All Men, Including Gentlemen, Bail or Pump

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 Is Separated From the Fleet

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.

William Strachey

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.

A Hurricane, Cyclone, or Tempest

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.

Smooth Sailing for Seven Weeks Before The Tempest

Calm Seas Before The Tempest

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 ….

Three Weeks After Leaving London, the Sea Venture Finally Sails From Falmouth, England, and Leaves English Waters

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.

Loading More Provisions in Plymouth, England

Plymouth, England, Eddystone Lighthouse

On May 20, 1609, the Third Supply fleet, including the Sea Venture, arrives in Plymouth on the southern coast of England, a port protected by the Isle of Wight. It has taken five days to sail down the Thames River to the English Channel, then south and west along the Channel to Plymouth. In Plymouth the fleet of seven ships from London meets up with its other two members so that all nine ships are together. Now the final provisions are put on board. The main food supplies are hogsheads, or large casks, of five tons of salt beef, casks of salt pork and salt cod, tons of hard biscuits, beans, oatmeal, flour, butter, cheese, and beer. The water of the time isn’t usually clean and pure, so people drink weak beer or some other drink with a little alcohol in it to kill the germs and parasites.

All is in readiness and on the evening of June 2, 1609, the winds and tides are favorable and the fleet sails from Plymouth.

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.

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.

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.

John Rolfe Invests In His Venture

Investing In His Venture

Rolfe takes care of the money or investment needed for every entrepreneurial venture by buying shares in the Virginia Company of London. He thereby secures passage to Virginia for himself and his wife, and land for planting in Virginia.

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.

Enjoying a Pipe

 

Colonial Clay Pipe

As a young adult, John Rolfe likes to smoke a pipe of tobacco. A gentleman typically smokes only one bowl of a pipe in an evening. So the quantity of tobacco smoked is nothing like the quantity of cigarettes, which were developed 200 years later, smoked by a typical smoker today.

In Rolfe’s time in the early 1600’s, clay pipes for smoking tobacco are very small. The tiny bowl of the pipe holds only about one twenty-fifth of an ounce of tobacco. You can see an historic pipe in the museum at Jamestown. The entire bowl of the clay pipe is about the size of the tip of my little finger from the bottom of the fingernail to the end, and I have small hands.

John Rolfe’s Family History

John Rolfe and a twin brother Eustacius were born and baptized in the parish church in the village of Heacham, county of Norfolk, England, about 110 miles north of London, on May 6, 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This was three years before the English navy under Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada on August 8, 1588, and thus became the most powerful European nation. John’s twin brother Eustacius died 27 days after his birth, on June 2, 1585.

John Rolfe is named for his father John Rolfe. His father was born October 17, 1562. John Rolfe’s mother was Dorothea or Dorothy Mason, born in 1559. John Rolfe the father died when John Rolfe was eight years old, on November 29, 1593. John Rolfe’s grandfather died the same year. His mother Dorothy remarried on March 9, 1594, to Robert Redman. So we can assume John Rolfe’s childhood was difficult.

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.