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Our Shaky Beginnings

Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America

by Captain John Smith
Library of America, 1,329 pp., $45.00

The Jamestown Project

by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 408 pp., $29.95

In the procession of anniversary celebrations by which we congratulate our predecessors for begetting us, 2007 is the year to honor our shaky beginnings at Jamestown, Virginia. The 108 men and boys who stepped ashore on May 14, 1607, and the four or five thousand who followed them in the next fifteen years were the victims of a failed business enterprise. But enough of them survived starvation and disease, their sponsors’ negligence, and their own mistakes to start the first permanent settlement in what became the United States.

The early Virginians have generally been upstaged by the Pilgrim Fathers in our national memory. It is not clear how the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth thirteen years after them, gained the name of fathers, fathers not merely of New England but of the nation. Perhaps Jamestown lost out because Captain John Smith, who told the Jamestown saga with himself as the central actor, did not make a good father figure. He was twenty-eight when he arrived at Jamestown, left less than three years later, and never returned. William Bradford, who led the Pilgrim fathers, was only thirty in 1620, but in his classic account of the colony he writes like a father, while Smith writes like the soldier he was. Smith came out of the England of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Bradford from the England of Milton.

The Library of America has now produced a volume of Smith’s writings. It includes a dozen accounts of Virginia by fellow founders, but they all fall under his shadow as the man who mattered and knew it. The same is true of the volumes by modern scholars reviewed here: Karen Kupperman on the different forces behind the Virginia enterprise, James Horn and Benjamin Woolley on Smith’s strategies as a leader, William Kelso on archaeological evidence of what the settlers did under Smith, Helen Rountree on the way the Indians regarded him. Each of them offers a different perspective for modern readers, but they are all, in some sense, commentaries on Smith. And this review, too, is an interpretation of what his career reveals about American beginnings.

John Smith was only one of the daring young men of Elizabethan England who wandered the Continent from Istanbul to Madrid and on to the coasts of Barbary and Guinea, tasting the excitement of “heathenish” religious beliefs, casually joining the armies that fought the Spanish in the Netherlands or the Turks in Hungary, but coming home ready for whatever ventures might crop up in the expanding Atlantic sphere. What cropped up for Smith was a chance to join in a scheme for colonizing America that was just beginning to take shape. The Virginia Company of London was a belated attempt by English investors to capitalize on what had been learned about the New World and its inhabitants in the preceding century. The learning process had begun when England’s queen turned a blind eye to the sea dogs who preyed on Spanish treasure ships. Elizabeth transformed piracy into privateering by declaring war on Spain in 1585. John Hawkins and Francis Drake won her favor by tapping the wealth of New Spain, which set their countrymen thinking about other projects to dismantle the enemy’s empire and replace it with one of their own.

Sir Walter Ralegh had something like that in mind when he persuaded Elizabeth in 1584 to let him plant a colony in the land he named Virginia in honor of her celebrated, and perhaps notional, chastity. Ralegh’s colony was designed to extract the natural resources of a region the Spanish had written off as not worth the trouble. Its location on an island within the Carolina barrier reefs would enable Ralegh and his kind to use it as a base for raiding the Spanish fleets in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the settlers he had sent to Roanoke did not learn to live off the land. They were contemplating a move to the Chesapeake area when the next supply ship was diverted to the fleet that sailed out to meet the Spanish Armada of 1588. When another ship finally dropped anchor at the colony two years later, its inhabitants had disappeared. Roanoke thus became the famed “lost colony.”

But before that debacle several of Ralegh’s deputies had returned to England with enticing accounts, included in the Library of America volume, describing Virginia’s potential riches. One of them, John White, had drawn remarkably detailed depictions of American Indian life that portrayed an attractive and inventive, if barefoot and scantily clad, people. They staged dances, made ingenious implements, honored their dead, grew crops, and smoked fish. Their dwellings, however, were made of saplings, reeds, and other ephemeral materials.

As Kupperman emphasizes, ironically and perhaps fatefully, early English conceptions of Indian life and character became intertwined with the justification of another colonizing venture. Ireland was nominally under English rule, but effective control did not extend beyond the small district known as “the Pale,” centered on Dublin. The rest of the island was home to “the wild Irish,” who were divided into loose collections of warlike people with a common interest in defying the English. With the Spanish seemingly set on ruling the world, England awakened to the danger that Catholic Spain might take over Catholic Ireland as a stronghold for invading England. Subjugating the Irish became a way of forestalling Spain. Elizabeth began by parceling out the country to her favorites, Ralegh among them. These English overlords could either tame their wild Irish tenants or supplant them with a more productive and tractable population. It was the same problem that Ralegh faced at Roanoke and the Virginia Company would face at Jamestown, not to say the problem the United States would face in its long march across North America.

