Saturday, December 20, 2014

A grisly “sacrifice” on the river, July 10, 1610

         Humphrey Blunt had volunteered. As his cries split the air of the calm afternoon, that was the only consolation Lieutenant General Gates and Captain Yardley had.
         Approaching Point Comfort in the pinnace Discovery, they had found the fort’s longboat broken free from its moorings. “Let me go after it,” Blunt had said. “I can take the little canoe and catch her, tie her line round my waist, and tow her back in a trice.” Small and agile, he had been a waterman on the Thames River when he was twelve.
         Now the Indians had him.
         A sudden and contrary wind had blown his canoe and the longboat against the sandy riverbank on the Nansemond side, and before he could push off, there was a wild, gleeful shouting from the woods, and nine Indians wearing the heads of bears and foxes ran out. Two of the tallest ones took Humphrey Blunt by the arms and dragged him out of the canoe. On the deck of the Discovery, Thomas Gates, George Yardley, and the rest of the men could do nothing but watch in horror.
         Gates, his knuckles white on the hilt of his sword, cursed himself for letting Blunt go. There was nothing they could do now. By the time they could load and fire a round from the ship’s demi-culverins, poor Blunt would be dead and the Indians long gone.
         “Shall I order the men to fire, sir?” Yardley asked.
         “No. No point wasting powder and shot.” Gates pounded both first helplessly on the Discovery’s gunwale.

         “Save it for later,” he said through his teeth.        

Sunday, December 14, 2014

1610: Hunger a permanent resident at Jamestown

It was Somers who thought of going to Bermuda for food, but De La Warr took the credit for it. He wrote his own letter to the Earl of Salisbury after the admiral’s departure: “I dispatched Sir George Sommers back again to the Barmudas, the good old gentleman [Somers was fifty-six; De La Warr was thirty-three at the time] out of his love and zeal not motioning [opposing], but most cheerfully and resolutely undertaking to perform so dangerous a voyage, and, if it please God he do safely return, he will store us with hog’s flesh and fish enough to serve the whole colony this winter.”
That was wishful thinking.
         Meanwhile, De La Warr set his men and others who were able-bodied to work. Some were put to cleaning up the debris of ruined houses inside the fort, others to making coal for the forges (blacksmiths were essential for making tools and weapons and ammunition), still others to fish, but the latter, the Captain-General noted with disappointment, “had ill success” in the James River. The starving residents of Jamestown had become too weak and too frightened of Indians to fish in the river, and they had let their nets—fourteen of them by one count—rot to pieces. The newcomers had some nets, but they had little luck in casting them. They hauled in their nets every day and night, “sometimes a dosen times one after the other,” but they did not catch enough to feed even a fourth of the people who were there.
        
         Hunger--gnawing, gut-wrenching hunger, was becoming a permanent resident of Jamestown.




Saturday, December 6, 2014

Was Admiral Somers up to something?

       On June 10, just five days after De La Warr had taken command at Jamestown, the indomitable Admiral Sir George Somers had a plan to feed the colony: he would sail back to Bermuda and bring back six months’ worth of pork and fish and turtle meat. He wrote of this scheme in a letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, saying “I am in a good opinion to be back again before the Indians do gather their harvest. Bermuda is the most plentiful place that ever I came to for fish, hogs, and fowl.” Somers was also remembering the castaways who were left there: Christopher Carter and Robert Waters were waiting to see him again. He was eager to return “by reason of his promise to those two left behind, as [well as] upon an affection he carried to the place it selfe. . . .”
         Here is another Jamestown mystery--or rather, a Bermuda one: Some say that Admiral Somers had a secret agreement with the two men he left behind in Bermuda, and that he planned to set up his own colony there. In that case, no wonder he was eager to get back to Bermuda.
         Somers sailed for Bermuda on June 19, 1610. He went in his own pinnace, the Patience, and with him went Samuel Argall in the Discovery. The residents of Jamestown watched hopefully and By June 22 (as always, obliged to sail with the outgoing tides) they reached Chesapeake Bay and, as Strachey put it, “left the Bay, or Cape Henry, a sterne.”
        
         Argall they would see again; Somers, never.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Spain gloats as England’s fledgling colony starves.

