Plantation of Virginia, The

Anon. (1623)

Historical Records

Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert

Two versions of the licensing of this play (by the Master of the Revels, Sir Henry Herbert) exist:

1623, August. “For the Company at the Curtain; A Tragedy of the Plantation of Virginia; the profaneness to be left out, otherwise not tolerated.”

(Herbert 24) (Fleay adds that this was “The last entry for the Curtain, which was finally closed before the next entry [in Herbert’s list],” 301).

J. O. Halliwell-Phillips transcribed a number of Sir Henry Herbert's licensing records and compiled them in various scrapbooks now held at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Amongst them is the following transcription:

Plantation of Virginia.jpg

     August [1623.]

A Tragedy of the Plantation of Virginia, the proph
[propheness left out]
contayninge 16 sheets & one         May be acted
[els not for the]
companye at the Curtune

Founde fault with the length of this playe &
[commanded a]

reformation in all their other playes.

(Folger Shakespeare Library, MS W.b.156 ("Fortune"), p85. Reproduced by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Theatrical Provenance

Played at The Curtain (Herbert 24), by Prince’s (Harbage). Bentley, however, sees greater complexity in the issue:

It is not clear what company was acting at the Curtain in August 1623. (See above, i. 205-9). Prince Charles’s (I) company had recently been there, but they appear to have moved to the Red Bull by this date and left the Curtain to some troupe that was not one of the regular London companies. (Ibid.) Such a troupe could have been one of those which normally played in the provinces but which was trying a London season. (V.1396).

Bentley further adds that “by 19 August 1623 they [Prince Charles’s men] were at the Red Bull, where the Master of the Revels, on that date, relicensed to them an old play called The Peaceable King or the Lord Mendall” (VI.137). Who, then, performed The Plantation of Virginia is uncertain. Writes Bentley:

At the Curtain the Prince’s men were succeeded by an unknown troupe, not one of the regular London companies—Prince’s Lady Elizabeth’s, King’s, Palsgrave’s, and possibly the dying Revels company. What this company was is unknown, but one would guess that it was some provincial troupe trying to gain a foothold in London. For them the Master of the Revels licensed another lost play with a title even more titillating—at least for Americans. (VI.137)

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (Harbage); History (?); Foreign History (?).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

It is difficult to believe that a play of this name, appearing in 1623, could have taken for its subject matter anything other than the 1622 massacre of settlers by Indians in Virginia, which was one of the most historically significant events in England’s New World colonial endeavours and became a turning point in how the natives were treated by the English.

Alden T. Vaughan gives a good historical overview of the 1622 massacre (see esp. pp75-76), and Ransome gives a recent and concise summary of events:

Provoked by the recent expansion of the rapidly growing numbers of the English, encouraged by their new chief, the warlike Opechancanough, and exasperated by the colonists’ murder of the warrior-priest Nemettanow, the Powhatans in March 1622 attacked the dispersed settlements of the colonists, successfully clearing the English from the upper reaches of the James. Some three hundred of the colonists, roughly a quarter of the English-speaking population, were killed… (370)

Ransome notes that “[i]n late April the council at Jamestown sent news of the attack to London,” and cites Kingsbury (III.612) for the historical text:

they have massacred in all parts above three hundred men women and Children, and have, since nott only spoyled and slaine Divers of our Cattell, and some more of our People, and burnte most of the Howses we have forsaken, but have alsoe enforced us to quitt many of our Plantacions, and to unite more neerely together in fewer places the better for to Strengthen and Defende our selve against them. (Kingsbury’s transcript is available at the Library of Congress on pp.611ff).

