Independent, The (London), Apr 30, 2007 by Rupert Cornwell
Early on a late April morning, when the vast waterway of the James river vanishes into an endless
misty horizon, you can imagine America as they must have seen it for the first time. True, the odd
speedboat and the expensive homes scattered among the trees on the distant shoreline intrude on the
primeval fantasy. But when you gaze across the reed banks and marshes, the woods glowing with the
first green of spring, the New World must be much as it was for those English settlers when they
first set eyes on "fair meddowes and goodly tall trees", after they made landfall in this corner
of southern Virginia on 26 April 1607.
This year Jamestown, the colony they founded, is marking its 400th anniversary as the first permanent
English outpost in what is now the United States of America.
Just as in the world, much has changed at Jamestown as well. When those 104 Englishmen arrived, this
region of coastal Virginia was, of course, not virgin territory, but the ancestral home of the Powhatan I
ndian tribes, quickly thrust aside as the European colony took root.
Jamestown anniversaries used to be termed "celebrations". In 2007 however, the event is not a celebration
but a "commemoration". Yes, this is where the seed of America as we know it was first planted. But now the
darker side of one of the epochal events in world history is on view. This time, we are being asked to
remember not just the founding of the US, but of "the displacement of the Indians" and of "human bondage".
Today, the once mighty Powhatan tribes are reduced to a handful of reservations. As for slaves, they
quickly made their appearance at Jamestown too. George Yeardly, for instance, who was appointed
Governor of the colony of Virginia in 1618, had eight black servants.
Now these uncomfortable truths are being accepted. And with them you start to understand that great
oddity in how most Americans regard the origins of their country. Why does the focus remain on 1620
and the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts - when more than 100 Englishmen had set up home
a few hundred miles to the south more than 13 years earlier? Why has Jamestown been largely airbrushed out
of the collective national psyche? The same goes for the ships too. Everyone knows about the Mayflower.
But who remembers the Godspeed, the Susan Constant and the Recovery, that brought the settlers to
Jamestown? There are obvious reasons why the Mayflower has hogged the limelight so long. New England
and the North East dominated early US history. The Civil War too played a part. By the mid-1800s,
Virginia's centre of gravity had long since left Jamestown - and Virginia, as a member of the Confederacy,
lost the war. History in America, as everywhere else, is written by winners.
Then there is Thanksgiving, that most symbolic of all American national holidays. The Massachusetts
settlers are not only supposed to have held the first Thanksgiving. It is said to have taken place as
a seal on their good relations with the local Indian tribes. Cheerleaders for Jamestown still maintain
the first Thanksgiving feast in fact was held in 1619, a year earlier, at a nearby plantation. But the
claim does not withstand scrutiny.
In reality, Jamestown's relations with the Indians were mostly appalling - notwithstanding the tale of
the Indian princess Pocahontas who supposedly saved the life of the settler John Smith by hurling her
body across his as her father Powhatan was about to execute him.
Fighting was constant. In 1622 and 1644, Powhatan's younger brother and successor Opecancanough carried
out massacres of European settlers in the area. Within a few decades the Indians had been herded into
reservations. Their numbers shrivelled and their language died. Today for most Virginians, this lost
civilisation exists only in the names of rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay: the Potomac, the
Rappahannock, the Mat-taponi, the Occoquan.
But there may be yet another, even deeper reason. It is tempting to see the Massachusetts and
Jamestown settlements as opposite poles of the American experience, geographical symbols for God
and Mammon. The story of the Pilgrim fathers reflects the moralistic side of the national character,
a tale of brave and high principled men who left Europe to build a nobler society. That is still
America's view of itself. The Jamestown settlers, by contrast, were adventurers, who went to the
New World in the hope of making their fortune.
The Virginia Company of London was granted its charter by King James I in 1606, and the expedition set
out that December. It was a miracle the settlement survived, buffeted by disease, starvation, wars and
feuding among its own members. Of the 104 who arrived, only 38 were alive by the end of 1607. One settler
is said to have eaten his own wife after she died in childbirth.
Edward Maria Wingfield, a gentleman soldier who helped to set up the Virginia Company, was elected the
first president of Jamestown's settler council. But a year later he abandoned (or was removed from) his
job and returned in disgust to England "to seeke some better place of imploi-ment". By most standards
early Jamestown was a dismal failure. Most of the settlers died, not to mention countless Indians.
There was no gold; the settlement was ultimately only saved when tobacco became a cash-generating export.
The Virginia Company may have helped change history, but it was a disastrous short-term investment.
Anyone who put money into the venture lost it.
Even the Pocahontas story itself - portrayed in the 1994 Walt Disney cartoon film - is a mirage too.
The film has her as a Native American siren, dancing through the forests with the blond and muscled
Smith, his voice depicted by Mel Gibson. In fact she would have been no more than 11 or 12 when she
first met Smith, by all accounts a violent ruffian. In real life she was kidnapped by the settlers,
and married another settler, John Rolfe, with whom she had a son and returned to England. There she
became an exotic minor celebrity at King James's court, before dying of small pox in 1617 at the age
of 21, just as the family was about to return to Virginia.
The new exhibits installed for Jamestown 2007 do put this record straight. More important, for the
first time the Indians have played a serious part in the planning of the anniversary festivities.
The Queen will meet their representatives, and the "commemoration" includes conferences to lay out
what really happened. But what was done cannot be undone - and one place the Queen will not be
visiting is the 150-acre Mattaponi Indian reservation, one of the earliest of its kind in the
country, set up by Virginia's colonial General Assembly in 1658. It is to be found (with some difficulty)
some 30 miles from Jamestown, on the banks of the Mattaponi river, at the end of a country lane called
Indiantown Road. Though the tribe, now headed by Chief Carl "Lone Eagle" Custalow, has 450 registered
members, only 60 people live on the reservation.
The Mattaponi tribe is at the core of the Jamestown story. Powhatan was its Great Chief. Outside a
single-storey museum are signs in peeling paint, proclaiming that inside you may see the necklace
belonging to his daughter Pocahontas, as well as the tomahawk wielded by Chief Opecancanough as he
killed the settlers in 1622 and 1644.
C. 1250 words
primeval - ursprünglich
commemoration ceremony - Gedenkveranstaltung
anniversary - Jahrestag
to make landfall - an Land gehen
to be airbrushed out of - ausgelöscht, wegradiert werden
appalling - erschreckend
1. What people did the English colonists encounter in America when they arrived in 1607?
2. Why is the planting of an English colony in 1620 by the Pilgrim Fathers better remembered
than the one in 1607 or the attempt by Sir W. Raleigh in 1585?
3. Name two of the English ships which arrived at the Chesapeek Bay in 1607?
4. What was the relationship like between the native Indians and the English settlers of 1607
and 1620 respectively?
5. In hindsight, how are Pilgrims Fathers looked upon today in contrast to the colonists of 1607?
Source: The Independent, London, April 30, 2007