Tuesday, August 3, 2010

John Smith and Pocahontas - the straight skinny

This title is a major league misnomer. There’s hate lurking around every corner in this book, but love rears its pretty head for only a few pages.

The subtitle is more accurate: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation.

My knowledge of the Jamestown Colony is probably on a par with that of most Americans. There was a guy named John Smith, and this Indian babe called Pocahontas saved him from being killed. End of story. On second thought, I likely know less than the average American, because I’ve never seen the Disney movie Pocahontas.

So I learned a lot here. For example:

John Smith was the original American action hero. In marked contrast to other colonists, he had all the attributes: Skill at arms, unwavering courage, a strong belief in equality and liberty, and little patience for fools.

No one wanted Smith in a position of leadership, and it was only after the colony’s aristocrats had proven their incompetence that they let him out of jail and ordered him to save their butts. He did.

The Jamestown Colony was first and last a business venture, with gold-hungry investors back in London calling the shots. Every time Smith managed to pull the colony’s fat out the fire, the board would do something new to undermine his efforts.

Pokie saves John.

The story of Pocahontas rescuing Smith from execution by her father Chief Powhatan is probably true. But she was only about 11 years old and running around naked (meaning she had not yet reached puberty). There was no romance between them.

When an accidental spark ignited a bag of gunpowder hanging from Smith’s belt, his leg was nearly blown off. As there was no doctor in the colony, he was put on the next ship for England, never to return.

When Smith left, there were 500 colonists left in Jamestown. Six months later, when the next crop of recruits arrived, they found only 50 skeletal survivors. Some were killed by Indians and some died of disease, but most simply starved to death. The survivors had eaten everything in sight, including clothing and shoes, and some had resorted to cannibalism.

One of the new arrivals had the bright idea of kidnapping Pocahontas to force her father to feed them. This failed, but had unforeseen results. She fell in love and married a colonist, after which Powhatan agreed to make peace. Pocahontas was taken to London as the perfect poster child - a Virginia native who not only embraced the colonists, but had converted to Christianity. After several months she and her husband set sail for home, but she took sick in the English Channel and had to be put ashore, where she promptly died.

Pocahontas in London, age 21. Yikes.

John Smith spent the rest of his life trying to get back to Virginia. He was involved a couple of unsuccessful attempts at founding pre-Plymouth settlements in New England, but was otherwise stuck in London, where he wrote nine books, mostly dealing with the New World.

Bottom line: great book!


Laurie Powers said...

it does sound like a great book. But finding out that there was no romance between John Smith and Pocohontas has shattered me. I don't know if I'll be able to recover.

Deka Black said...

The lack of romance do not surprise me. The thing what does is the incredible amount of patience by Smith with the aristocrats.

Cap'n Bob said...

Since I lived in Virgina as a kid I was fed Virginia history as a 4th and 7th grader. I also visited Jamestown many times as it was a modest car trip from home. We also took a few school trips there. So the whole Pocahontas story was old hat to me long before Disney had her crooning "Colors of the Wind." A good story, though. People don't realize how many early colonists died in the New World before making a go of it.

Richard Robinson said...

Gee, the Disney version wasn't much like this.

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