Thursday, September 18, 2014

There was only one thing to do: abandon Jamestown.

They would take everyone. They would sail in four small pinnaces—the Bermuda-built Deliverance and Patience, and the Virginia-based Discovery and Virginia, parceling out their precious store of meal aboard each vessel. Barrels of water they could get from the well at Jamestown, one of the fort’s few remaining amenities.
They would sail 40 miles downriver to Chesapeake Bay and then set their courses northward. They would hug the Atlantic coast and make for Newfoundland, where the fishing season had begun. There they would seek out the English ships and plead to be taken aboard as passengers (along with cargoes of salted codfish) when they sailed for home.

At least, that is what they thought.

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates had another plan in mind. He knew that there was another expedition from London bound for Virginia with food and supplies, but he had no idea when it had left England, or when it would reach Virginia. With that in mind, he secretly intended to “stay some ten days at Cape Comfort [Fort Algernon]” in case the relief ships should arrive. And he did not tell the colonists—nearly 250 of them, including Captain Davis and the men at the fort—that he was planning to use up ten precious days’ worth of food waiting for rescue.

What if ten days passed, and no relief ships came?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Ten days from starving"

         From May 23 to June 7, 1610 the Bermuda castaways and the Jamestown survivors shared what little food they had left. (The Jamestown Recovery Project has unearthed the bones of cahow birds, which had been part of the provisions brought from Bermuda. These birds were a dietary staple there, being “well-relished fowl, as fat and full as a partridge.”) But the Bermuda adventurers had stowed only enough food for their voyage, and they were now themselves about “ten days from starving.”
         The malnourished Jamestown residents, most now unable to tolerate solid food, even if there had been any, were trying to live on a “thin unsavory broth” of boiled mushrooms and herbs, “which swelled them much.” The able-bodied newcomers tried fishing, but the James River “had not now a fish to be seen in it.” Fishing for seven days as far downriver as Chesapeake Bay yielded barely enough to sustain the fishermen--not enough to bring back to Jamestown.
         In the holds of the Patience  and the Deliverance the only edibles that remained were a few barrels of meal. Upon careful measuring and grim consultation, the leaders determined that there was enough for each person to have “two cakes [baked bread] a day”--for 16 days.

         Then what?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Starvation at Jamestown: “hallucinations and convulsions....”

         William Strachey wrote of Jamestown’s poor inhabitants that there were “many more particularities of their sufferances . . . than I have the heart to express.” He had seen people starving, out of their minds from hunger. What did they say? What did they do? He did not say.
         George Percy, the man who surely must share blame for the pitiful conditions at Jamestown, did not hesitate to set down the ugly details that accompanied starvation. He wrote of a colonist named Hugh Pryse, “beinge pinched with extreme famin, in a furious distracted moode“ who ran into the center of the marketplace “Blaspheameinge exclaimeinge and Cryeinge outt thatt there was noe god, alledgeinge thatt if there were a god he would not Suffer his Creatures whome he had made and framed, to indure those miseries and to perish for wante of food and Sustenance.”
         Percy did not know that people in the last stages of starvation may become mentally disturbed and experience hallucinations. When Pryse and another colonist, “a Butcher, a Corpulentt fatt man” went into the woods to look for something to eat, the Indians killed them both. Percy wrote with some satisfaction that God had punished Pryse for his earlier blasphemous talk, because his corpse was dismembered, perhaps by wolves, and his bowels torn out of his body. But the fat butcher, “not lyeing above sixe yardes from him, was fownd altogether untouched, onely by the salvages arrowes whereby he Receaved his deathe.” 
         Poor Hugh Pryse. Poor butcher. Poor Jamestown.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Outside the fort, “the Indian killed as Famine and Pestilence did within...”

