Somers Isles Company

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The Somers Isles Company was formed in 1615 to operate the English colony of the Somers Isles, also known as Bermuda, as a commercial venture. It held a royal charter for Bermuda until 1684, when it was dissolved, and the Crown assumed responsibility for the administration of Bermuda as a royal colony.

Bermuda under the Virginia Company[edit]

Bermuda had been settled, inadvertently, in 1609 by the Virginia Company when its flagship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked on the reefs to its east..[1] The Admiral of the Company, Sir George Somers, was at the helm as the ship fought a storm that had broken apart a relief fleet destined for Jamestown, the Virginian settlement established by the Company two years earlier. Somers had deliberately driven the ship onto the reefs to prevent its foundering, thereby saving all aboard. [2] The settlers and seamen spent ten months in Bermuda while they built two new ships to continue the voyage to Jamestown. During the building, the Sea Venture's longboat was fitted with a mast and sent to find Jamestown. Neither it, nor its crew, was ever seen again. When the Deliverance and Patience set sail for Jamestown, they left several people behind, some to maintain Somers' claim to the islands for England, some dead. Those aboard the two ships included Sir Thomas Gates, the military commander and future governor of Jamestown, William Strachey, whose account of the wrecking may later have inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest, and John Rolfe, who would found Virginia's tobacco industry, and who left a wife and child buried in Bermuda. Rolfe would find a new bride in the Powhatan princess Pocahontas.

Jamestown, and the sixty survivors of its original five hundred settlers, were found in such a poor state that it was decided to abandon the Jamestown settlement and return everyone to England. The timely arrival of another relief fleet from England granted the colony a reprieve. However, the food shortage was made more critical by the new arrivals. Somers returned to Bermuda on the Patience, captained by his nephew, Matthew, to gather provisions for the Jamestown colony, but died on Bermude in 1610. Matthew Somers was keen to receive his inheritance (Sir George and his wife were childless, but had raised his two nephews), and took the Patience to Somers' hometown, Lyme Regis, and not to Virginia.

When news reached England of the adventures of the Sea Venture's survivors, the royal charter of the Virginia Company was officially extended to include Bermuda, subsequently known also as The Somers Isles and also as Virgineola. A Governor, Richard Moore, arrived in 1612 with settlers, aboard the Plough, to join those left behind by the Sea Venture and the Patience. The new settlers were primarily tenant farmers, who gave seven years of indentured servitude to the Company in exchange for the cost of transport. Although the primary industry was envisioned to be agriculture, the early Governors enthusiastically, if mostly unsuccessfully, attempted to develop other industries also. These included pearl diving (there are no pearls in Bermuda) and ambergris. The first two slaves to arrive in Bermuda, one black, one Native American, were brought in for their skills as pearl divers.

Free of the endemic warfare and other hardships which plagued the continental settlement, Bermuda thrived from the beginning, though it was never to be particularly profitable for its investors. Its population quickly surpassed that of Jamestown, and consideration was given to abandoning the North American continent and evacuating its settlers to Bermuda.

Formation of the Somers Isles Company[edit]

The Virginia Company ran Bermuda until 1614, when the Crown briefly took over the Colony's administration. The adventurers (shareholders) of the Virginia Company formed a second company, the Somers Isles Company, to which Bermuda was transferred in 1615. The Virginia Company was dissolved in 1622, with the administration of its continental colony passing to the Crown. The Somers Isles Company, with its separate charter, continued to administer Bermuda for another six decades.

Bermuda as a company colony[edit]

Map by John Speed, 1676.

Most of Bermuda was subdivided into eight equally sized tribes, later called parishes. These were named for shareholders in the Company, and were further divided (by tribe roads) into lots which equated to shares in the Company. The Company's return on investment came specifically from cash crops raised on that land. A ninth subdivision, now the eastern-most parish, was Saint George's, comprising Saint George's Island, Saint David's Island, part of the Main Island, and various smaller islands and islets around Castle Harbour (then known as Southampton Harbour) and Saint George's Harbour. This area was held as common, or King's land, and was not subdivided for exploitation by the Company. This was where the capital, Saint George's Town was located. The choice of this location followed the original settlement created by the Sea Venture survivors, and was also determined by the two eastern harbours being the only ones then readily accessible to shipping.

A surveyor, Richard Norwood, was hired to produce a survey of the colony, which also served as a census. This was completed in 1616, although he made later updates. In the process, he discovered that the total landmass of the eight commercial parishes was greater than originally estimated. His superior, Daniel Tucker, the Governor of Bermuda, appropriated a choice piece of land, equivalent to the excess, for himself.

