Sir Thomas Smythe and his London division of the Virginia Company dumped their slaves along the James river. This company was led by the one-armed veteran Captain Christopher Newport, who was as ruthless as Walter Raleigh in battle – or more so since he was one of Raleigh’s captains!
He easily could’ve been rich enough to retire long before the Virginia Company approached him, since back in 1592 he seized the Spanish vessel Madre de Dios and sailed it to England. This ship was so full of gold, silver & gemstones that the horde is recorded as the biggest EVER taken by English privateers! It’s not known exactly how much of it he kept though.
Newport was a gruff guy, put in charge of a rowdy lot of 120 men & boys (described as gentlemen, oddly enough) across 3 ships, some labourers contracted for 7 years’ work (but remember the first post in this series – there was nothing stopping that period being indefinitely extended). Only later was it noticed that 120 was nowhere near enough to secure a colony but whatever. Regardless of how good or bad those men (and boys) may have been, they were used as the justification for suspension of all colonial slaves’ rights. As with the Plymouth division, there was a secret set of instructions only to be opened upon landing. The instructions detailed how to form relations with the ‘natural people of the country’, who should lead the hunt for gold, which 7 men should be made the ruling council to choose the colony’s president, and more.
On a side note, it’s possible Walter was watching their first voyage from his prison cell in Christmas week 1606, fully aware of its significance.
However, on the first journey it wasn’t the crew that caused the trouble but the leaders. They were all so damn quarrelsome, egotistical and domineering! These leaders were:
- Newport’s aggressive 2IC Bart Gosnold,
- former soldier Edward Maria Wingfield,
- greedy for gold son of London’s leading goldsmith Captain John Martin,
- up-himself brother of the Duke of Northumberland George Percy,
- and the worst of the lot the farmer’s son turned yeoman John Smith.
Despite Disney’s myth, there’s no evidence Matoaka (Pocahontas’s real name) had any romantic interest in him, or he in her. If he did he’d have been a paedophile since she was no older than 11 when they supposedly met!
Smith was an arrogant, difficult, silver-tongued mofo who portrayed himself as the hero who had to save the colony from the others’ foolishness. In reality he was so annoying and up himself, Newport erected gallows sincerely wanting to hang him!
And that was in the 19 weeks Newport wasted going the “safe” traditional route so they were all stuck together, finishing their food rations that were meant to last for a year, before they set foot on the American mainland!!!
To make it worse, as soon as they did set foot they broke into a row over where they should have landed! They’d just been hit by a storm which threw them to Chesapeake Bay, Newport was happy to dock there but Gosnold violently argued they should’ve gone further north. Newport told him to piss off and docked anyway. After a quick scout around, natives’ arrows showered them (so said John Smith)! A few musket shots put an end to that, but then they also had disease, starvation* and deserters** to deal with. Even the reinforcements kept getting cut down to size again and again and again by this quadruple combo.
* Even the reinforcements and trade-offs with non-hostile natives didn’t help; the dopey fuckers harboured rats on their ships, and of course rats eat.
** Despite the secret instructions explicitly forbidding anyone to leave the colony, or even keep in contact with England.
Even Popham’s lot never had it that bad; all they got was a telling off for coming home!
The London Company, meanwhile, wanted to build its own fort – Fort James, now known as Jamestown. The location was a bad choice though, as Algonquins attacked them relentlessly for days on end. The colonists had been so sloppy they forgot to bring their weapons on their gold hunt! Not to mention it was a mosquito-infested swamp that they stupidly used as a toilet so disease cascaded over them. Inevitably the 7 council members’ arguments flared up, with one being hanged for mutiny. How the hell this colony survived has modern historians baffed, never mind me!
The gold hunts didn’t fare much better, despite early successes – or so they thought. One incident was when the colonists, after some trade with Algonquins, brought back a barrel full of sparkly clay. Newport got a boner and whisked it back to England, only for experts to determine it was just sparkly clay! After that and similar idiotic episodes, plus the huge rise in deaths and deserters running home, England FINALLY got the message that there was no gold to be found in north America.
In 1609 an anonymously written paper, approved by King James, was sent to Smythe telling him and the colony to stop looking for gold and focus on trade. Jamie also decreed the colony would no longer be under the governance of squabbling rambling self-chosen councillors – must have been a relief for Newport! – but that of a governor with autocratic rule. He would in turn answer to a Royal Council in London and the London Company’s court, who would then answer to… Sir Thomas Smythe!!!
Not a bad decision considering how influential he’d later be in instituting colonial slavery, and how ruthlessly skilled he was at snagging good economic opportunities. Remember he started/ ran most of the first joint stock companies.
For the colony’s Governor he chose his old mate, the Baron de la Warr Thomas West, and 3 accomplished fighters to be his 2IC’s: Walter’s ex-subordinate George Somers as Admiral of a new fleet, veteran Thomas Gates as Deputy Governor, and veteran Thomas Dale as High Marshal. Next was to repair the reputation of Virginia and the colony, so clerics & merchants were used to spread the message of America’s plentiful blessings ripe for the English taking. Though he preferred skilled labourers, Smythe was trying to recruit pretty much everyone with a job because anyone was better than a bunch of “gentlemen”. He invited them to his mansion and promised them all money & land if they went with him and served for 7 years. Almost needless to say he also appealed to frightened London authorities to take ever more “poor and lawless” off their hands. Not just Englishmen, he also took some French wine makers & Polish potash makers, and a few kidnapped native American kids to be saved from their heathen ways.
