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Jamestown - Essays >> Essay: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

The Virginia Company's True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia

by Edward J. Gallagher

with comments by Christina M. Hoffmann, Karen B. Manahan, Elizabeth Vogtsberger, and Elizabeth Wiggins

(1) Appearing at the end of 1610 (probably in November), the True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia is the last of the cluster of a dozen or so extant major documents justifying Jamestown under the second charter that begins with Robert Johnson's Nova Britannia in February 1609. And, published "by aduice and direction of the Councell of Virginia," the True Declaration is only the second such document to emanate directly from the Virginia Company headquarters itself -- the much shorter True and Sincere Declaration appeared early in 1610, almost a year before. David B. Quinn, the magisterial authority on the age of colonization, calls the True Declaration "the most distinguished piece of propaganda for the colony and its best apologia" (248), and it is the only one of these documents reprinted in the last seventy years (Quinn, Mancall) -- reasons enough to take a close look at its justification strategies.

The Compiler's Introductory Strategy

(2) Mincing no words, the anonymous author (Porter [307] and Fitzmaurice [177] have suggested Dudley Digges or Francis Bacon), who refers to himself as a "theoreticall Schollar" (15) and "the compiler" (2) -- a term suggesting that he sees his role here as a kind of summative clean-up hitter – immediately attacks the "clamorous and tragicall narrations" (2) and "scandalous reports of a viperous generation" (39) of "slie whisperers" (14) and "rotten subjects" (15). The Compiler (the term by which I will refer to the author) -- a learned man who draws not only on the Bible but Origen, Tertullian, Tacitus, Petrarch, Plato, and St. Augustine; who parades his Latin; and whose love of word play is everywhere evident – begins by dividing mankind into two classes. There are, he says, the vulgar people, blind as Oedipus, who, like hawks, fly after "vagabond rumor" and "build their nests in aires" (1, 2); and then there are the wise men, judicious as Solomon, who are nested in "principles of religion, and reason"(2). Who are you, is Compiler's implicit opening gambit -- Oedipus or Solomon, hawk or man, traducing Jamestown or conducing it? Compiler's strategy allows no middle ground on this issue that has "diuided the vniuersall spirits of our land" (1). You are either smart or stupid where Jamestown is concerned.

(3) In order to win smart supporters for a Virginia Company obviously still reeling from the destructive collateral damage caused by the July 1609 "Horacano" to the Sea Venture, flagship of the Sir Thomas Gates fleet, and the consequent chaos of a year without leadership in the colony, Compiler announces that his justification will be based both on insider information ("secret" Virginia Company deliberations plus letters and oral testimony from colonial leaders) and "the vniuersall policie of all civill states" (2-3) -- that is, the law of nations. To exemplify that universal policy in his introduction, Compiler lists several examples (among them Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans, French) to prove that "replenishing the world with colonies of domesticall subjects" is not only universal policy but "heriocall action" (3-5). Thus, the opening generalization that governs the True Declaration is that colonization shines before us like "a Pharoes towre" – a curious choice of phrase that reveals the Virginia Company aligning itself with an unsavory secular position -- and we "should not make [pun intended, I'm sure] shipwracke of our intentions, concerning Virginia" (5). In a gesture that would make Wilcomb Washburn wince, then, the fact of a long history of colonization certifies its morality. Compiler assumes the legitimacy of all his examples because, simply, colonizing is what great nations do. The justice of these colonial endeavors remains unexamined.

The Overall Design

(4) Compiler can have a hot tongue where colony critics are concerned, but he divides and subdivides his argument with cold precision. The three main heads of Compiler's argument are "lawfulnesse, possibility, and commoditie" (6); in other words, he will answer three questions: is colonization lawful? is it feasible? and is it profitable? There is both an efficient comprehensiveness and a logical order to his design, and, moreover, there is serial address to three kinds of audiences. Everybody need be concerned that colonization is lawful; furthermore, those "who personally shall enter into this great action" need assurance they can survive there (51); and, finally, the Merchants here, who venture their purses not their persons, must mind the main chance (56). Each concern follows on the other, and a negative answer to any one question kills the entire enterprise.