            Prayer seemed called for.
In the church, the Reverend Mr. Buck, who had ministered to the Bermuda castaways, now offered “a zealous and sorrowful  prayer, finding all things so contrary to our expectations, so full of misery and misgovernment.”
Then Sir Thomas Gates asked William Strachey to read his commission as the Virginia colony’s officially appointed Lieutenant Governor, and George Percy handed over his commission as President of the Virginia Council.  If the two men exchanged remarks, they were not recorded.
Power had changed hands, but now what was to be done?
Strachey dutifully recorded the conditions:

“Viewing the Forte, we found the Pallisadoes torne downe, the Ports open, the Gates from off the hinges, and emptie houses (which Owners death had taken from them) rent up and burnt, rather than the dwellers would step into the Woods a stones cast off from them, to fetch other fire-wood; and it is true, the Indian killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond the bounds of their Block-house, as Famine and Pestilence did within....”

         Death was stalking Jamestown Fort inside and out.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shock and horror, and then, for a few, reunions and unimagined joy

Lieutenant-General Thomas Gates, whose commission made him governor of the Virginia colony, was “much grieved” at the sight of Jamestown Fort. He walked slowly to the desolate-looking little church in the center of the palisade. Spying the church bell, Gates asked that it be rung. Then he stepped inside, and the shocked castaways from Bermuda trooped into the small wooden structure after their leader. The deep, clangorous notes of the bell rang above their heads. After that, as William Strachey remembered (he would soon become the colony’s secretary) in a few moments “all such as were able to come forth of their houses repaired to church.”
Many of the sixty men, women, and children at Jamestown were too weak to “come forth.” Those who were able to shuffle into the church looked, as Percy had described them, as thin as bare trees, their ragged clothes hanging on them like dead leaves.  
But on that day, amid the horrors, there was inexpressible joy for a few. At least two Jamestown wives were reunited with Sea Venture survivors: husbands they had thought never to see again. Temperance and George Yeardley found each other. William Pierce embraced Joan and their four-year-old daughter, Jane. The young husbands’ happiness was dimmed only by their loved ones’ pitiful, malnourished conditions, by the sunken eyes in gray, gaunt faces, the once-rounded bodies wasted to stick-figure shapes.

         Months of slow starvation had taken a toll: Temperance Yeardley would not bear a child for eight years; Joan Pierce, never again. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An eerie stillness...

On May 23 the Bermuda pinnaces Deliverance and Patience dropped anchor at Jamestown, no doubt looping their mooring lines around trees at the water’s edge as was the custom. No longboats were needed to carry them to land: they were so close that men and women climbed down their ships’ ladders and splashed solemnly, mournfully ashore. They trooped through the fort gate, whose massive log doors were hanging off their hinges.

That was not a good sign.

Worse yet, there was no one to greet them. An eerie stillness hung over the little fort, as if it were a haunted place. Inside the gate, the barracks and storehouse and the church were still standing, but there was no sign of life around them, and no sounds within them. Around them the clusters of small mud-walled, wood-framed houses were silent, their windows like dark, vacant eyes. Many of the houses were in ruins. Bits of roof thatch and pieces of framing timber lay scattered like jackstraws on the ground. In the warm, humid air, clouds of mayflies swarmed and buzzed.

Was everyone dead?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

“Misery in our people’s faces”

By the next incoming tide the Deliverance and the Patience were on their way up the wide James River, bound for Jamestown. Depending on the tides, the 40-mile journey would take two to three days.
George Percy sailed with them and tried to prepare them for what to expect at Jamestown. Soon, he said, they would

Read a lecture of misery in our people’s faces, and perceive the scarcity of victuals and understand the malice of the savages, who knowing our weakness had diverse times assaulted us without [outside] the fort. Finding of five hundred men we had only left about sixty, the rest being either starved through famine or cut off by the savages, and those which were living were so meager and lean that it was lamentable to behold them, for many through extreme hunger have run out of their naked beds, being so lean that they looked like anotannes [trees on which the old fruit clings until a new crop grows] Crying out, ‘we are starved, we are starved.’ Others going to bed as we imagined in health were found dead the next morning.

Passengers aboard the two small vessels had plenty of time to think about what they might find at Jamestown. The voyage upriver took them two days. There was no breeze, and the air was as oppressive and heavy as their thoughts. One of them wrote that “only by the help of tides (no wind stirring) we plied it sadly up the river.”

No one could imagine what awaited them.