Saturday, September 27, 2014

What if they waited too long--and starved to death?

          Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. The success or failure of England’s only colony in the New World, a project that had taken years of work and thousands of pounds sterling to execute, now depended on the judgment of one man. What if they stayed too long—and the relief ships did not come? What if they starved to death?
Gates would have to make that choice. At last the Deliverance, the Patience, and the Discovery were ready to set sail. The Virginia waited rigged and ready to join them at Fort Algernon. Some people wanted to burn the Jamestown palisade and its ramshackle contents as they left, but Gates craftily refused.
“Lett the towne Stande,” he said. “We know nott but thatt as honest men as ourselves may come and inhabitt here.” But they buried the cannons in the soft earth in front of the fort’s gate. There was no point in providing artillery to the Spanish when they came, as most everyone thought they would. In case any die-hard malcontents disobeyed orders and tried to set fire to the fort, Gates ordered his own men to remain ashore until everyone else had boarded the pinnaces. He himself was the last to leave.
With a “peale of small shot” to mark their departure, the four pinnaces set sail about noon. By night, riding the outgoing tide, they had sailed nearly four miles downriver and dropped anchor off Hog Island.

It was June 7, 1610.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

There was only one thing to do: abandon Jamestown.

They would take everyone. They would sail in four small pinnaces—the Bermuda-built Deliverance and Patience, and the Virginia-based Discovery and Virginia, parceling out their precious store of meal aboard each vessel. Barrels of water they could get from the well at Jamestown, one of the fort’s few remaining amenities.
They would sail 40 miles downriver to Chesapeake Bay and then set their courses northward. They would hug the Atlantic coast and make for Newfoundland, where the fishing season had begun. There they would seek out the English ships and plead to be taken aboard as passengers (along with cargoes of salted codfish) when they sailed for home.

At least, that is what they thought.

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Gates had another plan in mind. He knew that there was another expedition from London bound for Virginia with food and supplies, but he had no idea when it had left England, or when it would reach Virginia. With that in mind, he secretly intended to “stay some ten days at Cape Comfort [Fort Algernon]” in case the relief ships should arrive. And he did not tell the colonists—nearly 250 of them, including Captain Davis and the men at the fort—that he was planning to use up ten precious days’ worth of food waiting for rescue.

What if ten days passed, and no relief ships came?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Ten days from starving"

         From May 23 to June 7, 1610 the Bermuda castaways and the Jamestown survivors shared what little food they had left. (The Jamestown Recovery Project has unearthed the bones of cahow birds, which had been part of the provisions brought from Bermuda. These birds were a dietary staple there, being “well-relished fowl, as fat and full as a partridge.”) But the Bermuda adventurers had stowed only enough food for their voyage, and they were now themselves about “ten days from starving.”
         The malnourished Jamestown residents, most now unable to tolerate solid food, even if there had been any, were trying to live on a “thin unsavory broth” of boiled mushrooms and herbs, “which swelled them much.” The able-bodied newcomers tried fishing, but the James River “had not now a fish to be seen in it.” Fishing for seven days as far downriver as Chesapeake Bay yielded barely enough to sustain the fishermen--not enough to bring back to Jamestown.
         In the holds of the Patience  and the Deliverance the only edibles that remained were a few barrels of meal. Upon careful measuring and grim consultation, the leaders determined that there was enough for each person to have “two cakes [baked bread] a day”--for 16 days.

         Then what?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Starvation at Jamestown: “hallucinations and convulsions....”

         William Strachey wrote of Jamestown’s poor inhabitants that there were “many more particularities of their sufferances . . . than I have the heart to express.” He had seen people starving, out of their minds from hunger. What did they say? What did they do? He did not say.
         George Percy, the man who surely must share blame for the pitiful conditions at Jamestown, did not hesitate to set down the ugly details that accompanied starvation. He wrote of a colonist named Hugh Pryse, “beinge pinched with extreme famin, in a furious distracted moode“ who ran into the center of the marketplace “Blaspheameinge exclaimeinge and Cryeinge outt thatt there was noe god, alledgeinge thatt if there were a god he would not Suffer his Creatures whome he had made and framed, to indure those miseries and to perish for wante of food and Sustenance.”
         Percy did not know that people in the last stages of starvation may become mentally disturbed and experience hallucinations. When Pryse and another colonist, “a Butcher, a Corpulentt fatt man” went into the woods to look for something to eat, the Indians killed them both. Percy wrote with some satisfaction that God had punished Pryse for his earlier blasphemous talk, because his corpse was dismembered, perhaps by wolves, and his bowels torn out of his body. But the fat butcher, “not lyeing above sixe yardes from him, was fownd altogether untouched, onely by the salvages arrowes whereby he Receaved his deathe.” 
         Poor Hugh Pryse. Poor butcher. Poor Jamestown.