(5) Each of these three main heads is rigorously subdivided. The question of lawfulness (6-17) is subdivided into the law of God (6-14) and the law of man (14-17). The law of God is again subdivided into three ways God's Word can be spread, by Apostles (7-8), Princes (8-9), or Merchants (9-14); and the law of man is subdivided into evidence for English claims based on the voyages of Madoc and Cabot (14-15) and denunciation of Spanish claims by papal donation (16-17). The section on merchants, the main point on which Compiler's strategy in this section rests, is further subdivided into the lawfulness of visiting (9), trading (9-10), and dwelling (10-14). Strikingly, the hierarchy of colonization goals is so taken for granted in this piece that Compiler sticks it in a parenthesis: "(considering our primarie end is to plant religion, our secondary and subalternate ends are for the honour and profit of our nation)" (6) [comment1]. Banging the drum of religious priority over patriotic and economic goals, then, no longer seems necessary at this late point in the Virginia Company's justification campaign


(6) The question of feasibility is first broken down into three sections (17-53): storms (especially "the" Horacano) impeding the passage (21-26), the barren country causing famine, and the unwholesome climate inducing disease. The sections on famine and sickness are treated together (26-53) and further subdivided into four: food (27-31), climate (31-34), accidental rather than inherent evils (34-43), and testimony from Gates about the current state of the colony (43-53). The section on accidental evils – a key one in this section -- has yet another, six-part subdivision describing the specific internal troubles besetting the colonists: discipline (34-35), idleness (35-36), treason (36-40), covetousness (40), lack of planning (40-41), and Indian treachery (41-43).


(7) The body of the True Declaration ends with the question of profit, a section Compiler calls a "succinct Narration" because the subject has been largely covered in "former Treatises" (53). It is divided, first (53-56), into a catalog of Virginia's superlative natural resources and then, second (56-59), into an exposition of the obvious economic benefit of providing our own material necessities rather than depending on the unkindness of competitor nations who "devise all courses to grinde our merchants" and "to draw from us all marrow of gaine by their inquisitiue inuentions" (58).


(8) Compiler earns his name in the conclusion, for it is of the rousing everything-but-the-kitchen-sink variety (59-68). His final exhortation is a general caution to be not over-wise (that is, to make up obstacles that aren't there), over-wary (finding ways to delay acting), or over-blind (to the real problems that colonization will solve) (60-61). And, on the positive side, he points specifically to the swarm of volunteers going (59), the still valid premises for colonization (60), historical examples of the dangers of delay (60), the other countries hovering to claim Virginia (61), the reality of overpopulation (61), the necessity of Virginia forests for national defense by the navy (63), the need for markets for domestic products (64), and the commitment of "noble and worthy personages . . .to make the action good vpon the hazard of their liues & fortunes" (64-65). Put your profit aside, Compiler concludes, "let no man adore golde as his God, nor his Mammon as his Maker" (67). Instead, "let Religion be the first aim of your hopes"; register your names with posterity among the men "whom God raised to augment the State of their country, and to propagate the Gospell of Jesus Christ" (66).

(9) Now, with this necessarily brief overview in mind, let's return to four especially distinguishing elements of True Declaration's rhetorical strategy for justification of Jamestown: legal title granted by the Indians, the English as Chosen People, identifying the nature and source of past failures, and the reverse ad hominem argument.

Lawfulness: "their rurall Emperour . . . hath licensed vs to negotiate among them" (14)

(10) Of the three lawful ways to preach the word of God to the Indians, Compiler says, "The third belongs to vs" (9). The age of miracles has passed, so we can't operate like the Apostles (7). And reducing "bodies to slauerie" in order to "set soules at liberty" is so offensive that Compiler doesn't even want to go there – sufficeth to say this is what the hated Spanish did (8). But the third belongs to us, "who by way of marchandizing and trade, doe buy of them the pearles of the earth, and sell to them the pearles of heauen" (9). Compiler specifies that we not only have the right to visit Indian land, for the law of nations – a European construct, remember -- forbids violating "a peaceful stranger" (9), but common practice from Solomon to the present day shows that Christians also have a perfect right to trade with heathens (9-10). But, and here is the giant step, Compiler further argues that it is lawful "that wee possesse part of their land, and dwell with them, and defend our selues from them" (10). Possess. Dwell. Defend. The right to possession in Indian land affirms and guarantees the right to defend one's possession. It establishes the basis for a just war.

