After 400 years, it's time to see Jamestown clearly
All nations need foundation tales. If they don’t exist, it’s necessary to invent them. And if the real story doesn’t play well, foundation myths come in handy. At least until the real story comes back to bite.
Israel in its early days liked to recycle the stirring slogan of “a land without people for a people without land.” Zionists or not, Israelis today don’t buy the first part of that line. Taiwan for decades presented itself as the legitimate government of mainland China, sentenced to a kind of enforced sabbatical across the water. No more.
And France? It still can’t look at itself in the mirror. As its new president Nicolas Sarkozy declared, France remains an egalitarian republic “at the side of the world’s oppressed,” ushered in by the French Revolution. Pay no attention to those smashed boutique windows in the Place de la Bastille the other night or the roll-call way back at the same Place during France’s post-revolution Reign of Terror.
Philadelphians know better than most that the United States also trades in foundation myths, because the nation’s birth continues as a prominent part of our present. For a long time, slavery’s spot in the triumphalism of the American Revolution received hardly a nod, a distortion now receding even on Independence Mall.
NYU historian Karen Kupperman expertly articulates another traditional foundation tale in The Jamestown Project, a superb, clear-eyed history timed to the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Va., by 104 colonists. As the first permanent English settlement in America, Jamestown became a project marked by starvation, mass death, abuse of American Indians and despondency before the enterprise finally righted itself.
“Americans prefer to think of Plymouth colony in New England as our true foundation,” Kupperman writes at the outset of her brisk study. In our “agreed-upon national story,” she explains, we portray the Pilgrims, who arrived 13 years after Jamestown’s start, as “the direct opposite of the Jamestown group. They were humble people who wanted only a place to worship God as they saw fit, and they lived on terms of amity with one another and with the neighboring Indians. ... They occupied family farms and were content with self-sufficiency. They are the forbears we prefer to acknowledge.”
In contrast, Jamestown appeared a collection of “greedy, grasping colonists in America and their arrogant backers in England,” a “shambles of death and despair” in which half of the original colonists died within four months, along with 75 percent of the 6,000 who came between 1607 and 1624. Killed by typhoid, dysentery and salt poisoning, and often at each other’s throats, they also paid a price for their “belligerent intrusions” on the local Indians. That slowly turned the latter against them, culminating in a 1622 massacre of more than 300 Jamestown colonists. To make matters worse, Jamestown’s legacy included the first North American use of African slaves in its scramble for tobacco profits to keep the colony alive.
Kupperman’s accurate, balanced take on the relative roles of Jamestown and Plymouth in our collective memory acknowledges Jamestown’s sins, yet credits the earlier colony with painfully forging the business and political model—capitalist, representative democracy—that permitted English civilization to endure in the New World. The Pilgrims, she notes, “studied Jamestown’s record.”
One result of our historical favoring of Plymouth is that most Americans remain ignorant of basic Jamestown facts, a lacuna that Kupperman fills, as does prizewinning British author and broadcaster Benjamin Woolley in his jazzier Savage Kingdom. The story of the Pilgrims comes back to us when we eat turkey at Thanksgiving. Since we don’t annually eat rats or a salted, murdered, pregnant wife—both part of Jamestown’s “creation story from hell,” in Kupperman’s phrase—we’re foggy on details. For every American familiar with Capt. John Smith’s supposed romance with the 10-year-old Indian princess Pocahontas—by all accounts apocryphal, though she did marry Smith’s fellow colonist John Rolfe and die at 21—few know the miseries of Jamestown’s “Starving Time.”
The historical minutiae Kupperman and Woolley provide tell us much about America’s ethos, then and now. Like almost all European ventures in the New World, Jamestown started as a business project by venture capitalists, meant to return quick profit to investors. It succeeded because the people involved in it—the “rank and file,” according to Kupperman, rather than the elites—wouldn’t let it fail. Yet an ugly part of Jamestown’s survival is that it came only after colonists, following the 1622 massacre, dropped the Virginia Company’s “policy of appeasing the Indians” (in Woolley’s language) and decided to wreak whatever violence on them that they considered necessary, largely destroying them through superior numbers and arms.
Savage Kingdom narrates a popular, breathless, frequently shoot-‘em-up version of this whole story right to what Woolley calls the “brutal autumn” of 1623, when Jamestown colonists attacked the Indians, and one young leader, Henry Spelman, had his severed head thrown back at his 26 men by the local Pawtuxunt tribe.
Savage Kingdom—note that title—offers a summer-blockbuster version of Jamestown, full of action tempo, and a tilt against Kupperman’s credo that Jamestown remains best understood as a corporate project that evolved. Woolley’s rhetoric booms as he writes of “flawed, dispossessed, desperate people trying to reinvent themselves ... caught in a dirty struggle to survive, haunted by failure, hungering for escape, dreaming of riches and hoping for redemption.”
While both authors recognize that 17th-century claims of spreading Christianity west often camouflaged greed, Woolley more strongly interprets Jamestown as a patrician project usurped by ordinary colonists. That’s symbolized most enduringly by John Smith, whose belief in an “abounding America” open for the taking ultimately overran every other force. Read Woolley for fun, Kupperman for sure-handed scholarly context.
Both, by the way, should be faulted for paying no attention to “a greene Country Towne” founded in 1681 to “always be wholsome,” a place for the persecuted, a site of peace with the Indians, a city of brotherly love. That city also helps explain what the United States became.
One of America’s many glories as the world’s foremost free-expression society is that real stories eclipse foundation myths century by century, however tortuously. Proud of the beautiful ideals enshrined in our birth documents, well-educated Americans today nonetheless also understand the shameful elements of our history, from the assault on the Indians to the slavery that survived a Constitution aimed at ensuring individual freedom.
Anniversaries help in that regard—they focus the nation’s attention and galvanize authors and publishers to take stock. Queen Elizabeth and President Bush dropped by Jamestown.
And truth, not truthiness, is on the way.