In the year 1606, on a Roman tennis court, the artist Caravaggio killed an opponent after an argument over a foul call. A middle-aged mathematician named Galileo Galilei, who had not yet built his first telescope, published a book of observations about the recent appearance of a supernova in the sky. Japan's first shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, had recently begun his rule. The Dutch painter Rembrandt was born. In Oxford, Cambridge, and Canterbury, forty-seven scholars appointed by the king were laboring over a new translation of the Scriptures, which would come to be known as the King James Bible. A new play called Macbeth opened in London. And in late December, in London's River Thames, three small ships were anchored, awaiting a voyage across the Atlantic.
Those three ships—the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery—went on to change the course of history. After a series of fruitless attempts by the English to create an outpost in North America, the voyagers of 1606 finally broke through. The colony that they established at Jamestown would open the way for later English settlements up and down the East Coast, and eventually for the United States itself.
The Jamestown colony was an entrepreneurial effort, organized and financed by the Virginia Company of London, a start-up venture chartered eight months earlier; its business model was to extract profits from the gold, silver, and other riches supposedly to be found in that region of North America. Also, because no one yet knew the extent of the North American continent, the company expected to find a trade route by river through Virginia to the Pacific. (Religious conversion of thenatives was a distant third objective.) The enterprise was a joint-stock company, its equity held by a limited circle of investors. In a little over two years, the Virginia Company would have its initial public stock offering at twelve pounds, ten shillings a share. English America was a corporation before it was a country.
Few of the investors were actually on the three ships, fortunately for them. The colony's ultimate success would come at a fearsome price: disease, hunger, and hostile natives left behind a toll of misery and death. Most of the 105 or so adventurers who went on the ships would be dead within months, and that was only the first wave of mortality to hit the colony.
It's amazing the settlement survived at all. The alien territory of Virginia would have been a challenge to the best of explorers. But the 1606 expedition, by and large, was not made up of the best, or for that matter the brightest. Half of the colonists aboard the three ships were "gentlemen"—upper-class indolents who, as events unfolded, literally would not work to save their own lives. (The true meaning of the word "gentleman" in those days is suggested by the 1605 George Chapman farce Eastward Ho, involving adventurers making ready for a voyage to Virginia; one character instructs another, "Do nothing; be like a gentleman, be idle; the curse of man is labor.") Worse, the "gentlemen" of Jamestown comprised most of the colony's leaders, who came to revile and plot against one another as the sick and the starving were dropping dead around them.
The survival of the small English outpost was thanks mostly to two extraordinary people, one a commoner and one a royal. The commoner was Captain John Smith, a former soldier with an impatient nature and a total lack of respect for his social betters—or anyone else who hadn't proven himself through his merits. The royal was Pocahontas, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the most powerful chief in Virginia.
The names of John Smith and Pocahontas have by now passed into American legend. Like the Jamestown story as a whole, their stories have been told over the generations with varying degrees of accuracy. The imaginative 1995 Walt Disney Co. movie, for example, endowed Pocahontas with a Barbie-doll figure, dressed her in a deerskin from Victoria's Secret, and made her Smith's love interest. Or, as Peggy Lee sang,
Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, "Daddy, oh don't you dare
He gives me fever with his kisses
Fever when he holds me tight
Fever, I'm his missus
Oh Daddy, won't you treat him right."
Trouble is, Smith and Pocahontas were never romantically involved. That isn't surprising; when Smith was in Virginia, Pocahontas was a girl of eleven or so. The real Pocahontas was a child of privilege in her society—that is, the Powhatan Empire—who was curious about the English newcomers, befriended Smith, and gave him and the rest of the English crucial assistance. Years later, looking back on her contributions, Smith would recall that her "compassionate pitiful [pitying] heart . . . gave me much cause to respect her." He credited her with saving the colony. The English in Virginia, for their part, chose a strange way to repay her: after Smith left the colony, they kidnapped her and held her hostage for ransom from her father, Chief Powhatan. Yet during that time, she came to embrace English ways, married a thoroughly lovestruck Englishman named John Rolfe, and lived out the rest of her short life in his country.
