May 19, 2007

Jamestown as foundation tale

The Jamestown ProjectOne result of our historical favoring of Plymouth is that most Americans remain ignorant of basic Jamestown facts, a lacuna that Kupperman fills, as does prizewinning British author and broadcaster Benjamin Woolley in his jazzier Savage Kingdom. The story of the Pilgrims comes back to us when we eat turkey at Thanksgiving. Since we don’t annually eat rats or a salted, murdered, pregnant wife—both part of Jamestown’s “creation story from hell,” in Kupperman’s phrase—we’re foggy on details. For every American familiar with Capt. John Smith’s supposed romance with the 10-year-old Indian princess Pocahontas—by all accounts apocryphal, though she did marry Smith’s fellow colonist John Rolfe and die at 21—few know the miseries of Jamestown’s “Starving Time.”

The historical minutiae Kupperman and Woolley provide tell us much about America’s ethos, then and now. Like almost all European ventures in the New World, Jamestown started as a business project by venture capitalists, meant to return quick profit to investors. It succeeded because the people involved in it—the “rank and file,” according to Kupperman, rather than the elites—wouldn’t let it fail. Yet an ugly part of Jamestown’s survival is that it came only after colonists, following the 1622 massacre, dropped the Virginia Company’s “policy of appeasing the Indians” (in Woolley’s language) and decided to wreak whatever violence on them that they considered necessary, largely destroying them through superior numbers and arms.

No comments: