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Robert Gray's A Good Speed to Virginia

by Karen B. Manahan

with comments by Edward J. Gallagher, Christina M. Hoffmann, Kate Lehnes, Elizabeth Vogstberger, and Elizabeth Wiggins

(1) Though religion and colonialism have consistently been linked, few times in history has a religious rhetoric been as persistently and effectively implemented as it was in England from 1609 to 1610. At this time, England was pursuing its dreams of expansion in the New World with its struggling, but established, settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. As John Parker points out, previous attempts to garner public interest and investment in a colony had focused mostly on commercial gain rather than religion:

This lack of a strong religious emphasis continued naturally into the first charter of the Virginia enterprise, an enterprise which saw itself in the tradition of the commercial company (248).

However, after the near failure of the initial charter of 1606, it became clear to the Virginia Company and those invested financially and psychologically that hailing this settlement as a commercial interest would not be enough to maintain the attention or support of a nation. Rather than focusing simply on the immediate material output of Virginia, which had already proven dismal, the Virginia Company collaborated with several important preachers and speakers of the day to create a rhetoric grounded in religion with an emphasis on a missionary presence. In speaking of these sermons and speeches, I will be referring to the works of five men specifically: Robert Johnson, William Symonds, Robert Gray, Daniel Price, and William Crashaw. The sudden surge of justification literature initiated by the sermons and speeches of these men left room for critics to question the sincerity of these arguments and created challenges for the preachers to provide coherent religious and secular arguments that accurately reflected public interest and opinion. As Parker notes, "their rhetoric had to be tuned to the moment..[and] if we suspect insincerity in such propaganda we must not assume it was less suspected then" (246).

(2) For these sermons to become effective colonizing tools, these preachers were forced to carefully and coherently combine justifications based in religious texts and stories with arguments that also appealed to the vanity and material interests of investors and adventurers. As part of their appeal, these sermons also began to create a sense of the hoped-for worldview of England both at home and abroad. While England had struggled for unity in the years before and during the initial colonial enterprises, scholars like Thomas Scanlon have noted that preachers like Robert Gray offered a definitive approach to an English identity. Scanlon suggests that "colonialism emerges in Gray's sermon as the defining activity in his nation's pursuit of a coherent identity" (96) [comment1]. With a specific focus on Gray, I would like to discuss the rhetorical strategies produced in his sermon with a slighter emphasis on the ways in which these arguments reflect the state of confusion in England in the early 1600s and how these arguments create a sense of identity for England. Specifically, I will identify four strategies that Gray implements: his belief in colonization as a viable solution to the mortal danger of overpopulation in England, his complex but optimistic portrayal of relations with the Native Americans, his use of shame in his responses to specific criticisms of the colonial project, and, finally, his identity-shaping advice as to the appropriate representatives of England who should be sent to the New World.

"The lande is too narrow for us"

(3) Gray opens his sermon A Good Speed to Virginia, which was published on April 28th in 1609, with the story of Joshua and the people of Israel in Joshua 17:14. Gray's first strategy involves framing a substantial problem in England, overpopulation, with a biblical story that deals with and then solves this same issue. This biblical story, in which God's chosen people have over-filled their own land and receive God's permission to take the land of Canaan from the heathens, sets the stage for Gray to remind England of its own very serious overpopulation problems while offering a tangible and biblically inspired solution. As Gray reminds his readers, though England's prosperity was once a blessing from God and "that no man needed to encrouah or inclose from another," the dangers of overpopulation are now upon them (B2.r.). As Gray sees it, England has in the past refrained from colonial enterprises in great part because it was not a "necessitie" (B2.r.). Yet now it is clear from the levels of unemployment and the general scarcity of goods that England is in dire straits, "and therefore we may justly say, as the children of Israel say here to Joshua, we are a great people, and the lande is too narrow for us" (B2.v.).

(4) What is essential in Gray's argument is his consistently effective and flattering comparison between England and the chosen people of Israel balanced with his striking ability to convey a sense of fear and urgency to England's citizens about the possible consequences of ignoring this gift from God [comment2].

There is nothing more dangerous for the estate of common-wealths, then when the people do increase to a greater multitude and number then may justly parallel with the largenesse of the place and country: for hereupon comes oppression and diverse kinde of wrongs, mutinies, sedition, commotion, rebellion, scarcitie, dearth, povertie... (B3.v.)

Gray highlights the pressing problems of overpopulation using frightening terms, such as scarcity and poverty, that are reminiscent of biblical plague and destruction stories. For Gray, it becomes imperative that England resolve this issue, and he readily suggests that a solution has presented itself in Virginia.