(11) The chain of argument here is quite remarkable. Compiler asserts the right to possess, dwell, and defend on the basis of a list of reasons that contains four "partlies," one "chieflie," and one "Principallie" (10-11). The climactic chief and principal arguments trump the partly's as justification strategies because they have no legal baggage: 1) Paspehay sold them land "to inherit and inhabite," 2) Powhatan "voluntarilie" accepted the crown and scepter, and 3) Powhatan offered Captain Newport a "whole kingdome which he gaue vnto him" (11). Hence, according to Compiler, the English can not only legally visit and trade, but they are legally established in Virginia: Powhatan has made "reall concessions . . . hath licensed vs to negotiate among them, and to possesse their countrie with them" (13-14). Compiler accepts as factual what we (and John Smith) see was obviously farcical -- the so-called coronation of Powhatan – a brainstorm of the Virginia Company itself, and builds from there. Once "legally" established in Virginia, then, "if just offences shall arise, it can bee no more iniustice to warre against infidells" than Christians – and this on the authority of Plato and St. Augustine no less (12). The construction is amazingly effective – a foundation fabricated as the basis for peaceful co-existence simultaneously authorizes war.

(12) But the presence of the four "partlies" that Compiler, once again earning his name, compiles to justify possession in the chain of argument are even more jaw-dropping: there is no other way to convert the Indians, you can't "trust to the fidelitie of humane beasts," there's plenty of room for them and us, and they have attacked us (10-11). These arguments all have legal baggage. They are sources of moral qualms. They are "wholly's" in other justification arguments. So why mention them at all, much less to affirm their truth, though only their partial application here? Without these "partlies," Compiler would have been the first justifier to base English claims not on Indian passivity or victimization but Indian agency, but, instead, he brazenly reveals the unqualified ugly reality of power and inhumanity at the core of colonization activity.

Possibility: "This was not Ariadnes threed, but the direct line of Gods prouidence" (25)

(13) That damn storm. That horrible "Horacano." Leaders of the Virginia Company in 1609-1610 must have cursed it every waking moment. It destroyed the momentum of the second charter, and therefore it needed to be spun positively before it thrashed Jamestown along with the Sea Venture. Compiler, in fact, devotes considerable energy to the reconstruction of that event, ultimately ascribing to it the most forceful evidence that Virginia was God's work to be found in all the justifiers. First, though, Compiler makes a "necessarie digression" in which he acts as interlocutor for a conversation in which Governor Gates clears himself of all blame of wrong-doing for the shipwreck (18-21). Conveying Gates's words is an example of the inside information Compiler asserted as one of the bases of his essay, and the "digression," since it answers objections about Gates's culpability, actually functions integrally to clear away the profane reading of that disruptive event and make way for the sacred.

(14) And a sacred reading it is. Compiler wraps both ends of the Gates episode securely in divine providence. The desperation of the mariners during the storm evokes the analogy of God's mercy to Jonas in perhaps "the" exemplary sea story in the Bible. The "God that heard Jonas crying out of the belly of hell, he pittied the distresses of his seruants." "Through Gods prouidence" the Sea Venture "fell betwixt two rockes, that caused her to stand firm . . . God continuing his mercie vnto them" (22). The Bermudas, thought to be a "desert inhabitation for diuels," turns out miraculously to be a culinary paradise in which birds uncannily surrender themselves voluntarily for eating -- "An accident . . . that cannot be paralleld by any Hystorie, except when God sent abundance of Quayles to feed his Israel in the barren wildernesse" (23-24). "Consider all these things together," chants Compiler in a page-long frenzy of anaphora, the timing, the daylight, the opening in the rocks, the hogs, the birds, the fish, the fuel, the timber – "This was not Ariadnes threed, but the direct line of Gods prouidence" (25).

(15) At the other end of the episode is another miraculous concatenation of events, again recounted in anaphoric fit: if Gates had arrived at Jamestown four days later, the colonists would have starved; if Gates had not prevented his men from torching Jamestown, they would have had no place to return to when new governor Lord De La Warre arrived; if they had taken any longer to return to the fort, the Indians would have destroyed it; if Gates had set sail any sooner, he would not have encountered De La Warre; if De La Warre had not brought sufficient provision, there would have been no new beginning (47). The bottom line, Compiler proclaims, in fervidly crystallized words unheard in justifying documents so far: "this is the arme of the Lord of Hosts, who would haue his people to passe the redde Sea and Wildernesse, and then to possess the land of Canaan" (48). Nowhere else in this cluster of 1609-1610 justification documents do we find the typological significance of the Virginia colony described with such stunning clarity.

Possibility: "let him now reade with judgement but let him not judge before he hath read" (34)

(16) My colleague Elizabeth Wiggins has noted a strain of increasing realism over the course of the justification documents engendered by the second charter campaign. That realism is no more evident than in the catalog of six evils Compiler provides to describe the situation at Jamestown when Gates finally arrives (34-43) [comment2]. Compiler's candor is tonic and cathartic. In parsing the situation on the ground in Virginia so precisely, in effect he shows he recognizes the contradictions his audience must reconcile [comment3]. He's in the heads of the temporizers. Indeed, how can anyone with common sense believe that Virginia (my italics) is a place of both "plenty and famine," "temperate climate and distempered bodies," "felicitie and miserie" (33-34)?

