Williams fills his absorbing new effort (The Pox and the Covenant) with outrageously colorful characters, including arrogant politicos, mutinous citizens, treacherous Indians, their equally cruel white counterparts, and "gentleman adventurers" aplenty. After the journey of "107 brave souls…across 3,000 miles of ocean into a virtually unknown land...the tottering colony faced very grim prospects in the race against death." Atrocities were rampant: emissaries to the Indians were "killed and their mouths ‘stopped full of bread' as a sign of what would happen to any Englishmen who sought food from the Indians," and after one battle an English leader ordered a soldier beheaded for sparing Indians, including children. "They decided to toss the children overboard and shoot them." Williams chronicles dreadful voyages, shipwrecks (including one that stranded a group in Bermuda for a year), unremitting privation, interminable skirmishes among Indians and settlers, a flamboyant public relations ploy to attract more English investment, and more. Miraculously, settlers survived this disastrous period (1607 to 1619), evolving to enjoy a thriving tobacco trade. "The American dream was built along the banks of the James River," says Williams, but before the dream came the nightmare. (Feb.)
Internet Review of Books
The Jamestown Experiment is written more like a novel than many historical works I've read, so it was a fast read for me. There are many memorable characters in the book, including John Smith, whom the author brought vividly to life.
The first question most readers may ask is 'Do we need another book on the history of Jamestown and early Virginia?' Read on, or better yet, read the book to find out what the organizers and early settlers brought to the shore that helped make the United States what it is today.
Midwest Book Review
The Jamestown Experiment is a fine read of history and early European American encounters.
Author, educator, and lecturer Williams writes that while the first permanent English colony at Jamestown seemed doomed to fail for a variety of well-known reasons, the colonists finally found the solutions to put the colony on track for success. The book tells the story of the events and people responsible for the Jamestown turnaround and why, over time, it has had such a strong influence on the shaping of a distinct American character.
From the Publisher
"Williams fills his absorbing new effort (The Pox and the Covenant) with outrageously colorful characters, including arrogant politicos, mutinous citizens, treacherous Indians, their equally cruel white counterparts, and "gentleman adventurers" aplenty." - Publishers Weekly
"The Jamestown Experiment is written more like a novel than many historical works I've read, so it was a fast read for me. There are many memorable characters in the book, including John Smith, whom the author brought vividly to life." - Internet Review of Books
"The first question most readers may ask is 'Do we need another book on the history of Jamestown and early Virginia?' Read on, or better yet, read the book to find out what the organizers and early settlers brought to the shore that helped make the United States what it is today." - Virginia Gazette
"Author, educator, and lecturer Williams writes that while the first permanent English colony at Jamestown seemed doomed to fail for a variety of well-known reasons, the colonists finally found the solutions to put the colony on track for success. The book tells the story of the events and people responsible for the Jamestown turnaround and why, over time, it has had such a strong influence on the shaping of a distinct American character." - Book News
" "The Jamestown Experiment" is a fine read of history and early European American encounters." - Midwest Book Review
A serviceable account of the entrepreneurial experiment that was England's first permanent North American colony.
Williams (The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic that Changed America's Destiny, 2010, etc.) sets a useful context for his study by addressing the processes and patterns of European colonization in the New World. As he notes, the Spanish, who were far ahead of the English, gave their overseas enterprises state backing, while the British crown preferred to privatize the ventures but still take a cut of the proceeds. So it was with the Jamestown Colony, whose backers "were daring and adventurous and willing to risk their lives in search of their personal fortunes and glory." Very true, and few figures in the history of the time are quite so daring and swashbuckling as John Smith, who, Williams reminds us, had quite a career dashing about the Mediterranean, fighting Turks and seizing booty before heading off to the swamps of Virginia. His wealth-seeking fellow colonists had Smith's knack for selling the place. Though they came in search of gold, they were content with sassafras roots, which they shipped back to the motherland by the ton, as well as other "valuable minerals and commodities that could be exploited for a return to the investors in England." Ultimately, Jamestown went bust, but the colony inspired thousands of Britons to leave their home and journey to Virginia and the New World. Williams tells the tale competently enough, but he does not adequately address the complex back story of the colony and its relations with the native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay, which hinge on matters anthropological, economic and geopolitical. For that, we have other recent, superior books such as David A. Price'sLove and Hate in Jamestown(2003) and Camilla Townsend'sPocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004), which fill in the considerable blanks here.
Literate and occasionally engaging, but those earlier books should be the reader's first choices.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
Gentlemen Adventurers and the Call to Empire
Long before Jamestown was settled, adventurous Englishmen were among the first Europeans to brave the dangers of crossing the Atlantic to stake a claim to the riches of distant lands. On May 20, 1497, the small ship Matthew embarked from Bristol on the west coast of England. The port city had a thriving trade with the Atlantic and Mediterranean in Icelandic codfish, Spanish wine, and local woolens. The captain had letters of patent from King Henry VII for a voyage to discover new lands "unknown to all Christians," though no financial backing from the Crown. The king would receive one fifth of any riches that were discovered, but the captain had to fund the voyage himself. The captain was seeking a northern route across the Atlantic to Cathay (China) and the riches of the spice trade in the Indies. The man who captained the vessel was not even English; he was an Italian with the anglicized name John Cabot.