(5) After stressing the urgency surrounding the problems of overpopulation, Gray expertly reminds his readers of the fortuitous blessing God has bestowed on England by offering them the ability to venture and expand to Virginia. England must not reject God's offers of "profitable and gainefulle expectation, but rather [...] imbrace every occasion which hath any probabilitie in it of future hopes" (B3.v.). Gray follows this advice with a censure:

we might justly be accounted, as in former times, both impudent and improvident, if we will yet sit with our armes foulded in our bosomes and not rather leape after such adventures whereby the glory of God may be advanced, the territories of our kingdome inlarged, our people both preferred and employed abroad, our wants supplied at home...and the honour and renown of our Nation [...] and propagated to the ends of the world (B2.v.).

For Gray, Virginia becomes a symbol of salvation and prosperity that England cannot and should not ignore. As Scanlon reiterates, Gray is adamant in saying that overpopulation will become the downfall of England, and the only solution that does not include limiting the rights and riches of England's citizens lies beyond their doorstep. In essence, the solution lies over there:

[...] the nation ensures its survival by encouraging some of its members to leave and engage in productive labor on the margins. Resolving this paradox was important to Gray whose intention it was to cultivate a perception of colonization, not as a marginal past-time conducted on the fringes of the known world, but as the central activity of a nation preoccupied with its own survival (98).

His desire to resolve the paradox of expansion as necessary to the nation's survival includes developing a solid religious and secular justification for leaving England, coupled with a solid justification for expanding in a new but inhabited world.

"Godless ignorance and blasphemous idolatrie"

(6) After establishing the blessings God has bestowed upon England by offering Virginia as a place to ease the pain of overpopulation, Gray makes his next rhetorical move and counters the arguments that suggest England has no claim to land in Virginia. While doing so, it becomes clear that Gray must first establish an outlook on the role of the Native Americans in England's colonial plans. Relying on several overlapping justifications, Gray provides his reader the opportunity to digest each possibility in an attempt to reinforce England's legal and religious right to inhabit the New World. Early in the sermon, Gray appears to chastise England for not simply taking land that

is the greater part of it polluted and wrongfully usurped by wild beasts, and unreasonable creatures or by brutish savages, which by reason of their godless ignorance and blasphemous idolatrie are worse than those beasts which are of most wilde and savage nature (B.v.).

Initially, it appears that Gray is offering a straightforward justification: the Native Americans are uncivilized beasts who therefore have no claim to land [comment3]. He continues in this vein with biblical evidence by citing the idea that God requires that idolaters and those who refuse to convert should be punished and even killed. He says, "we are warranted by this direction of Joshua, to destroy willful and [...] idolaters, rather then to let them live, if by no other meanes they can be reclaimed (C2.r.) After having established a clear connection between the chosen people of Israel and the chosen people of England, Gray's suggestive descriptions of idolaters implies that parallels can therefore be drawn between the "Giants" and heathens that the Israelites encountered and destroyed with the Native Americans that the colonists will encounter (C.r.). And, in case the connection has not been made apparent, Gray finally describes the Native Americans reported by those in Virginia. He says, "the people are savage and incredibly rude, they worship the devil, offer their young children in sacrifice unto him" (C2.v.) Without having yet addressed the notion of ownership directly in terms of the Native Americans, Gray provides a succinct but damning description of them which equates them with the savages of the Bible who were not worthy to own land. Though Gray does not have his own first-hand experience and though he clearly ignores certain reports that describe the Native Americans differently, by establishing the Native Americans initially as heathens and devil worshippers he has provided himself with a justification to fall back on if he can not reason a legally coherent argument.

(7) With this in mind, it is important to note the rhetorical strategy Gray employs by shifting between justifications. Gray has effectively built up a justification that states that the Native Americans have no rights to the land since they are a savage people. Incredibly, in the same breath Gray suggests that despite the near certainty that they are savages, England's colonists in the New World have acted honorably and legally towards the natives. He shifts skillfully from a justification based on inferiority to a justification that suggests that despite this probable inferior status, England will make all attempts to discern whether or not the natives are able to be civilized. He says:

Some affirm, and it is likely to be true, that these Savages have no particular propertie in any part or parcel of that countrey, but only a general residence there, as wild beasts have in the forest...so that if the whole land should be taken from them, there is not a man that can complaine of any particular wrong done unto him...But the answer to the foresaid objection is that there is no intendment to take away from that by force that rightfull inheritance which they have in that Countrey for they are willing to entertaine us, and have offered to yeelde into our handes on reasonable conditions more land then we shall be able this long time to plant and manure...and upon all question upon eache composition with them, wee may have as much of their Countrey yielded unto us, by lawfull grant from them, as wee can or will desire, so that we goe to live peaceablie among them, and not to supplant them (C4.r.).

