Christopher Newport

Explorer

Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

A renowned privateer, he later led the ships bound for Jamestown and explored the Chesapeake Bay.

Name: Christopher Newport

Birth/Death: 1561 CE - 1617 CE

Nationality: English

Birthplace: England

Christopher Newport, by Allan D. Jones Jr.

Christopher Newport Sketch

A twentieth-century drawing depicts Christopher Newport, an experienced English privateer who captained the flagship Susan Constant, one of three ships that delivered settlers to found the colony at Jamestown for the Virginia Company of London in 1607. This sketch by Virginia artist Allan D. Jones Jr. was probably a head-and-shoulders study for the figure of Newport that appears in the artist's large mural that hangs in the Newport News Public Library. That twenty-seven-foot-long color oil painting depicts the sea captain standing on the shore of the James River upon his arrival in 1607. The mural was unveiled in 1957, as part of the celebration of the 350th anniversary of the landing in Jamestown. From the collection of The Mariners' Museum.

Early Life

Christopher Newport was born in 1561 in Harwich, a seaport town in the county of Essex, England. Christopher Newport’s father was a ship-master. By the time he was a teenager, Newport was working on large sailing ships like his father.

Privateering

Christopher Newport first began working as a privateer in 1580, sailing on the Minion. In 1587, he served under Sir Francis Drake to attack the Spanish fleet at Cádiz. In 1589, he became master, or second-in-command, of the Margaret, another privateering ship. The following year he became a captain, commanding the Little John. He became a highly sought-after privateer and was feared by the Spanish, having led more attacks on Spanish ships and settlements than any other English privateer. In 1590, during an attack on a Spanish treasure ship, Newport lost his right forearm. Newport did much of his privateering in the West Indies (Caribbean), but also on the Barbary Coast (coast of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria) and on the coast of West Africa.

Between 1592 and 1595, he commanded the Golden Dragon. One of his most successful raids was his four-flotilla attack on the Spanish ship Madre de Dios, which was carrying riches from the New World. His skill in privateering was so great that in 1594, Newport became Admiral of the English privateering fleet. Between 1595 and 1603, Christopher Newport was partial owner of the Neptune until King James I outlawed privateering for trade. At this point, Newport’s privateering career came to an end.

Voyages

The Chesapeake Bay was discovered by the Spanish in 1525.  It was named the Bay of Santa Maria, and on an expedition in 1561, it was discovered to have abundant natural resources. However, the Spanish focused their attention farther south, and left Virginia largely unsettled. This area was ripe for exploration by another nation, and the English were eager to gain a foothold in the New World.

Christopher Newport joined the Virginia Company (then called the London Company) in 1606, and was quickly promoted to Admiral. He was placed in charge of the company’s 1607 journey to Virginia, and commanded one of three ships, the Susan Constant. The Godspeed was commanded by Bartholomew Gosnold, while the Discovery was commanded by John Radcliffe. They landed at Cape Henry, and continued to sail up the James River to find a strategic location for a settlement that could be protected. They called it Jamestown after the king of England, James I. Newport, Gosnold, and Radcliffe were made members of a seven-person governing council by the London Company. However, the early years of Jamestown were disastrous, plagued with famine and infighting. Nonetheless, Newport explored Virginia and slowly gained the trust of the natives as he maintained positive relations and did not attack them or steal food.

Newport left Jamestown to retrieve supplies and would make three more trips to Virginia between 1608 and 1611, as he was committed to the long-term development of the Virginia Colony. One of his most famous trips was in 1609, when he commanded the Sea Venture. The Sea Venture sailed on May 15, 1609, with 150 passengers and crew. Newport had chosen a more northerly route to Virginia to avoid the Spanish. They were close to Virginia when a hurricane hit, throwing them off course. The Sea Venture ended up running aground on Bermuda, where they remained stranded for nearly a year. Eventually they returned to Jamestown, and helped to keep the colony going.

In 1610, Christopher Newport was made Vice Admiral by Lord Delaware and later that year joined Lord Delaware’s council. In 1612, he became one of six Principal Masters of the Royal Navy. Newport left the Virginia Company in 1613 to join the East India Company. The split was friendly, as he was given shares of the company as a parting gift. With the East India Company, Newport explored and traded with the coast of Africa and Asia. Christopher Newport died in Bantam, Java, in August 1617.

Notable Ships

  • Minion

  • Margaret

  • Little John

  • Golden Dragon

  • Neptune

  • Susan Constant (captained by Christopher Newport)

  • Godspeed (captained by Bartholomew Gosnold)

  • Discovery (captained by John Radcliffe)

  • Sea Venture

Legacy

Christopher Newport established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. His peaceful negotiations with Powhatan’s tribes and his repeated resupplying voyages saved the English colonists at Jamestown from starvation and destruction, allowing the survival of the settlement. He later brought the first English ambassadors to Persia and India to expand trade.

Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, was named after this famed explorer.

  • Andrews, K.R. “Christopher Newport of Limehouse, Mariner.” William and Mary Quarterly. Volume XI, No. 1 (1954): p. 28-41. Print.

  • Boykin, Amy Williams. Christopher Newport. Foxhound Publishing, LLC. 2003. Print.

  • Elliot, J.H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830. Yale University Press. 2006. Print.

  • Glover, Lorri, and Daniel Blake Smith. The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaway and the Fate of America. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. 2008. Print.

  • McCartney, Martha W. Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary. Geographical Publishing Co, Inc. 2007. Print.

  • Nichols Jr, Allen Bryant. Captain Christopher Newport: Admiral of Virginia. Sea Venture. 2007. Print.

  • Zuill, William. The Wreck of the Sea Venture 1609. Globe Press Ltd. 1972. Print.

  • “Age of Exploration: Christopher Newport.” The Mariner’s Museum. N.P, N.D. 6/05/13.