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Rediscovering Jamestown

The story of Jamestown, England’s first enduring North American colony, is full of adventure, mystery and even a hint of romance. But in the beauty contest of world historical events, it has never sparkled. Greed, incompetence, brutality, venality, genocide and slavery are all a part of the plot—hardly an inspiring combination for those wanting an uplifting tale of national origins. That is surely why the story of the Pilgrim Fathers, despite some less attractive features of its own, has won the world’s hearts.

The nail in the coffin came in 1932, driven home with apparently deadly academic precision by Wesley Frank Craven in his influential book The Dissolution of the Virginia Company: The Failure of a Colonial Experiment. He argued that the Jamestown venture had foundered as a result of poor planning and incompetence, which resulted in King James I dissolving the venture in 1622 and taking direct control.

What might be called the Craven view of Jamestown has since prevailed, reinforced by the indefatigable biographer of Captain John Smith, Philip Barbour. Barbour’s Smith is a heroic visionary of humble origins thwarted by English snobbery and greed. The reason the Jamestown settlers suffered so badly in the first years, according to Barbour, was because they were a bunch of ‘Tuftaffaty humorists’ (Smith’s marvellous phrase) who lacked the captain’s resolve and ignored his good advice.

In my book Savage Kingdom, my aim has not been revisionism. Instead, I have tried to tell the story from more than the usual single perspective—that of the English settlers. I wanted to find out about the venture’s champions, opponents and victims as well. No easy task, given the fractured and sometimes contradictory historical record, but partly achieved, I believe, by paying very close attention to the original texts, which I have laboriously copied into my computer, creating a text database running to over three and a half thousand books and documents, and over two million words. It was in the analysis of this database that a different story of the settlers began to emerge.

The early years in Jamestown were certainly dreadful for the English, marked by famine and chronic infighting. However, this was largely due to two factors beyond the settlers’ control. The first was a longer than expected Atlantic crossing. The managers of the venture had provided the hundred or so settlers sent on the first three ships with food to last eight months. It was calculated that, leaving in December, 1606, the fleet would take about two months to cross the Atlantic (a reasonable, if optimistic, assessment), depositing the settlers in America in early spring. This would give them time to clear land and plant crops, which could be harvested when the supplies began to run out the following August.

Inevitably, events did not unfold as planned. Poor weather conditions in the English Channel resulted in the fleet taking the best part of five months to reach America and find a suitable location for a base. This meant the settlers were not unloading their ships until the middle of May, too late in the growing season to start clearing and planting fields, so there were no crops to harvest once the supplies they had brought with them began to run out later that summer. This made them reliant on the Indians, which brings us to the second factor: Virginia was at the time suffering from the worst drought to hit that region of North America in 800 years. The Indians could barely feed themselves, let alone the English, even if they had wanted to (which some did, in return for copper, which the Indians prized highly).

In their first accounts of Virginia, the settlers boasted of its fertile soil and bountiful wildlife. How come, critics have argued, that this abundance was not enough to sustain them? An answer can be found by examining the Indians’ own experience. They were superb hunters, fishermen and foragers, capable of exploiting their environment to the full. Yet, averaged out over the year, only a third of their daily needs could be supplied by such means, the other two thirds coming from cultivating corn and beans. The English were never going to match, let alone surpass that performance. The bald fact was that they needed to find around a ton of corn a week just to survive.

Nevertheless, they were not helped by infighting among the settlement’s leaders. This is where the element of snobbery is usually introduced. The story goes that the local council appointed by the managers in London to run the settlement was made up of aristocrats who had never done a hard day’s work in their life—with the exception of Smith. This in summary is Barbour’s version of events, and it fits well with the image of England as a class-ridden society contrasting with America, the land of opportunity. However, this view is misleading. The members of the council, along with a substantial proportion of the settlers, were not aristocrats but ‘gentlemen,’ belonging to a quite different stratum of society. The gentry classes were undergoing rapid social changes in seventeenth century England, which resulted in many of them being hard up and out of work. Those who signed up for the Virginia venture were typical—‘cashiered captains,’ veteran soldiers of Europe’s religious wars, dismissed from service, using up the residue of their depleted estates or loans from their relatives to buy a one-way ticket to America.

