John Rolfe knew there was risk involved in his first ocean crossing and also in the colony of Virginia from disease and Indian attack. He accepted and embraced that risk and took his wife along. He probably didn’t think much about the risk of a tempest, a storm yes, but a tempest, no. I imagine shipwreck was far from an expected risk. And castaway on a deserted island for nearly 10 months, he probably didn’t imagine. Yet John Rolfe accepted all the risks, both expected and unexpected, and continued on after disaster.
Eventually, William Strachey’s account of the tempest, castaways on a deserted island, and St. Elmo’s fire will be circulated around London and inspire The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
At least the storm has abated and John Rolfe and all the others have survived due to courageous leadership and hard work against all odds. But now they are shipwrecked and castaway on an uninhabited, deserted island, the Devil’s Isles, that all mariners fear in the Bermuda Triangle.
Ironically, the day they become castaways, July 28, 1609, goes down in history as the date of the first settlement of Bermuda. But for the castaways, it’s still the Devil’s Isles.
The Sea Venture tries to get through the reef around the Devil’s Isles to safe anchorage, but fails. One-half mile off shore, the Sea Venture hits the reef, hard. Fortunately in unfortunate circumstances, she becomes wedged between two large rocks on the reef and will not budge. Luckily, the Sea Venture is upright and held fast in place, and not banging or breaking apart against the rocks. This allows use of the longboats to get all 153 people, including John Rolfe and Sarah Rolfe, safely ashore, and the ship’s dog and their pigs too. Since the ship is still sitting there, they go back for all the remaining provisions which haven’t been thrown overboard, then the rigging, then all the iron used to build the ship, then the masts, and finally some planking.
As the Sea Venture approaches the shore of the Devil’s Isles, the boatswain takes soundings, measurements of the depth of the sea by dropping a weighted rope over the side that is knotted every six feet. Each knot is a fathom, and the boatswain counts the knots as he lets out the line. First it is thirteen fathoms, then seven fathoms, then four fathoms. Finally everyone knows why the islands are uninhabited and feared, as no ship has ever landed or anchored safely in these waters because of a massive reef encircling the islands. There are the remains of many ships wrecked on the reef.
Around noon on Friday, July 28, 1609, Admiral Sir George Somers who is on watch and has been for three days and three nights cries “Land.” Admiral Somers and Captain Newport know where they were, and it is not good. They have been blown by the tempest near an area we now call the Bermuda Triangle and are approaching the dangerous and dreaded islands they know as the Devil’s Isles.
These islands are uninhabited and more feared and avoided by sea travelers than any other place in the world. The Devil’s Isles are legendary in that it is known that all who go there have terrible experiences. Besides shipwreck, there are tempests, thunders, and fearful things seen and heard.
Silvester Jourdain relates that those who have a private stock of alcoholic beverages on board the Sea Venture fetch it and toast their friends and take leave of them until they meet again in the next world.
Another passenger, Silvester Jourdain describes the tempest which hit the Sea Venture thus:
“… we were taken with a most sharp and cruel storm …which did not only separate us from the residue of our fleet … but with the violent working of the seas our ship became so shaken, torn, and leaked that she received so much water as covered two tier of hogsheads above the ballast; that our men stood up to the middles with buckets … and kettles to bail out the water and continually pumped for three days and three nights together without any intermission; and yet the water seemed rather to increase than to diminish. Insomuch that all our men, being utterly spent … were even resolved, without any hope of their lives … to have committed themselves to the mercy of the sea … seeing no help nor hope … that [they] would escape … present sinking.”
On Thursday night, July 27, 1609, the fourth night of the tempest on the Sea Venture, Admiral Sir George Somers is on watch. He sees “a little round light like a faint star, trembling and streaming along with a sparkling blaze half the height upon the mainmast, and shooting sometimes from shroud to shroud ….”
For half the night it keeps up, “running sometimes along the main yard to the very end, and then returning…” Admiral Somers calls many people to observe with him what is called St. Elmo’s fire. They take it as a good omen. In the morning, Friday morning, it disappears.
On Tuesday morning, July 25, 1609, Governor Gates divides all the crew and passengers, including gentlemen and except for the women, totaling 140, into three groups in the front, middle, and rear of the ship. John Rolfe, along with the others, is to either bail with buckets or operate the pumps in shifts of one hour of work alternating with one hour of rest. John Rolfe and the others do this for the next 72 hours as the Sea Venture rolls and pitches. This is an extraordinary measure, as gentlemen not only aren’t used to but don’t do manual labor. So the Governor’s requirement that all men participate equally was a desperate move.
