The Sea Venture Ran Aground in Bermuda in 1609: The Rest is Sailing History
The new settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, was dying out fast. Disease had claimed most of the settlers. But the first residents of Bermuda would save Jamestown in the end.
In June 1609, nine vessels left England carrying food, supplies, and 600 new settlers. They included assorted vagabonds, jailbirds, and unruly youths, as well as prominent leaders such as Adm. Sir George Somers, commander of the fleet; Sir Thomas Gates, the new governor of Virginia; and William Strachey, who kept a journal invaluable to Bermuda history.
In July the resupply mission encountered a deadly storm. The sea swelled above the clouds, wrote Strachey. Seven ships made it to Virginia; one sank at sea.
The flagship, Sea Venture, commanded by Adm. Somers, was presumed sunk, taking 140 men, 10 women, a handful of children, one dog, and many of the supplies. On board, crewmen bailed frantically, even as water in the hold rose to nine feet. Exhausted, preparing to die, they broke out the liquor.
But the passengers did not drown. On July 28, just before the battered ship broke apart, Sea Venture crashed onto the rocks of Bermuda, a tiny speck of islands amid the vast blue Atlantic Ocean. The desolate spot was unpopulated by anyone except some wild hogs left behind a hundred years earlier by Capt. Juan de Bermúdez.
A Spanish explorer, Bermúdez had veered off course in 1503 or 1505, spotted the islands, heard the eerie cries of native cahow birds, and named this place the Isles of the Devils. He returned around 1515, found no gold, and moved on, leaving only his name and the hogs, which would save the accidental settlers from starvation a century later.
After running aground, Adm. Somers mapped the islands—then called the Somers Isles—and led construction of two new ships, Patience and Deliverance, made from the local cedar with rigging from the wrecked Sea Venture.
During 42 weeks on the islands, there had been three mutinies, one murder, a marriage, two births, and three other deaths. Two colorful characters stayed behind, securing England's claim, while the other survivors resumed their voyage to Virginia, arriving in May 1610 with 142 new settlers.
They found only 60 of the original 500 colonists still alive. The supplies they delivered saved Jamestown.
William Strachey wrote most of what we know about the voyage of Sea Venture, the founding of Bermuda, and the salvation of Virginia. His accounts also provided the basic plot of William Shakespeare’s 1611 play, The Tempest.
In 1612, the first proper English settlers arrived aboard the Plough. In 1620, Bermuda convened its first legislative assembly at the Old State House on King Street in the town of St. George, now a Freemasons’ lodge and Bermuda's oldest building, restored and open to visitors.
Soul of Bermuda
Although no longer the colony's capital, St. George's will always be its soul. Somers named it after the patron saint of England. In the tradition of the day, he named its principal streets after English royals.
King’s Square honors King James VI of Scotland and I of England. He's the James who united the crowns of the two squabbling countries, the James who chartered the colonies of Virginia and Bermuda, the James whose bible became the most powerful book in English.
Standing in King’s Square, it's hard to resist sticking your head and arms into the old-style pillories, once used to punish drunks and petty criminals.
A block north, Duke of York Street honors James' son Charles Stuart, who reigned as Charles I of England from 1625 until Parliament beheaded him in 1649. St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the New World, faces York Street. Its beautiful woodwork dates back to the 17th century, crafted from native aromatic cedar, now almost extinct.
As St. George's grew, new place names reflected their purposes. Water Street parallels St. George’s Harbour, where Ordnance Island is named for the munitions once stored there. You can tour a 1967 replica of Deliverance there.
Intersecting Water, One Gun Alley refers to the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1775, when thieves liberated more than 100 barrels of gunpowder sought by American revolutionaries. A block north, Somers Garden got its name from Adm. Somers, whose heart was buried there.
Church Folly Lane takes you to the Unfinished Church, the remains of Victorian Gothic architecture begun in 1874 but never completed. The nearby farming district exported so many turkeys that its road was titled Turkey Hill.
Whimsical street names like Needle and Thread Alley are more obscure. Who christened Old Maid’s Lane? Not sure. But Poet Tom Moore lived there and wrote about Nea Tucker, wife of a jealous husband next door at Nea’s Alley. Featherbed Alley suggested that its well-off residents could afford comfortable beds. Shinbone Alley came from a grog shop whence patrons often stumbled out on their hands and knees.
Petticoat Lane, also called Silk Alley, got its names after former slave women paraded their new silk petticoats down the street. Barber’s Alley honors Joseph Hayne Rainey, who fled South Carolina as a slave, worked in St. George’s as a barber, then returned to the States to be elected as the first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Beyond St. George's
With the American Revolution, Great Britain lost its U.S. harbors, vesting Bermuda with new importance. One result was Royal Naval Dockyard, in Sandy's Parish. That's where cruises to Bermuda dock today. Military engineers and their slaves built wharves, barracks, and an enormous keep with twin hundred-foot towers—one for a clock, one for a tidal indicator.
Today called Clocktower Mall, it stocks arts and crafts, cedar oils, coconut cakes, Cuban cigars, fragrances, jewelry, hand-painted wood carvings, ice cream, local teas, ladies fashions, snorkel gear, T-shirts, and such.
During the U.S. Civil War, the islands made a great spot to smuggle contraband. Fast Bermudan sloops could evade the Union blockade to sneak goods into the Confederacy, receiving gold and cotton in return.
Early in the 20th century, Mark Twain practically invented island tourism here. Best known for the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the celebrated American writer with the bushy red hair made several trips to Bermuda, spending his nights at Bay House, on the water at 4 Old Slip Lane in Pembroke, enjoying drinks and meals at the Hamilton Princess Hotel.
Twain employed the newfangled technology of telegraph, advising readers around the world to visit Bermuda. He elevated travel writing to an art, focusing on fascinating people, especially the blacks and whites living and working together here as they could not in the States.
During World War II, telecommunications and air travel turned Bermuda into a hotbed of espionage. Teams of young women worked as code breakers in the basement of the Princess, deciphering transmissions from nearby German ships and submarines. When mail planes landed to refuel, agents would rifle through their bags looking for coded messages.
Coming up to the 400th anniversary of Bermuda, the British overseas territory gave its currency—pegged to the U.S. dollar—an extreme makeover. Gone is the Queen. The new banknotes sport local images, modern designs, and the latest security features. Bills fan out in a rainbow of colors: the $2 bill in turquoise, $5 in pink, $10 purple, $20 green, $50 yellow, and the $100 bill in red.
In 2009, exactly 400 years after the fateful shipwreck of Sea Venture, hundreds of Bermudans gathered reverently at St. Catherine’s Beach in St. George's Parish, where it all started. They watched “survivors” in 17th-century costumes row ashore once again, recreating the founding.
Those first haggard settlers in 1609 could never have imagined the New World they were creating.