Hariwch: Remembering a hero

12:04pm Friday 31st August 2007

ON September 8 and 9, Harwich will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first European settlement in America.

A replica of one of the ships, The Discovery, will visit the town.

The captain of the voyage was Christopher Newport, who was baptised in Harwich on December 29, 1561.

In the run-up to the event, we take a look at Captain Newport and how he sailed his way into the history books.





THE records do not show how many people attended Christopher Newport's baptism.

However, in the 400-odd years before the baptism that Harwich had "existed" as a major settlement, and in the 446 years since, it is fair to say that few other Harwich people have made their mark on the globe like Captain Newport.

While Nelson may have his column in London's Trafalgar Square, Newport has a university, a statue of his own and part of Virginia may even be named after him. Oh yes, and he also helped claim Bermuda for the British, albeit via a shipwreck!

In his early years Newport sailed with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish, and then became a privateer, attacking foreign freighters around the Carribean, sharing the spoils with the London merchants who backed his adventures.

He was soon proving his worth and in 1592 made supposedly the greatest capture of the century, the Portuguese ship Madre De Dios and its 500 tons of spices, silks and treasures. However, it was in 1606 he began the voyage that would make his name in the maritime hall of fame.

There had already been 18 failed European attempts to colonise North America, all largely ending in disaster via starvation or conflict, but three ships of the Virginia Company set sail from London's Blackwell Pier to try again.

These were the Susan Constant, the Discovery (a 20-ton small fly boat', designed to be able to charter inland waters) and the Godspeed.

Travelling via the Canaries, they endured a tortuous journey of 144 days, during which 45 men and boys died, before they reached the New World on April 27, 1607, at what is now known as Chesapeake Bay.

Having planted a cross, they then started exploring the area, also finding time to hold the first democratic election on American soil and also the first trial by jury.

One of their party, John Smith, had been accused of mutiny by Captain Newport and was scheduled to be hung when the expedition landed.

However, when land was sighted, sealed orders from the Virginia Company were opened which named him as one of the governing council of the settlement and so a trial was held at which he was acquitted.

On May 14 they chose Jamestown Island as their base (named after King James) and began to build a fort.

Unfortunately, while the island was easily defensible, had no Native American Indians on it and gave commanding views, it was unoccupied by the locals for a reason.

It was swampy, lacked game to hunt, was plagued by mosquitoes and other insects and its water was brackish.

The local Paspahegh Indians were nonetheless unimpressed by their visitors and launched an attack, killing one settler and wounding 11 more.

Soon after, Newport sailed for home, carrying pyrite (fool's gold) and other minerals.

Those who were left behind did not prosper.

Many deemed work beneath them, and infection, dysentry and starvation started to cull the rest.

However, Captain Newport returned with vital supplies and it was on another return journey in 1609 he claimed Bermuda for Britain, albeit by accident.

As captain on the Sea Venture and vice-admiral of the expedition, the nine-vessel party was hit by a great storm which separated their fleet.

The Sea Venture, a new ship, lost her caulking and, leaking like a sieve, was intentionally driven on to Bermuda's shores.

The island was then known as The Isle of Devils, because of countless ships lost there in the past, but the crew members struggled ashore, together with 150 colonists and a dog.

They established a base there and used the ship's remains and Bermudan cedar to build two ships. They then set sail for Jamestown, leaving two men behind to maintain the claim on the island.

When they arrived at Jamestown, they discovered the colony had hardly prospered.

Eighty per cent were dead, one man had been executed for eating his wife's body and rumours still abound that some dug up the dead and consumed their flesh.

Not suprisingly, perhaps, the colonists decided to return to Britian.

However, as they approached the coast they met a new supply mission sailing upstream and all was not lost.

With limited new supplies and manpower the colony was maintained.

The difficulties, however, went on.

A ship set sail for Bermuda for some of the stockpiled food which had been left there but on arrival the captain died from eating too much pork and his nephew set sail - for Lyme Regis rather than Jamestown.

However, as Captain Newport left the community for the last time, he could not have known one of his earlier passengers, John Rolfe, who had lost his wife and son in the shipwreck, was carrying some untried tobacco seeds.

These flourished in the soil, producing a sweeter crop than the norm, and the future of the colony was assured..

Incidentally, Mr Rolfe then went on to marry the daughter of a local Indian chief - Pocahontas!

Having been established as one of the six masters of the Royal Navy, Captain Newport was not yet ready to drop his anchor for good, and subsequently set sail for Asia, with the East India Company, where he died in Java.

Known as "Captain Newport of the one hand", having lost one of his hands at sea, he continues to make headlines to this day.

A statue was recently unveiled at the university which bears his name, showing him with both hands, and a furore ensued when the creator declared "we should not remember our heroes as mutilated".

Mutilated or not, Captain Newport's name and deeds will live on forever more.

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