Not only has Gray established that England has a religious claim to the land, but also they have legally acquired it from the Native Americans themselves. Furthermore, Gray proposes that despite the savagery that has been noted, if an English education is put into practice "you shall see that their nature will be greatly rectified and corrected" (C2.r.).

(8) By suggesting that the colonists have acted legally, honorably, and in the best interest of the Native Americans without denying the initial dehumanizing language he used to describe them, Gray allows the reader to choose which colonial justification suits best, if not both. Gray's final move reiterates his initial justification based on the savagery of the Native Americans. Though he makes it clear that all reason should be used before force, Gray once again reiterates the not only God-given right but the legal right to remove the natives from the land if need be:

Moreover, all Politicians foe with content, holde and maintaine, that a Christian king may lawfullie make warre upon barbarous and Savage people, and such as live under no lawfull or warrantable government, and may make a conquest of them, so that the warre bee undertaken to this ende, to reclaime and reduce those Savages from their barbarous kinde of life, and from their brutish and ferine manners, so hummanitie, pietie and honestie....even that war is lawfull which is undertaken, not for covetousness and crueltie, but for peace and unities sake: so that lewde and wicked men may therby be suppressed and good men maintained and relieved ....we see, that both in the opinion of Politicians, and also by the judgement of Augustine himselfe, we might lawfully make warre upon the Savages of Virginia our [...], having the endes aforesaid (C4.v-C5.r).

Thus, Gray provides a sandwich justification whereby he initially dehumanizes the Native Americans, then represents them as potential converts whom the colonists have acted correctly towards but follows this with a re-emphasis of England's moral and legal claim to the land should the Native Americans prove to be, as they have been described, heathens [comment4] [comment5]

"We are not borne like beasts for ourselves, and the time present only"

(9) Having ascertained England's need and right to venture to Virginia, Gray focuses on countering the arguments that had plagued the initial colonial effort. Beginning with his censure on the nationally embarrassing dismissal of Columbus, Gray utilizes a rhetoric of shame and intimates a stained name in an effort to convince England's citizens to participate in the colonial enterprises [comment6]. After establishing a very tangible benefit to England in terms of overpopulation, Gray's emphasis shifts to posterity and patience, which reflects a movement towards exploring more abstract rewards rather than commercial and material gain. Most likely reflecting on the critics of the settlement who suggest nothing has been gained from this investment, Gray chastises England, saying that England's embarrassing history of refusing to invest "before we see the effects" is an attitude that cannot be tolerated if England wants to prosper (B.v.). He says:

we are not borne like beasts for ourselves, and the time present only....what benefit or comfort should we have enjoyed in the things of this world, if our forefathers had not provided better for us, and been more carefully respective of posteritie then for themselves. (D.r.)

Gray's use of "beasts" to describe those who make such arguments reflects the readers back to his description of the worthless heathens whom God's people destroyed. Furthermore, Gray rebukes those who spend money idly on ventures not for the "publicke good" and reminds those of the worthiness of this cause above others (D.v.). Here he refers to Johnson's work [1], saying that it has been proved that "the charges about the Plantation will be nothing, in comparison of the benefit that will grow thereof" (D.v.). Moreover, as Gray points out, "what notable thing I pray you can be brought to passe without charges?...no profit without paine" (D.v.). Gray expertly combats these material complaints by emphasizing the worthiness of this venture above the material gain and suggests that any opposition to this venture is "an opposition against God, the King, the Church, and the Commonwealth" (D2.r.). And, having made it clear that these complaints cannot be tolerated, Gray heaps dishonor on those who would delay aiding this venture:

What then shall we thinke of those persons, who having an honourable life set before them, doe yet chuse rather to live in idlenesses, dishonestie and obscenitie? Surely they are of a degenerate and dunghill minde, neither are they worthy to be nourished in the bosome of a wel governed common-wealth (B4.v.).

"The View of Succeeding Posteritie"

(10) Finally, after having outlined his justifications for England's presence in the New World, Gray shifts his focus to the work that must be done outside of England. After establishing why England must expand and having justified its presence in Virginia, Gray focuses on the logistics of the project by advising who exactly should govern and lead the colonial project. Furthermore, by outlining this government, Gray essentially outlines an ideal model of English behavior and in this way begins to create an identity for England and for the way it will be viewed by the world.

