Right Man, Wrong Place

The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631)

edited by Philip L. Barbour
University of North Carolina Press, 513 pp., $150.00

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith; drawing by David Levine

The conquest of North America brought fame to Elizabethans who otherwise would surely have died in obscurity. Because they took a chance on colonization, modern schoolchildren now memorize their names. This motley group included gentlemen down on their luck, courtiers hoping to catch the monarch’s eye, mercenaries eager for booty, sea captains who dabbled in piracy, and ordinary farmers who simply longed to better their lot in a new place. These adventurers traveled to the New World in search of opportunity, and though many came to unhappy ends, they managed by fair means and foul to plant an empire.

Such a person was Captain John Smith. Born in Lincolnshire in 1580, this son of a yeoman family found life on the farm dull, and after his parents had died, he set out to make a name for himself, to become a true English gentleman. To his contemporaries, the young man’s prospects must not have seemed very promising. In the race for honor and glory Smith had many able competitors. But throughout his career he never allowed unfavorable odds to discourage him, and in the late 1590s he decided to take his chances on the Continent. Though he had no clear plan, he believed in himself. Something would happen. He was lucky.

Smith had a number of elements working in his favor. He was a superbly coordinated athlete, and though he had received little formal education, he had read widely, especially in the latest works on military tactics. In Hungary, while fighting with the Imperial Army against the Turks, Smith’s learning served him well. He informed his commander of a new signaling device, which when put into use on the battlefield helped his troops win an important victory. This initiative earned the upstart Englishman the title “Captain.” Later, in hand-to-hand combat he decapitated three Turks, a feat that brought the ambitious yeoman a coat of arms appropriately inscribed with the heads of three Turks.

Smith was subsequently captured by the Turks and sold into slavery. He escaped from bondage by murdering his master and then riding across the Russian steppes, to villages that few Englishmen had ever visited. After sailing in a pirate ship off the coast of Africa, the twentyfour-year-old Smith returned in 1604 to Lincolnshire where old friends persuaded him—one suspects without too much difficulty—to join them in the settlement of Virginia, where he briefly served as the colony’s president. During the 1620s Smith discovered the commercial possibilities of telling his life story, and he produced several colorful accounts of his extraordinary travels and adventures. The captain died in 1631, and even if some Englishmen still disputed his claim to gentility, no one doubted that this particular yeoman had made a name for himself.

One would expect Smith to hold an honored place in early American history, but, oddly, the respect that Smith always craved eluded him. Contemporaries…

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