STOCKHOLMIA 2019 Private Treaty Sale

Lot 5

Bermuda, 1617 (May 22), the Sir Robert Rich correspondence, the earliest letter from Bermuda—and the earliest letter from any extraterritorial British colony in private hands

For the historian, Bermudian or postal.

An extraordinary three-page letter from Charles Wolferston, on Bermuda, to Sir Robert Rich at High Holborne, describing conditions on the island. The letter is a single folio-sized sheet folded, three sides correspondence, the last the address. Three horizontal mail folds and minor edge wear; fore-edge chipped on page two, affecting a few words of text. Public Record Office handstamp on verso.

Addressed "To my Honorable good friend Robert Rich, Knight at his house in Hyghe Holborne," the letter is docketed, possibly in Rich's own hand, "from Somer Islande."

* * *

Rich (grandson of Richard Rich, who played an important role under Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries and the prosecution of Thomas More) was created first Earl of Warwick in 1618, and was an early supporter of English colonies in the New World. He was a shareholder in the Virginia Company—behind the foundation of Jamestown—and also backed the Somers Isles [Bermuda] Company when it was founded in 1612, holding 3% of total shares in the latter by 1618. For Richard's progeny, it seems, even Wales was not enough.

Wolferston was an early English colonial administrator, who would serve as governor of Barbados from June 1628 to February 1629. At the time he penned this letter, he may have been acting as Rich's agent in Bermuda.

The letter here offered is thus one of the earliest detailed first-hand accounts of Bermuda to survive, offering a glimpse of the island just five years after colonization began.

Wolferston's voyage was quick and prosperous, it seems, despite the failures at whaling. Conditions on the island were difficult, with a continuing plague of worms and rats (brought to the island in life-saving meal in 1615, but not exterminated until 1620), difficult crop-raising, supplies failing to be delivered, and the need for shoes. The Bermuda Company had been established as an off-shoot of the Virginia Company and, as on the mainland, the hope—furthered by Wolferston here—was for profits from tobacco. Other areas of commerce (whaling, pearl diving) or the "hope of war" were also held out as potential money-makers. One of Bermuda's eventual economic bases, regional trade, is also mentioned as Wolferston planned to sail to the West Indies.

The letter comes to us through Robert Rich's third wife, Eleanor Wortley, who, on Robert's death, married Edward Montagu, Second Earl of Manchester. In 1880, the Seventh Duke of Manchester, William Montagu, placed the Manchester papers with the Public Record Office. The Office, expecting that they would be gifted the papers at some point, struck each item with their oval handstamp. In 1970, however, the Tenth Duke, Alexander, withdrew them from the PRO and sold them—along with the family estates and anything else that could raise cash. This letter was sold in the May 5, 1970, Sotheby's Parke-Bernet auction of Sir Nathaniel Rich's American Papers.


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