May 08, 2007

Commemorating Jamestown, then and now

The unexpected appearance of the truth in Jamestown

Last time the Queen visited, 50 years ago, the ugly side of colonialism's legacy was easily hidden. Today, that is impossible

Then:The visit was a triumph. For some, it was a model of how national anniversaries should be marked, in a robustly patriotic mood, free of moral relativism and political correctness. But that, of course, was achieved by ruthlessly excising complicating or compromising factors. The scene had been set some weeks before the Queen's arrival. At a commemorative dinner hosted by Governor Stanley in Virginia's state capital, Richmond, seven of the "distinguished sons and daughters of the Old Dominion" invited to attend found themselves unceremoniously excluded when it was discovered they were black. Meanwhile, in Jamestown the festivities got under way without a Native American in sight, the only hint being a white drama teacher from a local school dressed as Pocahontas.Now:Fifty years on, the picture is very different. When the Queen arrived in Richmond on Thursday, she could barely move for Native Americans, meeting representatives of each of Virginia's eight tribes, before moving on to make a speech in which she endorsed "the 'melting pot' metaphor" as capturing "one of the great strengths" of the modern US.

As for the anniversary of Jamestown itself, the word celebration has been banned. Instead we have "America's Anniversary Weekend", in the hope that what sounds like a wholesome family outing will create the right melting pot mood. James Earl Jones has duly been invited to perform, Chaka Kahn to sing, and the Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra (who grow their own instruments) to play.
What it means:Meanwhile, the darker, more complex dimensions of the Jamestown story have if anything flourished. The way the colonists treated Native Americans, the importing of Angolans pirated from Portuguese slave ships, the exploitation of the land to grow tobacco, the chronic infighting that nearly destroyed the settlement in its first months--these have become potent elements in attempts to make sense of the combination of high principles and base motives that are such a feature of American history--no more so than the country's recent history of engagement with the Middle East.

As a result, a theme that is not usually much in evidence around the time of national anniversaries has made an unexpected appearance in Virginia: history. There has been an outpouring of books (to which I have contributed), films and articles about those first English settlers. The result has been a profound shift of understanding--unseating, at least for the moment, those pious latecomers the Pilgrim Fathers (the Mayflower arrived in North America 13 years after the Jamestown settlers) from their privileged perch. Despite its faults--perhaps because of them--Jamestown has, at last, emerged as the birthplace of America.

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