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.

The Gulf Stream and Other Ocean Currents and Winds

You’ve heard of the Gulf Stream I’m sure. It’s a warm current that flows from the Caribbean north along the eastern seaboard of the United States and then turns east across the North Atlantic Ocean to England. The clockwise rotation of the current continues south along the west coast of Europe and North Africa, and then turns west across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean to complete a circle of the Atlantic Ocean north of the equator. The prevailing winds follow the current and rotate clockwise as well.

In good weather, the journey from England to Virginia takes approximately 16 weeks, or four months, almost one-third of a year, going with the currents and prevailing winds. The journey is uncomfortable at best.

The Sea Venture Is Square Rigged

Square Rigged Sailing Ship

Sailing ships in 1609 do not have engines or motors, oars, or GPS. They are entirely at the mercy of the wind, waves, and tides. The ships sailing in the Atlantic are square rigged rather than triangular lateen rigged as is often the case in the Mediterranean Sea. Square rigged sails do very well when the wind is behind the ship. Because the Atlantic Ocean had steady wind patterns, this was an advantage. Triangular lateen rigged ships are more maneuverable but much slower when there is a steady wind behind the ship.

Shipboard Accommodations Aboard the Sea Venture

Shipboard accommodations

John Rolfe is facing what is expected to be a 16 week journey aboard a crowded, sailing ship. At about 100 feet long overall from the bowsprit to the aft of the main deck, or slightly less than the length of six Chrysler 300 sedans, the Sea Venture is the largest ship in the fleet. It carries 153 people, 118 passengers and 35 crew, plus supplies for 16 weeks of sailing and for many months of living in Virginia. Of course, there is no dining room, no bathroom, and no entertainment. It is nothing like a modern cruise ship. There is little to do, and passengers usually have to stay below deck so the sailors have room for their sailing duties.

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.

The Third Supply Is Coming Soon

Captain Samuel Argall

Captain Samuel Argall, who looms large later in the history of Jamestown, reaches Jamestown on July 13, 1609, in only nine weeks instead of the usual 16 weeks. But the Sea Venture fleet doesn’t know this, as it departs only ten days after Argall. Captain Argall tells the colonists in Jamestown that the Third Supply fleet will be arriving soon.

The Long Ocean Voyage to Virginia

1609 Era English Sailing Ship

On May 5, 1609, the Virginia Company of London sends Captain Samuel Argall to Virginia to explore a more direct route to Virginia instead of going south along the coasts of Europe and Africa and then sailing west to the Caribbean and then north up the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic coast of America. The traditional southern route is the one John Rolfe and the Sea Venture will take ten days later.

The rationale for trying a more northern route is twofold. First, despite the peace treaty of 1604 between England and Spain, the Spanish are attacking English ships in the Caribbean. For example, in 1606, the Richard, a ship of the Virginia Company of Plymouth which holds the royal charter for more northern lands, sails the traditional route to the Americas and is then to head up to Pemaquid on the Maine coast north of the Kennebec River, but it is captured by a Spanish ship and all hands are sent to Spain and imprisoned. The second reason is to see if they can find a faster route to Virginia.

Tobacco Seeds

Rolfe is almost certainly carrying some of the difficult to obtain seeds of Spanish tobacco with him on the Sea Venture. Tobacco seeds are very tiny, so it would be easy to carry a large quantity of them, and many historians believe he did carry them. The seeds are difficult to obtain because the Spanish have a monopoly on the mild sweet tobacco (a much harsher variety is native to Virginia) and forbid anyone to sell tobacco seeds to a non-Spaniard under penalty of death.

Since these tobacco seeds of Caribbean tobacco were central to John Rolfe’s entrepreneurial vision and plan, I can’t imagine he would have left everything he knew and traveled to Virginia with his wife unless he had a supply of tobacco seeds with him.

The Three G’s – Gold, Glory, and God

Gold

The Virginia Company of London proclaims that Protestant English colonization of America is God’s will. They get ministers to preach that God wants a Protestant English colony in Virginia rather than a Catholic Spanish colony like Mexico, most of South America and Central America, and St. Augustine in what is now Florida. The Virginia Company of London also preaches that it is God’s will to evangelize and convert the native savages of Virginia to the Protestant religion. So Rolfe’s goals are in line with what today are called the three G’s of colonization, Gold (literally or figuratively), Glory (of self and/or King and country), and God.

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.

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.