If this lost play were about the 1622 massacre of settlers by Indians in Jamestown, then the following texts may be of significance:

  • Christopher Brooke. “A Poem on the Late Massacre in Virginia, with particular mention of those men of note that suffered in the disaster….” London, 1622. STC (2nd ed.) 3830.5.Brooke’s poem concentrates on the depraved nature of the Indians: they are ‘the very dregs, garbage, and spawne of Earth’ and he calls for their complete annihilation.” (Jowitt 202)
  • Edward Waterhouse. A Declaration of the State of the Colony in Virginia. 1622. STC (2nd ed.) 25104. (EEBO)

References to the Play

Could this be the play that Captain John Smith refers to when he says “they have acted my fatall Tragedies upon the Stage” (True Travels A2r-v)? (See "The Hungarian Lion"). In his New Englands Trials (1622) he makes mention of the massacre:

An abstract of Letters sent from the Collony
in New England, July 16. 1622.
Since the newes of the massacre in Virginia, though the Indians continue their wonted friendship, yet are we more wary of them then before; for their hands hath bin embrued in much English blood, onely by too much confidence, but not by force.
Here I must intreate a little your favours to digresse. They did not kill the English because they were Christians, but for their weapons and commodities, that were rare novelties; but now they feare we may beate them out of their dens, which Lions and Tygers would not admit but by force.
(Smith C1v-C2r)

Critical Commentary

Bentley acknowledges that “[n]othing of the tragedy is known” but adds that “the title is highly suggestive, especially to those interested in colonial American history, for a play devoted largely to the American colonies would be unique at this time” (V.1396). Referring to the second version of Sir Henry Herbet’s licence (which “comes from an independent transcript of his office-book in a nineteenth-century hand … perhaps that of Craven Ord”), Bentley states:

This transcript adds the information about the length of the play and Herbert’s objection to it. Herbert seems to mean that the reformation he demanded in the rest of the company’s plays was in their length, but a reformation of profaneness would be a more usual request, especially if the company were a provincial one with an unfamiliar repertory. (V.1396)

Bentley elsewhere observes that “[n]o other Jacobean or Caroline play devoted largely to the American colonies is known, and it may be thought suggestive that this one was licensed for the lowly Curtain, that it was too long, and that it contained too much ‘prophaneness’” (VI.137).

Wright claims “we may be sure that A Tragedy of the Plantation of Virginia, licensed for performance at the Curtain in 1623 on condition that the profaneness be left out, attracted a throng of Londoners who had a personal interest in this undertaking. And we may also be reasonably certain that the authorities did not permit the actors to censure the management of that colonial project.” (634).

Parr believes "The Plantation of Virginia" was “presumably about the massacre of colonists by the Indians in 1622” (5), but does not elaborate.

McInnis, in the context of Behn’s Widow Ranter as the earliest extant play set in colonial America, notes that “[t]he English camps would presumably have been portrayed in an embryonic state in the lost play of 1623, "The Plantation of Virginia", which probably dramatised the Indians’ massacre of 347 English in dispersed settlements on 22 March 1622” (Mind-Travelling 186). Elsewhere, he situates the play alongside a number of other lost travel plays in the tragic mode, that appear to have dramatised "not only recent history, but sensitive recent history at that", and which therefore ought to prompt a reassessment of our picture of voyage drama ("Lost Plays" 539).

Alison Games examines the historical contexts of two events labelled as "massacres" by the English, and how meaning was ascribed to these acts of violence in popular representations; she includes the lost "Amboyna" play in discussion of the 1623 events in the Spice Islands (519) and the lost "Plantation of Virginia" play in discussion of the 1622 events in Virginia (519), arguing that "[t]he plays, ballads, pamphlets and pictures convey some of the strategies deployed in England both to understand and to respond to the violence English colonists and traders had endured so far from home" (520).

Claire Jowitt offers the most sustained contemplation of the lost play’s probable subject matter whilst discussing the first performance of Fletcher and Massinger’s The Sea Voyage at a time when “relations between indigenous Americans and British colonists were becoming increasingly hostile”:

Though Company instructions of 24 July 1621 had encouraged colonists to cement friendly relations with native Americans by allowing them into their settlements, the expanding number of English colonists, their needs for land and food, and their murder of the warrior-priest Nemettanow all meant relations were worsening. The conflict culminated in the massacre of approximately 347 Jamestown colonists by a confederation of tribes marshalled by chief Opechancanough on the morning of 22 March 1622, and as a result all policies of cultural accommodation were ended. According to Edward Waterhouses’s 1622 A Declaration of the State of the Colony in Virginia this ‘divellish murder’ was achieved through ‘treacherous dissimulation’ on the part of the native Americans. In April 1622 the council at Jamestown sent word of the murder of ‘above three hundred men women and Children’ and the news arrived in London in July. … It was not until 1623 that a play, A Tragedy of the Plantation of Virginia (now lost), was performed at the Curtain (censored so that the ‘prophaness [was] left out’) which focused on the massacre. Direct responses to the calamity can be found earlier in John Donne’s sermon preached to members and friends of the Virginia Company on 13 November 1622, his friend Christopher Brooke’s ‘A Poem on the Late Massacre in Virginia’, and the Virginia council replied to the Jamestown council on 1 August declaring that ‘replanting … is of absolute necessitie’.” (Jowitt 201-202)

