Sea Venture

Sea Venture was a seventeenth-century English sailing ship, part of the Third Supply mission to the Jamestown Colony, that was wrecked in Bermuda in 1609. She was the 300 ton purpose-built flagship of the London Company and a highly unusual vessel for her day, given that she was the first single timbered merchantman built in England, and also the first dedicated emigration ship. Sea Venture's wreck is widely thought to have been the inspiration for William Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

Sea Venture
The coat of arms of Bermuda features a representation of the Sea Venture wreck.
General characteristics
Tonnage300 tonnes
  • 8 × 9-pounder (4.1 kg) demi-culverins
  • 8 × 5-pounder (2.3 kg) sakers
  • 4 × 3-pounder (1.4 kg) falcons
  • 4 × arquebuses

The Virginia Company

The proprietary of the London Company had established the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, and delivered supplies and additional settlers in 1608, raising the English colony's population to 200, despite many deaths. The entire operation was characterized by a lack of resources and experience. The company's fleet was composed of vessels that were less than optimal for delivering large numbers of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, and the colony itself was threatened by starvation, diseases, and warfare with native peoples.

The colony at Jamestown seemed doomed to meet the same fate as the Roanoke Colony and the Popham Colony, two earlier failed English attempts to settle in North America, unless there was a major relief effort, despite the delivery of supplies in 1608 on the First and Second Supply missions of Captain Christopher Newport. Yet the investors of the London Company expected to reap rewards from their speculative investments. With the Second Supply, they expressed their frustrations and made demands upon the leaders of Jamestown in written form. They specifically demanded that the colonists send commodities sufficient to pay the cost of the voyage, a lump of gold, assurance that they had found the South Sea, and one member of the lost Roanoke Colony.

It fell to the third president of the council to deliver a reply. Ever bold, Captain John Smith delivered what must have been a wake-up call to the investors in London. In what has been termed "Smith's Rude Answer", he composed a letter, writing (in part):

When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as wee have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.[1]

Smith did begin his letter with something of an apology, saying "I humbly intreat your Pardons if I offend you with my rude Answer".[2]

There are strong indications that those in London comprehended and embraced Smith's message. Their Third Supply mission was by far the largest and best equipped. They even had the newly constructed purpose-built flagship Sea Venture placed in the most experienced hands of Christopher Newport.


The Company built Sea Venture, probably in Aldeburgh, as England's first purpose-designed emigrant ship and in response to the inadequacy of its vessels. She measured "300 tunnes", cost £1,500, and differed from her contemporaries primarily in her internal arrangements. Her guns were placed on her main deck, rather than below decks as was then the norm. This meant that the ship did not need double-timbering, and she may have been the first single-timbered, armed merchant ship built in England. The hold was sheathed and furnished for passengers. She was armed with eight 9-pounder (4.1 kg) demi-culverins, eight 5-pounder (2.3 kg) sakers, four 3-pounder (1.4 kg) falcons, and four arquebuses. The ship was launched in 1609, and her uncompleted journey to Jamestown appears to have been her maiden voyage.


On 2 June 1609, Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth, England as the flagship of a seven-ship fleet (towing two additional pinnaces) destined for Jamestown, Virginia as part of the Third Supply, carrying 500 to 600 people (it is unclear whether that number includes crew, or only settlers). Normally, ships destined for North America from Europe sailed south as far as the Canary Islands as at that latitude the mean direction of the wind is to the West, pushing them across the Atlantic (ships returning to Europe turned eastward at the Carolinas, as at that latitude the mean wind direction is to the East), then followed the chain of west Indian islands to Florida and from there followed the Atlantic coast of the continent. However, with the West Indies firmly in the grip of the Spanish Empire, the English fleet turned Northwards in the open Atlantic, intending to bypass the Spanish threat and head directly for Virginia. Days away from Jamestown, on 24 July, the fleet ran into a strong storm, likely a hurricane, and the ships were separated. A pinnace, Catch, went down with all aboard lost.[3] Sea Venture however, fought the storm for three days. Comparably sized ships had survived such weather, but Sea Venture had a critical flaw in her newness: her timbers had not set. The caulking was forced from between them, and the ship began to leak rapidly. All hands were applied to bailing, but water continued to rise in the hold.

