Smith's source is William Strachey. "Strachey's personal observations, beginning on board the Sea Venture, offer an entirely fresh perspective on the story of Jamestown. He does so by showing how the colonies ultimate success depended on a fascinating array of adventurers -- entrepreneurs, seamen, servants, settlers, and politicians -- who daring and moving experiences in seeking out a new life in Virginia emboldened them to undertake a dramatic rescue effort that saved America's first colony."
The authors describe William Strachey as a "down-on-his-luck poet seeking a new start in Virginia." Strachey had acquired two shares in the Virgina Company and sailed for Jamestown aboard the Sea Venture in the summer of 1609.
Strachey returned to England probably in late 1611 to publish "True Reportory," his "vivid account of the Sea Venture's odyssey." It was not published until five years after Strachey's death in 1625.
Ms. Glover's book does not add any bombshell facts to what we know, but through careful sifting of long forgotten documents, a fresh perspective of the Jamestown colony is given. All the way through, the authors offer incisive details and insights that make "The shipwreck That Saved Jamestown" a fascinating read. By describing a carefully selected set of individuals and events, the authors give the colonial experience a human face, bringing to life an extended cast of villains and victims.
"The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown" contains nine illustrations, 39 pages of notes, and no maps. The book will be of most interest to readers of early American history.
The book centers on the Sea Venture, an English vessel sent by the Virginia Company to stock the fledgling colony with food, supplies, and new settlers. On its way across the Atlantic, it encounters a massive hurricane and winds up shipwrecked off the coast of Bermuda. The book is worth it simply for that part of the story (which is far more interesting and extensive than I mention here), but the real value of this book is the succinct, easy to read history of Jamestown that the authors present as a lead up to this event.
The book vividly describes the struggles that Great Britain faced in trying to establish a permanent settlement in the New World. Numerous failures and setbacks beleaguered London as it aimed to ease Spain's stronghold on North America. We get a colorful portrait of the real John Smith, which is far different from the caricature that we get from most history textbooks. We also learn of the hardships that the early colonists faced, both on the voyages across the Atlantic and once they arrived in Jamestown. Most of this information is nothing new to scholars and history buffs, but it does help to de-romanticize the events for the average reader.
This book is great if you want to brush up your knowledge on the subject. Most readers should find that it flows very well and utilizes a good mix of facts and anecdotes to make it an easy and enjoyable read.