Smith, at the other end of the social scale, was born in 1580 in rustic Willoughby by Alford, Lincolnshire, to a simple farm family, putting him just one rung above peasanthood. Soldiering was to be his ticket out. He was of slightly below-average height, even by the standards of his time, measuring in at perhaps five-foot-three or five-foot-four, but he was stocky and tough. He had dark hair and a full beard, and eyes that showed intelligence and confidence. In a portrait made later in his life, Smith meets the onlooker's gaze with neither haughtiness nor servility, but instead with unassuming equality—an unusual attitude in his class-conscious homeland. "He was honest, sensible, and well informed," Thomas Jefferson wrote of him a century and a half later.
The young John Smith attended grammar school in nearby Louth while dreaming of overseas adventure; at the age of thirteen, no longer content with fantasizing, he tried to run away from home in hopes of making his way abroad. His father, George Smith, had other ideas and succeeded in stopping him. At fifteen, bowing unhappily to his father's wishes, John Smith became an apprentice to a merchant. A year or two later, however, in a bittersweet turn of events for the young man, the path to the sea became open: Smith's father died.
This time, there was no one to stand in John Smith's way. Bored with counting his master's money, Smith headed to the Continent and fought under a Captain Joseph Duxbury in the Netherlands, aiding that country in its war of independence against Spain. Life on the battlefield agreed with him. Returning to England a few years later, he had a plan ready: He withdrew to "a little woody pasture," as he called it, to make a single-minded study of all things martial. He was twenty years old.
In that pasture, Smith showed the first signs of what would become his lifelong preoccupation with practical knowledge. He practiced horsemanship. He read Machiavelli's The Art of War. He learned the life story of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher (and patriarch of the 2000 film Gladiator). Smith became an explosives expert, with the aid of a translated copy of Vannoccio Biringuccio's Pirotechnia. He memorized codes for sending signals over distances using torchlight. Although some of his study seems more on the side of erudition than practicality, Smith would have seen no bright line between the two: history, biography, and munitions were all pragmatic subjects that a military man needed to operate effectively in the world.
Smith was ready to embark on his chosen profession. He made his way back to the Continent. In the summer of 1601, he enlisted with Austrian forces in Hungary that were fighting the occupying armies of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Muslim superpower that had conquered much of Central Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. In Hungary, Smith deployed his signaling torches, his explosives (he called them his "fiery dragons"), and other devices and strategems to lethal effect, earning himself the title of captain. Here he experienced a taste of meritocracy: with individual excellence and contribution came respect and advancement. It made its impression on the young soldier.
His fortunes took a decided turn for the worse on a cold winter's day in 1602, when he was captured on the battlefield in present-day Romania. He was taken to an auction with others to be sold into slavery—"like beasts in a market-place," he recalled. Smith ended up on a Turkish farm under a cruel master, where his head was shaved bare and a ring of iron placed around his neck. He found he was joining hundreds of slaves—European, Turk, and Arab—who informed him that escape was impossible. That was all he needed to hear. He was laboring in the fields one day when the master came by on horseback to beat him; seizing his chance, Smith turned the tables, beating the man to death with a threshing bat. Smith then put on the dead man's clothes and took off on his horse for friendly territory.
Smith wrangled a place in the Virginia expedition several years afterward. The historical record doesn't reveal why he was picked. The leadership of the Virginia Company probably saw him simply as a hired military hand in case of an attack from the Spanish or trouble with the natives. If so, he proved to be larger than that role. No matter how or why he got the job, it seems obvious in retrospect that he was unusually well suited to become the colony's leader, as he ultimately did. His adventures in Hungary gave him the experience of dealing with foreigners both as comrades and as adversaries. Those years also shaped his distinctive worldview, one in which ignorance was to be treated as a dangerous enemy, and in which people were to be judged by their effectiveness rather than by their bloodlines.