     Word of Jamestown’s ttroubles made the Spanish gleeful. On June 14, 1610, the Spanish ambassador in London, Don Alonso de Velasco, wrote to King Philip III of Spain. Some of Jamestown’s news was old, but he put in all he had heard, aiming to please the king. His letter repeats the cannibalism stories with grisly relish, and sees little hope for Virginia’s survival:

... the Indians hold the English surrounded in the strong place which they had erected there, having killed the larger part of them, and the others were left so entirely without provisions that they thought it impossible to escape, because the survivors eat the dead, and when one of the natives died fighting, they dug him up again, two days afterwards, to be eaten. The swine which they carried there and which commenced to multiply, the Indians killed, and almost all who came in this vessel died from having eaten dogs, cat skins, and other vile stuff. Unless they succor them with some provisions in an English ship which they met close to the Azores, they must have perished before this....Thus it looks as if the zeal for this enterprise was cooling off, and it would on that account be very easy to make and end of it altogether by sending out a few ships to finish what might be left in that place, which is so important for pirates.
        
         From Chesapeake Bay, pirates could prey on Spanish galleons, laden with gold and silver from mines in Spain’s New World colonies. No starvation there.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Starvation and desperation, despite De La Warr

Meanwhile, at Jamestorn’s  ruined fort, De La Warr set his men and others who were able-bodied to work. Some were put to cleaning up the debris of ruined houses inside the fort, others to making coal for the forges (blacksmiths were essential for making tools and weapons and ammunition), still others to fish, but the latter, the Captain-General noted with disappointment, “had ill success” in the James River. The starving residents of Jamestown had become too weak and too frightened of Indians to fish in the river, and they had let their nets—fourteen of them by one count—rot to pieces. The newcomers had some nets, but they had little luck in casting them. They hauled in their nets every day and night, “sometimes a dosen times one after the other,” but they did not catch enough to feed even a fourth of the people who were there.          Strachey wrote ruefully, “Notwithstanding the great store [of fish] we now saw daily in our River; but let the blame of this lye where it is, both upon our Nets, and the unskilfulnesse of our men to lay them.” Captain-General De La Warr sent some of his men in the pinnace Virginia to fish downriver and in Chesapeake Bay, but they returned by the end of June with nothing to show for their fishing trip.
In short, Jamestown’s residents were still desperately hungry. They needed many more calories than normal if they were to recover from months of severe malnutrition. And many had simply lost heart. They no longer wanted to make an effort. Sir Thomas Gates was shocked to find that what little fish they managed to come by, they ate raw “rather than they would go a stones cast to fetch wood and dresse it.”\

Where was John Smith when they needed him?




Saturday, November 8, 2014

Food for starving people? NOT!

         Lord De La Warr and those with him still had not come to terms with the depressing truth about Jamestown’s food sources: there were none. The Indians, hostile since John Smith’s leaving, had no food to trade, even if they had been willing: it was early June, and their crops were barely in the ground. Admiral Sir George Somers noted that the Indians “had nothing to trade with but mulberries.” And berries were not the best diet for delicate, malnourished digestions.
        
         De La Warr and his company had expected to find meat in Virginia, and so had brought none. But not one hog was left alive, and not “a hen nor chick in the fort.” That was disappointing news, indeed.
         
         Strachey wrote dispiritedly that the food supply which the Captain-General had brought, “concerning any kinde of flesh, was little or nothing; in respect it was not dreamt of by the Adventurers in England, that the Swine were destroyed.” How could they have known? They brought barrels of meal, dried beans, some oil and cheese, but no meat to stick to a hungry person’s ribs.


         And there were in Jamestown at least sixty men, women, and children whose ribs were in great need of fleshing out.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Jamestown’s troubles relieved--for the moment.

            The new governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, stepped ashore. No sooner had he set his elegant boots on Jamestown’s marshy soil than he sank to his knees in a long, silent prayer. Then he and his company marched into the fort.
Then Lord De La Warr made a brief speech, perhaps not a well-thought one: he blamed the Virginia residents for their present pitiful state and told them they must work harder. (How the Jamestown colonists, so malnourished they were near death, received this speech is not recorded.) At last (this must have been greeted with tears of joy and loud cheers) he told them that he had brought food enough to “serve foure hundred men for one whole yeare.”
Much of what we know about this part of Virginia’s history comes from the colony’s secretary, William Strachey, a diligent and eloquent writer. He recorded not only what happened in Virginia, but what had happened in Bermuda as well. His manuscript would eventually be entitled “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, upon and from the Islands of the Bermudas; his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that colony then, and after under the government of the Lord La Warr.”
            Strachey’s manuscript would reach England with consequences he never dreamed of. Shakespeare somehow read Strachey’s work, and then wrote The Tempest, a play about castaways shipwerecked on a remote island. first performed in London in 1611, and a subject of much debate among scholars ever since.
        

          Meanwhile, the Virginia colony’s troubles were far from over.