West Indies Privateer and Mutinous Mercenary Founded Jamestown Colony

If you are visiting Emancipation Gardens in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, this memorial plaque is easy to miss:

“Landing of the Virginia settlers: These settlers were a company of 144 Englishmen, bound for Virginia, who landed on St Thomas on 4th April 1607 and stayed for three days before going on to found Jamestown in Virginia. From that colony grew the overseas expansion of English speaking peoples; the Commonwealth of Virginia; the United States of America; the British Commonwealth of Nations and Realms Overseas.”

Like much West Indian history, the story of the settlers’ voyage to the New World provides a window onto the lives of adventurers and pirates. It is a story of courage amid privation. Cannibalism played a role.

Most like to believe Jamestown, founded in 1607 as the first successful British colony in North America, was planted by sober-minded, virtuous and entrepreneurial Englishmen. Bronze statues in Tidewater Virginia of Captain John Smith and Admiral Christopher Newport seem to tell us so.

Christopher Newport, however, was able to successfully navigate his three ships (the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed) carrying 105 settlers and 39 crew to the New World because of his privateering experience. During the late 1500s, he successfully attacked Spanish and Portuguese settlements and shipping throughout the Caribbean. Like many a pirate, he’d lost a limb — an arm — in combat, although his noble statue depicts him with both.

Captain Newport made it big when he captured a Portuguese merchant vessel carrying an immense treasure from Brazil. He invested part in a new ship and continued plundering the West Indies until 1603 when he was made a Master in the Royal Navy. The private Virginia Company then hired him to command the fleet that departed England in December, 1606 to plant the new settlement.

Early in his career, John Smith broke a merchant apprenticeship agreement to become a for-hire soldier for the Austrians in their battle with the Turks over control of Hungary. He is said to have exaggerated his military skills. In any event, he was captured and enslaved by a Turkish officer. He escaped by killing his master. Upon Smith’s return to England, he, too, was hired by the Virginia Company.

On its voyage to Virginia, Newport’s fleet took the proven route. They followed the trade winds and Guinea current across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands, off Saharan Africa, to the West Indies.   Somewhere in between, Smith, the son of a lowly yeoman, was suspected of conspiring a mutiny and placed in chains, according to fellow voyager George Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. Years later, Smith acknowledged he was “restrained at the scandalous suggestions by some of the chiefs” that he wanted to kill the officers and make himself “king” of the New World.

So, when the fleet sighted the West Indies in mid-March 1607, Smith was a prisoner on-board Admiral Newport’s flagship. Indeed, on their first stop at the island of Dominica, then, as now, known for its fertile volcanic soil and abundant fruit, Newport prepared to hang Smith. He was restrained by the others, Smith remained Newport’s prisoner.

The expedition then spent three weeks traveling island-to-island, trading with “many savages” for “many kinds of sundry fruits, cloth, potatoes, plantains and tobacco.” In return, they gave Indians hatchets, knives, beads and pieces of copper, “which they hung from their nostrils, ears and lips — very strange to behold,” George Percy tells us.

Sailing north west, they arrived at the “Virgin Isles” at the beginning of April. They landed at St. Thomas bay, which George Percy admired:

“[The bay is] capable of harboring a 100 ships. If this bay stood in England, it would be a great profit and commodity to the land. On this island we caught great store of fresh fish, an abundance of sea turtles, which served our fleet for three days. We also killed a great store of wild fowl. We cut the bark of certain trees, which tastes like cinnamon and very hot in the mouth. This island has very good ground, straight and tall timber. [But they could find little fresh water], which makes this island void of any inhabitants.”

Admiral Newport simply noted: “We spent some time [there], where, with a loathsome beast like a Crocodil [sic], called a Gwayn [iguana], Tortoises, Pelicans, Parrots, and fishes, we daily feasted.”

They desperately needed fresh water “seeing that our water did smell so vilely that none of our men could endure it,” George Percy tells us. Seeking it, they departed uninhabited St. Thomas and sailed to Spanish Puerto Rico and refilled the water casks.

Despite a serious storm, they eventually made it to the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River to plant their colony. It proved fortunate Admiral Newport did not kill John Smith because when they opened their orders (to be read upon arrival) they discovered the Company had named him a Captain and member of their leadership council. After depositing the settlers, Admiral Newport returned to England, leaving them one ship.

Although the enterprise started out promising, the Jamestown colonists were top-heavy in aristocrats who knew nothing of construction or farming. They faced a catastrophic first winter of starvation.   Only 38 of the 105 settlers survived.

Recently, a Smithsonian forensic scientist studying human bones found in a Jamestown trash pit confirmed George Percy’s description of the “starving time”:

“Having fed upon our horses and other beasts as long as they Lasted, we were glad to [eat] dogs Cats, Rats and mice…shoes or any other leather. . . [As famine began] to Look ghastly and pale in every face, nothing was Spared to maintain Life and [we did] those things which seem incredible . . . to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them. And some have Licked up the Blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows.”

Fortunately, new settlers and supplies eventually arrived and the colony’s economic success was assured by John Rolfe who experimented with tobacco seeds he’d acquired in West Indies. His new leaf “had smoked pleasant, sweet and strong,” recalled Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia. It proved very popular in England and Europe.

Meanwhile, John Smith helped the colonists survive by forcing everyone to work and successfully trading with Indians for food and seeds. But, he was once again accused of conspiring (this time, with Indians) to take control of the enterprise and was again imprisoned. He returned to England and famously wrote about his North American adventures.

Admiral Christopher Newport made three additional voyages to Jamestown with much needed supplies. He was then hired as a chief captain by the British East Indies Company. An adventurer to the end, he died in 1617 on the Dutch island of Java in what is now Indonesia. Today, a Virginia university is named for him.

The commemorative plaque in St. Thomas had been presented to the Virgin Island government in 1957 to mark Jamestown’s 350th anniversary. But, after display, it was damaged and misplaced. Thanks to the St. Thomas Historical Trust, this significant memorial was found, restored and placed in Emancipation Garden in 2011.

Written by: Jeff McCord

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