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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Hurricane That Inspired Shakespeare and Birthed a Nation




If you live anywhere near a US coastline, you've probably made hurricane preparations at some point or another. Mine tend to involve filling the bathtub with water, the chain saw with gas, and the pantry with non-perishables. Oh, the wonders of satellites that allow us to predict and prepare for major storms! Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been for the people who lived in centuries past, when such storms struck with little or no warning?

By the spring of 1609, the investors of the Virginia Company decided a new strategy was needed to make their fledgling North American colony successful and profitable. Their venture to establish a New World colony in 1607 had proven more difficult than expected, with the company experiencing higher than expected costs -- and mortality rates.

Historians now believe many of Jamestown's troubles stemmed from the Company's incredibly bad timing. The Company intended for the colonists to trade with the local tribes (the powerful Powhatan confederacy) for their foodstuffs. Unfortunately, the earth had entered a cooling period we now refer to as the "Little Ice Age," a time of shortened growing seasons and severe crop failures. Tree rings from the time period also indicate Virginia suffered a prolonged drought during those same years. In short, the Powhatans weren't eager to trade away their meager foodstores, no matter how amusing they found the brash John Smith or how useful they found the English metal tools.

And thus, the venture of 1609, which called for a restructuring Jamestown's government and a massive infusion of settlers and supplies. An estimated 600 colonists left Plymouth on nine heavily-laden ships. After a mostly uneventful crossing, disaster struck one week out from Virginia when the ships sailed into a monster storm, probably an early hurricane.

Only seven of the ships reached Jamestown. Among the missing was the Sea Venture, the flagship of the flotilla which carried all the officers for Jamestown's new government, including Admiral Sir George Somers, Governor Sir Thomas Gates, Secretary William Strachney, and a young gentleman named John Rolfe. To make matters worse, the crews of the surviving ships had jettisoned much of their cargo during the storm. Famine, disease, and dissension quickly set, exacerbated by deteriorating relations with the nearby Powhatans who besieged the ill-supplied colonists in their fort. By the spring of 1610, "The Starving Time" had wiped out nearly 90% of Jamestown's inhabitants.

And then came relief from a most unlikely quarter when the Sea Venture crew and passengers sailed into Jamestown, nine months after the hurricane.

Blown off course by the storm, Captain Christopher Newport had steered his foundering ship onto the rocky reefs of Bermuda to keep her from sinking. All 150 passengers -- and the dog -- made it ashore safely. In 1609, Bermuda was an uninhabited island shunned by Europeans because of her dangerous shoals and the belief she was haunted by devils. On this tropical island paradise, the Sea Venture survivors found wild hogs, birds, and fruit. Combining salvaged parts of the ship with timber from the island, they spent the winter building two small pinnaces aptly named Deliverance and Patience, and sailed them to Jamestown the following May. The provisions they brought from Bermuda supplied the colony with food until more ships arrived in June.
 
William Strachney wrote an account of the Sea Venture's Bermuda experience. "A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight" circulated London and became the inspiration for Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest.

Admiral Sir George Somers returned to Bermuda and died on the island in November of 1610. Somers Islands is still Bermuda's official name.

Captain Christopher Newport died on a voyage to the East Indies in 1617. The city of Newport News and Christopher Newport University (both in Virginia) are named for him.

John Rolfe settled in Virginia. There he experimented with new strains of tobacco and developed the colony's first successful cash crop. His 1614 marriage to the Powhatan princess Pocahontas brought a measure of peace between the two peoples. Today, approximately 100,000 Americans trace their ancestry to this couple.

Jamestown's survival ensured that the English would found more colonies in North America.

The author's son with a reenactor at Jametown's 400th anniversary in 2007

One wonders, had the Sea Venture arrived in Jamestown as scheduled, would her passengers have suffered the same fate that winter as the other colonists? Perhaps, just perhaps, the hurricane that sent the Sea Venture to Bermuda saved Jamestown -- and ultimately, the United States as we now know it -- from a fate similar to that of the short-lived Roanoke and Popham colonies.

Can you think of other events, perhaps from history or even your own life, when a seeming tragedy turned out to be a blessing in disguise?


C.J. Chase writes for Love Inspired Historicals. Her debut novel, the winner of RWA's 2010 Golden Heart award for best inspirational romance, will be available in August under the title Redeeming the Rogue. C.J. lives in the swamps of Southeastern Virginia with her handsome husband, active sons, one kinetic sheltie, and an ever-increasing number of chickens. When she is not writing, you will find her gardening, watching old movies, playing classical piano (badly) or teaching a special needs Sunday School class. You can read an excerpt of her book at: http://www.cjchasebooks.com/

23 comments:

  1. ooooh, I like this, CJ! I didn't know much of this story of Jamestown. Very interesting.

    Your question is quite challenging. I look forward to other responses while I think on this today.

    Happy MARCH! hurray for spring.

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  2. I didn't know the story of the Sea Venture. That's really interesting, CJ!

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  3. Very cool post, CJ. I didn't know the story either. Hmm...I'm wondering if I helped my kids with their homework more if I would have known this. I'm thinking about your question. I feel like I do have some example, but they're not popping into my sleepy brain. I'll try to think of them as the day goes on.

    And of course, I love the tie in to Shakespeare.

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  4. Wow! Great post, C.J!

    Last week when I started working on my Scots novella, I opened the original document AND the version we submitted. Since it'd been a good month (or more) past the last time I'd looked at the story, I had a vague inkling that I had made a few changes on the submitted version.

    So I copied it. Just as I was about to paste it over the original version, a voice in my head said, "Don't do it, Gina. Compare the documents for any differences first."

    Another voice said, "Oh, please, you'd remember if you'd made changes to the origing. Paste, baby!"

