Sailing Aboard the Flagship, the Sea Venture

A sailing ship

On May 15, 1609, John Rolfe and his wife Sarah board the Sea Venture. After all have boarded the Sea Venture and six other ships at the wharf in London’s Woolwich docks, the seven ships sail down the Thames River toward the English Channel. It takes several days. Then the ships sail west along the English Channel to the port of Plymouth to meet the other two ships, the small pinnace Virginia and the even smaller unnamed ketch, to bring the fleet to a total of nine ships.

The flagship, admiral, and largest ship in the fleet is the Sea Venture, commanded by Captain Christopher Newport. Newport also captained the Susan Constant, the flagship of the first fleet of three ships to arrive in Jamestown in 1607. He also captained the First Supply and the Second Supply. This, the Third Supply, is Captain Newport’s fourth crossing to Virginia. Other leaders on board are the Admiral of the fleet and fleet commander, Sir George Somers, and the new Governor of Virginia, General Sir Thomas Gates.

John Rolfe and Sarah Rolfe Sail on the Same Ship, Unlike Other Couples, and Intend to Settle in Virginia

John Rolfe, as played by Christian Bale

John Rolfe’s ambition, bravery, and commitment all show in his decision to bring his wife along with him. Most of the men consider themselves adventurers, not settlers, and leave their wives in England. Since Sarah Rolfe is recently pregnant, she would be especially uncomfortable on the journey. Sarah Rolfe is, perhaps, even braver than John Rolfe, as she is one of very few women to go to Virginia.

John Rolfe is fortunate that his wife accompanies him on the same ship, the Sea Venture. Edward Eason and his wife also sail together on the Sea Venture. But several other adventures on the Sea Venture, William Pierce and Captain George Yeardley, bring their wives along to Virginia, but their wives sail on different ships. William Pierce’s wife Joan and his 10-year-old daughter Jane sail on the Blessing. Some years later, the daughter Jane Pierce will become very important to John Rolfe. Captain Yeardley’s wife Temperance sails on the Falcon.

Perhaps having his wife with him on the flagship of the fleet is an indication of John Rolfe’s people skills which would later show themselves in his political and marketing astuteness.

John Rolfe’s Committed Decision

John Rolfe planting tobacco

John Rolfe is ambitious, brave, and committed to his goal and his enterprise. He has to be, as he is facing a dangerous voyage and dicey conditions in Virginia where so many have already died in the previous two years. Rolfe would have known about the large proportion of deaths among the adventurers from disease and Indian attack, as returning ships told the news. Rolfe is also the only person going to Virginia with the intent to grow tobacco and make it into a profitable export crop.

Finding a Market Need

John Rolfe sees an opportunity, he identifies a market need that people will pay for, to break the Spanish monopoly of the mild tobacco the English prefer. Rolfe’s goal in traveling to Virginia is to grow the mild Spanish tobacco in Virginia, cure it, and export it to England at great profit, thereby bettering himself.

Seeking His Fortune Across the Sea in Virginia

The Sea Venture is the flagship of the nine vessel fleet assembled to rescue the so-far disastrous two year old attempt to establish an English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. John Rolfe had his 24th birthday just nine days before, on May 6, 1609. He is a gentleman farmer, not an adventurer, soldier, or craftsman like most of the passengers. And to underscore the fact he is a settler not an adventurer, he is accompanied by his wife, Sarah Hacker, whom he married the previous year. Although she probably doesn’t realize it yet, Sarah is likely pregnant with their first child when she boards the Sea Venture.

Seeing Possibilities

As John Rolfe boards the Sea Venture in London, England on May 15, 1609, for his epic adventure, who would have thought that he, John Rolfe, a 24 year old gentleman farmer, would in a period of only seven years assure the success of English colonial efforts in America, marry the most important woman in Colonial America, succeed as America’s first entrepreneur becoming the father of American capitalism, create America’s largest export for the next 150 years, and create a billion dollar industry that still thrives after 400 years. In addition, who would have thought he would become a member of the first representative legislative body in the Americas, a fundamental institution that would lead to our uniquely American form of government. Certainly not John Rolfe, and most certainly not anyone else.

Political Success of English in America

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

Second, John Rolfe fell in love with Princess Pocahontas. He asked for and received permission from the Governor of Virginia to marry Pocahontas, recognizing that interracial marriage was at least discouraged if not prohibited. No white man had ever married a Native American. He also asked for and received permission from Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, the paramount chief of 31 Algonquin tribes. John Rolfe and Princess Pocahontas were married on April 5, 1614.