The ship's starboard-side guns were reportedly jettisoned to raise her buoyancy, but this only delayed the inevitable. The Admiral of the Company himself, Sir George Somers, was at the helm through the storm. When he spied land on the morning of 25 July, the water in the hold had risen to 9 feet (2.7 m), and crew and passengers had been driven past the point of exhaustion. Somers deliberately had the ship driven onto the reefs of Discovery Bay, in what later proved to be eastern Bermuda, in order to prevent its foundering. This allowed 150 people, and one dog, to be landed safely ashore (the total number of human passengers and crew is variously given as 150, though the account of survivor William Strachey appears to list 153: In it were two Knights, Sir Thomas Gates, Knight Gouernor of the English Forces and Colonie there : and Sir George Summers Knight, Admirall of the Seas. Her Captaine was Christopher Newport, Passengers and Mariners, shee had beside (which came all safe to Land) one hundred and fiftie),[4][5] The survivors, including several company officials (Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates, the ship's captain Christopher Newport, Samuel Jordan, Sylvester Jordain, Stephen Hopkins, later of Mayflower, and secretary William Strachey), the Powhatan emissary Namontack and his companion, Machumps,[6] were stranded on Bermuda for approximately nine months.

Deliverance and Patience

Sylvester Jordain's A Discovery of the Barmudas, 1610

The settlers were unwilling to move on, having now heard about the true conditions in Jamestown from the sailors, and made multiple attempts to rebel and stay in Bermuda. They argued, as the Mayflower passengers later argued, that they had been freed from their contract by the hurricane and shipwreck, and could now choose their own government. Governor Gates suppressed escape attempts, and the new settlement became a prison labour camp, with settlers forced to build ships to carry them away against their wills.[7]

During the time on Bermuda, the survivors constructed two new ships, the pinnaces Deliverance and Patience, from local Bermuda cedar, which was a wood especially prized by regional ship builders because it was as strong as oak, yet lighter. This misnamed juniper species could be worked with immediately after felling, and it has high resistance to rot and wood worms. Materials salvaged from the beached wreck were also used, especially her rigging.[lower-alpha 1] They were constructed between late fall 1609 and early spring 1610 under the guidance of Admiral Somers and James Davis, Captain of the "Gift of God" who possessed considerable ship building knowledge. These ships represented the second and third pinnaces built in the English colonies in the Americas, the first being the 1607–08 construction of Virginia at the Popham Colony in New England.

The original plan was to build only one vessel, Deliverance, but it soon became evident that she would not be large enough to carry the settlers and all of the food that was being sourced on the islands. The Deliverance was constructed under the direction of carpenter Richard Frobisher on St. George's Island, not far from Gates' Bay, at what is still known as Building Bay.[8] The Patience is generally believed to have been built on the Main Island at Walsingham Bay, in the area known as Walsingham (said to be named after the coxswain of the Sea Venture, Robert Walsingham)[9][10] on the western shore of Castle Harbour, which is today part of the Parish of Hamilton. Bermudian teacher and Lieutenant-Commander Royal Naval Reserve (Sea Cadet Corps) Dr. Derek Tully, however, has suggested St. David's Island as the construction site.[11] In Stratchey's account:

In his absence Sir George Summers coasted the Ilands, and drew the former plot of them, and daily fished, and hunted for our whole company, vntill the seuen and twentieth of Nouember, when then well perceuing that we were not likely to heare from Virginia, and conceuing how the Pinnace which Richard Frubbusher was a building would not be of a burthen sufficient to transport all our men from thence into Virginia (especially considering the season of the yeare, wherein we were likely to put off) he consulted with our Gouernor, that if hee might haue two Carpenters (for we had foure, such as they were) and twenty men, ouer with him into the maine Iland, he would quickly frame vp another little Barke, to second ours, for the better sitting and conueiance of our people.


While the new ships were being built, Sea Venture's longboat was fitted with a mast and sent under the command of Henry Ravens to find Virginia, but the boat and its crew were never seen again.[13] Finally, under the command of Newport, the two ships with 142 survivors (of the 153 mariners and passengers Strachey reported surviving the wreck - Gates, Somers, Newport, and 150 others - those who died in Bermuda were: Mrs Rolfe, the wife of John Rolfe; Edward Samuell, the sailor killed by Waters; Richard Lewis; William Hitchman; Jeffery Briars; and Henry Paine, who had been executed by firing squad. The Powhattan emissary Namontack had vanished while on a hunting expedition with Machumps and his fate was never discovered. Henry Ravens had been sent to Jamestown in command of the Sea Venture's longboat, fitted out for the ocean voyage, along with cape merchant Thomas Whittingham and 6 unidentified sailors; they returned several days later, having been unable to find a passage through Bermuda's reefline onto the open Atlantic, then set out for another attempt and were never heard of again. Two children were born in Bermuda: the daughter of the Rolfes, Bermuda Rolfe, who died and was buried in Bermuda; and Bermudas Eason, the son of Edward Eason and his wife. Minus Carter and Waters, this would give a figure of 137 passengers and crew that continued to Jamestown aboard the Deliverance and Patience, including one child born in Bermuda after the wreck of the Sea Venture)[14] set sail for Virginia on 10 May 1610,[15] and arrived at the Jamestown settlement on the 23rd, a journey of less than two weeks.[lower-alpha 2] Two sailors, Christopher Carter and Edward Waters (whom some records name Robert Waters), remained behind; Waters faced possible trial for the killing of another sailor and had fled into the forest. Carter, like many others of the settlers and crew, did not wish to leave Bermuda and had joined Waters in the forest to avoid being compelled to leave.[16]