Hence, unlike most Englishmen of his day, Smith believed it was important to understand and deal with the natives as they actually were, not as symbols of primitive evil or virtue. Accordingly, he studied the Powhatan language and culture closely, and indeed, he left behind our most detailed ethnographic writings on those people. With the benefit of that information, he was able to keep Chief Powhatan at bay through a mix of diplomacy and intimidation—not through massacre—at a time when the Powhatan Empire outnumbered the English by well over a hundred to one. It was this record that led several of Smith's admirers among the colonists to write later, with only slight exaggeration, that "thou Virginia foild'st, yet kep'st unstained"—that is, he foiled the natives in Virginia, but didn't stain Virginia with their blood.
At the same time, Smith faced the daunting task of whipping his own countrymen into shape, particularly "the better sort" (as gentlemen were often called). They "exclaim of all things, though they never adventured to know any thing," Smith groused, "nor ever did anything but devour the fruits of other men's labors." The gallants, he added with a sneer, were discontented because they didn't have "any of their accustomed dainties, with feather beds and down pillows, taverns and alehouses in every breathing place, neither plenty of gold and silver and dissolute liberty as they expected." Once they were truly under Smith's thumb, as he moved from serving as a council member to colony president, he gave the "better sort" reason to squirm with his decree that "he that will not work shall not eat."
All that was to come later. As the three ships sat at anchor in late 1606, there was little reason to assume that the mission would succeed. The crews could lose heart and mutiny, like the crew of explorer Sebastian Cabot almost a century earlier. The ships could go down in bad weather, as Sir Humphrey Gilbert's did during a 1583 attempt at colonizing. And, of course, the colony could establish itself and then fail for any number of reasons, like the Roanoke settlements of 1585 and 1587.
Those expeditions, organized by Sir Walter Ralegh, sent colonists to Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. Ralegh—or Raleigh, or Rawleyghe—became famous to succeeding generations for an alleged episode of chivalry involving Queen Elizabeth and a mud puddle. (Ralegh supposedly took off his best cloak and laid it over the puddle for the queen to step over.) In his own time, Ralegh was better known as an accomplished mariner and poet and as a handsome object of the queen's affection. Like Humphrey Gilbert, his half brother, he was also known for his enthusiastic butchery of the Irish as an officer in that country, not sparing women or children.
After he received encouraging reports from a brief reconnaissance mission to Virginia, Ralegh sent off his first colonizing expedition from England in April 1585; it left 107 men at Roanoke that summer. Ralph Lane, one of their leaders, was awestruck by, as he wrote, the "huge and unknowen greatnesse" of the continent. Things went awry early on; the colony lost most of its food supply when its supply ship, the Tiger, struck ground during a storm; salt water flowed in and spoiled the provisions. That meant the settlers would have to live off the land—or freeload off the natives. Lane opted for the latter, using the threat of force when charity wasn't forthcoming. (Perhaps fortunately for the natives of Roanoke Island, Ralegh himself never set foot in the New World.) After putting up with the English through the winter, the natives began starving them out. In June, after months of desperation, the colonists were rescued by Sir Francis Drake and taken back home.
The next attempt took a different and less militaristic tack, with Ralegh sending a group of 110 men, women, and children under the rule of a painter, John White. Two of the women, including White's daughter, were pregnant and soon gave birth to the first English children to be born in the New World. A month after the settlers arrived at Roanoke, White headed back to England for supplies. War between England and Spain kept White from returning until 1590. When he did, he found that the settlers—including his daughter and granddaughter—had disappeared without a trace. There were no bodies or any other signs of a struggle. The only clues were a tree carved with the letters "CRO" and a post carved with the word "CROATOAN." From this, White logically inferred that the group had moved to Croatoan Island, home of the Croatoan tribe. But bad weather, and the snapping of two anchor cables, foiled his plan to sail to that island to investigate; with his return to England went the last chance of finding the so-called Lost Colony. No Europeans would ever see the colonists again.
Such was England's record of failure upon failure in attempting to create foreign outposts. In 1606, some 114 years after Christopher Columbus's world-altering discovery, England remained less than a third-rate colonial power. Indeed, the notion that English-speaking people would someday occupy and govern most of the North American continent would have seemed literally insane. The unimportant island nation of England was noted mostly for its irksome privateers—government-licensed pirates, in effect—who looted Spanish cargo ships.