    So I did. Then I saved. Then I noticed word count and realized I'd lost 100-200 words.

    No getting them back.

    I sick.

    Then I realized bemoaning my loss wouldn't make it better. Might as well start back from page 1 instead of writing the next scene. In the end, I added another layer to that scene which added depth to my hero and gave me an idea for a minor element of suspense later in the story.

    No, not a hurricane-moment.

    Still . . .

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  5. Love Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg and rogues! Not necessarily in that order...

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  6. Cool post, CJ! I never knew about the Sea Venture or the inspiration for The Tempest. (btw has anyone seen the Tempest movie with Helen Mirren?)

    Wow, 100K descendants of the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Amazing.

    Love learning this stuff. Thanks!

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  7. Debra, I think most of us had a "Yankee-centric" history education that was all about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving while slighting the importance of Jamestown. Here's another piece of Jamestown trivial -- before the Pilgrims left England, some of the leaders visited John Smith and talked to him about what they should expect, how they should prepare, etc. That allowed them to avoid some of the pitfalls that beset Jamestown. (Kudos to them for being smart enough to learn from others' mistakes. Most of us can barely learn from our own.)

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  8. Thanks, Lisa. I love learning abou obscure historical events, especially ones that had a much bigger impact than most would expect.

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  9. Dina, the son in the picture has developmental delays. He can only to go on field trips if I go along, so I've been to Jamestown Settlement several times. (It's a good trip for young children or children with cognative disabilities. Lots of things to touch and do.)

    Here's another piece of Shakespeare-Jamestown trivia for you: The man who evenutally became the leader of Jamestown during the "Starving Time" (after the others died) was The Honourable George Percy, youngest brother of the Earl of Northumberland. He was a descendant of Henry Percy, the "Hotspur" of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.

    Probably more than you wanted to know...

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  10. Ouch on the missing words, Gina. I've done the same thing. And I'm always convinced the new version will never be as good -- until I write it and then realize it's actually better.

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  11. Ha, ha. Haven't read the Henry plays, I must admit. But I did see The Tempest Twice. My daugher is in A Midsummer's Night Dream, at rehearsal right now. She got a big part, not surprising since I had her doing Shakespeare monologues in 5th grade.

    I did think of one. With my first novel I took a detour with the opening (openings were always the hardest for me, but I think I finally figured them out.) The detour opening was good, but not a good start for where the book was going. But, it was that detour opening that won the Touched by Love contest with in 2009.

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  12. CJ, I loved this post. I love learning things like this. I didn't get to visit Jamestown when I was in Virginia. Now I need to go back. I do remember reading about all the people who died, but I don't remember reading about the hurricane or the Sea Venture. Fascinating.

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  13. Cynthia, a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it. Glad Laurie Alice gave us the link over at our Colonial Writers group! Blessings!

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  14. Cheryl, do you live anywhere near Southeastern, VA? Much as I love all the sites in the Historic Triangle, Jamestown is my favorite. (Okay, you might have already guess on that one, huh?) Which is probably a good thing since it's the one I've been to most with all the school field trips.

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  15. Susanne, I don't think I've ever seen a movie version of the Tempest. I have a 1980's version of Much Ado About Nothing in my Netflix queue right now -- heard that one was pretty good.

    I don't think my dh read any Shakespeare in high school. (Sad, huh? And he was in his school's college track classes.) I was pleasantly surprised when he discovered (via Kenneth Branagh) that he really liked Shakespeare. (Even some of Branagh's weird stuff, like that strange Hamlet. Dh watched it several times.)

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  16. Dina, congratulations to your daughter. Did you do any of the "Shakespeare Can Be Fun" books with your kids when they were little? Great series for young elementary kids. (And adults!)

    I saw that the Shakespeare in the Grove production for this summer is the Taming of the Shrew. Auditions are in a week or two -- your daughter might want to check it out.

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  17. Thanks, Suzie. Yes, you must visit Jamestown. (And then you can visit Dina and me since we're not far from there.)

    There are two places at Jamestown. The actual island (the original site) is run by the National Park Service. For a long time, most everyone believed the site of the fort was now under water, but about 10-15 years ago, archeologists discovered that most of the original fort site is still on the island. Only one corner is under water. There's a dig there, and you can watch them working from an observation platform.

    And then there's the Jamestown Settlement, which is a recreation of what it might have been like, with a fort, a Powhatan village, and replicas of the ships. Lots of things for kids to touch and do there.

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  18. Hey, Carrie! You know, I thought about posting on the Colonial writers loop, but I was out of the house all morning. Glad Laurie Alice mentioned it for me.

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  19. Hi CJ! I graduated from Regent University (way back when) in Virginia Beach; I prompted my husband to propose to me after brunch at the Williamsburg Inn, so you know where I'm partial! ;)

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  20. CJ, I will definitely visit you and Dina when I get to VA again. I remember reading an article about earthworms and how they were brought to the US - to Jamestown - I can't remember why right now. I do think it had to do with crops. In the back of my mind this happened after the incidents you told us about because I remember them talking in the article about the small percentage of peoplewho had survived.

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  21. That was so interesting. I guess I was in the mood for a little history lesson tonight. One does wonder. If you're blown off course, was that really the right path in the first place, or is it making good out of disaster?

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  22. CJ, this is fascinating! Thank you for sharing the story of the Sea Venture with us!

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  23. How'd I miss this? Great bit of historic trivia, CJ.

    I was living in Ontario when we took this in school and yes, we learned about the pilgrims, etc. But I distinctly remember about John Rolf and Pocahontas. Probably because I was into romance writing even back then. :)(100K offspring? Wow!)

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

    Anita Mae.

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