Aristocratic sensitivities, then, were not at the root of the leadership’s problems. It was desperation, a sense that this was for many their last chance to make a name and living for themselves. They were also hampered by the presence of at least two government spies, one a prominent member of the local council. These men seem to have been sent to frustrate efforts to establish a permanent settlement, which conflicted with the government’s interests, in order to focus efforts on the discovery of gold and copper, a percentage of which was due to be paid to the royal exchequer.

No gold was ever found, but by 1619, Jamestown had overcome many of its initial problems, and could even be described as flourishing. In London, the Virginia venture had emerged as a great public adventure, its profile boosted in 1616 by a visit by Pocahontas, newly married to the planter John Rolfe. Meanwhile, in Virginia, field trials conducted by Rolfe of a type of tobacco previously grown in South America had proved a huge success, and its profitable export had transformed Jamestown into North America’s first boom town.

However, trouble was brewing in the Virginia Company’s headquarters in London’s Philpot Lane. A split had opened up between the company’s two most powerful figures: Sir Thomas Smythe, a fabulously successful London merchant and King James’s banker in all but name, and Sir Edwin Sandys, a Member of Parliament. Craven focused his analysis on the causes and consequences of this split, which culminated in the king dissolving the Virginia Company.

Craven argued that the king was forced to take this action to save the company from bankruptcy. In the final years of the company’s life, the company’s books were certainly in a mess, and Smythe and Sandys argued over who was responsible and what should be done. The arguments culminated with Sandys ousting Smythe as the Virginia Company boss. Sandys then set about revolutionizing the venture, turning it from a private coterie of courtly favorites into a high-profile public enterprise in which anyone with twelve shillings and sixpence, the cost of a share, could become a member with full voting rights.

This was when the king intervened, commanding the company’s shareholders to vote Sandys off the board and reinstitute Smythe. With what was seen as breathtaking insolence, the shareholders twice neglected to do this, and in the end, the king had Sandys arrested.

Craven argues that the king’s interventions were merely managerial: Smythe was a more competent director. I argue that the motives were deeply political. Sandys at this time was the leader of a troublesome group of MPs in the House of Commons, who represented increasingly restive sections of the gentry classes that bridled at royal interference and government greed. This was the beginning of a political movement that would culminate twenty years later with the outbreak of the English Civil War (and, arguably, the American Revolution).

Many of the principles Sandys championed in parliament he tried to reflect in his management of the Virginia Company. In particular, he dismantled Smythe’s more monopolistic policies. He encouraged a range of people to participate, offering licenses for private plantations on the company’s lands in America, in the hope of speeding up economic development there. Among those he met at this time were representatives of a group of Protestant radicals who had spent several years exiled in Holland, but were now in search of a new home. They first approached Sandys in 1617 with tentative proposals to found a religious community in ‘those unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation.’ Though the son of an archbishop, Sandys believed in religious tolerance, and supported their proposal. Three years later, they boarded a ship called the Mayflower, along with other settlers, and set sail for America. Diverted by bad weather, the ship ended up at the ‘excellent good harbor’ further north which Captain Smith had called Plymouth.

It was such acts that led King James to accuse Sandys and his supporters of turning the Virginia Company into a ‘seminary for a seditious Parliament.’ It was also the reason the people Sandys had sent to Virginia, including his younger brother, developed a growing sense of independence of the motherland. They took particular objection to attempts by Sandys’s enemies to denigrate Virginia’s achievements. One critical pamphlet had dismissed the growing colony as nothing more than a cluster of hovels worse than ‘the meanest Cottages in England…seated upon mere Salt Marshes full of infectious Bogs and muddy Creeks and Lakes.’ The description provoked fury in America. The colonists wrote in a collective reply sent back to London that the pamphlet ‘traduceth one of the goodliest rivers in the habitable world, which runs for many miles together within upright banks, till at length, enlarged with the receipt of others, it beats on a sandy shore, and imitates the sea in greatness and majesty.’

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