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Those English women who travelled to the new colony of Jamestown in search of marriage and a new life were neither groomed nor coerced. The same cannot be said of their African counterparts. She wanted a fresh start in Jamestown and before she voyaged Anne presented her recommendation to the Virginia Company. It was her means to the New World and a new life.
Instead, their testimony shows that they were willing to voyage to the colony and took measures to ensure that they could do so. It is difficult to get at why exactly these women chose to throw in their chances with the colony but, reading between the lines, it seems that they were excited by the prospect of an adventure and were ready to start out on their own in a place that promised new opportunities, just like the men who had gone before them.
What possessed them to uproot and plant themselves in a new country? Binding themselves through matrimony to tobacco planters in the Virginia colony was mutually beneficial. There was an economic downturn in England at the time, meaning that a lot of young men could not afford to start a family and had to put off marriage. In the colony, though, land and prosperity was apparently boundless. Men in the colony believed that women would make their lives more comfortable, too, by performing what they deemed to be essential female roles, as carers and housewives.
Intimacy aside, women were sent to resolve serious concerns about the security and permanence of the colony. If the English were to maintain a foothold in North America, the colony desperately needed more people to replenish those who had died through disease, hunger and violence.
Before the arrival of the brides, there had been very few English women in the colony, leaving nearly all of the young, male colonists unmarried and available. There may have been brides before, who were written out of history though. Archaeologists at the Jamestown site have found plenty of material evidence to suggest that Native American women took up residence in the fort; perhaps as domestic helpmeets or sexual partners although this was never documented in English records.
But Native American women were not, in the eyes of contemporaries, fitting partners. English women were needed if an English — Christian — society was to be kept intact. All of the women who ventured to the Jamestown colony in the years to become brides to colonists had to prove that, like Anne Rickard, they were suitable. The first task that women had was to secure their passage, by requesting testimonials and recommendations from people who were willing to accompany them, in person, to the Virginia Company.
They activated the networks of associates, friends and kin that they had in London and elsewhere, asking them to support their claims. Mary Ghibbs, 20, who was born in Cambridge, asked her uncle Lott Peere who she lived with and his associate Gabriel Barbour to recommend her; both who were deeply involved in the affairs of the Virginia Company.
Having family and friends present in London was a kind of security—the company could be sure that these were not desperate young women who were running from a scandal. Ghibbs noted that she was skilled in making bone lace, an assertion, it seems, that was meant to bolster her gentle status, femininity and moral upstanding. No doubt some attributes would be more practical than others on arrival at Jamestown. The women also showed their willingness to go, perhaps even hinting at their suitability for the tough environment of Jamestown. Although many of the women travelled alone, as Abigail Downing did, some were accompanied by relatives, or planned to meet family in the colony.
Jamestown was often the final destination in journeys they had made across England, from Cheshire, Yorkshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Herefordshire and Wiltshire — even Denbigh in Wales — before setting sail from the Isle of Wight.
Many had left home already to take up employment in London and family separation, especially at the point when you people went into service and afterwards married, was expected. On their voyages to Virginia, the same care that was shown towards ascertaining the upstanding character of the women was also taken towards their welfare aboard ships. Various bills recorded by the Virginia Company show that they provided essential items for the voyage, such as clothing, including white lambskin gloves, beds and bedding. For passengers with a sweet tooth, prunes were purchased.
These items, such as the coifs that were bought, allow us to glimpse into the lived experiences of women on arrival, too. Coifs were white caps that only wives were permitted to wear on their he, as a of modesty and the elevated social status of married women.
Before leaving England, most had been unmarried women in service. Now they would enjoy greater social standing. When they arrived in Jamestown, the women met their prospective husbands and, by the Christmas of , all were married. Let us not assume either that what ensued was literally some sort of cattle market. What may seem like a cold transaction today, was a kind of security for the women, who were cut off from the support networks they left behind in England.
If the liberty of English women was not violated, it is worth remembering that this was not the case for all women who arrived at Jamestown in She was among 17 African women who arrived in the colony in , along with 15 enslaved African men, the first in English America. We know very little about their lives, but these are the real women who faced violence and were forced onto ships before disembarking at Jamestown.
Their fates were tied up with those of the English women who married tobacco planters, who would reap the rewards of their unfree labour. The Real Wives of Jamestown. Misha Ewen Published in 10 May Popular articles.
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