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.
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.
The Virginia Company tried its hardest to squelch the plentiful bad news coming from Jamestown, most of it concerning widespread malnutrition and incompetent leadership. Jamestown’s colonial council censored all the settlers’ letters, removing anything that might “discourage others.”
In 1609 the Virginia Company launched a brilliant public relations campaign in England, tying the fate of the Virginia colony to England’s national destiny and God’s blessings upon the Protestant faith. They also sent a fleet of seven ships led by the Sea Venture to resupply and strengthen Jamestown.
But instead of bolstering the struggling colony, the boats had a turbulent transatlantic crossing (vividly described in the book), culminating with the Sea Venture sailing straight into a hurricane off Bermuda.
In Jamestown and England it was commonly assumed that the Sea Venture had been destroyed – a piece of news that was devastating to the Virginia Company’s fortunes. At that point, “nothing could stop the spreading belief that things had gone horribly wrong in America.” Meanwhile, the Jamestown colony was suffering through “the starving time” during the winter of 1609-10, a period of hunger and disease that killed more than 80 percent of the settlers.
Yet the missing Sea Venture had not sunk. The ship had run aground off Bermuda. The castaways – delighted by the island – survived there for 10 months, nearly mutinying when they were finally ordered to sail on to Jamestown.
When the Sea Venture, led by Thomas Gates, finally did reach Jamestown, they found a decimated colony. The remaining settlers convinced Gates to abandon Jamestown and return to England. But as Gates was sailing up the James River, another fleet from the Virginia Company arrived and Gates decided to turn back and try again, saving both the Jamestown colony and England’s fortunes in the New World.
The narrative of Glover and Smith can be somewhat academic at times, as when the authors engage in a textual analysis of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (the plot of which may have been inspired by the tale of the Sea Venture).
That quibble aside, however, this book paints a vivid portrait of lives packed with daily hardships, from dangerous transatlantic crossings to the realistic fear of being massacred by Indians.
Yet the perseverance of the Sea Venture would ultimately pay off in England’s future dominance of North America.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.