For as long as it’s been a part of history, the colony at Jamestown has been a bit of an older, ugly stepsister compared to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The goals and plight of the Pilgrims speak to the American imagination and reinforces the national self-image; the spirited group of immigrants, yearning for freedom and self-determination against all odds serves as a much more palatable touchstone than the nasty, brutish, capitalist venture on Chesapeake Bay, which forces a degree of reflection on the darker aspects of the nation’s genesis.
The Jamestown Project, by Karen Ordahl Kupperman, cleverly anticipates the queasiness of this hindsight, and decides to place the story in a new context. Rather than looking at the Jamestown colony as a somewhat awkward and uncouth seed from which contemporary culture would eventually spring in the New World, Kupperman instead casts it as the fully-bloomed product of the Old World, the culmination of centuries of bold exploration, social and cultural evolution, and technological innovation. It may not have been pretty, but it was the tipping point of a Western civilization that would continues westward until it ran out of land. The Jamestown Project knows that most people are familiar with what came after the establishment of Jamestown, and instead spends nearly two-thirds of the book describing in rich detail the startling story of a world coming to grips with its size and diversity for the very first time.
At the start of the book, the Jamestown colony seems impossibly far off on the horizon as Kupperman steeps readers in the complex and eerily familiar world of the 16th century. Much time is spent examining the West’s fear of Islamic pressures and the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, both geographically and culturally, on a Europe divided by religious differences. Weakened by infighting amongst Catholics and Protestants, the major nations of Europe conceived of American endeavors as a means to secure their positions at home. Spain, who had gotten off to an early lead in the race for the New World thanks to Columbus, had turned North American resources into European dominance, wielding their armada against Protestant nations.
These intra-European rivalries had allowed the Ottoman Empire to become the world’s largest and most prosperous entity. Though their geographical advances were a major issue, it seems as if their influence on culture frightened the mainstream European even more. The closer Islam got, the more attractive their relatively stable and burgeoning society looked to Christians weary of their difficult lives. By contrast to the religious strife of Christendom, Islam was remarkably tolerant, incorporating Christians and Jews into everyday life with no imposition. As Kupperman points out, western scholars at the time referred to the Ottomans as “the only moderne people.”
This modernity was alluring to westerners, and “turning Turk,” that is, fleeing to Ottoman controlled lands and adopting their ways, became epidemic. It was something of a 16th century moral panic, with the “Christian turned Turk” becoming a popular subject of ballads, theater, and apoplectic screeds warning of Christendom’s doom.
The “Christian turned Turk” was really an example of what Kupperman terms a “projector,” a class of people which arose during this age of exploration and adventure and sought out new experiences in the vast blank sections of the map. Whether it was in the seductive embrace of the Ottoman East or the promise of potential in the New World, people were rising to the occasion, taking advantage of the new opportunities and using these feats to propel themselves to stature. Some were the genuine article, like famous Jamestown overseer John Smith, whose tale of travel and captivity occupies a riveting chunk of The Jamestown Project, others were craven opportunists like Sir Thomas Stukeley, who played Kings against one another to further his own agenda, his cunning and guile keeping him one step ahead of these imperial forces.
Halfway through The Jamestown Project, it becomes apparent that Kupperman has cloaked a much more interesting and entertaining story in the shroud of the familiar colony. It’s only the last third of the book which covers the colony’s development, and while it is insightful and an excellent exploration of the neglected encampment, it’s the tale of these “projectors” that is the truly captivating narrative. Every word that reveals what the world was like before everything refocused on America, how people lived and made their way in this exciting time when the modern world was being born, is stunning. For Americans, it can be difficult to look back across the Atlantic and grasp what was occurring, what motivated those “projectors” beyond the simplistic maxims learned in elementary school. The Jamestown Project does just that, and it’s easy to see why the present is the way it is, finally knowing the origins of the past.