On reaching Jamestown, only 60 survivors were found of the 500 or so who had preceded them. Many of these were themselves dying, and Jamestown was quickly judged to be nonviable. Everyone then boarded Virginia, Deliverance, and Patience, which set sail for England. The timely arrival of another relief fleet, bearing Governor Baron De La Warre, granted Jamestown a reprieve. All the settlers were relanded at the colony, but there was still a critical shortage of food. In the fall of 1610, Admiral Somers returned to Bermuda in Patience to obtain wild pigs and food that had been stockpiled there. Unfortunately, Somers died in Bermuda from a "surfeit of pork" and the pinnace, captained by his nephew Mathew Somers, returned directly to Lyme Regis in Dorset, England with the body in order to claim his inheritance. Christopher Carter and Edward Waters, who evidently had been forgiven their earlier desertion, remained behind in Bermuda, again, joined by Edward Chard, the first permanent settlers of Bermuda (Christopher Carter and Edward Waters were to be among the Counsell of Six appointed to advise the first Lieutenant-Governor of Bermuda, Richard Moore, in 1612, and amongst whom the Lieutenant-Governorship was rotated during the period in 1616 between the departure of Moore and the arrival of his successor).[17] Overall, the food and supplies brought by the Third Supply were not adequate. 80% of the colonists would die during the Starving Time of 1610. Afterwards, survivors at Jamestown had boarded Deliverance and Patience and were sailing downstream to the ocean when they met yet another resupply fleet. Lord Delaware was this expedition's leader and he turned the distraught settlers back. He had brought a doctor but food supplies remained inadequate.


Captain John Smith's 1624 map of the Somers Isles (Bermuda), showing St. George's Town and related fortifications, including the Castle Islands Fortifications.

Sea Venture sat atop the reefs off Gate's Bay long enough to be stripped of all useful parts and materials, not only by her crew and passengers, but by subsequent settlers; what was left of her eventually disappeared beneath the waves. Two of her guns were salvaged in 1612 and used in the initial fortification of Bermuda (one was placed on Governor's Island, opposite Paget's Fort, the other on Castle Island).[18] After the wreck's submergence, her precise location was unknown until rediscovered by sport divers Downing and Heird in October 1958, still wedged into a coral reef. There was little left of the ship or its cargo. Despite the lack of artifacts to be found, she was positively identified in 1959, in time for the 350th anniversary of the wrecking. Subsequent research uncovered one gun and cannonball, along with shot for small arms. There were also some Spanish jars, stoneware from Germany and ceramics and cooking pots much like what had been found excavating Jamestown.[19]

In writing

  • The wrecking is believed to have inspired William Shakespeare's The Tempest. This tradition has been confirmed by a detailed comparison to survivors' narratives such as Sylvester Jordain,[20][21] and that of historian and author William Strachey, who wrote an account of the storm entitled True Reportory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, was the primary source Shakespeare drew upon.[22]
  • The Three Kings Of Bermuda & Their Treasure Of Ambergris, by Washington Irving. 1840.
  • Bermuda resident and novelist, F. Van Wyck Mason, wrote a fictionalised account of the wrecking, The Sea 'Venture, first published in 1961.
  • 20th-century American author Scott O'Dell wrote and published a fictionalized account of Sea Venture shipwreck called The Serpent Never Sleeps.
  • Children's author Clyde Robert Bulla wrote a fictionalized account of Sea Venture voyage called A Lion to Guard Us. It focuses on three children sailing to Jamestown to find their father.
  • Sea Venture was also the namesake of a cruise liner which operated between the US and Bermuda in the 1970s for Flagship Cruises, before being obtained by Princess Cruises, which renamed her Pacific Princess, which was subsequently used in the television show The Love Boat.[23]

See also


  1. Forests filled with 'cedar' were everywhere on Bermuda, and the colony became a major ship building center after the dissolution of the Somers Isles Company in 1684. Export of Bermuda cedar for ship building had been severely restricted by the local assembly in 1627, but shipbuilding had denuded much of Bermuda's landscape by the 1830s.
  2. Christopher Newport had an extraordinary career as privateer and then ship captain for the Virginia Company of London. He captained the flagship Susan Constant that planted the first settlers in Virginia, landing on 26 April, 1607. He then commanded John and Francis, and Phoenix, two ships that comprised the First Supply, and delivered 120 additional colonists to Jamestown on 8 January, 1608. As captain of the 150 ton Mary Margaret, Newport also led the Second Supply to Jamestown. The Second Supply landed in September 1608 and delivered 70 colonists that included the first women from England. Adventure never stopped with Christopher Newport. On a voyage to Indonesia for the British East India Company, he died in Java in 1617.