Local government[edit]

The Company continued to appoint governors until its dissolution in 1684. In 1620, however, a colonial parliament was created, the House of Assembly. Suffrage was restricted to male land owners, and there was no upper house. An appointed council, composed primarily from the leading merchant families of the Colony, came to fill a role similar to both an upper house, and a cabinet, and often proved the true repository of power in Bermuda.

The immediate concern of the first governors was for the colony's protection from a feared Spanish or Dutch attack, and the building of fortifications, and the raising of militias, was sustained throughout the company's administration, and beyond. A review of the colony's defences was carried out by Captain John Smith.

Immigration and demographics[edit]

Immigration of indentured servants continued throughout the Company's administration, also, and this pool of cheap labour meant that Bermuda never developed the slavery-based economy that came to characterise other English agricultural colonies. Although the bulk of the population remained Anglo-Saxon at the end of the 17th century, a number of minority groups were established under the Company's management. As England began to challenge Spain's supremacy in Florida and the West Indies, Spanish-speaking Blacks began to emigrate from territories taken from Spain. These immigrants arrived under the same conditions of indenture as most English immigrants, but the white majority soon became uneasy with the increasing numbers of blacks. The terms of indenture for black West Indian immigrants were consequently raised successively from seven years to ninety-nine. An attempt was also made to encourage Blacks to emigrate under threat of being enslaved. Numbers of Black slaves were also being imported to Bermuda, primarily as the result of shipwrecks, or as part of the prizes taken by privateers, although Bermudian vessels went as far as Africa specifically to acquire slaves. As England's settlements in New England expanded, large areas were ethnically cleansed to make way for European expansion. This resulted in various Algonquian peoples being shipped to Bermuda and sold into slavery, notably after the Pequot War and Metacomet's War. A great many Native American slaves were being brought to Bermuda by other means, also, possibly from as far as Mexico. The third main minority group was composed of Irish prisoners-of-war (POW), and ethnically cleansed civilians, shipped to the Colony and sold into slavery following Cromwell's bloody adventure in Ireland in the 1650s (see Cromwellian conquest of Ireland). Smaller numbers of Scottish POWs were also sent as a result of Cromwell's forcing his 'protectorship' on Scotland.

Bermuda had tended towards the Royalist side in the English Civil War, perhaps because the shareholders of the Somers Isles Company were primarily nobles, but was largely spared the effects and the aftermath of that conflict. Bermuda's republican element, which (as in England) was largely identical to the Puritan, anti-episcopalian demographic, was forced into exile, becoming the Eleutheran Adventurers who began England's settlement of the Bahamas in the 1640s.

Economy and industry[edit]

Coins minted by the Sommer Isles Company

Agriculture remained the mainstay of the economy under the Somers Isles Company. The primary cash crop was tobacco, but the quantity and quality produced were very poor. The Bermuda cedar boxes in which the tobacco was shipped to England were said to be worth more than their contents, and much of the tobacco was destroyed on arrival. The Colony also had little success with other export crops. Additionally, the several acres of arable land that had been cut from the forest meant that each farmer had only a very small area under cultivation, by comparison to the 50 acres (200,000 m2) granted to each settler in Virginia. Bermudian farmers had to raise as many as three crops a year in order to be economically viable. This meant that they could not allow fields to lie fallow, and the soil, already high in alkaline and low in magnesium (used by plants to form chlorophyll), became depleted. Bermudians began to turn away from agriculture quite early, building boats and developing the Bermuda sloop to pursue maritime trades. As the Company derived no income, except from agriculture, it acted to stymie these activities. The building of vessels was banned without its license, and the first laws to protect the Bermuda cedar, which were passed early in the seventeenth century, may have been intended more to restrict shipbuilding than to conserve the resource.

Revocation of charter and dissolution[edit]

It was this interference by the Company into the livelihoods of the islanders which led to its dissolution, following protests to the Crown. There was also discontent caused by the attempt of the last Company-appointed governor to rule without the consent of the colonial parliament. The Company's Royal Charter was revoked in 1684, and from then on the Crown assumed responsibility for appointing the Colony's governors (it first re-appointed the last company governor). Freed of the Company's restraints, the local merchant class came to dominate and shape Bermuda's progress, as Bermudians abandoned agriculture en masse and turned to the sea.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ A Discovery of The Barmudas, Sylvester Jordain
  2. ^ Woodward, Hobson. A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. Viking (2009) pp. 32–50.

External links[edit]