Christopher Newport

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Captain Christopher Newport
Statue of Christopher Newport at Christopher Newport University
Born December 1561
Limehouse, London, England
Died August 1617 (aged 55)
Bantam, Java

Christopher Newport (1561–1617) was an English seaman and privateer. He is best known as the captain of the Susan Constant, the largest of three ships which carried settlers for the Virginia Company in 1607 on the way to found the settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, which became the first permanent English settlement in North America. He was also in overall command of the other two ships on that initial voyage, in order of their size, the Godspeed and the Discovery.

He made several voyages of supply between England and Jamestown; in 1609, he became Captain of the Virginia Company's new supply ship, Sea Venture, which met a hurricane during the Third Supply mission, and was shipwrecked on the archipelago of Bermuda. Newport, Kentucky, a suburb of Cincinnati,[1] and Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, were named in his honor.

Early career

A 17th-century pirate flag.

For almost twenty years, Newport worked as a privateer who raided Spanish freighters off and on in the Caribbean during the Anglo–Spanish War. Over the years he commanded a series of privateer ships, including the Little John, the Margaret, and the Golden Dragon. In 1590 whilst capturing a Spanish galleon Newport lost an arm but despite this for almost twenty years, Newport raided Spanish freighters in the Caribbean and Atlantic waters, in particular Watts' successful expedition off Cuba in June and July 1591. In August 1592, he captured a Portuguese ship, the Madre de Deus, off the Azores, taking the greatest English plunder of the century. His ship returned to port in England carrying five hundred tons of spices, silks, gemstones, and other treasures. In his last mission of the war he raided Puerto Caballos in 1603, the spoils from all these missions were shared with London merchants who funded them.[2]

In 1605, after another mission to the Caribbean, he returned to England with two baby crocodiles and a wild boar to give as gifts to King James I who had a fascination with exotic animals.

Expedition that established Jamestown

It was Newport's experience as well as his reputation which led to his hiring in 1606 by the Virginia Company of London. The company had been granted a proprietorship to establish a settlement in the Virginia Colony by King James I.

Exploration, seeking a site

As soon as land was in sight, sealed orders from the Virginia Company were opened which named Captain John Smith as a member of the governing Council of the Colony.[3] On the voyage over, Smith had been placed under shipboard arrest, charged for "concealing a mutiny" by the aristocrat Wingfield. Smith had been scheduled to be sent back to Britain with Newport to answer this charge.

Upon arrival, the group then proceeded in their ships into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now called Old Point Comfort in the City of Hampton. In the following days, the ships ventured inland upstream along the James River seeking a suitable location for their settlement as defined in their orders. The James River and the initial settlement they sought to establish, Jamestown (originally called "James Cittie") were named in honour of King James I.

Smith so proved himself worthy when accompanying Captain Newport exploring the Powhatan Flu (River) up to Richmond (the Powhatan Flu would soon be called the James River), that a few weeks after arriving at Jamestown he was allowed to assume his seat on the council.[4]

Sketch of Jamestown c. 1608

Selecting Jamestown

Arriving on 14 May 1607, Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, president of the council, chose Jamestown Island for their settlement largely because the Virginia Company advised the colonists to select a location that could be easily defended from ocean-going navies of the other European states that were also establishing New World colonies and were periodically at war with England, notably the Dutch Republic, France and especially Spain. The peninsula had excellent visibility up and down what is today called the James River and it was far enough inland to avoid enemy ships. The water immediately adjacent to the land was deep enough to permit the colonists to anchor their ships yet have an easy and quick departure if necessary. An additional benefit of the site was that the land was not occupied by Native Americans, most of whom in the area were affiliated with the Powhatan Confederacy. Chief Powhatan was the chief of the local Indians.

Challenging conditions

It soon became apparent why the Native Americans did not occupy the site, and the inhospitable conditions severely challenged the settlers. Jamestown Island is a swampy area, and furthermore, it was isolated from most potential hunting game such as deer and bears which like to forage over much larger areas. The settlers quickly hunted and killed off all the large and smaller game that was to be found on the tiny peninsula. The low, marshy area was infested with mosquitoes and other airborne pests and the brackish water of the tidal James River was not a good source of drinking water.

The settlers who came over on the initial three ships were not well-equipped for the life they found in Jamestown. They consisted mainly of English farmers and two or three German and Polish woodcutters hired in Royal Prussia. Many suffered from saltwater poisoning which led to infection, fevers and dysentery. As a result of these conditions, most of the early settlers died of disease and starvation.

Despite the immediate area of Jamestown being uninhabited, the settlers were attacked, less than a fortnight after their arrival on 14 May, by Paspahegh Indians who succeeded in killing one of the settlers and wounding eleven more. By 15 June, the settlers finished the initial triangle James Fort.

