The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown
The story of the naval disaster that changed American History.
Four hundred years ago, as European powers competed for dominance in the New World, England looked like the nation least likely to succeed. Spain had spent the 16th century extracting shiploads of gold from modern-day Mexico and Peru. Nations as small as the Netherlands and Portugal had a far stronger presence in the New World than did England.Skip to next paragraph
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As late as 1600, write history professors Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, “the English had still established no colonies in the Americas. In fact, they had failed in every Atlantic enterprise they had tried.”
The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown, Glover and Smith’s well-researched account of England’s rocky early beginnings in America, effectively pieces together a largely untold and essential story about how close the British came to failure in the New World. In the end, Glover and Smith argue, it was the fate of a seemingly lost ship that finally turned the tide.
Glover and Smith begin with an account of England’s early disasters in the New World. Their Roanoke Island settlement was a particularly horrific example: The entire colony mysteriously disappeared, likely slaughtered by local Indians.
Yet it was precisely such catastrophes that prevented Spain from viewing England as a serious rival in America. Although Spain had vast property rights in the New World granted by the Roman Catholic Church, England’s abysmal history of transatlantic failures caused the powerful Spanish to leave the English colonies alone rather than to attack or try to expel them.
The authors, both history professors, argue convincingly that Spain could have easily attacked the English settlement at Jamestown after it was established in 1607: “That Spain neither demanded an end to the Virginia Company ... [nor] destroyed the settlement once it was founded arguably turned out to be the greatest” gift England could have received.
Yet Jamestown nearly failed on its own anyway, due to bloody internal dissension, starvation, and relentless Indian attack, creating a public relations disaster for Jamestown and the London-based Virginia Company that funded it. Attracting new settlers to ship out to Virginia and finding investors back in England would depend upon the colony’s perceived success.