Virginia’s Bermuda

On February 28, 2009 · 5 Comments

Bermuda was once part of Virginia. It would be natural to wonder how that might happen. There is a striking difference between the two. Most visibly, Virginia occupies a solid placement on the North American mainland while Bermuda is an island archipelago 650 miles (1046 kilometers) out to sea. If Bermuda was directly off the coast of Virginia it might make more sense but it doesn’t even qualify in that manner either. From a political and cultural perspective, Virginia was one of the original 13 colonies and an integral part in the formation and continuation of the United States while Bermuda retains firm ties to Britain as its oldest remaining overseas territory.

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Virginia and Bermuda are nowhere close to each other. What’s going on?

We have to go back in time to the settlement of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what would someday become the United States. James I chartered two Royal Companies to establish colonies on the North American mainland, one of which was the Virginia Company of London, also known as the London Company (or simply as the Virginia Company since the "other" Virginia Company failed to produce a viable colony). This group founded the Virginia colony of Jamestown in 1607. That’s just what you remember from your elementary school history lessons, right? No surprises there. I’m sure you’re still with me.

A brief tangent: if you’re ever near Jamestown you might consider taking the ferry across the James River (I’ve even posted a little video there). It’s a beautiful ride across the way to an area of historic colonial-era plantation sites, and best of all the ride is free. Now back to the story…

Times were tough in Jamestown during the early years. Mortality rates rose sky-high due to disease, drought, poor leadership and Native Americans who wanted them to go away. Ships would arrive, drop off people and supplies, and return to England to find more. For awhile this became a conveyor belt of death, with ships barely replenishing the dieing settlers.

The third supply expedition experienced a particularly harrowing ordeal as the convoy sailed towards the Virginia colony in 1609. A violent storm, probably a hurricane, pounded the flotilla for several days. Driving wind and rains and a roiling sea separated the badly-beaten flagship Sea Venture from the rest of the convoy.

Admiral George Somers, commanding the Sea Venture, spotted land and deliberately steered his ship aground to save it from sinking. Everyone survived and probably thanked the heavens for being within proximity to the only minuscule speck of sand in a vast sea. However, now they now faced a different dilemma: they were shipwrecked on a small, remote, uninhabited archipelago. They named it the Somers Isles (imagine that), sometimes called Virgineola (imagine that too; not too creative these folks), but we’re now more familiar with its current name, Bermuda. In the days immediately following the shipwreck though, it was probably simply known as dry land.

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Bermuda today

The 150 or so castaways remained trapped on the island for ten months. Fortunately Admiral Somers had the foresight to ground his vessel in shallow waters on a reef where it did not sink below the surface. This saved lives but also damaged the Sea Venture beyond repair. However it could still be picked clean of supplies and equipment bound for Jamestown, including the wood from the ship itself.

These were capable, resourceful people with the necessary skills and supplies to survive in a wilderness area. They took stock of their situation, built two smaller ships from the wreck of the Sea Venture over the course of several months, and set sail for Jamestown like nothing happened. They also left behind a couple of men to cement England’s claim to Bermuda. The guys remaining behind probably did better than those continuing onward to Jamestown. Upon arriving the former castaways learned that Jamestown was in full disarray, having just survived what would be later called the Starving Time.

Bermuda sounded pretty nice once word got back to England, especially in comparison to the woes of Jamestown. The King amended his Royal Charter to the Virginia Company to include Bermuda in 1612. In turn, the Virginia Company sponsored a group of settlers bound for the archipelago which soon established St. George’s Town. Thus, Bermuda became part of Virginia.

The arrangement lasted only a couple of years. Administration returned to the Crown in 1614 when the Virginia Company found the arrangement unprofitable, and it then conveyed to the the Somers Isles Company in 1615. But for two glorious years, Virginia’s boundaries stretched hundreds of miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Easy come. Easy go.

On February 28, 2009 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Virginia’s Bermuda”

  1. if you are so dazzled by virginias bermuda
    why not revel at the same time in virginias new england
    as well as her floridas & californias
    both upper & baja

    yes thats mexican
    & even a bit of canadian virginia too

    all of the same historical period

    atlantic & gulf & pacific

    • Good point, and thanks for the comment. It’s the amount of effort necessary to do the subject justice balanced with the free time I have available. In this case I had to limit it to only a small piece of the story, the one I thought fewest people would know. I’ll probably revel in some of the other fascinating aspects of colonial-era Royal Charters in bits-and-pieces as I find the time or inclination. 😉

  2. Jim Linnane says:

    The other Virginia Company founded the first English colony in New England at Popham, Maine and built there the first English ship in North America.

  3. Great little piece on Virgineola. I first heard the name while researching a piece on Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War and the profits of blockade running.
    William Shakespeare was always keeping his ears open for good material. He took this shipwreck story, fantasied it a bit, and came up with a play called THE TEMPEST.

  4. January First-of-May says:

    Meanwhile, as Bermuda received a nickname based on the word “Virginia”, places in Virginia was named for Bermuda.
    The town of Bermuda Hundred was incorporated in 1614, becoming the first incorporated town in Virginia; it had a long and complicated history before being annexed by Hopewell in 1923, where it remains to this day.

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