Tag Archives: Walter Raleigh

More Properly called Slaves, part 4

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!

And good Lord I was good-looking!

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.

You can never quite cut me out of the scene, can you?

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.
Yes, THAT 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!

This is what he really looked like.

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. 

So what did they learn from the plagues that happened since fucking 1347?!?

** 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.

No El Dorado?!?!?!?!?

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!

That I did.

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.

For fuck’s sake!!! Now we’re England’s human refuse too?!?

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!

* i.e. possibly extramarital sons of my courtiers, possibly common jobless thieves, possibly my male lovers? Don’t know, don’t care. Ship ’em out!

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

More properly called slaves, part 2

As I stated in the previous post, colonial serfdom began in rudimentary form in the 1570s. Ironically, at about the same time Raphael Holinshed (Shakespeare’s favourite historian) boasted:

“As for slaves and bondsmen, we have none. Nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and the bounty of our princes that if anyone come hither from other realms so soon as they set foot on land they become so free… all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them.” 

In a sense he may have been right for people coming from other countries to England, but for those going from England to the Americas it was utter crap. Ever since the English Reformation (when England broke away from Roman religious authority, began in 1532) and Inclosure Acts (when land formerly considered common could be snatched up by private landowners, began in 1604), the divide between rich and poor opened wider and the Renaissance period became something of a luxury. To the rich, obviously.

The poor increased in number and so did the criminals, the population jumping from ~3 million in Henry VIII’s time to ~4 million in his daughter Elizabeth I’s time. This scared the rich; they were scared the poor and lawless would overwhelm the country so something had to be done about them.

(Same as many English believe today. What’s changed in 450+ years?)

And that’s when the American slavery system was initiated, by

Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother to the historically more renowned

Walter Raleigh.

Just to give you a sense of the kind of guy Humphrey was, like Walter he was a soldier. His reputation was as a merciless bloodthirsty bastard who took no prisoners; during the French religious wars of the 1560s he hanged everyone unlucky enough to fall into his hands. He was in charge of the ethnic cleansing campaign of Ireland 1569, and anyone who displayed any degree of resistance or disapproval was killed. He even stuck people’s heads – men, women AND children alike – on rows of spikes on the path leading to his tent! Just for the fun of scaring people!

Just to make it worse, Queen Lizzy got a boner and knighted him!

Later Humphrey gained a fascination (later obsession) with America, as well as helping England get rid of its paupers. He drew up a treatise on how to colonise the ‘New World’. The treatise was immensely detailed: the colony’s size (only 9 million acres!), street layouts, number of churches and more were all planned. Unfortunately his geographical knowledge was piss-poor, and even his contemporaries knew that. He believed north America was just an island. However, his theory sounded good and his treatise looked well-researched so the Queen gave him the go-ahead. Reluctantly because he was so good at slaying Irish, but his more persuasive brother Walter stepped in and convinced her. She gave him 6 years to establish a colony.

Possibly emulating Columbus’s use of Spanish convict labour in his 3rd trip to the Americas, as well as the Marquis de la Roche’s use of Breton convicts, Humphrey used the “needy people of our country” as his manpower for the trip. He probably felt he had to outdo de la Roche as they were long-time enemies.

Ironically, as much as she liked Humphrey the Queen refused to pay for the venture. He had to raise all the money on his own, which he just about managed after begging friends, relatives & fellow adventurers and “selling the clothes off my wife’s back”! And in 1578 he was off, with a fleet of 10 ships, 500-strong crew, Walter tagging along and Lizzy’s official prohibition against plundering any land already taken by the Spanish & Portuguese.

Official being the operative word.

Leave the Spanish & Portuguese territories alone! Nah fuck it, take whatever you can get.

However, due to a quadruple whammy of bad weather, bad luck, bad leadership and infighting the voyage never happened!

In 1583 they went again (minus Walter) and made it to St Johns, Newfoundland. He claimed it property of England – which left the Basque, Portuguese & French fishermen who were already there confused. Then he left them alone to get back to fishing and looked for somewhere else to dock.

