Everything you need to know about Sky’s new historical drama Jamestown

The true tale of how middle-class brides-for-sale were shipped to America, as shown in the new drama starring Sophie Rundle

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It’s a mighty strange perk to offer your employees. “We know it’s been tough these past few years,” a group of demoralised British workers is told, “so we’ve loaded 90 women onto a boat, we’ve sailed them from the other side of the world – and now you’ll get to choose one to be your wife.”

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A wife, courtesy of your employer? Our age of company cars and private health insurance suddenly feels rather more civilised. Yet this remarkable shipment of women – known as “maids to make wives” – really set sail.

They left Southampton in 1619, headed for Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent British settlement in North America. The first batch of settlers, all of them male, had arrived 12 years earlier, principally to grow tobacco. They’d endured food shortages, hostility from native Americans and a life almost entirely devoid of women.

Here was an alpha-male workforce getting increasingly despondent and sexually frustrated – hence the idea of bringing in a shipful of ready-made spouses from home. The arrival of women into this brutal environment forms the backdrop to Jamestown, a new eight-part drama on Sky1 starring Max Beesley and the up-and-coming Sophie Rundle.

Written by Bill Gallagher, who adapted Lark Rise to Candleford for the BBC, the drama tells a fictitious story set in a “real” 17th-century environment. Gallagher says: “There are two histories of America. There’s the one about the Pilgrim Fathers and God and all of that – the history that’s celebrated on Thanksgiving Day. And then there’s this other, earlier history, which is about colonisation, greed, gold and the effort to transport England to America.”

Gallagher and his team went to great efforts to present a faithful picture of the settlers, the women who went out to marry them and the native Americans whose world was turned upside down by these buccaneering outsiders.

Another twist in the story is that the settlers were not sent to America by the king. In an early example of what we’d now call privatisation, James I chose not to take the risk himself, but to “outsource” the project to a private business, the Virginia Company of London. Thus, the men who set about creating a new world were not state-sponsored soldiers or civil servants, but employees of a profit-making enterprise.

And it was the company chiefs who came up with the “maids to make wives” plan. This was a reward structure that not only guaranteed the loyalty of their workforce, but also made a profit for the business – they didn’t give away the women for free, but sold them to the men.

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The British-made Jamestown was filmed near Budapest. The countryside around the Hungarian capital makes a convincing-looking Virginia, but there’s an interesting modern twist behind the scenes. In 21st-century Europe you can’t plant fields of tobacco on a whim. The production company had to get a special licence to grow the crop. “And then, when we’d finished, we had to destroy it all,” smiles Gallagher. It all went up in smoke, like a gigantic drugs haul.

But what of the story? Dr James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, was an adviser on the series. Talking from his office in Virginia, the historian explains that the women who sailed to America were not, as one might imagine, the waifs and strays of British society.

He says they freely volunteered to get on the boats, attracted by a combination of optimism, idealism – and also a hint of greed. “The Virginia Company recruited a group of respectable young women from the middle class and lower middle class,” Horn says. “They weren’t scoured from the streets of London or from the prisons. They weren’t forced into it.

“There was a great deal of idealism about setting up a new English society in the New World. It was an expansive and hopeful period. The women saw a future in America. Rumours were circulating that you could get rich quick from tobacco. And this was something that society at home could not offer them.”

Their passage was financed by investors who had been approached with this in mind; once a man had chosen his wife-to-be, he paid the Virginia Company a fee – the equivalent, according to records seen by Horn, of 150lb of tobacco. This was equivalent to a year’s wages for a labourer, or around £15,000 to £20,000 today.

But despite the fact that the men had “bought” the women, “this was not slavery”, says Horn, emphatically. “And the reason to make that distinction is that in the same year, 1619, a group of about 30 people, half of them women, arrived from Angola – and they were enslaved.” That said, he admits, “The idealised lives the English women were promised ultimately didn’t quite happen.”

In the drama, one “maid” is violently raped by her husband-to-be. Was Virginia a dangerous place for a young woman? Horn says that while it must have been “a very sexually charged situation” – males still outnumbered females by around six to one, even after the women arrived – he doubts that women were under any great threat. “Rape carried the death penalty. There’s no evidence of either English or native American women being raped.”

The official evidence may be absent – but surely you’d have to be supremely brave to report a sex attack to the authorities in a 17th-century settler colony.

With such a shortage of women, did any of the male settlers have sex with other men? Yes, says Horn, the records are clear on this: a number of men were hanged for having homosexual sex.

What about the native Americans? How did they react when the settlers first landed their boats in 1607? In order to get the story accurate, Gallagher turned to Buck Woodard, an anthropologist and local expert. Woodard says that when white men first came to Jamestown, “there was some hostility, but also some intrigue and trade”.

Surprisingly, perhaps, people learnt each other’s languages. The native Americans taught the British how to grow maize and beans, and there were even mixed-race relationships – the most famous being the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of a native American chief, to settler John Rolfe in 1614.

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There were also, of course, sporadic flare-ups and bloody battles between the two communities. Woodard says: “Jamestown was not the first European engagement in this area – there was already a Spanish colony in Virginia.

The questions native peoples asked were: What was the intention of the English? Were they a threat?” He adds: “The English suggested that they were in America merely looking for a route through to Asia.” Four hundred years on, they’re still there. “But”, he adds, with a hint of satisfaction, “so are the native Americans.”   

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Next page: find out more about the show’s star, Sophie Rundle