Admiral Sir George Somers (1554–1610) was an English naval hero, knighted for his achievements and the Admiral of the Virginia Company. He achieved renown as part of an expedition led by Sir Amyas Preston against the Spanish in 1595 during the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War. He is remembered today as the founder of the English colony of Bermuda, also known as the Somers Isles.
Early life and education
From a young age he became a skilled and well-known seaman and owned at least one ship, the Julian, whose home port was Lyme Regis. Somers' first venture in command of the Flibcote, in company of three other vessels during the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War, on a raid to Spain; he brought home Spanish prizes worth more than £8,000.
Somers then joined up with another seaman Amyas Preston who had fought against the Spanish armada. Both agreed to take part in Walter Raleigh’s proposed expedition to Guiana in 1595. However, after failing to meet, the expedition went on their own venture along the coast of the Spanish Province of Venezuela and captured the fort at La Guaira before they headed South inland. After making an arduous trek through the mountains the English led by Preston and Somers were able to outmanoeuvre the waiting Spanish force and captured the colonial city of Caracas. After the failure of a ransom they plundered and torched the city and then went to capture Coro before they made a brief excursion to the Spanish West Indies. Despite the challenges they faced the expedition was a success for the English who were able to return unmolested with some profit having set out as only a supporting expedition.
Between 1600 and 1602, Somers commanded several English ships, including HMS Vanguard, HMS Swiftsure and HMS Warspite. He was knighted in 1603 and became Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis the same year.
In 1609, Somers was appointed as Admiral of the Virginia Company's Third Supply relief fleet, organized to provide relief to the Jamestown colony settled in North America two years before. On 2 June 1609, he set sail from Plymouth, England on the Sea Venture, the flagship of the seven-ship fleet, (towing two additional pinnaces) destined for Jamestown, Virginia. The fleet carried a total of five-to-six hundred colonists bound for Jamestown. (Historians have not determined if this number included crew or was passengers only.)
On 25 July, the fleet ran into a strong storm, probably a hurricane, and the ships were separated. The Sea Venture fought the storm for three days. Comparably-sized ships had survived such weather, but the Sea Venture had a critical flaw; she had recently been constructed and her timbers had not set. The caulking was forced from between them, and the ship began to leak rapidly. All hands were applied to bailing, but the water continued to rise in the hold. The ship's guns were reportedly jettisoned (though two were salvaged from the wreck in 1612 to arm Bermuda's first fort) to raise her buoyancy, but this only delayed the inevitable. Sir George Somers was at the helm through the storm.
When he spied land on the morning of 28 July, the water in the hold had risen to nine feet, and crew and passengers had been driven past the point of exhaustion. Somers deliberately drove the ship onto the reefs of what proved to be Bermuda in order to prevent its foundering. This allowed all 150 people and the dog aboard to reach shore safely, at what they later named Discovery Bay. Not seeing them again, those who continued on to Virginia presumed that Somers and the others had died in the storm, which had battered the relief fleet and damaged its supplies.
Somers and his company remained in Bermuda for 10 months, living on food they could gather on the island and fish from the sea. Some commentators believe that this incident inspired William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
During their time on the islands, the crew and passengers built a church and houses, the start of the Bermuda colony. Somers and Sir Thomas Gates oversaw the construction of two small ships, the Deliverance and the Patience. They were built from local timber (Bermuda Cedar) and the salvaged spars and rigging of the wrecked Sea Venture.
In May 1610 the ships set sail for Jamestown, with the surviving 142 castaways on board taking food from the island. When they reached the settlement, they found it nearly destroyed by the famine and disease of what has been called the "Starving Time". Few of the supplies from the Supply Relief Fleet had arrived (the same hurricane which caught the Sea Venture had damaged some of the rest of the fleet), and only 60 settlers survived. Only the food and help offered by those on the two small ships from Bermuda, followed by a relief fleet in July 1610 commanded by Lord Delaware, enabled the colony to survive and avoided the abandonment of Jamestown.
Somers returned to Bermuda in the Patience to collect more food, but he became ill on the journey. He died in Bermuda on 9 November 1610 at age 56. Local legend says that he loved Bermuda so much that he requested that his heart be buried there. A marker in Somers' Gardens in St. George's marks the approximate location where his heart was supposed to have been buried. The remainder of his body was taken back to England and buried in his home hamlet of Whitchurch Canonicorum near to the town of Lyme Regis.
Legacy and honours
- 1603, he was knighted for his naval achievements.
- The colony he founded was called Somer's Isles for some years.
- Bermuda Sea Cadet Corps unit of St. George's, Bermuda, TS Admiral Somers, is named for him.
- 1984, a statue of him by Desmond Fountain was unveiled in St. George's by HRH Princess Margaret to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Bermuda's settlement.
- Shorto, Gavin (June 13, 2013). "George Somers, Amyas Preston and the Burning of Caracas". The Bermudian.
- "Preston, Amyas (DNB00)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. p 305
- John Lombardi, Venezuela, Oxford, England, 1982, p 72
- Navy and Army Illustrated, Volume 15. Hudson & Kearns. 1902. p. 409.
- Hobson Woodward. A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. Viking (2009) ISBN 978-0-670-02096-6
- Bermuda Sea Cadet Corps: History of Bermuda Sea Cadets
- Dwyer, Jack. 2009. Dorset Pioneers, The History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-5346-0
- Glover, Lorri and Daniel Blake Smith. The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2008
- Raine, David. Sir George Somers: A Man and his Times