Saturday, March 28, 2015

42 Days at Sea: Short Rations and Short Tempers

          Among the Jamestown mysteries, one looms larger than the rest: what did John Smith do to provoke at least five attempts on his life? There was the time Pocahontas saved him from death at her father’s orders--but that is another story. Part of Smith’s back-story remains unknown to this day, but he did or said something to make some enemies, starting with the first voyage to Virginia.
          The three small ships with 105 men and boys set sail on December 19, 1606, but they did not get far: Contrary winds kept them rolling and pitching helplessly in cold winter seas, within sight of the coast of England, until January 30,  That’s 42 days with no shore leave. Imagine. 105 passengers, about 40 crew members total. The flagship Susan Constant carried about 70, the Godspeed, 50 or so, and the tiny Discovery, no more than 20.

         There are no ship’s logs, no journals, to record details of what went on during those awful weeks. We don’t even know for certain which of the vessels John Smith was on. But two of the captains--Christopher Newport of the Susan Constant, and John Ratcliffe of the Discovery--would become Smith’s enemies. (Bartholomew Gosnold, captain of the Godspeed, would die of an illness the first summer at Jamestown.)
         By February 17 the little fleet reached the Canary Islands for a blessed five days ashore. But it was here that John Smith was “restrained as a prisoner.” For what?

         No one knows.

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