Sylvester Jourdan of Lyme Regis
Sir George Somers is famous for discovering Bermuda, but it was another Lyme man who recorded his achievement, as Alan J Miller explains
Published in October ’06
The town of Lyme Regis is justly proud of its seafaring son, George Somers, who in 1609 was wrecked upon the island of Bermuda after his ship, the Sea Venture, was separated in a hurricane from the main fleet heading for the east coast of America. His discovery of this island paradise, now a centre of tourism, led to its later colonisation by the British. The Bermuda town of St George is twinned with Lyme and the two have regular civic contacts.
The Sea Venture was one of a fleet of nine ships that had been dispatched with the blessing of King James I to carry supplies and 600 new settlers to the infant colony of Virginia, which was struggling to survive on the coast of North America. The details of George Somers’s earlier career as a respected citizen and freeman of Lyme are well recorded, including upon a bronze plaque on the wall of the Cobb, but much of the detail of the disaster which befell the Sea Venture comes from an account written by another man on board, Sylvester Jourdan.
Sylvester Jourdan was born at Lyme in 1565 and was thus about ten years younger than George Somers. He came from an equally well-respected family, though, for his father had served twice as mayor and he himself had been admitted to the freedom of the Borough in 1590 when he was 25. He had a seafaring background and had probably been with George Somers and Walter Raleigh on some of their attacks against Spanish merchantmen which frankly amounted to piracy. He had an adventurous but somewhat rebellious spirit and in 1598 had been deprived of his freemanship for ‘contumacious conduct’ when he absolutely refused to take his turn on the night-watch and was sentenced to confinement in the Town Hall for six hours but walked out.
He also fell out with the locals, for he had a house near the churchyard and placed a gate which prevented people walking to the East Cliff nearby. He refused to remove it or to pay a fine. In modern terms he would have qualified for an ASBO, but as is sometimes the way with such awkward characters, he could rise to the occasion when it came to a crisis.
Such was the case when the Sea Venture was driven onto the rocks off the island of Bermuda on 29 July 1609. Jourdan survived to record the details of what had happened in a small book he wrote the following year called A Discovery of the Barmudas, printed in London and sold by the bookseller, Roger Barnes, in Fleet Street. It is now a very rare item; possibly only one or two copies survive and the British Library have placed theirs on microfilm to conserve the original. It is 24 quarto pages printed in thick black type and the ink has bled through the fragile paper, making it difficult to read, but the terrifying events of that night and the subsequent days come through with great eloquence.
Jourdan describes how the ferocity of the storm had shaken the timbers of the ship so severely that she was leaking badly and the crew, who had been pumping furiously for three days and nights while standing up to their waists in water, finally gave up and consigned their souls to the Almighty. But Sir George Somers, who had been on the poop throughout, sighted a gap in the surf breaking over a distant reef and steered towards it. By a miracle the ship was lifted and lodged upright between two rocks. All 150 people on board struggled onto the shore, but most of their provisions of bread, beer and victuals had been ruined by the seawater.
Jourdan goes on, ‘Yet did we find there the air so temperate and the country so abundantly fruitful of all fit necessaries for the sustenance and preservation of a man’s life’. The entire company were able to sustain themselves for nine months on fish easily caught from the shore, on the eggs of seabirds and turtles, on the fruit of the trees and above all on the meat of wild hogs which they were able to hunt. These had been left on the island by Spanish pirates who had visited some years before. Two babies were born and one couple married during their enforced stay but three people died, including Lady Gates, the wife of the designated governor of Virginia.
Jourdan is profuse in his admiration of Sir George Somers, not only for his seamanship in saving the ship but for his qualities of leadership during their stay. Sir George was determined to continue to Virginia and organised labour to construct two small pinnaces using salvaged timber, rigging, iron work and canvas from the Sea Venture plus abundant local cedar wood. They obviously had shipwrights among the company. The only thing they lacked was pitch for caulking and they had to improvise with a form of lime cement. Jourdan does not say how many crew were carried on the two small vessels but, confident that those left behind could survive, they set sail for Virginia on 10 May 1610 and arrived at Jamestown fourteen days later, where they found two hundred settlers in a miserable condition. Fortunately, a rescue fleet of three ships led by Lord De La Warr arrived soon after and Sir George volunteered to return to Bermuda to fetch further supplies for the Virginian settlers. It was on this return visit that he died on 9 November 1610 at the age of 56, but his body was brought home to Lyme and he was buried in the church at Whitchurch Canonicorum, where he had owned land.
Little more is known of Sylvester Jourdan, but he obviously made it back to England and wrote his account of the voyage that created a sensation and was reprinted in several other books later. One of the backers of the enterprise for colonisation had been the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, and it is conceivable that Jourdan’s narrative of the shipwreck on this mysterious island, ‘the land of devils and spirits’, was the inspiration for the Bard’s last great play, The Tempest. Jourdan appears to have spent his last years in London, dying in 1612 or 1613, and was possibly buried in St Sepulchre’s Church, Newgate. Wherever it was, he can be celebrated as the first of the traveller-authors who have extolled the beauties of Bermuda ever since.