Historic event: Robbie Godfrey had the lead role at yesterday’s dedication ceremony, portraying Sir Thomas Gates. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
Historic event: Robbie Godfrey had the lead role at yesterday’s dedication ceremony, portraying Sir Thomas Gates. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
On June 2, 1609, a fleet of nine ships set sail from Plymouth, England, headed for Jamestown, Virginia, leaving in its wake the hopes and dreams of an entire nation.

The ships were packed with passengers and supplies for the Jamestown colony, which was founded two years earlier.

Jamestown was another disaster waiting to happen. The English had made numerous attempts to establish a foothold in Americas, where the Spanish reigned supreme. All had been spectacular failures and Jamestown was headed in that direction.

As every Bermudian schoolchild knows, seven weeks later, on July 28, after a brutal storm lasting four days, the Sea Venture was wedged onto a rock off Fort St. Catherine and the 150 passengers, two of them pregnant women, scrambled ashore, wet and bedraggled, but miraculously alive.

The expedition leaders — Admiral Sir George Somers, captain Christopher Newport and Sir Thomas Gates, the governor-designate of Virginia, were inexplicably, all sailing together aboard the Sea Venture.

Others making the journey were writers Silvester Jourdain and William Strachey, whose first-hand accounts of the shipwreck and the survivors’ 10-month sojourn in Bermuda gave renewed hope to Virginia Company investors and became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Passengers who went on to earn a permanent place in New World history were John Rolfe, Stephen Hopkins and Anglican minister, Rev. Christopher Bucke.  Much lower down on the social scale, in a world in which class and rank were paramount, was Christopher Carter. He is the only one of the 150 passengers to have stayed put in Bermuda and is considered the first Bermudian.

 Yesterday afternoon, at a ceremony organised by the Corporation of St. George’s and the St. George’s Foundation, a monument etched with the names of 50 people whom historians have definitely identified as Sea Venture passengers was unveiled at Barry Road, St. George’s.

Historian George Cook, a retired president of the Bermuda College, has made it his mission to track down and compile the names of passengers — a journey that has taken him to Virginia to inspect 17th century census records.

There is space on the monument to add more names, but he said it is unlikely many more will emerge. He has names of five others who may have been on board, but more research is required. He also pointed to an intriguing debate in some historical circles over whether two of the passengers might have been Native Americans.

The Sea Venture survivors spent much of their time in Bermuda building the Deliverance and the Patience, under the direction of shipwright Richard Frobisher.

They resumed their journey to Jamestown in May 1610. Dr. Cook estimates that between 60 and 70 passengers died of disease in Jamestown in the summer of 1610 and their names have been lost to history.

Yesterday’s ceremony took place two days after the 400th anniversary of the death of Somers in Bermuda. Dr. Cook said he views the unveiling as the last act of Bermuda’s 400th anniversary celebrations (which took place in 2009).

He said his goal is to help Bermudians to understand the significance of the Sea Venture story not just to Bermuda, but also to the history of English America.

Dr. Cook described the saga as “the tipping point”. When the English learned the Sea Venture had survived they viewed it as a miracle and a sign that God wanted them to colonise America — and they never looked back after that.

He said the passengers were a disparate group and included adventures, ordinary seamen, the educated and the “profoundly illiterate”. Many of the seamen would have been teenagers. One of the few women on board was a 14-year-old named Elizabeth Persons, a servant who accompanied her employer, Mistress Horton. Elizabeth married Thomas Powell, Sir George Somers’ cook, when they were marooned here.

Dr. Cook is intrigued by the passengers’ personal stories and he wonders what led them to make the “treacherous” journey across the Atlantic “in a tub”. He said their Bermuda sojourn had all the “elements of a soap opera”. There was one murder, one execution, two births, one marriage and three deaths from natural causes. 

Nearly 60 years of age, Sir George Somers was considered an old man for the time.  He was called out of retirement to lead the expedition.  He sailed back to Bermuda from Jamestown and died here on November 9, 1610. His nephew and heir Matthew Somers sailed with him.

The exploits of John Rolfe may have had the most profound implications for Bermuda, Virginia and indeed all of English America. He was a farmer who was sailing with his pregnant wife, known only as Mrs. Rolfe. She gave birth to the first baby born in Bermuda, a girl named Bermuda.

A second baby, a boy named Bermudas, was born to the wife of Edward

Eason. Neither baby lived long and Mrs. Rolfe died in Jamestown in 1610.

John Rolfe went on to put down roots in Jamestown, where in 1614 he married the Indian princess Pocahontas.  He is credited with developing a strain of tobacco that became the “cash crop” of Virginia and which led to the introduction of slavery.

Dr. Cook believes that the strain of tobacco came from Bermuda—Tobacco Bay was an early place name—and was planted here by Spanish mariners.

 Rev. Bucke presided over all religious rites in Bermuda. He baptized and buried the Rolfe baby and later married John Rolfe and Pocahontas in Virginia.

Stephen Hopkins was a rabble-rouser both in Bermuda — where he was nearly executed — and Virginia, where he later made his name.

To Dr. Cook, the most interesting passenger was Edward Waters, an assistant of Sir George Somers, who returned with him to Bermuda in 1610.  Somers’ death left him without a patron. He eventually became a successful planter in Virginia, where he ended up after a series of harrowing escapes from death on the high seas and in Jamestown.

Dr. Cook said the Sea Venture story is “one of the epic stories the Atlantic” which continues to fascinate historians 400 years later. It’s a story that should be embraced by all Bermudians.

“This story is critical because of the impact it had on the whole history of European settlement in America,” he said.