Saturday, April 11, 2015

John Smith still in chains--for what?

         The reason for John Smith’s imprisonment for most of the voyage to Virginia is yet another unsolved Jamestown mystery.
         He was young and brash. He was a yeoman farmer’s son among English gentlemen. There were about fifty men who could call themselves gentlemen, and some of them may have found Smith irritating. At age 26 he had had much more experience, both in sailing and in fighting, than most of them. He had traveled widely in Europe. He had served in the army of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. He had once beheaded three Turks in mortal combat, and been given a coat of arms bearing three Turks’ heads. Did he flaunt his honors aboard ship? Did he brag? No one knows.
         Did the other men take Smith/s side? There were a dozen men listed simply as “laborers.” What did they think of Smith? There were other men, too: 4 carpenters, 2 bricklayers, a blacksmith, a stonemason, a sail maker, a surgeon, a tailor, and others whose occupations are not listed. There was also a goldsmith, just in case they found treasure to equal what Spain had already found in the New World.
         No one knew what they would find in Virginia. But every man knew that 117 colonists sent to that part of the world in 1587 had disappeared without a trace.
         No wonder they were on edge.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A gallows built, and a hanging averted

     On April 4, 1607, 408 years ago today, the three Virginia-bound ships were cruising the Caribbean. The next day, April 5, was Easter Sunday (according to the Old-Style Julian calendar, which the contrary English used until 1752). Did those aboard the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery celebrate Easter? Did their Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Robert Hunt, at least offer some prayers? If so, there is no record of it. The weather at that time of year must have been pleasant, but all was not pleasant at sea. John Smith was still “restrained,” perhaps still in chains, and had just escaped a hanging. We can only imagine what kinds of conversation he had with his captors, and they with him.
      Whatever passed between Smith and his enemies, when they went ashore on the island of Nevis, things were nasty enough for them (who?) to order a gallows built: They aimed to hang John Smith. That was on April 2.
      The only extant record of this does not name names. But John Smith “could not be persuaded” (whatever that means) to “use” the gallows. Captain Christopher Newport ruled that there was not enough evidence (whatever that was) to warrant a hanging.

      So they all climbed back aboard their three small ships, and set sail again for Virginia.
         What had John Smith, the doughty adventurer born on a Lincolnshire farm  done to get himself in so much trouble?
         They would not set foot on the coast of Virginia until April 26.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

42 Days at Sea: Short Rations and Short Tempers

          Among the Jamestown mysteries, one looms larger than the rest: what did John Smith do to provoke at least five attempts on his life? There was the time Pocahontas saved him from death at her father’s orders--but that is another story. Part of Smith’s back-story remains unknown to this day, but he did or said something to make some enemies, starting with the first voyage to Virginia.
          The three small ships with 105 men and boys set sail on December 19, 1606, but they did not get far: Contrary winds kept them rolling and pitching helplessly in cold winter seas, within sight of the coast of England, until January 30,  That’s 42 days with no shore leave. Imagine. 105 passengers, about 40 crew members total. The flagship Susan Constant carried about 70, the Godspeed, 50 or so, and the tiny Discovery, no more than 20.

         There are no ship’s logs, no journals, to record details of what went on during those awful weeks. We don’t even know for certain which of the vessels John Smith was on. But two of the captains--Christopher Newport of the Susan Constant, and John Ratcliffe of the Discovery--would become Smith’s enemies. (Bartholomew Gosnold, captain of the Godspeed, would die of an illness the first summer at Jamestown.)
         By February 17 the little fleet reached the Canary Islands for a blessed five days ashore. But it was here that John Smith was “restrained as a prisoner.” For what?

         No one knows.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Three tiny ships, 105 “men and boys,” 16 weeks at sea:--cabin fever?

     News traveled slowly across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century: crossings took 8 to 12 weeks or more depending on the weather. Keep that in mind. Sometimes it took longer. 

     For example,  think of the historic voyage from England to Virginia of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. three small vessels of 120 tons, 40, and 20 tons.  The smallest, Discovery, was 49 feet from bowsprit to stern with a beam width of 11 feet 4 inches, two masts, and an open deck. She may have carried 20 men. 

