Saturday, October 31, 2015

“Cleannesse of teeth, famine, and death.” Jamestown, 1610

The Virginia Company’s officials rushed to shine a good light on bad news from its fledgling colony. The Company issued a little pamphlet called News from Virginia, of the happy arrival of that famous and worthy knight, Sir Thomas Gates, and well-reputed and valiant Captain Newport, into England. It was in verse, composed by one of the Bermuda castaways, Robert Rich. For its na├»ve cheerfulness (its 22 stanzas neglect to mention the Indians) and wildly fanciful promises about Virginia, Rich’s poem is worth quoting here in part:
There is no fear of hunger here,
(William Strachey described life at Jamestown as “cleannesse of teeth, famine, and death.”)
                      for corn much store here grows
                  Much fish the gallant rivers yield—
                      ‘tis truth without suppose.
(“The river . . . had not a fish to be seen in it. ”—Strachey.)

                  Great store of fowl, of venison,
                     Of grapes and mulberries,
(“Nothing to trade withal but mulberries.”—Sir George Somers).
Of chestnuts, walnuts, and suchlike,
                     of fruits and strawberries
                  There is indeed no want at all.

                           But some, condition’d ill,           

                  That wish the work should not go on,
                     with words do seem to kill.
There were more words to come.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An Irishman, and "pearls and diamonds" in Virginia

         Enclosed with Ambassador Velasco’s September 1610 letter to King Philip was a Spanish translation of a report from an Irishman, one Francisco Maguel [McGill?] who purported to have been a spy in Virginia for eight months. Who was he? How did he get there? There is no name resembling his on any of the lists of Virginia colonists. But Maguel somehow found his way to Madrid and to a meeting with Florencio Conryo, who claimed to be the Archbishop of Tuam, a town near Galway, Ireland. (Ireland was then under English control, and the Irish Catholics hoped to serve their cause by aiding Spain against their common enemy.)
         The Irish spy’s report gave a detailed account of Virginia’s geography, including the best way to get there by sea. He described bays and rivers, Jamestown fort, and the land’s resources—but much of the account is sprinkled with falsehoods (there are pearls, coral, and perhaps diamonds in Virginia; the English plan to settle twenty or thirty thousand colonists there) and half-truths (Indians are devil-worshipers). 
         Maguel warned that the English “want nothing more than they want to make themselves masters of the South Sea, so as to have their share of the riches of the Indies and be in the way of the traffic of the King of Spain, and to seek other new worlds for themselves.” Whether the mysterious Francisco Maguel, who hoped “to serve his Catholic Majesty” ever did so, is not known, but his report was enough to make Ambassador Velasco very nervous.

         It had a similar effect on King Philip III.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

1611: Spanish Eyes--and London Spies on Jamestown

         In September 1610, two of Lord De La Warr’s ships, the Blessing and the Hercules, returned to England with unwelcome, disturbing news about Virginia. The Virginia Company’s Jamestown settlement was still full of sick and hungry colonists and, worse yet, there were no profits in sight.  Investors looked in vain for their returns. 
The Spanish spy network in London was full of predictions that England’s failing colony would soon be dead. On September 30 Ambassador Velasco wrote to King Philip about news he had from one of his key London sources, one “Guillermo Monco.” This was Sir William Monson, former privateer, veteran of the battle of the Spanish Armada, one-time prisoner of the Spanish in Lisbon, and, since 1604, Admiral of the Narrow Seas [English Channel]. He was also a spy, handsomely paid for leaking English plans to the Spanish ambassador. Monson told Velasco that the English were desperate to recoup their investments in Virginia and were planning to send another large expedition there early in 1611. Spain needed to move now to “drive out the few people that have remained there, and are so threatened by the Indians that they dare not leave the fort they have erected.”

The Spanish ambassador was not far wrong.