Ples de Virginie

“Ples de Virginie,” Description de L’Univers, 1683, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G114.M25 rare.

Christopher Newport

1561 CE - 1617 CE

England

Primary Goal:

We have very little information about Christopher Newport in terms of his personal or professional goals. What we do know is that he went to sea at an early age and, over time and with experience, became a skilled and respected mariner.

Achievement:

His most enduring achievement was the critical leadership he supplied the earliest English colonists to settle at Jamestown in Virginia.


Christopher Newport began his life at sea as a teenager during the fabled Elizabethan Era of English history. It was the time of the Spanish Armada, a time when Protestant England fought Catholic Spain on land and at sea for treasure and for glory, for colonies in the New World and in defense of their respective religions. Newport participated in much of it, steadily rising in stature as a skilled seaman and successful privateer. He was not noted as an explorer in the sense we normally use that term. His real importance was the leadership and support he supplied at the very beginning of English colonization of Virginia. His skill as a master mariner and his dependability in leading the annual resupply of Jamestown were critical to its success.

As early as 1587, Newport sailed as master’s mate on the privateer Drake in the attack on Cadiz, Spain. In 1590, he was promoted to the rank of captain and given command of the Little John, another privateer owned by the London merchant John Watts. He took the Little John on his first venture into the Caribbean and into the battle that cost him his right arm. In the years 1592 to 1595 he commanded the Golden Dragon in a series of privateering voyages in the Caribbean. He led a four-ship flotilla in attacks on Spanish settlements and participated in the capture of the Madre de Dios, a Spanish carrack carrying New World treasure.

In 1595, his situation improved dramatically with his third marriage, in this case to Elizabeth Glanville, daughter of a wealthy London goldsmith. He became one-sixth owner of the heavily armed privateer, Neptune, which he used for annual raiding voyages into the Caribbean through 1603. When peace broke out, Newport shifted seamlessly from privateering to commerce. By 1606, his abilities as a mariner brought him to the attention of the Lord Admiral and principal officers of the Royal Navy, who granted him appointment to the office of a principal master of the navy. That same year, his extensive command experience in American waters made him the natural choice when the London Company sought a leader for its first colonizing voyage to Virginia.

Virginian Indians

Virginian Indians, Description de L’Univers, 1683, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G114.M25 rare.

Newport commanded the 100-ton ship, Susan Constant, as well as the barks Goodspeed (Captain Bartholomew Gosnold) and Discovery (Captain John Ratcliffe) on a voyage of discovery and settlement. The fleet sailed from England on December 20, 1606, and entered the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia on April 26, 1607. They landed at Cape Henry and opened a box containing instructions from the London Company that had been placed in Newport’s care in England. The instructions made Newport and his fellow captains, Gosnold and Ratcliffe, members of a seven-person governing council for the new colony. They sailed up the James River seeking a protected location for the settlement they were to found, finally deciding on the location of Jamestown Island on May 13.

Newport, following additional London Company instructions, sailed further up the James, reaching the fall line at what would later become Richmond and then returning to Jamestown by the 26th of May.

King James I

“King James I, 1603-1634,” The Cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and James River, 1906, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F229.T96.

In June he sailed for England, promising to return with essential supplies and settlers. He led four additional “supplys” or round-trip voyages between England and Virginia by 1611. Leading the Third Supply in 1609 as “Vice Admiral” and commanding the Sea Venture, Newport was in charge of a nine-vessel fleet. The Sea Venture and one other ship were wrecked on Bermuda, temporarily stranding Newport and Sir Thomas Gates, the newly appointed governor of the Virginia colony. This incident is often credited as the source of inspiration for William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

By 1612, Newport had left the Virginia Company, as the London Company was now called, and entered the employment of the East India Company. His first command was the Expedition of London, which sailed in January 1613, carrying Sir Robert Sherley to Persia. It was on his third voyage, in 1617, when Christopher Newport, “worthy Seaman and Commander,” died at Bantam in the East Indies.