The Irish shared with American Indians a profound deficiency that required correction if they were to make proper subjects: they were not civil. That word carried hidden meanings and connotations that would reverberate throughout American history. Civility was a way of life not easily defined, but its results were visible: substantial housing and ample clothing. Uncivil peoples were naked and nomadic. Civility required of those who deserved the name a sustained effort, physical and intellectual. It did not require belief in Christianity, for the ancient Greeks and Romans had it; but Christianity, or at least Protestant Christianity, was impossible without it. The Irish Catholics and those Indians converted by Spanish or French missionaries were not, in the English view, either civil or Christian. The objective of colonization was to bring civility and Christianity to the uncivil, in that order.

The objective was threatened, indeed civility itself was threatened, if lazy colonists, coveting the unfettered life of the uncivil, went native, or, it might be said, went naked. “Clothes were of tremendous importance,” Kupperman notes, “because one’s whole identity was bound up in the self-presentation of dress. The Scots and Irish—and soon the American Indians—could not be civil unless they dressed in English clothes, like civilized people, and cut their long hair,” signs of a capacity to submit to the enlightened government of their superiors.

England’s preferred way of civilizing the Irish was through force of arms, but after ruthless military expeditions failed to bring widespread peace, and with it civility, the new solution was to plant the country with people who already rejoiced in that condition. Refractory natives would learn by example, or simply give way, left to a wretched existence on the margins of a profoundly transformed Ireland. Not long before the Virginia Company began supplying people to Jamestown for much the same purpose, the English authorities began settling far larger numbers across the Irish Sea, an estimated 100,000 by 1641.

Jamestown was small beer by comparison, but the English experience of the natives at Roanoke suggested that they would be less of a problem than their Irish counterparts. Nevertheless, it would not be safe to assume that any uncivil people would cheerfully submit to the required indoctrination. The first thing to be built at Jamestown was a crude fort. This was a sound move, for the Indians had already encountered emissaries from the world of civility: fifteen years before Roanoke a Spanish mission had camped in the Chesapeake. The natives had learned that civil people were far from easy to live with, so they did not hesitate to attack the next lot of Europeans. The fort (and its successor) became the heart of the settlement, both as a command center and as a palisaded exemplar of civility. There decently dressed Englishmen would erect respectable cottages that kept out the weather and allowed them to eat and sleep in comfort while civilizing and Christianizing “the Salvages.” That, at any rate, was the ideological basis of their enterprise.

It had, of course, a material basis that reflected the ideological one. It was a joint-stock company expecting to make a profit from the natives to whom it brought the benefits of civility. There were about 15,000 of them in eastern Virginia when the English arrived, organized into a cross between a federation and a small empire under the direction of a single chief, Powhatan. Confronting them was a group of Englishmen, never more than five hundred in the first years, badly in need of a leadership that only one man among them could provide. In the face of the company’s ambiguous and diffuse delegation of authority, John Smith took charge and made it his job to win white ascendancy, or at least acceptance, from a people who did not relish the role that the English expected them to play. The fortunes of the Virginia Company were very much in his hands. And the story that has dominated our understanding is the eventful, witty, and in many ways perplexing account he has left us.

John Smith had all the qualities we associate with the Elizabethan soldier of fortune: physical and mental toughness, tactical acumen, deadly skill in the arts of war, and a short way with naysayers and shirkers. To these martial traits must be added omnivorous curiosity, fluency in foreign languages, excellent powers of observation and deduction, and a way with words. Most of all Smith had two qualities exalted in the Age of Elizabeth: style and sangfroid. His self-esteem and self-sufficiency made possible a life of ceaseless travel, discovery, peril, and controversy. Without Smith’s bumptious pragmatism and ability to command and control men and circumstances, Jamestown might have suffered the fate of the Roanoke colony.

If his reports of what he did there are self-serving, how could arguments in favor of annexing foreign lands and suppressing native populations for the sake of riches and the confounding of a nation’s enemies not be self-serving? Unlike other writers (Richard Hakluyt, for example) who claimed expertise in overseas expansion, Smith could truthfully say,

Of the most things therein, I am no Compiler by hearsay, but have beene a reall Actor; I take my selfe to have a propertie in them: and therefore have beene bold to challenge them to come under the reach of my owne rough Pen.

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