Menu Close

A New Look at Jamestown

Author John Cech
Air Date 5/8/2007

A New Look at Jamestown Transcript

It’s the 400th anniversary this month of the founding of Jamestown, the site of the first English-speaking presence to survive on the coast of the North American continent and eventually to expand inland. The establishment of this famous colony is the subject of a new book for children by Karen Lange called 1607, A New Look at Jamestown, from National Geographic. Over the years, there have been so many retellings of the Jamestown story — especially Pocahontas’ mythic, sometimes cartoonified, and much-debated rescue of John Smith — that the rest of the history is often forgotten.

In her book, Karen Lange provides the young reader with an account of the settlement that is unsparingly honest in its presentation of the English colonizers — who had come to these shores in order, quite simply, to exploit its resources. And like colonies to the north and south of it, Jamestown had barely survived. Lange reminds us that many of the settlers were desperate to begin with and were attracted by the promised rewards of this commercial venture. They were the second or third sons who wouldn’t inherit property or businesses. Others who joined the company had been harshly treated in England by its vagrancy laws and literally had no where else to go. And a final third were the “gentlemen,” skilled with musket and sword but with few other survival skills. This latter group weren’t used to hard work in England and weren’t about to begin learning its practice on the banks of the James River.

Part of that first wave of colonizers in 1607 were boys, who came as apprentices and indentured servants. Children were welcomed in the colony because they more easily learned the languages of the Powhattans and other tribes that surrounded the settlement and could act as translators. But these potential talents didn’t necessarily ensure a privileged position for the children. One of these boys, 13-year-old Henry Spelman, according to Lange, “went to Jamestown as a laborer but was traded to one of chief Powhatan’s sons for a piece of land.”

Karen Lange’s brief history of the settling of Jamestown is unflinching in its unvarnishing of the truth. Indeed, the picture she presents of this colony — that was on the brink of failure for years — is a very useful corrective to our inherited bromides about Manifest Destiny and the cultural superiority of the Europeans. Clearly, that first English invasion had little to do with ideals or noble principles. It was, as they say, totally about making a killing on the natural resources of the New World. Lange explains what actually made the fabled fortunes of the Virginia colony — the sweet tobacco that John Rolfe brought to Jamestown, grew there, and sold to an increasingly nicotine-hungry Europe.

Add to this the fact that slaves were first brought to these shores from Africa to work the tobacco plantations. It’s not a pretty picture, this colonizing business, and Ms. Lange deserves our praise for her book that doesn’t guild the lily or the leaves on this tobacco plant.

Posted in Culture, Literature