England's record up to that point looked even less promising when measured against the already far-flung empires of Portugal and Spain. By 1606, Portuguese explorers had long since established sizable colonies within present-day Brazil, India, and Indonesia. The Portuguese had been administering the port of Macau, on the coast of China, since 1556 (as they would continue to do until 1999). From their colonies in coastal Africa, the Portuguese were playing a pivotal and inglorious role in the European slave trade, transporting Africans to European colonies in South America.
Then there was Spain, the other colonial superpower of the day. Decades earlier, Vasco Núñez de Balboa had marched through Panama to find the Pacific Ocean; Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had founded St. Augustine, Florida; law student turned explorer Hernando Cortés had conquered the Aztecs in Mexico; and Francisco Pizarro had crushed the Incas in Peru. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado had explored vast stretches of the present-day southwestern United States and stumbled upon the Grand Canyon. All told, Spain in 1606 dominated most of South America, Central America, Florida, Cuba, and the Philippines. Since 1580, in fact, Portugal itself had been under the Spanish crown, and it would remain so until 1640.
Along the way, the conquistadors built a well-deserved reputation for brutishness. After the Aztecs received Cortés as a god, he and his forces kidnapped their emperor, plundered their treasures, massacred their nobility, and destroyed their capital city of Tenochtitlán. Pizarro essentially repeated the pattern in Peru, taking a son of the recently deceased emperor for a ransom of tons of silver and gold. The encomienda system in the Spanish territories, which granted ownership of an area's natives to a favored Spanish settler or military man, then enslaved the people of those once-powerful empires.
The leaders of the Jamestown venture—who needed no excuse to hate their Spanish enemies anyway—were disgusted by the Spaniards' record of bloodthirst. "No Spanish intention will be entertained by us neither to hereby root out the naturals [natives], as the Spaniards have done in Hispaniola and other parts," vowed colonist William Strachey. A group of colonists, defending the colony's "charitable" treatment of the natives, later wrote caustically of "others not pleasing, that we washed not the ground with their [the natives'] bloods, nor showed such strange inventions in mangling, murdering, ransacking, and destroying as did the Spanyards the simple bodies of such igno- rant soules." The meager economic fruits of the Virginia colony could not be compared to the riches brought home by the Spanish, the group argued, because "what the Spanyard got was chiefely the spoyle and pillage of those countrey people, and not the labors of their owne hands." A 1609 tract of the Virginia Company pledged that the natives would be won over to English ways, "not by stormes of raging cruelties (as West India was converted) with rapiers point and musket shot, murdering so many millions of naked indians, as their stories doe relate, but by faire and loving meanes, suiting to our English natures." The company's governing council in London, in a 1610 report, ridiculed the Spaniards' purported religious justification for their doings:
To preach the Gospel to a nation conquered, and to set their souls at liberty when we have brought their bodies into slavery, it may be a matter sacred to the preachers, but I do not know how justifiable in the rulers, who for their mere ambition do set upon it the gloss of religion. Let the divines of [the Spanish province of] Salamanca discuss that question how the possessor of the West Indies [i.e., Spain] first destroyed and then instructed.
As it happened, the Powhatans also hated the Spanish. A Spanish party had come to the Chesapeake Bay around 1560 and captured a teenage Powhatan boy; he was baptized and renamed Don Luis de Velasco. Don Luis was educated in Mexico and Spain, and then brought back to Virginia ten years afterward to establish a Catholic mission. Don Luis fled, returning to his own people, and the Powhatans took their revenge on the Spanish by killing the missionaries. The Spanish, tipped off to the events by a native prisoner, sent a gunboat in 1572 to retaliate and look for survivors. The Powhatans' memory of the affair was still fresh in the early 1600s.
