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'So Fitt a Messenger'—How John Pory’s 'Proceedings' Got to London

By Nancy Egloff, Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Jamestown ships at nightAn English man-of-war, the White Lion, played an important role in not just one, but two significant events in Virginia in 1619. In late August 1619 the ship sailed into Point Comfort (present-day Hampton) with “twenty and odd Negroes,” bringing the first recorded Africans to Virginia. Piloted by Englishman Marmaduke Rayner, it entered the colony just a few days before the privateering ship, the Treasurer. Just before arriving in Virginia, they attacked a Portuguese slaver taking Africans from Angola in west central Africa to the Spanish colony at Vera Cruz in present-day Mexico. The privateers confiscated about 60 Africans, taking more than 30 of them to Virginia to trade for supplies. The Treasurer then dropped the remainder in Bermuda.

Earlier that year, newly appointed Virginia Governor Sir George Yeardley arrived in the colony and called for two representatives from each of Virginia’s settlements to come to Jamestown and meet with him and his Council of State in Virginia’s first General Assembly. In late July and early August, 20 Assembly members gathered in the church in Jamestown. They adopted certain directives sent to them from the Virginia Company in London, and formulated new laws they planned to send back to England for approval from the Virginia Company officials. John Pory, the colony’s secretary who also served as the speaker of the Assembly, recorded the meeting’s proceedings.

Depiction of first legislative assembly at Jamestown in 1619.

An artistic rendering of the first legislative assembly in Jamestown Settlement’s permanent exhibition galleries. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation photo.

When the meeting ended on August 4 due to the summer’s intense heat, John Pory wrote his report, “The Proceedings of the First General Assembly, July 30, 1619.” He prepared to send it to Sir Dudley Carleton, serving as England’s ambassador at The Hague, a city that served as the governmental seat of the Dutch Republic (also called the States of the United Provinces). Why did Pory send them to an acquaintance in the Dutch Republic and not directly to London?

“The Proceedings” probably traveled on the White Lion, the privateer that arrived in Virginia in late August.  The ship had to sail to the port of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Dutch Republic because the ship had earlier obtained its letter of marque or commission for privateering from the Prince of Orange in the Dutch Republic, not from anyone in England.  England was at peace with Spain and any commission from England would be illegal if the ship planned to attack Spanish cargoes. Pory knew this situation, and directed the document to Ambassador Carleton at The Hague. The White Lion had remained in Virginia for several weeks after delivering the Africans. It was available, and apparently a very “fitt messenger.”

Pory indicated such in a letter dated September 30, 1619, to Dudley Carleton in which he discussed the ship he planned to use for transporting the document.  Pory noted that “the occasion of this ship’s [White Lion] coming [into Virginia] was an accidental consortship in the West Indies with the Tresurer, an English man of warre also, licensed  . . . to take Spaniards as lawfull prize.” In the letter, Pory said that he thought the ship “so fitt a messenger . . . this man of warre of Flushing” and that he had delivered his “pacquett” to the ship’s pilot, “one Marmaduke Rayner.” Pory told Carleton that the pilot Rayner would be the “fittest messenger” to deliver the “poore fruites of our labours here,” noting that the ambassador would probably see “many errours and imperfections . . . yet withal you wilbe contente to observe the very principle and rudiments of our Infant-Commonwealth.” He was describing the precious “Proceedings” of the Assembly that he was sending.

John Pory papers on exhibit

Page one of “The Proceedings of the First General Assembly, July 30, 1619,” on loan from the National Archives, UK, CO 1/1.

From The Hague, Dudley Carleton would send the document on to England and into the hands of Virginia Company officials in London. The first note of the document’s arrival in England appeared several months later in a letter of Feb. 12, 1620 from John Chamberlain in England to his friend Carleton at The Hague: “Yesterday I received your letters . . . but have not yet perused Master Pories parlement business.” Chamberlain was a friend of Carleton as well as a stockholder in the Virginia Company and a prolific letter writer who kept a pulse on activities in London. In April 1620 the Company recorded that its Treasurer, Sir Edwin Sandys, “having perused the Acts of the general assembly . . . found them in their greatest part to be very well and judicially carried and performed,” and established a committee for the “examination of the Acts of the Generall Assembly in Virginia.” The Records of the Virginia Company and personal correspondence indicate the interesting, convoluted route that Pory’s “Proceedings” took to arrive in the hands of Virginia Company officials in London.  And the White Lion, the same ship that delivered the first “twenty and odd” Africans to Virginia, assisted in their transport.

Pages of “The Proceedings of the First General Assembly, July 30, 1619,” written by John Pory, will be on display at Jamestown Settlement, for the first time in America since they were penned at Jamestown in 1619. This signature exhibit ushers in the new 1619 exhibits and is part of “Origins of American Democracy” commemorative events in July 2019.

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