Despite his shit timing (the King had ordered yet another seizure of Irish land) he managed to gather a new fleet – 9 ships and 600-strong crew including some women! – to relieve the Jamestown lot. This Third Supply, as it was called, inevitably ran into problems en route: the ships got battered by a hurricane! According to one report it frenzied the waters so badly it was like the sea was waging war on the sky! One ship, carrying Somers, Gates & 150 others, was knocked hundreds of miles off course – but after 3 days at the helm Somers managed to haul the hulking vessel to what’s now known as Discovery Bay, Bermuda. Fears of being unable to survive were soon abated as they fattened themselves up on fruits and hogs left over from a previous shipwreck. Carpenters were quickly put to work building 2 new vessels to take them the rest of the way, as their old ship fell to pieces as soon as it reached Bermuda. It took much longer than planned but they made it to Jamestown.
Never mind that Somers & Gates turned tyrant and executed a bunch of men for questioning their authority, the fleet had made it! England was loving it, loving it, loving it!
But the fleet wasn’t. More desertions, native attacks and starvations ensued, getting so bad the colonists started eating horses, cats, dogs, rats, snakes and each other! Not that cannibalism was a moral quandary for them. Then the laziness & greed revealed itself. No-one wanted to do jack shit for themselves. They’d gone to America expecting wealth and good times to piss down on them. When they found that not happening they descended into theft, murder and mutiny. Governor West couldn’t do much since he mysteriously collapsed – not dead but unwell enough to make him run home with no-one to officially replace him.
Dale & Gates took turns running things, with the former drawing up a totalitarian code called Laws Divine, Moral and Martial. This code made “crimes” like disobedience, trading with natives, lese-majesty and irregular church attendance punishable by death. And yes, there were moral police with warrants to search their houses to make sure people were in church. As the society was communal the concept of private ownership was banned; even meals had to be eaten in refectories! All work was for the company’s sake – but as ever the upper class was exempt from work.
Not too different to the slavery (or serfdom) imposed by the Normans 550 years earlier.
Dale made damn sure these laws were enforced. He was so dictatorial he even grabbed Newport by the beard and threatened to execute him!
Less than a year later he realised his company was too small to sustain a colony (maybe because he kept executing everyone?) and asked the King to send prisoners – 2,000 to ward off the natives, to be precise. Francis Bacon, future Attorney General, vehemently disagreed but timid King Jamie agreed. He couldn’t afford not to, as his ascension had coincided with another plague outbreak and the still increasing “lewd and idle” poor around him were hit hardest. Smythe was wholeheartedly behind him, though they did toy with the idea of selling the convicts for Christian galley slaves from Turkish & north African corsairs, or else chucking them in South Africa. In fact Smythe did an experiment to see if the latter would work, sending 10 convicts to Cape of Good Hope with nothing for survival but a handful of seeds and a spade.
The experiment failed. They got scared of the approaching Khoi people, ran to what would later become Robben Island and hitched a ride on a pitying ship passing by. 3 made it back to England, but were caught purse snatching and executed that same day. Smythe tried again, sending another group despite their begging to be hanged! After being dumped near Table Bay another passing ship took pity on them and carried them away.
England never tried dumping convicts in the Cape again – until 200 years later.
Meanwhile, for 4 years after Dale sent his request England sat on its ass, during which Dale cracked his whip and ordered forts to be built deeper into Algonquin territory. During this time was when the Pocahontas story was created, based on real events but used as romantic escapism from the constant wars against Algonquins and French (who were making settlements in the continent too). Yet again the complaints made it back to England, and investors were decidedly pulling out. Additionally, since Bermuda was uninhabited it was fast becoming a rival. A rumour went around that the Virginian colony was to be shut down and relocated! Dale got scared and begged Smythe to not let it happen. Of course Smythe was rich enough to keep Virginia going so it didn’t happen; he even went to the trouble of taking the reneged investors to court!
Now 7 years had passed since Newport’s lot landed, which meant the
slaves’ indentured servants’ period was up and they could go home or stay and take some land. However, those who stayed were required to pay rent (2.5 barrels of corn per acre + 30 days per year of public service). A second bigger batch of stayers had it worse; they were forced to work for 11 months per year. Then in 1613 John Rolfe (who later married Matoaka/ Pocahontas/ Rebecca) made the first commercial crop of tall tobacco, which the English liked so it was shipped over.
Problem: they needed much more manpower to keep this crop going long-term, but Virginia’s reputation was still in the gutter so no-one was coming.
Solution: ignore Francis Bacon’s protests again and SEND MORE CONVICTS!!!
Though it was prettied up as an act of mercy (to get round the fact that the Magna Carta forbade even the Crown from forcing people into labour), the real intention was clear. The poor wretches were to be “constrained to toil in such heavy and painful works as such servitude shall be a greater terror than death itself.” After this decision was made, groups of convicts were immediately assigned to Smythe – 17, then 5, then 6. In short, Smythe had been allowed to choose whom to send based on profession. King Jamie didn’t like that so he chose instead: 100 so-called dissolute* guys who used to hang around his palace at Newmarket!
However, there were no ships headed for Virginia in either London, Plymouth or Bristol. Smythe didn’t have any spares either. Jamie called bullshit, which forced Smythe to set aside £1000 for the bastards (literal bastards?) to be held in a gaol til a ship was available. Being the calculating guy he was Smythe suspected the prisoners would mutiny first chance they got, so they were split into smaller groups to go on at least 4 separate vessels. Luckily for him, 3 stockholders were more than happy to take them off his hands and chuck them on the Somers Islands (Bermuda) – the Earl of Warwick, Edwin Sandys and John Ferrar.
And that was what opened the floodgates for using America as a dustbin for England’s unwanted people. Next came the street children…
Back to Part 3
On to Part 5