But if the English were opposed to the Spanish and their ways, and the Powhatans were as well, why did they become antagonists? Indeed, the Virginia Company, with its intended policy of "liberality" toward the natives to win them over, envisioned a sort of peaceful coexistence between the two groups. Toward that end, the colonists were to seek out only uninhabited ground for settlement. The clue to the trouble, of course, lies in the sympathetic phrase "ignorant souls." The English, while more humanely inclined than the Spanish at this stage, still saw the natives as savages—and that was their everyday term for them: "savages." (It was sometimes rendered as "salvages" in the chaotic spelling of the day.)
To understand what the English actually meant, though, one has to set aside the intervening four hundred years of American racial history. Seen through the prism of those four hundred years, the English attitude looks like racism; how could it not be? Improbably enough, though, the English of 1606 were not generally racist in their view of the Virginia natives—not in the conventional sense. The English did not believe that white people like themselves were innately superior and the natives innately inferior; savagery had nothing to do with biology. It also did not signify that the natives were necessarily fierce (some tribes were, some weren't). For the English, "savagery" instead referred to the cultural condition of primitivity. The opposite of "savage" was not "white"; it was "civilized" or "Christian."
This may sound, at first, like a distinction without a difference, but its implications were significant. It meant savagery was only the starting point for a people's progression toward modernity. It was a temporary condition, which did not render those within it less than fully human. Savages could not rightfully be enslaved. Violence could not be unleashed against savages without just cause. Reflecting the spirit of the time, Strachey wrote of the natives, "We are taught to acknowledge every man that beareth the impression of God's stamp to be not only our neighbor but to be our brother." John Smith later denounced an English mariner named Thomas Hunt for capturing twenty-seven natives in New England and selling "these poore innocent soules" into slavery in Spain.
The English did not exclude themselves from the progression: in the days of Roman conquest, as the English now saw it, the Britons themselves were the savages. The civilizing influence of the Roman conquerors, and later of the Christian gospel, had lifted the English up from that savagery. Supporters of the colony expected it to bestow the same benefits on the natives through a relationship of benevolent cultural imperialism—peaceable unless the natives struck first—and mutually beneficial trade.
The lack of a racial component to the English attitudes is unsurprising, given that the English in fact regarded the natives as white people (unlike the Moors and black Africans they knew by reputation). The natives were born white, the English believed, and then their skin changed color—from the effects of the dyes that they used to decorate themselves and to ward off mosquitoes. (A colonist aboard the first voyage would recall, "Their skynn is tawny, not so born, but with dying and paynting themselves, in which they delight greatly." Another suggested, "They would be of good complexion if they would leave painting, which they use on their face and shoulders.") After an Englishman named William Parker was captured by the natives and reunited with the colonists several years afterward, an observer marveled that Parker had "grown so like both in complexion and habit to the Indians that I only knew him by his tongue to be an Englishman."
While English attitudes were enlightened by the standard of the era, they were not totally benign from the natives' viewpoint. Far from it: the civilizing effect of the Romans' influence served, in turn, as a justification for the English to settle in Virginia in the first place. "Why, what injury can it be to people of any nation for Christians to come unto their ports, havens, or territories," William Strachey asked, "when the law of nations, which is the law of God and man, doth privilege all men to do so?"
It was no injury at all, he answered. The English settlers were merely doing for the natives what others had done for the English: "Had not this violence and this injury been offer'd unto us by the Romans, we might yet have lived overgrown Satyrs, rude and untutor'd, wand'ring in the woods, dwelling in caves, and hunting for our dinners as the wild beasts in the forests for their prey." Similarly, the Virginia Company argued that it was justifiable to occupy part of the local land, not only because there was plenty of unoccupied territory on the huge continent to go around, but also because "there is no other moderate and mix'd course to bring them to conversion but by daily conversation where they may see the life and learn the language of each other." In the end, the backers of the colony believed, the natives would be grateful: "Their children when they come to be saved, will blesse the day when first their fathers saw your faces."
So it was that the members of the first Jamestown voyage boarded the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery on December 19 and 20 of 1606—most of them with pure hearts and empty heads, expecting to find riches, welcoming natives, and an easy life on the other shore.