Here is a photo of the replica Discovery, taken from the bow of the  replica Susan Constant at their Jamestown moorings. Imagine weeks on the Atlantic in this tiny pinnace. For size, compare with the rowboat in the water off her port side. 

     On December 19, 1606, she and her larger sisters set sail down the Thames, bound for Virginia.

     On April 26, 1607, after several stops on islands along the way, they finally stepped ashore on the land they called Virginia.

 Three little ships, 104 men and boys, together at sea for 16 weeks.

Close quarters.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Tale of Two Hurricanes

In 2014 not one, but TWO hurricanes hit Bermuda within the same month. Hurricane Fay arrived first, wreaking damage everywhere, and then came Hurricane Gonzalo, with highest winds of 144 miles per hour.

Bermuda has been in the paths of hurricanes for hundreds of years.
In fact, Bermuda’s history really began when a hurricane drove the Sea Venture onto Bermuda’s rocks in 1609.

But in 2014 this one-two punch was devastating. Historic buildings such as the Commissioner’s House at the Bermuda National Museum.had roofs ripped off. Valuable archives were endangered.

Why is this a blog topic now? Because the Bermuda National Museum, a treasure beyond measure of 400 years of history, needs help to restore the extensive damage.

And why else? Because the America’s Cup is coming to Bermuda in 2017!

Spectators from all over the world will come to watch this world-class sailing competition for the oldest trophy in international sports. It began in 1851, when the schooner America bested Queen Victoria’s royal yacht in a race. The triumphant Americans took home the prize--a cup--and ever since, this race has been called the “America’s Cup”--for the ship, not the place.
In 2017, the waters of Bermuda’s Great Sound will be the race course. A special America’s Cup Village at the Royal Naval Dockyard will be a center for teams and fans alike.

This will be the first time a U.S. holder--Oracle Team, USA--has defended the Cup outside America.

If you want to know more of this history, look online at

If you want to help the National Museum of Bermuda rebuild and be shipshape before 2017, email

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Virginia and Bermuda: What Really Happened.?

        Jamestown shares a history with Bermuda, its sister colony. This from a recent review of a book (mine).

       "Virginia Bermhard’s detailed and revealing historical study... insightful and reader-friendly ... provides us with a careful and brutally honest reconstruction of the naked plunder, unbridled greed, festering corruption, unabashed hypocrisy, and systematic disrespect for human life and welfare which...characterized the founding of the first two permanent English colonies in the Americas....

 ...What makes this volume special, however, is the systematic, straightforward, and non-polemical manner in which it configures this evidence...."
 --Caribbean Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2 (July - December 2013. 

      Was this early history better characterized as “heroic” or “glorious” ?

       There are two sides to every historical narrative.
 Comments welcome.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Questions about a Killing

George Percy’s narrative refers to the Indian children’s mother as a "Quene," but she was not a queen by birth. (English colonists were ignorant of native people's social ranks and customs. "Kings" to them, "werowances" to the natives, were not at all the same thing.) The children's mother was  the wife of the werowance of Paspahegh, an Indian village about six miles upriver from Jamestown. In a raid against that village, Captain George Percy’s men had seized “the Quene and her Children.”  After some discussion it was agreed to put the children to death “by Throweinge them overboad and shoteinge owtt thir Braynes in the water. . . .” --presumably while their mother looked on.
Percy claims that he tried to save their mother’s life, but that the governor ordered him to have her killed. She was finally taken into the woods by an English officer and two soldiers. That it took three men to handle her suggests that she did not go passively. Once into the woods, the officer “put her to the sworde.” The manner of her execution raises intriguing questions. Why take the trouble to remove her to a remote place? Why not simply shoot her, as they had her children?  Did they feel that the wife of a king was entitled to a special death, or did her behavior infuriate the Englishmen? Was she swiftly run through--or was she savagely mutilated? 
The historical record is silent: Another Jamestown mystery.

English as well as Indians knew the meaning of vengeance. Both sides would keep a deadly see-saw of violence in motion until almost the end of the seventeenth century.