First and Second Supply missions to Jamestown

In June 1607, a week after the initial Fort at Jamestown was completed, Newport sailed back for London on the Susan Constant with a load of pyrite ("fools' gold") and other supposedly precious minerals,[4] leaving behind 104 colonists, and the tiny Discovery for the use of the colonists. The Susan Constant, which had been a rental ship that had customarily been used as a freight transport, did not return to Virginia again.

However, Newport did return twice from England with additional supplies in the following 18 months, leading what were termed the First and Second Supply missions. Despite original intentions to grow food and trade with the Native Americans, the barely surviving colonists became dependent upon the supply missions. Before the arrival of the First Supply, over half of the colonists perished in the winter of 1607–08.

The urgently needed First Supply mission arrived in Jamestown on 8 January 1608. The two ships under Newport's command were the John and Francis and the Phoenix. However, despite replenishing the supplies, the two ships also brought an additional 120 men, so with the survivors of the initial group, there were now 158 colonists, as recorded later by John Smith.[5] Accordingly, Newport left again for England almost immediately, to make an additional trip and bring even more supplies.

Newport took Chief Powhatan's tribesman, Namontack to London on 10 April 1608. Namontack remained there for three months and returned to Virginia with Newport.

The Second Supply arrived in September 1608, this time with Newport commanding the Mary Margaret, a ship of about 150 tons.[6][7] In addition to urgently needed supplies, the Second Supply delivered another 70 persons as well as the first two women from England, a "gentlewoman" and a woman servant.[5]

When Newport left yet again for another supply run, he was joined by John Smith, who had been seriously injured earlier that summer in a gunpowder explosion. The departure of Smith meant that the struggling colony was losing its most successful (albeit controversial) leader. Smith had been a guest of Wahunsenacawh at Werowocomoco (after initially arriving before the chief as a prisoner). Within that relationship, Smith had been the key to negotiating some successful trade with the Powhatan natives to obtain food and staples to help sustain the colonists. Now, with the departure of Newport, Smith, and the Mary Margaret, they lost their chief leader and negotiator with the natives just as Virginia faced a harsh winter following a period of drought.

The need for another, ideally much larger, supply mission was conveyed to the leaders of the Virginia Company effectively when Newport returned to England. Additional funds and resources were gathered and readied. However, the Third Supply, as well as the company's new purpose-built flagship, the Sea Venture, were each to become big problems for Jamestown.

Third Supply: ill-fated Sea Venture

Sylvester Jordain's "A Discovery of the Barmudas".

Newport made a third trip to America in 1609, as captain of the Sea Venture and "Vice Admiral" of the Third Supply mission. However, the nine ships encountered a massive three-day-long storm, and became separated. The flagship of the mission, the Sea Venture, being new, was leaking like a sieve, having lost her caulking. Sir George Somers, who had taken the helm, deliberately drove her upon a reef to prevent her foundering. In an incident which is often credited as the inspiration for Shakespeare's play The Tempest, the passengers and crew found themselves stranded on the still-vexed Bermoothes (Bermuda).[8] In addition to Newport and Somers, notable personages aboard the Sea Venture included Sir Thomas Gates, John Rolfe, William Strachey, and Sylvester Jordain.

This began the permanent settlement of Bermuda, which had been discovered a century before, but which mariners had avoided as best as they could. Situated, as it is, astride the historical return route to Europe from the West Indies and the North American Atlantic Seaboard, many sailors failed, and numerous ships had been wrecked on Bermuda's reefs in the century before the Sea Venture, helping to give the archipelago its other early name, the "Isle of Devils". Bermuda, (also known officially as the Somers Isles after Sir George Somers, Admiral of the Virginia Company, who also survived the Sea Venture wreck) is still a territory (the current term for what were previously called possessions, dependencies, or colonies) of the United Kingdom almost 400 years later.

Eventually, the survivors of the Sea Venture (150 colonists and crew members, and one dog) constructed two smaller ships, the Deliverance and the Patience, from parts of the Sea Venture and the abundant native Bermuda cedar. These were sailed on to Jamestown, carrying most of the survivors (a number had been lost at sea as the result of an ill-considered mission to reach Jamestown aboard the Sea Venture's rigged lifeboat, others had died in Bermuda, and yet others born). Two (living) men, Carter and Waters, were left behind to hold the rights of the English claim to Bermuda.

