ON June 2 1609 a fleet of nine vessels under the command of Admiral Sir George Somers sailed from Plymouth. Its purpose was to aid the colonists of Jamestown Virginia who were in dire straits and close to starvation.
The fleet was caught in a severe storm on July 24, the ships became scattered and the admiral’s flagship the ‘Sea Venture’ was badly damaged and blown far off-course.
Over the next four days and nights a desperate battle was fought to keep the ship afloat. On the fifth day Somers sighted land which he identified as the uninhabited Bermudas, first discovered by Juan de Bermudez in circa 1505 and known to mariners as the ‘Isle of Devils’ in the belief it was inhabited by demons.
The ‘Sea Venture’ was close to sinking, so it was run onto a rocky reef just under a mile from a sandy beach close to what is now the town of St George’s. Before the ship slid off the reef it was possible to salvage many essential items, these included sails, cordage, spars, tools, weapons, personal possessions and various utensils.
Food was not a problem, fish were in abundance as were birds and their eggs and surprisingly there were wild hogs. Salvation was in their own hands, they therefore set about building two boats with which to complete the voyage to Virginia.
Somers made an important decision to make a cursory mapping survey of the islands with a view to colonisation having realised its potentiality.
Life on Bermuda for the 150 crew and passengers (all had survived the shipwreck) was fairly agreeable, with a marriage and two births. On the darker side there was a murder, an execution for subversion and five deaths. Meanwhile the ships that had survived made it to Jamestown, albeit without Sir Thomas Gates, the temporary Governor of Virginia, who was a passenger on ‘Sea Venture’.
Gates and Somers supervised the construction of the two vessels, which they named ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Patience’. After being marooned on the island for 288 days they once again set out for Virginia on May 10 1610 and reached Jamestown just 13 days later.
Somers in the ‘Patience’ returned to Bermuda in order to obtain urgently-needed food supplies for the ailing colony. It was a gallant gesture but unfortunately he died on Bermuda. At his request, his heart was buried there. His body was returned to Lyme and then buried at Whitchurch Canonicorum, where there is a memorial plaque in the church.
His legacy, just two years after his death saw the foundation of a British Colony in Bermuda. Shakespeare’s last play ‘The Tempest’ is reputedly based on the wreck of the Sea Venture.
Lyme Regis is now twinned with St George’s in Bermuda and the two communities remembered Admiral Sir George Somers earlier this month with the annual Somers Day commemoration parade and service – click here for full coverage.