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December 9, 2009

Love and Hate in Jamestown

John Smith . Pocahontas . and the Start of a New Nation
David A Price - ISBN - 9781400031726

For those of you who read Lee Miller's Roanoke (previously reviewed here), this is another of the same genre; but the history of the first durable English settlement in the New World.

Price is "heavy" into John Smith and his importance no only to Jamestown--without him the colony would surely have failed--but as well to the early English settlement of America. There is a mini-bio of Smith developed throughout the text. Little known is that Smith was in many respects responsible for the Puritan colonies of New England . . . he led a voyage in 1615 to establish a settlement there. A prior attempt had been made to settle in Maine. And the 1620 Plymouth pilgrims planned to settle much further south. They, too, were also sponsored by the Virginia Company of London.

Jamestown was first settled in 1607. Most of the immigrants died, but were replaced annually by new recruits. Good thing, since between famine, Indian skirmishes, individual disagreements and the composition of many of the groups the early attrition rate exceeded 80%. Most were unsuited for such crude living, and many were scions of wealth who expected others to care for them. They were both unaccustomed to, and too "important" to work.

Originally the indigenous population was reasonably acceptant of the settlement, but became disenchanted as the settlers moved up river establishing multiple sites of occupancy. The too frequent murder of an Indian, and the colony's perpetual need for food didn't help a lot, either. Especially when they stole food the Indians refused to sell them. (They refused because their stores were inadequate to sustain themselves. They later refused in order to starve out the interlopers, who still hadn't learned to be independent.)

One of the first natives to become infatuated was Pocahontas, favored daughter/princess of the "Injun in Chief," Powhatan. You'll find Price's history of Pocahontas considerably different than Disney's, and from most of whatever else you have read. She was, however, a very important figure. She seemed attracted to then contemporary English ways and saved Smith's life several times. You'll recall that she married an Englishman, moved to England with him, was "honored" by the Queen--whom she never met--and loved the high life of London. Several years later, however, she died of Tuberculosis.

Her husband, John Rolfe, was one of the original tobacco cultivators of the New World, and marketing of the product to the Old World, a venture he returned to upon the death of his wife.

For the most part, being aware of the riches of the Spanish settlements, the Jamestown settlers were interested in the quick riches of gold and silver. They were sponsored by the Virginia Company, which anticipated immediate returns on their investment. (Sorry guys, wrong place.) The settlement didn't become productive until tobacco became popular and profitable, several decades later.

There is a too detailed history of the trials of early settlement, including Indian trading, sporadic conflicts and the exploration of the extended area. Originally the exploration was a continuation of the search for gold, but there was also the incremental search for other settlement sites. Slaves were an early item in Jamestown. And, surprisingly, some were dealt with as indentured servants, able to purchase their freedom, as were the white Europeans.

Later the text explores other and more distant settlements, and becomes arduous to read. As I have said about several books in my reviews, there is really too much detail to be of great interest to the non-historian. I found myself fast-forwarding thru some of his meticulous recantations of how many bushels of corn were traded for how many knives and hatchets, guns, powder and beads; details of altercations, invasions, wars and executions. Too many "notes."

Of interest was his diversion into a discussion of Bermuda--then unoccupied--and how it figured into the Jamestown settlements. His dissertations on King James--a living pig--were interesting, even humorous. Seems he never changed clothes until they fell apart, and bathed so rarely that his odor was indescribable.

The arrogance of these early Englishmen was appalling. They seem to have misunderstood why the natives were not enamored of their endless acquisition of land. After all, there was plenty to go around, and settlements were rather sparse. What could be the harm? The 10,000 acres set aside for a college at the site of Pocahontas' conversion to Christianity didn't seem inappropriate to them. There was little recognition, even when territories were occupied by thousands of newcomers who viewed native territory as an English birth-right. Not surprisingly the interlopers eventually annihilated the inhabitants, which was, of course, what the natives had feared.

I'd give it a 6 on a scale of 10, unless one is very interested in minutiae.

Posted by Curmudgeon at December 9, 2009 12:30 PM