“Look, whatever you do, do not mess with the Spanish.” This, more or less, was how King James put it to Sir Walter Raleigh late in 1617 when he granted the overstuffed old courtier permission to try again to plant a colony on the north coast of South America. And Raleigh certainly must have nodded his head because what else was he going to do, him being in prison and all?
Except that on this day in 1618, while marching around the Amazon looking for gold, Sir Walter and his men stumbled upon the Spanish village of Santo Tomé de Guyana. The firefight that resulted killed Raleigh’s son Wat and led to the suicide of one of Raleigh’s commanders.This was not at all how Raleigh (not to mention the king) had hoped his voyage to Guiana would go. And for losing his head at Santo Tomé, he soon after lost his head in London.
Also on this day, a decade earlier, in 1608, John Smith triumphantly returned to Jamestown having been held captive by Powhatan. It had been a tough couple of weeks. While out exploring Smith had been jumped by Opechancanough, and his two companions were killed. Then Smith himself would have been killed—or so he later claimed—had it not been for Pocahontas. All of which would have been plenty enough to deal with, but upon his return Smith found that the few folks who were still alive wanted him dead. They blamed him for his companions’ deaths and sentenced him to hang. As it happens, this wasn’t the first time his fellows had sentenced Smith to hang and it wasn’t the first time they failed to get the job done. Such was the judicial inefficiency of early Virginia.
Finally, on this day in 1647, at Friston Hall in Suffolk County, England, Nathaniel Bacon was born. And as long as we’re speaking of inefficiency, Bacon hated it. In his view, Virginia’s governor, Sir William Berkeley, was terribly inefficient when it came to killing Indians, and as a result Nathaniel the Younger (his cousin was the elder) raised a militia in 1676 and started taking care of business on his own. Of course, the worst thing you can do is precisely what I’m doing, which is to say, grossly simplifying the myriad grunts, grumbles, and socio-economic griefs that exploded into Bacon’s Rebellion. So let’s just say that, in the end, Sir William managed to be just efficient enough!
A version of this post was originally published on January 2, 2012.
IMAGES: Top: Sir Walter Raleigh, painted by an unidentified artist circa 1590 (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation); Captain John Smith, 1624 (Virginia Historical Society); bottom: Guiana Sive Amazonum Regio, a map of Guiana published in Amsterdam ca. 1635–1666