The Jamestown colonists

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By Joan Robinson

The first English overseas colony was established in 1607 in the state of what is now Virginia, USA.  An account from one of the colonists says, “The six and twentieth day of April about four o’clock in the morning, we viewed the Land of Virginia” and the same day they entered Chesapeake Bay.

This is not the first time that explorers had made the voyage from England to the New World and not the first attempt to establish a colony there.

In the 1490s, John and Sebastian Cabot crossed the North Atlantic and became the first Englishmen to lay eyes on the New World.  While Portugal and Spain built empires across the Atlantic from their homelands, England was content to fish (mostly for cod) off the coast of the New-Found-Land (now Canada) which they had discovered.

In 1577, eighty years after the Cabot voyage, the first English plan to actually settle in the New World was undertaken by Sir Humphrey Gilbert of Devon in the West Country of England.  The project failed for a number of reasons and Sir Humphrey died at sea in 1583.  Sir Walter Raleigh, a younger half-brother of Sir Humphrey, then undertook the project with a vengeance.  Raleigh established a colony in Roanoke in what is present day North Carolina and named the site Virginia after the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I.

The colony lasted about three years, however, a supply ship returning from England found no inhabitants of the Roanoke colony and to this day their disappearance is a mystery. Due to the claims of Spain and Portugal on the New World, England’s ventures bordered on piracy.  However following England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, English privateers became bolder and kept the route to Virginia “open.”

Unfortunately, no records of the talk and planning that led to the Jamestown settlement remain, (but) we do know that by 1605 a trial voyage was made to Virginia.

The departure of the Jamestown colonists on December 19, 1606 met with no fanfare.  Only three little ships sailing into the night and the North Sea bearing in their leaky hulks  the founders of England’s first overseas colony.

Of special interest to Nevisians is the route the Jamestown colonists took to Virginia.  In the ships of the early 17th century it was easier to sail to the islands between the mainland continents of what is now North and South America and then travel north via the Gulf Stream to the Atlantic seaboard.  The islands, except for the Greater Antilles – Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica – had no European settlers at this time.

It was a seven-week sail from the Strait of Dover (off the east coast of England) to the West Indies.  After the Canary Islands their first landfall was Martinique on February 21st.  next they went ashore on Guadeloupe where they found the spring near the active volcano too hot for comfortable bathing. “Our Admiral Captaine Newport, caused a piece of pork to be put in it, which boiled it so, in the space of half an hour, as no fire could mend it” (mend meant improve).

They sailed past Montserrat and St. Kitts to Nevis where Captain Newport ordered six days ashore to rest and cure his men of scurvy and other ills such were inevitable with sea voyages at that time.  Exact dates are not given but four days out from Nevis on April 7, 1607, the fleet had passed San Juan, Puerto Rico thus we can guess that they were on Nevis the last three days of March and the first three days of April.

Their account leads us to believe that they anchored off Gallows Bay.  On Nevis they developed skin rashes.  The tree John Smith described is the red mangrove, but the mangrove does not produce a skin irritation.  However manchineel trees still grow at Gallows Bay and uncomfortable rashes develop when rain or dew hits the manchineel and falls on the skin. Their account tells of bathing in hot and cold springs, apparently the Bath Stream, to relieve the discomfort of the skin rash.  No mention is made of any encounters with the indigenous people who inhabited Nevis at that time.

After six days in Nevis, they sailed past St. Eustatius and Saba and then west to the Virgin Islands.  They describe an excellent harbour probably Road Town, Tortola where they complained of the lack of fresh water By the time they got to the island of Mona between Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo* the water they had taken on board in Nevis had begun to smell so vilely that no one was able to endure it and they happily filled their casks with fresh water.

From Mona it was less than three weeks before they sighted Virginia.  Perhaps because of the long voyage and their anxiety about the future their arrival was less than jubilant,  However the Jamestown colonists played an important role in history.  2007 marks the 400th anniversary of their arrival in the New World to found England’s first overseas colony.

*Santo Domingo is now the Dominican Republic and Santo Domingo is the capital

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