On June 24, the Matthew landed on the Feast of St. John in northern Newfoundland. He coasted for hundreds of miles along its eastern shore through dense fogbanks and floating icebergs. His sailors went ashore once and saw signs of life but no natives.
The men easily scooped up basketfuls of cod from the rich fishing grounds. Having made his discoveries, Cabot ordered his crew to set sail for England. The Matthew made landfall in Brittany in early August and returned to Bristol a few days later.
Cabot traveled to London, and four days later had an audience with the king at Westminster. The explorer did not have a baggage train of spices and gold to show the king, but he had valuable information of a great discovery-Cabot assumed that he had indeed discovered a northwest passage to Cathay and made landfall on an island off the Eurasian continent.
King Henry's imagination was stirred by news of this "new found land," and he offered Cabot a reward of £10 for his discovery. Henry also granted Cabot new letters of patent for a second voyage to establish a colony that would send shiploads of spices to London. This time the king provided and laded a ship, while British merchants invested in four ships filled with cloth to trade for spices. In May 1498, the five ships left Bristol with hopes of bringing home great riches. One of the ships returned shortly, but the other four, including Cabot's, were never heard from again.(1)
This was largely the extent of English overseas ambitions for more than half a century. After this faltering attempt at discovery, the English relinquished the initiative for daring voyages of discovery and the riches of the Far East and the New World to the Spanish and Portuguese.
The English were laggards in the race for overseas empire compared to their Iberian rivals, who had trade relations and imperial possessions in their far-flung empire stretching across the world in the Caribbean, the Americas, the Philippines, the Indies, Japan, and China. As would be later said of other empires, the sun never set on the Spanish Empire in the first half of the sixteenth century. The Spanish Empire began when the admiral of the ocean sea, Christopher Columbus, sailed to the New World in 1492 and discovered gold on his first voyage, which prompted three more transatlantic crossings to the Caribbean and the South American mainland.(2)
Rival Portuguese and Spanish claims to the New World caused the intervention of Pope Alexander VI, who issued the papal bull Inter caetera (1493), which led to a claim dispute between the two imperial powers. The next year, the Spanish and Portuguese quickly negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, setting a line of demarcation at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Spain won the rights to the territory west of the line, and the Portuguese to the east.(3)
Over the next two decades, Spanish colonists exported an impressive fourteen tons of gold from the Caribbean to Seville. Still, some were dissatisfied with their personal gain and sought gold over agricultural pursuits, with Hernando Cortés famously quipping, "I came here to get rich, not to till the soil like a peasant." Settlers successively moved from Hispaniola to Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba in search of wealth. In 1519, Cortés led an expedition of settlers called conquistadors to the mainland and two years later conquered the Aztec Empire centered at Tenochtitlan in Mexico. In 1532, Francisco Pizzaro conquered the Incan Empire in Peru and seized tens of thousands of pounds of gold and silver.(4)
Bartolomé de Las Casas published an indictment of the Spanish cruelty toward the native peoples, wildly speculating that the colonists had killed twenty million. Although the natives did indeed perish by the millions and the Spanish settlers committed atrocities, the native populations were overwhelmingly wiped out more from smallpox, influenza, measles, and a plethora of other diseases than by the sword. Still, the rumor became fact in the mind of Spain's enemies, who used it for propaganda purposes to denounce Spanish imperialism.(5)
In September 1519, Ferdinand Magellan led the Armada de Molucca that set sail from Spain to the fabulous riches of the Spice Islands in the East Indies. He braved the tempestuous straits at the tip of South America and entered the vast Pacific Ocean. Although he was killed by natives in the Philippines, his men endured and reached their destination, trading for thousands of pounds of spices, including cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. Scurvy and starvation claimed the lives of his men, while shipwrecks destroyed some of the vessels with their precious cargoes. Less than twenty of the sailors managed to circumnavigate the globe in one ship with a cargo that more than paid for the three-year voyage.(6)
The Mexican and Peruvian mines fed the Spanish treasure fleets that crossed the Atlantic to Seville every year laden with the precious metals. The wealth supported Spanish ambitions on the Continent, paying Spanish and mercenary armies in Italy and the Netherlands, when the Dutch revolted against Spanish rule. Initially, the fleets had to contend with deadly hurricanes and other dangers of the Atlantic, but then they proved too inviting a target for other Europeans. For the English, some cod fishing boats joined hundreds of vessels from other European nations traveling back and forth to Newfoundland every summer, but that was the extent of the English overseas ventures. But by the middle of the sixteenth century, all that was about to change.