For What It's Worth

Stanley Johnson (131n) observed that “[t]he earliest allusion in England to the massacre is the entry in the Stationers’ Register on 10 July of a (non-extant) ballad called Mourning Virginia.” Firth confidently declares, “It certainly celebrated the attack of the Indians on the colony in that year, when 347 of the colonists perished” (28).

John Donne’s “Sermon preached to the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, [13 November] 1622” was a response to the massacre. “Donne’s sermon, though less explicitly blood-thirsty, is concerned with an English evangelical mandate to spread the word of God among heathen peoples that simultaneously argues for native American dispossession under the Roman Law argument known as res nullius.” (Jowitt 202)

Works Cited

Barbour, Philip L., ed. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Brooke, Christopher. “A Poem on the Late Massacre in Virginia, with particular mention of those men of note that suffered in the disaster….” London, 1622. STC (2nd ed.) 3830.5 (See also Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 72.3 (July 1964): 285, for Robert Johnson’s edition of Brooke’s poem)
Firth, C. H. “The Ballad History of the Reign of James I.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 3rd series, 5 (1911): 21-61. JSTOR
Fleay, F. G. A Chronicle History of the London Stage, 1559-1642. NY: Burt Franklin, 1890.
Games, Alison. "Violence on the Fringes: The Virginia (1622) and Amboyna (1623) Massacres." History 98.336 (2014): 505-529.
Johnson, Stanley. “John Donne and the Virginia Company.” ELH 14.2 (1947): 127-38. JSTOR
Jowitt, Claire. Voyage Drama and Gender Politics, 1589-1642: Real and Imagined Worlds. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003.
Kingsbury, Susan M. (ed). The Records of the Virginia Company of London. 4 vols. Washington DC, 1906-35. Library of Congress (scroll down to “Records of the Virginia Company - Published Edition”)
McInnis, David. “Lost Plays from Early Modern England: Voyage Drama, A Case Study,” Literature Compass 8/8 (2011): 534-42.
Download a pdf of the article (The definitive version is available at
McInnis, David. Mind-Travelling and Voyage Drama in Early Modern England. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Parr, Anthony (ed). Introduction. Three Renaissance Travel Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, c1995; rpt. 1999. The Revels Plays Companion Library.
Ransome, David R. "Village Tensions in Early Virginia: Sex, Land, and the Status at the Neck of Land in the 1620s." The Historical Journal 43.2 (2000): 365-381. JSTOR
Smith, John. A description of New England: or The obseruations, and discoueries, of Captain Iohn Smith (admirall of that country) in the north of America, in the year of our Lord 1614. London, 1616. (EEBO)
---. Nevv Englands trials Declaring the successe of 80 ships employed thither within these eight yeares; and the benefit of that countrey by sea and land. With the present estate of that happie plantation, begun but by 60 weake men in the yeare 1620. And how to build a fleete of good shippes to make a little nauie royall. Written by Captaine Iohn Smith, sometimes Gouernour of Virginia, and Admirall of New England. London: Printed by William Iones, 1622.
---. The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine Iohn Smith, In Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America, from Anno Domini 1593. to 1629. London, 1630. (EEBO)
Vaughan, Alden T. “ ‘Expulsion of the Salvages’: English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series, 35.1 (1978): 57-84. JSTOR
Waterhouse, Edward. A Declaration of the State of the Colony in Virginia. 1622. STC (2nd ed.) 25104. (EEBO). Also available via the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson Papers).
Wright, Louis B. Middle-class culture in Elizabethan England. London: Methuen, 1964 reprint.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated, 30 March 2016.