(17) The way to believe that the glowing reports of Virginia fertility and salubrity are not just "Vtopian, and legendarie fables," says Compiler, is to see that catalog of evils as "accidental" (that is, a nonessential property rather than a "substantial" one) not "inherent" (27). Compiler scathingly scores the "presumptuous disobedience" of his colonial countrymen who "shark" for their own "bootie" (35), calling them "mutinous loiterers" and "vnhallowed creatures" (36). These are the "scum of men" responsible for such "scandalous reports" as "the tragicall historie of the man eating of his dead wife" that are damning the colony's reputation (37, 38). But Compiler clears the colony not only of the charge of cannibalism but also by extension, since cannibalism is the ne plus ultra of human evil, all scandal in the colony through the authoritative insider report of Gates: the truth is that the man had plenty of food, he murdered his wife because he hated her, famine was not a factor (38-39). The "auncient & worthy Peere" silences the "venomous tongues" of the viperous generation (39). The essential point as far as justification is concerned is that bad men are responsible for the failure of colonization so far, not the nature of colonization itself. And this section on Possibility concludes with descriptions of the turnabout effected by the good men in current leadership, so that "by the rules of mortall judgement" there is no reason to "despair" about the present or future of Virginia (52).

Commoditie: "it is one of the goodliest countries vnder the sunne" (56)

(18) Because "former Treatises" have done the work already, Compiler's "succinct Narration" about commodities and profit is by far the shortest of the three main sections of the True Declaration (53-59). Though the section is not without traces of prior tall-tale rhetoric ("one Firre tree is able to make the maine Mast of the greatest ship in England" [54]), the interesting strategy here is not repeating cornucopic details from existing reports but, instead, providing authoritative testimony that those existing reports lavishly praising Virginia's natural resources are true. Compiler, as insider, lets his readers in on the secret that the Virginia Company seriously considered calling De La Warre home and totally abandoning the colonization project because of "the smallnesse of [the] returne" on their investment (53). The deciding factor in their consultation, however, was calling on Gates, who, under "solemne and sacred oath," testified "that all things before reported were true" (54). The strategy in this specific instance is part of a larger pattern in the justification documents that I am tempted to call a "reverse ad hominem argument" and that can also be seen here in the concluding accolade to "those noble and worthy personages" Gates and De La Warre, for whom neither wives, nor children, nor cost, nor family estates, nor danger hinders their desire to reside in Virginia (65). These men are your models, suggests Compiler, listen to your betters, defer to your betters, be like your betters [comment4].

Compiler's Concluding Strategy: "Doubt ye not" (68)

(19) The moral and physical qualities of the rank and file colonists would continue to be a problem – witness Governor Dale's withering assessment in August 1611 of the disordered, prophane, riotous, and mutinous rabble he transported. So much for correcting the "accidental" evils of colonization. And the paean to Lord De La Warre would even go stale: sickly, he only lasted till March 1611 and was soon back in London defending his retreat from the front. Maybe Compiler was prescient about such matters. Or maybe he simply knew where justification was best buttered. For he goes back to Bermuda as touchstone for his last words. "Doubt ye not," he exhorts, that we have had a sign from God. But he makes one crucial addition now. God will be our partner, but we must act. We have had a sign from God, but we must sign on to benefit. "Resolution" rhymes with "Religion" as the True Declaration closes.

Works Consulted

Counseil for Virginia,  A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, With a confutation of such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise.  London, 1610.  Virtual Jamestown. 2000. Virtual Jamestown Archive. 26 March 2006 <>.

Fitzmaurice, Andrew.  "The Moral Philosophy of Jacobean Colonisation."  Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500-1625.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.  58-101.

Horn, James.  A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America.  New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Kimmey, Fred M.  "Christianity and Indian Lands."  Ethnohistory 7.1 (1960): 44-60.

Lefler, Hugh. T.  "Promotional Literature of the Southern Colonies."  Journal of Southern History 33 (1967): 3-25.

Mancall, Peter C., ed.  Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of  North America, 1580-1640.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Parker, John.  "Preachers and Planters."  Books to Build an Empire.  Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1965.  192-216.

