Monday, May 14, 2007

The Jamestown Settlement's Shaky Beginnings

Today's the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Last week, Queen Elizabeth II toured the original settlement area around the James River, marking Britain's official commemoration of the first English colony in North America.

The first settlers in Jamestown had a rough go of it, and Edmund Morgan and Marie Morgan have an interesting article on "
Our Shaky Beginnings" in colonial Virginia in the April 26, 2007, edition of the New York Review of Books. Morgan and Morgan review the most recent historical literature on the Virgina colony, focusing primarily on the activities of Captain John Smith, who's generally recognized as the founder of the outpost. He was apparently the right man for the job:

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.
His "short way with shirkers" refers to the refusal of many of the English colonists to perform hard manual labor. Expecting a cornucopia of easy pickings off the land, the colonists' survival was practically doomed, were it not for the Native Americans who helped them survive:

Unwilling to shift for themselves in the matter of food, most of the settlers vaguely expected to live off the land, which meant living off its natives. Despite complaints that the Indians used their land inefficiently, the English assumed the existence of large crop surpluses. Because "their victualls are their chiefest riches," corn (maize) became the commodity of exchange. The natives knew to preserve meat, fish, vegetables, and other foodstuffs for their lean times, which could easily become starving times. Smith's companions, by contrast, could scarcely realize that lean times follow fat. When food was plentiful the whites habitually gorged. The succeeding shortages threatened the very survival of Jamestown. One of the supply ships, "idly loitring 14 weeks," consumed the greater part of the food "as was provided to be landed [for] us," then sold what remained "at 15 times the valew." Once the settlers were rid of the mariners, they discovered that the ship's rats had also colonized Jamestown. They ate so much of the "casked corn" that "this did drive us all to our wits ende, for there was nothing in the countrie but what nature afforded."
Things turned pretty nasty over time. Morgan and Morgan cite William Kelso's archeological study of the colony, Jamestown: The Buried Truth, and their passage notes that while there was an intense commitment to the success of the settlement, there were brutal costs to the colonial undertaking as well:

But if the artifacts show a commitment on the part of English investors, they cannot dispel the horrors—the diseases, the starvation, and most of all the fecklessness—of the early years when civil men showed themselves less capable of surviving than the natives. The steadfast investors lost their money, and most of the settlers lost their lives. Of the five or six thousand sent there before 1625, a census taken that year showed only 1,210 survivors.
I liked the review, overall. It is informative and balanced, Yet, toward the end of the piece we get incursions of the "new social history," which aims to convey the historical record from the perspective of the oppressed, in this case the Indians who were eventually decimated. Morgan and Morgan conclude by noting the clash of cultures between the settlers and the natives, which proved to be unreconcilable. Jamestown's victory over the Indians set the model for the later colonization of Britain's North American empire:

There was, however, one respect in which the experience and practice of subsequent colonies paralleled those of Jamestown: they dealt with the Indians the same way. Like Jamestown most of them began with the intention of bringing civility and Christianity to the natives. But with few exceptions the intention was not or could not be carried out. The early decision of Virginians to exterminate their hosts was not a model that others deliberately followed. It was, rather, a case of the same clash of outlooks, beliefs, and purposes producing the same results. Civil and uncivil peoples ended up wishing to extirpate each other, but civil people proved to be better at it.

Civility made property, whether in land, clothing, housing, or offices, an extension of the individual's person. The indifference of the uncivil to this expression of self was intolerable to those who valued themselves by it. When white men chose to go over to the uncivil side, they could expect severe retribution. But the Powhatans' indifference signified for the English a dehumanized otherness that justified dispossessing them of land they did not properly make theirs anyhow. All the distinctions that later attached to race were already present in the deep divide between "civil" and "uncivil." Warfare between Indians and English in all the colonies took on an ideological intensity that heightened the brutality.
Morgan and Morgan essentially assert the dominance of a superior civilizational model, and they do not mention a British attempt at genocide. That's not true, of course, of the scholarship of more radical historians (see Guenter Lewy's Commentary article, "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?" for more on that hard-left perspective).

I blogged earlier on the Jamestown settlement, citing U.S. News and World Report's triumphalist cover story, "The First Americans." I remember reading some critical letters to the editor in a later edition of the magazine objecting to the author's reference to Native American women as "squaws." In any case, I guess everything's touchy to the politically correct crowd, no?

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