William Strachey continues: “The men might be seen to labor … for life, and the better sort, even our governor and admiral themselves, not refusing their turn….” They work “with tired bodies and wasted spirits” for three days and nights. Strachey continues: “During all this time, the heavens looked so black upon us that it was not possible” to see a star at night or a sunbeam by day.
The Sea Venture, with John Rolfe on board, loses contact with all the other ships of the fleet in the first day. They cut loose the ketch on the fear that the ketch will swamp and pull both ships under, and the ketch and those aboard are never heard from again.
The other six ships emerge from the storm after 48 hours. Eventually all six of the other ships and the Virginia, which had turned back and started again after repairs, all reach Jamestown in good time. Only the Sea Venture is blown along with the storm and endures much, much more.
A sailing ship like the Sea Venture is built by laying planks next to and overlapping each other. The spaces or joints between them are caulked or filled with a tar and fiber material called oakum. William Strachey relates that they have five feet of water above the ballast and are in danger of sinking. Crewmen with candles search the hold for leaks and can’t find any holes, just the leaking joints.
“[A] dreadful storm and hideous began to blow from out [of] the northeast, which swelling and roaring, as it were, by fits, some hours with more violence than others, at length did beat all light from heaven, which like an hell of darkness turned black upon us … the terrible cries and murmurs of the winds … such unmerciful tempest … that it worketh upon the whole … body, and most loathsomely affecteth all the powers thereof.
“For four and twenty hours the storm in a restless tumult had blown so exceedingly as we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence. Yet did we still find it not only more terrible but more constant, fury added to fury, and one storm urging a second more outrageous than the former ….
“It could not be said to rain. The waters like whole rivers did flood in the air…. Winds and seas were as mad as fury and rage could make them. For mine own part, I had been in some storms before … upon the coast of Barbary and Algier … and … in the Adriatic Gulf…. Yet all that I had ever suffered gathered together might not hold comparison with this. There was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected.
“How be it this was not all. It pleased God to bring a greater affliction yet upon us, for in the beginning of the storm we had received … a mighty leak, and the ship in every joint almost having spewed out her oakum before we were aware.”
William Strachey, who was aboard the Sea Venture with John Rolfe, was born in 1572 in Essex of minor gentry. He entered Cambridge University in 1588. In 1605 he was in London as a member of Gray’s Inn where he studied law. He is a stockholder in Blackfriars Theater and has many friends in literary circles. He is close friends with John Donne, Thomas Campion, and Ben Jonson. He certainly has friends in common with and probably knows William Shakespeare. In 1606 Strachey became secretary to the English ambassador to Constantinople, Turkey, and moved there. They didn’t get along and Strachey was fired. He returned to London in 1608. He buys two shares in the Virginia Company of London, and in 1609 he sails on the Sea Venture to Jamestown.
Today the word cyclone is used in the South Pacific for what we usually call a hurricane. In 1609 England, the word is tempest.
After ten weeks on board and seven weeks of smooth sailing on John Rolfe’s first ocean crossing, he experiences the storm of the century, the worst tempest that any of the seasoned voyagers on the Sea Venture have ever seen.
For seven weeks the voyage from London, England, to Virginia on the Sea Venture is relatively smooth. John and Sarah Rolfe have now been on board for 10 weeks including the time in English coastal waters and English ports.
Sarah Rolfe is probably experiencing morning sickness from her pregnancy. There is little or no privacy. And the food gets worse as they run out of fresh produce. Still, seven weeks of calm seas and good weather is wonderful.
Then the winds come up ….
Admiral Sir George Somers who commands the fleet of the Third Supply, General Sir Thomas Gates the new Governor of Virginia, and Captain Newport of the Sea Venture decide to try to avoid the Spanish controlled waters and cut across the Atlantic Ocean farther north than usual, but not quite as far north as Captain Samuel Argall is exploring at the same time.
On May 23, 1609, King James I signs the second charter of the Virginia Company of London, updating it. Among other changes, the territory of the Virginia Company of London is now 200 miles north and south of Point Comfort on the Chesapeake Bay.
Shortly after leaving Plymouth, England, the winds change and the nine vessels of the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, have to put in at Falmouth, farther along the south coast of England. Six days later, on June 8, 1609, the winds are favorable and the fleet sails again.
Because of the distance from London to the south England ports, the loading of final provisions, and the need to wait for favorable winds to sail south along the European coast, the journey has now been more than three weeks and they are just leaving English waters.