(11) Gray clearly recognizes the criticisms of the management thus far in the colonies, as well as the dangers of sending those who are ill-equipped to participate and contribute. But, rather than focus on the specific community of colonists who should be represented, Gray chooses to describe an ideal leader and therefore an ideal Englishman. Gray is careful to instruct the management of the colony and craft a "magistrate" who will provide a consistent and concrete example of how to proceed in the New World.

And if he stand so affected he will punish such as are [...] and he will advance such as are virtuous and well disposed; he will incourage the painfull and industrious, and he will correct the idle and difficult; he will establish true religion, and he will represse heresies and [...] he will receive the weake and impotent, and he will supresse the mutinous and insolent; so that God will give a blessing, and all things prosper under his government (D3.r.).

It is here in the political government, or the greatest of "humane artes," that Gray truly begins cultivating a positive and distinct identity for England (D2.r.). Gray addresses all of the concerns that have been voiced about the execution of the colony in Virginia, especially that of idleness and mutiny. Clearly, Gray recognizes the importance of a colonial leader and is careful to describe him in terms that liken him to the King. He is also like "Alexander the Great," and becomes not only the public representative of England in the New World but also the hard-working colonist at the ground level (D2.v.). Finally, Gray is careful to advise this leader as to the best ways to cultivate and retain a positive identity and reputation:

a Magistrate must know that the moderne times doe not onely behold him, but that he is subject also to the view of succeeding posteritie' and therefore..to beware by all means that they give no occasion to Chroniclers to publish their lewd and wicked actions. (D3.r.)

Gray advises his magistrate to avoid bad publicity, clearly the problem for the colony prior to this sermon. As is evident, a focus on posterity and reputation coupled with hard work become essential to the lifestyle and leadership of the colony and perhaps to the identity of England as a whole.

"Every opposition against it is an opposition against God, the King, the Church, and the Commonwealth"

(12) By employing specific rhetorical strategies, Gray effectively addresses all concerns about England's colonial aspirations. Gray logically portrays Virginia as a solution to pressing issues at home and couches this solution in a religious rhetoric that makes use of shame, fear, and a complicated but optimistic view of life in the New World. And, in addition to having offered England an answer to its economic problems in Virginia, Gray also provides an idealized version of a national identity that serves as a site of unity and coherence during a confusing and often disjointed period.

Works Consulted

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 [58-92 on Virginia].

Gray, Robert. A Good Speed to Virginia. London, 1609. Early English Books Online. 2003. Early English Books Online Archive. 1 February 2006. <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:6158>.

Horn, James.  "The Conquest of Eden: Possession and Dominion in Early Virginia."  Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World.  Ed. Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005.  25-48.

Johnson, Robert. Nova Britannia: Offering Most Excellent fruites by Planting in Virginia. London, 1609. Virtual Jamestown. 2000. Virtual Jamestown Archive. 25 Jan. 2006. <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1051>.

Mackenthun, Gesa.  "'A Mortall Immortall Possession': Virginian Battlefields."  Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637.  Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1997.  193-264.

Parker, John. "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.

Scanlon, Thomas. "Preaching the Nation: The Sermon as Promotion." Colonial Writing and the New World, 1583-1671: Allegories of Desire." Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Sheehan, Bernard W. Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

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

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


[1] See Robert Johnson's Nova Britannia. Gray focuses on Johnson's "Seven Year Plan" as well as his claim that the first and second charters differ greatly in purpose and therefore will differ in outcome.


[comment1] This thread of British nationalism runs through the Virginia Company sermons and manifests itself in a rhetorical strategy that urges potential corporeal and financial investors to reconsider what it means to be British at the present time.  Although justification rhetoric may be interested in categorizing and understanding what it is like on the American side of the Atlantic, I think the literature of justification can be just as useful for showing us what a 17th century British national identity looks like and how that identity is constructed.  Furthermore, playing on anxieties about the vulnerability of this identity works wonders for garnering support.  For example, in Nova Britannia, Robert Johnson urges his audience to consider that while England used to be great, strong, and courageous, in recent years the country has declined.  He cites the British rejection of Columbus's venture as an origin for this degeneration, but overall he appeals to British national pride and patriotism as he reminds his audience that "The honour of our nation is now very great by his Majesties meanes, and wee his subjects cannot enlarge and uphold it by gazing on, and talking what hath béene done, but by doing that good, which may bee commended hereafter, if we sitte still and let slip occasions, we shall gather rust, and doe unfeather our owne wings" (26). (Elizabeth Vogtsberger)

[comment2] Daniel Price also connects England with the chosen land, specifically Jerusalem. Like Jerusalem, England should be a "Seate of Judgment, euen the Seate of the house of David, Peace bee within thy walles, plenteousness within thy Pallaces" (F4). Price goes a step further than Gray, however, when he lashes out at England and the sorry state of affairs that he sees:

