Sample text for Sea venture : shipwreck, survival, and the salvation of the first English colony in the New World / by Kieran Doherty.

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“Preparations Most Urgent”

In the spring of 1609, all London was filled with talk of Virginia. Businessmen who gathered in the nave of old St. Paul’s and in the vast courtyard of the Royal Exchange spoke excitedly of the profits that might be theirs if they invested in a new scheme to settle the rich lands named in honor of the Virgin Queen. Sailors on the docks and boatmen on the Thames traded in wild tales of the riches that waited in the lands of the Chesapeake. Gentlemen and poets who met in the Mermaid Tavern and other London watering holes mused late into the night, night after night, of Virginia, nothing but Virginia. Preachers spoke of the chance to do God’s work while finding opportunity in that far-off country the Almighty had set aside for England. The unemployed and desperate, whose minds raced at the thought of owning their own land, made hurried plans to leave crowded, dirty, smoky London for a better life, no matter what the dangers.

Profits, freedom from want, and the possibility of escape from desperate lives, all these things and more seemed possible in this place called Virginia. Though most who dreamed of emigrating knew as little of the distant lands across the Atlantic as they knew of the moon, they were willing to believe the lines that had been written by the poet Michael Drayton, giving voice to the hopes and dreams of the first Virginia settlers who had left England for the New World in late 1606:


Earth’s only paradise!

Where nature has in store

Fowl, venison, and fish,

And the fruitful’st soil

Without your toil,

Three harvests more,

All greater than your wish.1

It mattered little to these westward-looking Englishmen that many of those who had already made the journey from England to the lands they called Virginia found death instead of opportunity. It mattered little that in the two years since a group of English settlers struggled ashore in Virginia to establish a settlement they called Jamestown no fortunes had been made, no gold or pearls or silver had been discovered. This was a new day, a new opportunity for all to gamble their money (or their very lives) in the hopes that England would finally, after a long history of failure, establish a profitable, secure, and lasting presence in that far-off land most could not even begin to imagine, a settlement where dreams could come true.

One Londoner who saw Virginia as a place he might find financial salvation was William Strachey, a failed civil servant, poetaster, and sometime playwright. The son of a successful gentleman with landholdings in rural Essex, Strachey had studied law at Gray’s Inn, but cut his training short to spend his time scratching out mostly unpublished verse and socializing with London’s literary set.2 Strachey particularly enjoyed London’s lively and rambunctious playhouses. He was a stockholder in Blackfriars Theatre and a regular playgoer who was almost certainly friendly with the company’s actors, including William Shakespeare. Strachey was also acquainted with other well-known dramatists and poets of his time. In a letter, the poet John Donne called Strachey “allways my good friend.”3 He was close enough to Ben Jonson, the poet and playwright, to write a dedicatory verse included in the quarto version of Jonson’s play Sejanus, performed by Shakespeare’s company in 1603 and published in 1605. Strachey’s circle of friends almost certainly also included George Chapman, a collaborator with Jonson in the writing of Eastward Ho!, a somewhat scandalous play about the Virginia colony.

Living a literary gentleman-poet’s lifestyle took so much of Strachey’s time in the early 1600s that he seems not to have had many hours to devote to the business of making money. And what with evenings at the theater and afternoons spent in Southwark watching cockfights and bearbaitings and hours spent drinking and swapping lies with his friends, Strachey found himself forced to borrow heavily from London’s moneylenders. In 1606, in an attempt to claw his way free from the morass of debt in which he found himself, he used family connections to land a job as secretary to the ambassador to Constantinople and traveled with his employer to the Turkish capital.4 His hopes of recouping his fortunes in the foreign service ended in near disgrace and even deeper indebtedness, however, when he had a falling out with the ambassador and was forced to borrow money to return to London.

By the spring of 1609, Strachey—he was aged thirty-six or thirty-seven by then—was so deep in debt that he feared imprisonment. Sometime that spring, a friend who had been jailed as a debtor wrote a letter to Strachey pleading with him for aid. Strachey replied that he was “haretly sorrie” he was unable to help, adding that he was himself in danger of being sent to prison “for want of present money.”5 In fact, Strachey’s situation was perilous. As the weather warmed that spring and the Thames thawed and began flowing again after one of the coldest winters ever, he knew that each time he dared to quit his lodgings for even a brief foray into the street, he ran the risk of an unpleasant scene with a creditor or—worse—arrest and a stint in the Clink or one of London’s other infamous gaols.

Still, it is safe to assume that Strachey managed to sneak from his lodgings to meet with friends, probably to try to borrow funds or simply to escape the tedium of his rented rooms. It would be surprising if he did not, on occasion, make his way along Cheapside, London’s main market street, to the turning that led to the door of the Mermaid Tavern, where his friends Jonson and Donne were frequent visitors. Perhaps it was there that Jonson told him—it was advice he gave to others—that the only hope for any man in debt was to flee “to Constantinople, Ireland, or Virginia” if he wanted to rebuild his life and repair his credit.6 Strachey had already tried his luck in Turkey, and failed. Now, while Ireland may have beckoned, it must have seemed to the impoverished poet that Virginia offered a better chance to escape his creditors and perhaps, just perhaps, his best opportunity, if not for riches, then for security and freedom.

And in 1609, he was ready to risk all to find blessed freedom from the financial woes that threatened to send him to the prison he called “that place of dead men . . . that Golgotha.”7 Of course, he had heard of Virginia. He was obviously fond of the theater, fond enough to put some of his money at risk as a shareholder of the Blackfriars Theatre Company. He said, in a court deposition, he visited the theater “sometymes once, twyce and thrice in a week.”8 Given his love of theater, it would have been remarkable if he had not been in the audience at least once when Eastward Ho!, coauthored by his friends Chapman and Jonson, was staged in 1605.9 He would have heard Captain Seagull, one of the characters in the play, cozen two young men not unlike himself into signing on for a voyage to Virginia where Indians, in Seagull’s words, were so in love with the English “that all the treasure they have they lay at their feet.” Like the other Londoners in the audience, Strachey would have been enthralled by the description of the land across the sea. And he must have gasped when Seagull went on to describe the treasure that waited. “I tell thee,” Seagull said, “gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us; and for as much red copper as I can bring, I’ll have thrice the weight in gold. Why, man, all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold; . . . and for rubies and diamonds, they go forth on holidays and gather them on the sea shore, to hang on their children’s coats.”10

By 1609 Strachey, like other Englishmen, knew that Seagull’s words were not true. He knew that no diamonds had been found on Virginia’s beaches, that no golden chamber pots had been discovered. But he also knew that the land across the Atlantic still held hope for men like himself who wanted to flee their problems in search of a new opportunity. And so, in the spring of 1609, William Strachey decided that Virginia was the answer to his troubles.

Copyright © 2007 by Kieran Doherty. All rights reserved.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Jamestown (Va.) -- History -- 17th century.
Sea Venture (Ship)
Seafaring life -- History -- 17th century.
Shipwrecks -- Bermuda Islands -- History -- 17th century.
Virginia -- History -- Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775.
Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- History -- 17th century.