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Fresh insight into Bermuda’s origins

Virginia Bernhard retells the fascinating tale of England’s first territories in the New World in her book, ‘A Tale of Two Colonies’.

The professor emerita of history, at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas, interweaves the stories of Jamestown, Virginia and Bermuda.

As described by Bernhard, the two colonies were interlinked “in a series of unintended consequences resulting from natural disaster, ignorance of native cultures, diplomatic intrigue and the fateful arrival of the first Africans in both colonies”.

She thus shows the parallel developments in the two colonies whose histories have, for the most part, been told separately.

While much of the material has already been covered presenting a coherent, broad survey does provide a new perspective on the development of an English presence in the New World. The integration of the accounts of the Spanish Ambassador in London into the tale also adds fresh insight. There is also an attempt to examine more honestly the impact of the English on existing populations and cultures.

Though drawing on and quoting extensively from primary sources, such as diplomatic correspondence and maps in the Spanish archives, adventurers’ narratives, company minutes and reports from Jamestown archaeological digs, Bernhard’s account reads like an adventure story rather than a dry and dusty history of long-ago events.

In a style more literary than many academic works, her account of the

Sea Venture wreck is vivid and immediate: “No-one ate; no-one slept; no-one could go on deck. And belowdecks was the water, ever rising, and now mixed with human waste and vomit.”

Her description of the misery of life in Jamestown during the ‘starving time’ is also graphic: “In a cruel paradox, the more they starved, the less they could digest food. Their stomachs cramped. Their digestive acids dried up. They grew paler and thinner by the day. They were listless. They were too tired even to chop firewood, and they were always cold.”

Chronologically she outlines the evolution of the two settlements, separating myth from truth, and presenting the paradox that at its birth tiny Bermuda with limited resources was vastly more successful than the mainland plantation.

“While the Virginia venture had cost £46,000 and had yet to turn a profit, Bermuda cost £20,000 and the ambergris found there had already brought in £10,000.”

Bermuda had nearly 500 healthy colonists, she notes while “Virginia had 350 colonists in 1615 but more than 900 had been buried there since its founding in 1607”.

Her tale ends with the confluence of three cultures, the end of the beginning and the fork in the road to two distinct futures.

While I was familiar with the tale of Bermuda’s origins, reading Bernhard’s work helped me appreciate how many players were common to both ventures Christopher Newport for example, and Bermuda’s second governor, Dan Tucker, one of the few survivors of Jamestown’s ‘starving time’. John Rolfe, the cash crop tobacco, and slavery were also common to both and were to have repercussions for centuries. I also gained a greater understanding of the factions within the company of merchant adventurers funding the enterprise.

Setting the tale in a transatlantic context, ‘A Tale of Two Colonies’, published by University of Missouri Press, offers a fresh, accessible account of the English attempts to challenge Iberian hegemony in the New World. It should be of interest to general readers as well as academics.

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Published April 04, 2012 at 9:38 am (Updated April 04, 2012 at 9:38 am)

Fresh insight into Bermuda’s origins

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