This week, he takes a look at the Jamestown Settlement.
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The treatment of indigenous peoples in English literature has been predictably horrendous; loaded with colonial attitudes and prejudices. This mentality seeped into the minds of America’s first settlers, and sparked centuries of discrimination and violence against Native Americans. We can trace the path of this racial ideology from the streets of London to the barren east coast of seventeenth century America through the life of John Smith—in history and in myth. Apologies in advance to Disney fans for ruining Pocahontas.
Image: Anna Rosemond as Pocahontas in the 1910 film, Pocahontas, by the Thanhouser Company (public domain)
Prior to becoming involved with the Virginia Company of London, Smith was living out quite an eventful youth. Following a dull childhood in Lincolnshire, he spent eight years larking around Europe and the Near East fighting indiscriminately for anyone with a cause and getting into trouble. He fought for Dutch independence from Spain, engaged in a little pirating, fought in the Long Turkish War, was sold into slavery, and escaped back to England.
No doubt feeling his life lacked adventure, he set sail almost immediately for Virginia and the false lure of profit. The Virginia Company’s three ships set sail from Blackwall Stairs in 1606 on the north bank of the Thames. You can stand there today and contemplate the modest beginnings of the colonization of America, and the diversity of consequences it would have for Native Americans, the settlers, and the world we now live in.
The Jamestown Settlement was a well-documented disaster for all involved. The settlers spent the first five years mostly dying of starvation and from the cold winters, as the Virginia Company continued to send more and more hapless migrants without a plan or any idea of what they would face. The Native Americans were treated as well as imperialists tended to treat aboriginal peoples; which is to say, without a shred of respect. They also died through repeated conflicts and unfamiliar diseases, which were sometimes deliberately passed on by the settlers.
Image: John Smith and the New England map (public domain)
John Smith did some useful mapping and tried to maintain some measure of order in Jamestown. His most significant episode, though, was his encounter with Pocahontas. According to Smith in a retrospective account, he was captured by the Powhatans during a hunting expedition, and sentenced to death by Pocahontas’ father, the chief. Pocahontas then came to his rescue, and secured his release. Unlike in later artistic impressions of the incident, there was no romance between them—not least because Pocahontas would have been approximately twelve at the time.
After this, John Smith’s story becomes much less interesting. He was sent back to London in 1609 after an accident involving a canoe and a lot of gunpowder. Smith returned to the Americas once more to map the New England area. He would have returned twice more but for a storm and a shipful of obstreperous French pirates. He died in 1631, and is still buried at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate on Holborn Viaduct, London. There is also a stained glass window on the south wall of the church in his memory.
To continue tracking problematic attitudes about indigenous peoples, we can pick up Pocahontas’ life here. First, her encounter with John Smith was by no means beyond doubt. Smith’s is the only account, and he was writing many years later in a letter imploring that Pocahontas be treated with dignity in England. The story of the native girl saving the brave explorer from her tyrannical father was archetypal in English literature, and it is possible that Smith was aware of it at the time of writing. Nevertheless, it was around the time of their supposed meeting that her life took a turn.
Image: Pocahontas and John Rolfe portrait by J. W. Glass (public domain)
Pocahontas was taken captive during a long standoff between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatans. Her father returned some English prisoners in a bid to retrieve his daughter, but the settlers were unhappy that he did not also return stolen weapons. During this time, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and baptized. She was also made familiar with English customs. As the colonists saw it, she became civilized.
She was married to a settler named John Rolfe, remarkable for having cultivated the first tobacco crop in Virginia and not much else. He fell in love with her, and agonized over the repercussions for his soul if he were to marry a heathen, but eventually resolved that he would be saving her soul in their union. Pocahontas’ feelings are unknown and, sadly, were irrelevant.
Their marriage brought an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War, and was hailed as a triumph of imperialism. She sailed to London with her husband and son, and was paraded as a successfully civilized and Christianized “savage”. She was dressed in upper class English garb, and taken to elite gatherings as a kind of trophy. Pocahontas was used for the rest of her short life as supposed proof of the merits of colonialism. She died in her early twenties, and is thought to have been buried at St. George’s Church in Gravesend, just southeast of London. The church was later destroyed in a fire and rebuilt, but a life-size statue remains in her honor.
Photo: Pocahontas statue in Gravesend (public domain)
The story of Pocahontas has been told and retold in every artform, and is perhaps the mythological cornerstone of the American government’s subsequent reprehensible treatment of Native Americans. At every turn, prejudices against indigenous peoples are apparent. She was considered worthless but as a bargaining tool until she was converted to Christianity, and taught to abide by English customs and traditions. The lives of Pocahontas and John Smith, as well as the romanticized story of their entanglement, trace damaging, bigoted attitudes in America back to London, and shed a damning light on the legacy of colonialism.