Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Somers, George
SOMERS or SUMMERS, Sir GEORGE (1554–1610), virtual discoverer of the Bermudas, born at or near Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1554, was son of John Somers of that town. He bore the same arms as those of the family of John, lord Somers [q. v.], but the exact connection has not been traced. At an early age he took to the sea. With Sir Amyas Preston [q. v.] he joined in a buccaneering voyage to the Spanish Main in 1595, and captured the town of St. Jago de Leon, an exploit in which he displayed much heroism. Somers and his companions returned to London in September (Hakluyt, Voyages, 1600, iii. 578 seq.) Other expeditions of a like kind occupied him in the following years. He took part in the Island's voyage (to the Azores) in the summer of 1597. Coming back in charge of a small ship, he was separated from the main fleet in a storm in the Bay of Biscay, and was given up for lost. On 29 Oct. 1597 Sir Walter Ralegh, Lord Thomas Howard, and Charles Blount, sixth lord Mountjoy, the leaders of the expedition, who arrived before him in safety at Plymouth, wrote hastily to Essex, their colleague and commander-in-chief: ‘Wee have this Saterday night received the cumfortabell newse of George Summers arivall, whose letter we have here withall sent your lordshipp’ (Edwards, Life of Ralegh, ii. 180–1). In 1600 Somers again sailed—as captain of the Vanguard—for the Azores, on a vain look-out for Spanish treasure-ships (Monson, p. 196). In 1601 he was in command of the Swiftsure at the attack on the Spanish fleet in the harbour of Kinsale (ib. p. 197). In September 1602 he set sail for a third time for the Azores, now in command of the Warspight. Eight other ships formed part of the expedition, which was in charge of Sir Richard Leveson. On the voyage home a carrack was seized off Lisbon (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, p. 161).
Somers was knighted at Whitehall on 23 July 1603 (Metcalfe, Knights, p. 147), and apparently remained quietly at his native place for the next five or six years. He was elected M.P. for Lyme Regis on 25 Feb. 1603–4, and in 1605 he was mayor of the town. A laudatory sonnet on Somers, by Thomas Winter, is appended to the latter's translation of Du Bartas's ‘Third Dayes Creation’ (1604).
In 1606 Somers was one of the chief movers in the formation of the London or South Virginian Company for the colonisation of Virginia. On 23 May 1609, when James I granted the company a new charter, he was nominated admiral of the association. He had the reputation of ‘a man of good skill in all passages’ (Neill, Virginia Company, i. 53). At the same date a fleet of nine vessels was formed under Somers's command to convey a body of settlers to the colony. His companions included Sir Thomas Gates [q. v.], lieutenant-general; Thomas West, third lord De la Warr, captain-general; and Captain Christopher Newport [q. v.] The expedition sailed from Plymouth on 2 June, Somers embarking with Gates and Newport in the Sea Venture. After some eight weeks a hurricane scattered the little fleet, and the Sea Venture was wrecked, on 25 July, off the rocky coast of some islands in mid-Atlantic. Though the identification has occasionally been disputed by Spanish writers, there seems no doubt that these islands were those that had been sighted for the first time in 1515 by a Spanish seaman named Juan Bermudes, whence they obtained the name of Bermudas. They were not known to have been inhabited by man, and Somers took possession of them in the name of the king of England. They have remained British possessions ever since. At first they were known as Virginiola, but afterwards they were called indifferently by their original name of Bermudas or by that of Somers' or the Summer Islands. The latter designation at once commemorated their second discoverer and their mild climate.
Somers and such of his companions as survived the shipwreck remained nearly ten months on the islands. They were troubled by hogs, which overran the islands, and by mysterious noises which they could only explain as the cries of spirits and devils. After contriving to build two small barks, Somers and his companions set out in them for Virginia on 10 May 1610. They arrived at James Town on the 23rd. Somers stayed only till 7 June, when he embarked on the James river, intending to return to England. But before he reached the open sea he met his fellow-voyager, Thomas West, third lord De la Warr, who induced him to turn back with him to James Town. On 19 June he cheerfully offered to revisit the Bermudas, in order to procure a supply of fish and hogs for the wellnigh starving settlement in Virginia (Lefroy, i. 10–11). Sir Samuel Argall [q. v.] joined him in a second ship, but a storm soon separated them, and Somers reached the Bermudas alone early in November. There he died on the 9th of the month of a ‘surfeit of eating of a pig’ (Howes, Chronicle, 1631). His heart was buried in the land on which the town of St. George now stands, and a wooden cross was placed above the spot (W. F. Williams, Hist. and Statistical Account of the Bermudas, p. 16; John Smith, Hist. of Virginia, bk. iii. pp. 118–19). Matthew Somers, a nephew, who was with him, brought his body to England, where it was buried with military honours in the church at Whitchurch in Dorset. His property included, besides a house and lands (Berne Manor) at Whitchurch and three messuages in Lyme Regis, the manor of ‘Upwey alias Waybay House.’ All his real estate he left to Matthew Somers, though Nicholas Somers, a cousin, was stated to be heir-at-law, and Sir George was survived by his wife Joanna. The will was proved by a brother John on 24 Nov. 1612.
Many accounts of Somers's shipwreck and life in the Bermudas were published by his companions (see below). The narrative of one of them, Silvester Jourdain [q. v.], is believed to have suggested to Shakespeare the setting of the ‘Tempest’ (cf. E. D. Neill, Early Settlement of Virginia and Virginiola, as noticed by Poets and Players, 1878). Matthew Somers left only three men in the Bermudas when he started with his uncle's remains for England. The three men found a quantity of ambergris, and news of the discovery increased the repute of the islands. In 1612 the Virginia Company sent representatives to re-examine them, and finally leased them in 1615 to a new company, called the Somers' Islands Company. Sir George's nephew Matthew thereupon petitioned the crown for compensation, asserting that his interests were prejudiced by the formation of the new company. His petition was rejected as vexatious (Neill, Virginia Company of London, pp. 53 seq.).
A portrait of Somers by Van Somer belongs to Miss Bellamy of Plymouth, a collateral descendant. An engraving from it appeared in Lefroy's ‘Historye of the Bermudaes or Summer Islands’ (Hakluyt Soc. 1882).
[A Discovery of the Bermudas, by Silvester Jourdain [q. v.], 1610, reissued, with another dedication, by W. C. in 1613 as A Plaine Description; R. Rich's Lost Flock Triumphant, 1610; Strachey's Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates from the Islands of the Bermudas, in Purchas his Pilgrimes, 1625, iv. 1733–42; Lefroy's Memorials of the Bermudas and History of the Bermudas (Hakluyt Soc.), 1882; Hutchinson's Dorset, ii. 253; Roberts's Hist. and Antiquities of Lyme Regis 1834, pp. 264–71; Lediard's Naval Hist. i. 301, ii. 423, 430; Sir William Monson's Naval Tracts; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. x. 39; Doyle's English Colonies in America; Brown's Genesis of the United States; cp. arts. Gates, Sir Thomas; Jourdain, Silvester; and Newport, Christopher.]