  1. Smith 1624, p. 150.
  2. Smith 1624, p. 147.
  3. Woodward, Hobson (2009). A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. Viking. p. 33. ISBN 9780670020966. The ketch under the command of Michael Philes that was being towed by the flagship would sail on its own as well. The conditions were too dangerous for the tiny vessel and the much larger Sea Venture to remain tied together within striking distance of each other, and in the rough seas there was no way to transfer the people from the ketch to the ship. After signaling their intention with flags, the crewmen of the flag-ship cast off the towropes, and Philes and his complement of about thirty people were left to the mercy of the waves. There was a last look at the faces of the sailors on the bobbing ketch as they disappeared into the sheets of rain—never to be heard from again.
  4. Lefroy, CB, FRS, Royal Artillery, Major-General Sir John Henry (1981). Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands 1515-1685, Volume I. Bermuda: The Bermuda Historical Society and The Bermuda National Trust (the first edition having been published in 1877, with funds provided by the Government of Bermuda), printed in Canada by The University of Toronto Press. p. 49.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. Horn, James (2006). A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books. pp. 158–160. ISBN 0-465-03094-7.
  6. Woodward, Hobson (2009). A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. Viking. p. 9. ISBN 9780670020966. The Powhatan emissary had returned to Tsenacomoco the first time with stories of "the kind reception and treatment he received in England." An intrigued Wahunsenacawh had sent him back across the sea again, this time accompanied by a companion named Machumps. Now, after a second London visit again chaperoned by Newport, the Powhatan visitors were preparing to return home on the Sea Venture.
  7. Kelly, Joseph (24 June 2019). "How the Survivor of a 1609 Shipwreck Brought Democracy to America: Stephen Hopkins, Colonist at Both Jamestown and Plymouth, Proposed a Government Based on Consent of the Governed". Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  8. Bhattacharya, Raj. "Alexandra Battery & Building Bay Beach". Bermuda Attractions. Raj Bhattacharya. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  9. Outerbridge, Miss A.M. (19 April 1924). "BERMUDA AT WEMBLEY". The Royal Gazette. City of Hamilton, Pembroke, Bermuda. p. 3. Robert Walsingham, sailing for Virginia, shipwrecked here with Sir George Somers in 1609, was so much enraptured with the beauty of shores and bay that in giving, them his own name it has remained and become part of our history. Walsingham went on to Virginia. We have no further record of his association with the islands.
  10. "Stephen Hopkins 1581 - 1644". The Ladd Family. Merle G. Ladd. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  11. "New book shows Patience is a virtue". The Royal Gazette. City of Hamilton, Pembroke, Bermuda. 29 June 2011. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  12. Lefroy, CB, FRS, Royal Artillery, Major-General Sir John Henry (1981). Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands 1515-1685, Volume I. Bermuda: The Bermuda Historical Society and The Bermuda National Trust (the first edition having been published in 1877, with funds provided by the Government of Bermuda), printed in Canada by The University of Toronto Press. p. 39.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. Evans 1957, p. 7.
  14. Lefroy, CB, FRS, Royal Artillery, Major-General Sir John Henry (1981). Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands 1515-1685, Volume I. Bermuda: The Bermuda Historical Society and The Bermuda National Trust (the first edition having been published in 1877, with funds provided by the Government of Bermuda), printed in Canada by The University of Toronto Press. p. 47.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. according to William Strachey's account published in 'Hakluytus posthumus, or, Purchas his Pilgrimes: contayning a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells by Englishmen and others', by Samuel Purchas;
  16. Smith 1624, p. 344.
  17. Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of The Bermudas or Somers Islands, 1515-1685, Volume I (1511-1562), by Lieutenant-General Sir John Henry Lefroy, KCMG, CB, LL.D, FRS, Royal Artillery. The Bermuda Memorials Edition, 1981. The Bermuda Historical Society and The Bermuda National Trust. Printed in Canada by the University of Toronto Press
  18. Harris, Edward Cecil (1997). Bermuda Forts 1612–1957. Bermuda Maritime Museum Press. ISBN 0-921560-11-7.
  19. Making landfall at Jamestown (2005) Accessed 22 January 2017
  20. Vaughan & Vaughan 1991, p. 41.
  21. Evans 1957, p. 5.
  22. Vaughan & Vaughan 1991, pp. 38–40.
  23. McKenna, Robert (2003). The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 276. ISBN 0-07-141950-0.

Further reading

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