Arriving at Jamestown 10 months later than planned, those aboard the Deliverance and Patience learned that the failure of the Sea Venture, carrying most of the Third Supply Mission's supplies, to arrive, combined with other factors, had resulted in the death of over 80% of the colonists during the Starving Time from the fall of 1609 until their arrival in May 1610. Unfortunately for the colonists, Newport's arrival this time was not a long-term solution to the crisis at Jamestown. Newport and the survivors of the Sea Venture had precious few supplies to share with the Jamestown survivors. Both groups felt they had no alternative but to return to England. Several weeks later, they boarded the ships, and started to sail downstream and abandon Jamestown.

However, as they approached Mulberry Island, they were met by a new supply mission arriving from England sailing upstream. Heading this group equipped with additional colonists, a doctor, food, supplies was a new governor, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, who forced the remaining settlers to stay, thwarting their plans to abandon the colony.

The colony was still critically short of food. If anything, this had been worsened by the addition of the hungry bellies which arrived with De La Warr. Somers returned to Bermuda with the Patience (which had been constructed to carry the food the Sea Venture survivors had stockpiled during their months in Bermuda) intending to obtain more foodstuffs, but died there of a "surfeit of pork". His nephew, Captain of the Patience, returned with the ship to Lyme Regis, instead of to Jamestown. A third man, Chard, remained behind with Carter and Waters. The Virginia Company, in effective possession of Bermuda, was given official control when its Third Charter, of 1612, extended the territorial limits of Virginia far enough across the Atlantic to include the archipelago (control was passed to a spin-off of the Virginia Company, the Somers Isles Company, in 1615).

Final arrival at Jamestown

As Christopher Newport arrived once again back at Jamestown for what would prove to be his last time, after so many trips, he also would have had no way of knowing that he was finally bringing ashore the key to Jamestown and the Virginia Colony's permanency.

Among the colonists with him was John Rolfe, a survivor of the Sea Venture's shipwreck whose wife and young son had perished. Although his voyage to this arrival at Jamestown with Newport had also followed a long, painful, and most circuitous route, within a short time, John Rolfe would successfully cultivate and export his new, sweeter strains of tobacco. His ideas and work with tobacco resulted in the cash crop which brought about the Virginia colony's economic success.

Later voyages, death

Years later (1613–1614) Newport sailed for the British East India Company to Asia. He died in Java (now part of Indonesia) in 1617 on a voyage to the East Indies.


  • Newport, Kentucky, was named in his honour.[1]
  • Newport News Point (where the mouth of the James River joins the harbour of Hampton Roads) and the city of Newport News, Virginia, are widely believed to have been named for him, although this is disputed. Some scholars believe that it is more likely that it was named for settlers from Ireland with the surname of Neuce.
  • Christopher Newport University, in Newport News is named in honour of him.
  • Captain Newport was portrayed by actors David Hemblen in Pocahontas: The Legend in 1999 and Christopher Plummer in Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World, but did not appear in the 1995 Disney animated film or its 1998 direct-to-video sequel. In the Disney movies, his role is replaced by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe.
  • In 2005–2006 playwright Steven Breese wrote Actus Fidei (An Act of Faith), based on the life and times of Captain Christopher Newport, as part of the Jamestown 2007 Festival. This play received its world premiere in the Spring of 2007 at Christopher Newport University.
  • A biography on Captain Newport, by A. Bryant Nichols Jr., was published in 2007.
  • A statue commemorating Captain Newport was recently unveiled at his namesake University, CNU. The statue has been the subject of some controversy, as it depicts Newport with both hands, while it is historically documented that Newport lost one of his hands at sea. The creator of the statue says, in an interview, that we should "not remember our heroes as mutilated."[9]
  • Great Grandson X 10 Brian Werner founder of Tiger Missing Link Foundation and its Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge
  • Continuing the Newport leadership legacy, Christopher Newport, US Navy veteran was appointed to Chief of Staff for the City of Houston in 2014 - "one of the city's most powerful non-elected posts."[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Commonwealth of Kentucky. Office of the Secretary of State. Land Office. "Newport, Kentucky". Accessed 4 September 2013.
  2. Fiske, John (1900). Old Virginia and Her Neighbours, p. 58. Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
  3. "Captain John Smith". Jamestowne Society website. Archived from the original on 5 July 2007. Retrieved 14 August 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Link expired, 2006-12-31 version.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Fiske (1900), p. 98.
  5. 5.0 5.1
  8. Fiske (1900), pp. 146–49.
  9. Hariwch: Remembering a hero, retrieved 8 September 2007

Further reading

  • A. Bryant Nichols Jr., Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia, Sea Venture, 2007
  • David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of A New Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
  • Breese, Steven, Actus Fidei, Steven Breese and Associates, 2007
  • Smith, John, The Generall Historie of Virginia ["G.H." London, 1623].
  • Wingfield, Jocelyn R., Virginia's True Founder: Edward Maria Wingfield, etc., [Charleston, 2007, ISBN 978-1-4196-6032-0].

External links