A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown

ABraveVesselSuggested by Brad Nelson • In 1609, aspiring writer William Strachey set sail for the New World aboard the Sea Venture, only to wreck on the shores of Bermuda. His meticulous account of their time in Bermuda, and eventual arrival in a devastated Jamestown, remains among the most vivid writings of the early colonial period.
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8 Responses to A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I found this to be a generally pleasing read, and mercifully succinct at 288 pages. It’s also available in Kindle format.

    The gravy of the book is the first two-thirds which has an account of some of the background on the Virginia Company and Jamestown. It includes the ill-fated (of sorts) trip by Strachey which led to him being stranded for 9 months or so on Bermuda and having his accounts of his adventure (which he hoped would propel him to literary fame) somewhat stolen by Shakespeare as the basis of Shakespeare’s last, and one of his greatest, plays, The Tempest.

    In this first two-thirds, you also get an account of the Jamestown colony right after “the Starving Time.” It was right at this time that the shipwrecked Bermuda contingent finally found its way to the Jamestown (they had built a couple small ships on Bermuda, the Sea Venture having been thoroughly wrecked). Whether the timely arrival of the Sea Venture would have forestalled the starving is debatable, although the information given in this book suggests it would have for there was a lame and feckless “committee” of some sort that was in charge of Jamestown at the time. On the Sea Venture was the governor, Thomas Gates, and the Admiral of the fleet of ships that the Sea Venture had been a part of, George Somers — both of whom were instrumental in their survival on Bermuda and their “escape” from the island (many wanted to stay, and you couldn’t blame them, for if you were to be shipwrecked on an island, Bermuda was an ideal place for such a thing).

    One can have an honest debate about how much central authority one needs. But clearly Jamestown was lost without it. And, of course, eventually too much central authority was imposed (but better too much, in this case, then not enough, considering that they were in a hostile country). Neither the squishy illusions of socialists or libertarians could successfully play out. The colony needed a stronger sense of order, purpose, and discipline than one supplied by a feckless committee. There were stories of common practices such as using the abandoned buildings and homes inside the compound for firewood instead of walking right outside the gate and getting some.

    The book (at least for me) eventually bogs down in the various instances of how Strachey’s written account had obviously been the basis for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. After two or three example you want to go, “Okay, I get it.” I skipped most of this part. Perhaps others will find it interesting.

    What I found of particular interest was the media “spin” that the Virginia Company became quite good at. Their colony in Virginia (Jamestown) was a constant source of grand failures and disappointments (no piles of gold, for instance, and there were many deaths caused by both famine and the Indians). Time after time the Virginia Company flooded the “airwaves” of the time with personal denunciations of the character of the people who offered honest reports of the sometimes horrors of the colony. The more things change…

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I will point out here that the Oxfordians (who believe Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays [there are a lot of interesting links, including the panegyric to the earl that said his countenance “shakes spears”]) argue that The Tempest didn’t refer to this specific incident (“the still-vexed Bermoothes”), which happened after the scapegrace earl died. Apparently there had been previous wrecks on Bermuda.

    • Lois Haywood says:

      If anyone has read this book, is there a passenger list for either the Deliverance or the Patience? Many say one of my ancestors was on these ships, but I have found no corroborating evidence of this. He was not on the Sea Venture lists online. If there is a list, please reply. Thank you.

  2. Anniel says:

    One of my husband’s Mayflower ancestors, Stephen Hopkins, was involved in the shipwreck in Bermuda and a subsequent mutiny for which he was nearly hanged. He was allowed to live and wound up at Jamestown because he was supposed to have learned some native languages. He was not a Puritan, but one of the Adventurers who sailed aboard the Mayflower, again, because of his language abilities.

    Reading “The Tempest” shows little resemblance to the actual shipwreck in Bermuda, except as a literary ploy for Shakespear’s imagination.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      A fascinating story of that character. And, yes, this book mentions those points. And had I the choice of staying in Bermuda where there were no hostile natives, lots of food, lots of water, and a fairly warm and mild climate, I would probably choose that over the hard and dangerous conditions of Jamestown. The rationale by those who wanted to stay on Bermuda was that the Virginia Company had abrogated their contract because of their failure to get them to the colony. And I have to agree. Considering the harrowing experience in the hurricane, I think there was no moral hold over the contracted people.

    • Lois Haywood says:

      I totally agree Anniel. I just saw a version of The Tempest the other day and there was no rebuilding of the ship, so I also question the assumption that it is based on the wreck of the Sea Venture.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      As noted above, many (especially the Oxfordians) suggest that the play first appeared before Strachey’s account became well enough known to inspire the play.

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