---.  "Religion and the Virginia Colony, 1609-10."  The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic and America 1480-1650.  Eds. K.R. Andrews, Nicholas P. Canny and P.E.H. Hair.  Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1979.  245-70.

Quinn, David, ed.  New American World: A Documentary History of North America to  1612.  Vol. 5.  New York: Arno Press, 1979. 248-62.

Sokol, B. J., and Mary Sokol.  "The Tempest and Legal Justification of Plantation in Virginia." Shakespeare Yearbook 7 (1996): 353-80.

Washburn, Wilcomb E.  "The Moral and Legal Justifications for Dispossessing the Indians."  Seventeenth-Century America: Essays in Colonial History.  Ed. James Morton Smith.  New York: Norton, 1972.  15-32.

Williams, Robert A., Jr.  "The English Conquest of Virginia."  The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest.  New York: Oxford UP, 1990.  193-225.

Wright, Louis B.  "A Western Canaan Reserved for England."  Religion and Empire: The Alliance between Piety and Commerce in English Expansion, 1585-1625.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1943.  84-114.

[comment1] It's interesting that by the time of Compiler, the goals were so well-known that he felt no need to expound upon them.  Short and sweet!  Robert Johnson does this maneuver in Nova Britannia as well.  He claims that one of the purposes of his sermon is to garner support—corporeal, financial, emotional, and moral—for the colonists already settled in Virginia.  In contrast to the attention to devotes to his other purposes—conversion of the Native Americans, the glorification of England, and financial prosperity—Johnson only offers this one sentence about supporting the Virginia colonists: "And as for the third part, the releeving our men already planted, to preserve both them and our former adventures, I shall not neede to say much, the necessitie is so apparent, that I hope no Adventurer will be wanting therein" (15).  Apparently, this topic is already so important that he does not really need to address it.  The heart of the colony—its people—play second fiddle to the more exciting goals of conquest, fame, and money. (Elizabeth Vogstberger)

[comment2] Like the Compiler after him, in Crashaw's sermon, part of the rhetorical strategy is to simply acknowledge and counter the problems with and challenges to the Jamestown settlement. Crashaw's A Sermon Preached in London of February 1610 is quite thorough in listing and countering the enemies to the plantation, the misjudgments and mistakes made in the settlement and government, and the obligations of the English in regards to Jamestown both in the present and the future. It is this tradition of seeming openness and proactiveness that appears to extend from Crashaw's sermon to the Compiler's tract; the effect is one of the Virginia Company attempting to acknowledge flaws in their company and product but maintain customer and investor confidence. It is with this realistic and honest approach in Company literature that one can see the changes both in popular settlement towards the Virginia colony and promotional strategy as the Virginia Company struggles to keep Jamestown afloat. (Elizabeth Wiggins)

[comment3] In the beginning of Price's sermon, there is reference to the paradoxical nature of things in Psalm 32. "Behold in that one verse, olives and prickles upon one tree, punishment and pardon in one breath, life and death in one word, GereZim and Ebal in one place, winter and summer in one day, the fall and spring in one season, the red Ensigne of the wrath of God and the red Ensigne of the blood of Christ..." (B2).  In considering this section of the sermon in light of Fitzmaurice's "The Machiavelllian argument for possession," one can see the connection that Price is making between the seemingly paradoxical systems of religion and humanism resulting in the move towards "colonial legitimation."  Price, like The Complier, sets the patriarchal concepts of conversion, justice, mercy, and central authority alongside humanistic concepts such as pursuit if glory, questions of morality, and Machiavellian statesmanship.  Price speaks of "mercy and judgement together" (B2) and unites both in one place, "action" (B2). This is a transition from earlier preachers whose sole intent was conversion and Christianity. With Price's sermon comes an interest as much worldly as it is otherworldly. As a result, the seemingly irreconcilable could now become more easily reconciled. (Christina M. Hoffmann)

[comment4] It is clear that the justifiers hoped to remove some of the stigma from the embarrassments and scandals of the first charter by emphasizing the rabble that had ruined the first colony and the leaders that would save the second. In the earlier justification documents, Robert Gray seems to suggest that a proper magistrate, or a "better" that leads the Virginia colony will be the ultimate way to preserve it as well as foster its positive growth. Gray spends a few paragraphs describing just such an authority and even likens him to "Alexander the Great." Just as neither "wives, nor children, nor cost" are an issue for these worthy men that the Compiler describes, Gray suggests that a good magistrate will spare nothing of himself if it will help the colony flourish-- like Alexander the Great, he will refuse to drink water until all of his troops have done so first. (Karen B. Manahan)