However, the oncoming storms and fogs didn’t allow it. They were so bad his biggest ship got lost and his crew demanded to go home. Despite his high-flying war antics he didn’t have the balls to face them down and risk mutiny, so he agreed. BUT! Just so no-one at home thought him a coward, he took all his crew, provisions & weapons and packed them onto the smallest shoddiest ship in the fleet! Of course the worthless piece of shit sank. As if that weren’t bravado enough, as the tidal waves approached Humphrey just whipped out a book* and started reading!

* said to be Thomas More’s Utopia. Must have been damn good.

When news got back to England, Humphrey was called a martyr and national hero!

Then Walter made his move. After waiting to make sure Humphrey’s cavaliering ass was really dead, he continued the American colony project – again with the Queen’s same special permissions. He made a deal with her, that he’d give her 20% of all gold & silver he found, leaving him with 80%. How she agreed to that I’ll never know. He hired Richard Hakluyt, who was a clergyman and the world’s best geographer at the time.


It was Richard’s idea to put the lawless wretches to work for the salvation of the homeland. He even planned out industries for work to be done in, over 40 in total including gold mining, tar making, pearl diving and cotton picking. Most of them flourished over time.

Just in case the image of ‘white’ cotton pickers doesn’t come to mind easily

Walter was the one who named present-day Virginia, after Lizzy the virgin queen. Don’t know how true that was but with her bad breath I wouldn’t be surprised.

However, Walter was in for some  bad luck too. He chose the mosquito-ridden island of Roanoke to start the colony and struggled for 3 years to keep hold of Virginia, then the colonists had to go without supplies as England went to war with Spain and they disappeared, with Walter never managing to find them again. That’s the story of Raleigh’s Lost Colony.

But after all that he became very rich, so very rich that reports say he returned to the English court covered from head to toe in jewels! However, the exploits in America had used up all his dosh so in 1590 he leased out his patent to the colony – but somehow retained the right to keep 20% of all gold & silver and veto anyone else from setting up a colony in Virginia!

Three guys held the patent now: Richard Hakluyt, John White (the colony’s nominal governor) and Sir Thomas Smythe Jr (who became THE MAIN driving force behind the Virginia project and ‘white’ slavery).

Smythe played a leading role in most of the newly-emerged joint stock companies, making him England’s (and by extension America’s) first tycoon! He was stupidly rich and business-minded; almost all companies set up in the first 35 years were either set up or run by him:

  • East India Company
  • Muscovy Company
  • Levant Company
  • Somers Island Company
  • Northwest Passage Company
  • Merchant Adventurers
  • Virginia Company

On top of all that, he also became the city auditor, Sheriff of London, captain of London’s militia AND collector of customs!!!

In the 1590s legal debates arose about what to do about the still rising numbers of poor people. Parliament made a new law; the then Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham drew up a bill requiring parishes to look after the “impotent poor” and threatened severe punishments for the “rogues and vagabonds” (basically all able-bodied poor who could theoretically take care of themselves). One of those punishments included transportation – but they hadn’t decided on where to! Besides, that law never took effect because they were too wrapped up in who should take over after Lizzy – who was getting old and crusty by then.

Then in 1596, Robert Devereux (Earl of Essex and Smythe’s friend) participated in an attack on the Spanish town Cádiz, from which the men returned loaded with booty. Then when he wanted to launch a coup on Lizzy the Earl expected Thomas to help – instead Thomas convinced him to give himself up! Robert was executed that same day, and Smythe would’ve been too as his liaison with the Earl had been spotted. He and his wife were dragged off to the Tower of London, where he claimed he was just passing on some message from the Lord Mayor to the Earl – which no-one believed. However, he escaped the chop!


Maybe because he’d lent the Queen £31,000 to equip the fleet that beat the Spanish Armada? Maybe because it would’ve been stupid to kill the richest guy in the damn country?

So instead he was deprived of his offices and heavily fined. Then in March 1603 after Lizzy finally died, James I became King and gave Thomas his offices back, knighted him and made him his Chief Adviser on trade for life! Maybe James’s involvement in the Essex plot had something to do with it, as he gave similar favours to everyone who’d taken part in it.

As good as Smythe’s luck was, when he turned his attention to the Virginia colony he gained an enemy: the guy who almost executed him, Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham…

“It is best for man not to seek to climb too high, lest he fall.”

Back to Part 1

On to Part 3