So maye it be sayde of the Transformation of London.  It sould be Jerusalem, the city of God, and it is become Viarthers slaughterhouse, Thefes refuge, Oppressions safety, Whoredoms Stewes, Vsuries Banke, Vanities Stage, abounding in all kind of filthiness and prophanenesse. O remember that fines haue been the Pioners of the greateft Cities, and haue not left one ftone vpon another. (F4) 

Price is not at all flattering -- in fact, his entire sermon focuses on reproving traducers who cannot see the way. Price's rhetoric moves beyond the fear and urgency present in Gray's sermon and invokes a accusatory tone that seeks not only to convert but also to deem unworthy all who do not agree with the cause of colonization. (Christina M. Hoffmann)

[comment3] Interestingly, by the time of William Crashaw's A Sermon Preached in London in February 1610, the rhetoric Gray employs that entitles the English to native lands due to a lack of civilization has transformed into a cooperative Indian-English relationship that involves land ownership and a project of co-civilization. As Crashaw argues in reference to the welcome the English may receive in Virginia from the Native Americans, the English were once in the same uncivilized state as the Indians until outside civilizing forces "discovered" them and their needs. Crashaw argues that the Indians seem to be indicating to the English that it is time that they were both civilized and Christianized. By using this rhetoric, Crashaw more peacefully strips the Native Americans of their right to their land by creating a reason for the English to be present in Virginia. Crashaw's sermon is rife with the language of exchange, ranging from the exchange of culture to the exchange of goods. While the argument always appears more peaceful and even-handed, the idea of English superiority and Native American complicity pervade the sermon. (Elizabeth Wiggins)

[comment4] Since I advance the claim in my essay that "The True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia" (November 1610) is the first justification document to base possession of land in Virginia on permission from the Indians, I have been reading Karen's last two main sections with some interest indeed. I may, in fact, have to revise or qualify my claim, though there does seem to be an important distinction between the emphases in the two documents. It looks to me like there is a nugget of legal justification in Gray (paragraph 7: "wee may have as much of their Countrey yielded unto us, by lawfull grant from them, as wee can or will desire) that is surrounded by the "they are heathen" justification. The heathen justification sounds primary in Gray. It's the reverse in the Declaration. The primary justification is what has been voluntarily given by the Indians, but then in his perplexing list of "partlies," the Compiler refers to the Indians in passing as "human beasts." If we look at the primary points, the documents are different, but, as a whole, the same points are there. I wonder if the difference in emphasis is related to the time gap (18 months -- and a whole lot of shaking going on in that period) or the difference between a sermon by a hired gun and an official report from headquarters. But, I dunno, the more I think about it, I can't see that Gray really believes the English received permission to have land. From God's permission to take other people's land in the biblical text to the lack of "meum and tuum" (C4), I believe Gray denies Indian dominium over and over. (Edward J. Gallagher)

[comment5] Like Gray, William Symonds is also contradictory in his descriptions of the Native Americans.  While, as Karen points out, Gray's "sandwich justification" may actually be a pretty powerful rhetorical move (because the Native American's lack of Christianity means they have no right to their lands anyway), Symonds' inconsistent descriptions left this reader wondering:  Isn't it hard to justify being merciful to someone previously described as barbaric?  In Symonds' sermon there is confusion about how the British are actually supposed to treat the Native Americans: as God's children or as barbarous enemies? I am not sure whether Gray's contradictory descriptions are any more sound, but his astute land argument may have outweighed the need for presenting a singular conception of Native Americans to his audience. (Kate Lehnes)

[comment6] I'd like to fill in a little bit more about the beautifully named "rhetoric of shame" that Karen calls attention to here. Gray specifically scores those who have enough money for everything but public service (D1.v.). His writing here is especially vivid. These people are like a "dog in the manger" -- the allusion is to one of Aesop's fables, in which a dog was taking a nap in a manger, and when an ox came and tried to eat the hay in the manger, the dog barked furiously, snapped at him and wouldn't let him get at his food, food that, of course, was useless to the dog, causing the ox to mutter, "Ah, people often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves." And how should dogs in the manger be treated? They should be squeezed "like sponges"! I love it. Wonderfully biting language. And the section ends waving the curse of Simon Magus on them. Simon Magus tried to buy God's power for himself -- hence the term "simony -- only to have Peter curse him thusly: "Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money" (Acts 8. 20). Gray delivers such a nice punch in this little section. (Edward J. Gallagher)