Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Mystery of John Smith

         Meanwhile, what became of John Smith when he returned to England, horribly wounded from the gunpowder accident in Virginia?
Many scholars have pondered this question. One was Smith’s 19th-century biographer, William Gilmore Sims:
         On the accident:
         “While he [Smith] slept, his powder bag was accidentally fired by one of the crew, and the powder exploding tore and lacerated his body in a most shocking manner.”
         [Shocking, indeed. Maybe the reason Smith never married and never had children.]
         Smith left Virginia in bad shape as well:
          “Famine, in its most horrid forms, assailed them." ”A savage slain and buried was eaten,” and “having eaten him, [the starving colonists] followed up the horrid taste for human food, by preying upon one another.”

         When John Smith finally reached England, says Sims, his wounds were grave, and “his cure was probably a tedious one.”

         For the next five years , of what Smith did in England we know little. He lived in “comparative repose” and no doubt had many “expenses atternding his cure. On this subject we are left wholly to conjecture.”

         Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, was Smith’s “best friend,” and Smith may have stayed with him. Smith dedicated his 1612 Map of Virginia to Seymour, who died in 1621. Seymour’s wife was Frances Howard, a great beauty, at 34, two years older than John Smith. Her husband was 37 years older than she. Edward Seymour was 75 in 1612.

         Mystery upon mystery.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thanksgiving, 1610: 300 calories a day?

This is Thanksgiving week.
A look backward 400 or so years, to another November--NOT the Pilgrim feast at Plymouth, but the fare inside the fort at Jamestown.

Just be thankful a hardy few survived.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Jamestown: Cannibalism denied.

On November 8, 1610, another piece of propaganda, the Virginia Company’s latest booklet, went on sale at the Black Bear in St. Paul’s churchyard. Its title is self-explanatory:  A True Declaration of the estate of the colony in Virginia, with a confutation of such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise. It celebrated the earlier safe return of Gates, Newport, and others from the Sea Venture expedition, and did its best to dispel the worst of the Virginia reports, especially the “Starving Time” and the “tragical history of the man eating of his dead wife in Virginia.”
Sir Thomas Gates appeared before the Virginia Company’s Council and tried to the record straight about the Jamestown colonists who had killed and eaten his wife, a story that had shocked all of London. (Apparently no one asked where Gates came by this information, since he himself had been in Bermuda when the wife-butchering incident took place.) According to Gates the man “mortally hated his wife.” So he “secretly killed her, then cut her in pieces and hid her remains in divers parts of his house.” The implication being that the husband did not kill his wife because he was starving—though he “fed daily upon her.” As further proof that there was plenty to eat in Jamestown, Gates reported that besides the wife’s dismembered body the man’s house contained “a good quantity of meal, oatmeal, beans, and peas.” Such a larder would have been news to the starving inhabitants inside the fort, who remembered existing on half a can of meal per day.

And perhaps a little meat. . . .

Saturday, October 31, 2015

“Cleannesse of teeth, famine, and death.” Jamestown, 1610

The Virginia Company’s officials rushed to shine a good light on bad news from its fledgling colony. The Company issued a little pamphlet called News from Virginia, of the happy arrival of that famous and worthy knight, Sir Thomas Gates, and well-reputed and valiant Captain Newport, into England. It was in verse, composed by one of the Bermuda castaways, Robert Rich. For its na├»ve cheerfulness (its 22 stanzas neglect to mention the Indians) and wildly fanciful promises about Virginia, Rich’s poem is worth quoting here in part:
There is no fear of hunger here,
(William Strachey described life at Jamestown as “cleannesse of teeth, famine, and death.”)
                      for corn much store here grows
                  Much fish the gallant rivers yield—
                      ‘tis truth without suppose.
(“The river . . . had not a fish to be seen in it. ”—Strachey.)

                  Great store of fowl, of venison,
                     Of grapes and mulberries,
(“Nothing to trade withal but mulberries.”—Sir George Somers).
Of chestnuts, walnuts, and suchlike,
                     of fruits and strawberries
                  There is indeed no want at all.

                           But some, condition’d ill,           

                  That wish the work should not go on,
                     with words do seem to kill.
There were more words to come.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An Irishman, and "pearls and diamonds" in Virginia

         Enclosed with Ambassador Velasco’s September 1610 letter to King Philip was a Spanish translation of a report from an Irishman, one Francisco Maguel [McGill?] who purported to have been a spy in Virginia for eight months. Who was he? How did he get there? There is no name resembling his on any of the lists of Virginia colonists. But Maguel somehow found his way to Madrid and to a meeting with Florencio Conryo, who claimed to be the Archbishop of Tuam, a town near Galway, Ireland. (Ireland was then under English control, and the Irish Catholics hoped to serve their cause by aiding Spain against their common enemy.)
         The Irish spy’s report gave a detailed account of Virginia’s geography, including the best way to get there by sea. He described bays and rivers, Jamestown fort, and the land’s resources—but much of the account is sprinkled with falsehoods (there are pearls, coral, and perhaps diamonds in Virginia; the English plan to settle twenty or thirty thousand colonists there) and half-truths (Indians are devil-worshipers). 
         Maguel warned that the English “want nothing more than they want to make themselves masters of the South Sea, so as to have their share of the riches of the Indies and be in the way of the traffic of the King of Spain, and to seek other new worlds for themselves.” Whether the mysterious Francisco Maguel, who hoped “to serve his Catholic Majesty” ever did so, is not known, but his report was enough to make Ambassador Velasco very nervous.

         It had a similar effect on King Philip III.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

1611: Spanish Eyes--and London Spies on Jamestown

         In September 1610, two of Lord De La Warr’s ships, the Blessing and the Hercules, returned to England with unwelcome, disturbing news about Virginia. The Virginia Company’s Jamestown settlement was still full of sick and hungry colonists and, worse yet, there were no profits in sight.  Investors looked in vain for their returns. 
The Spanish spy network in London was full of predictions that England’s failing colony would soon be dead. On September 30 Ambassador Velasco wrote to King Philip about news he had from one of his key London sources, one “Guillermo Monco.” This was Sir William Monson, former privateer, veteran of the battle of the Spanish Armada, one-time prisoner of the Spanish in Lisbon, and, since 1604, Admiral of the Narrow Seas [English Channel]. He was also a spy, handsomely paid for leaking English plans to the Spanish ambassador. Monson told Velasco that the English were desperate to recoup their investments in Virginia and were planning to send another large expedition there early in 1611. Spain needed to move now to “drive out the few people that have remained there, and are so threatened by the Indians that they dare not leave the fort they have erected.”

The Spanish ambassador was not far wrong.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

“Ask him what Powhatan says now.”

In this scene from JAMESTOWN: THE NOVEL, Lord De La Warr, governor of Virginia, negotiates with Powhatan, the ruler of the Chesapeake tribes: 

         “Tell him,” De la Warr said, . . . “Powhatan must give back what is ours. He has taken near two hundred swords from us, and axes and pole-axes, and chisels and hoes, and he has taken some of our people prisoner.”
         Kempes spoke again. . . . “Powhatan says--“ he began hesitantly. . . . “Powhatan says because you have taken his land, he has taken your weapons and iron things. If you give him a coach and three horses, such as the great men in your country have, he will give you the iron things back.”
         De la Warr pounded his cudgel again. . . . “You see what comes of trying to civilize these damned savages?. . . Powhatan has been the cause of all our troubles,” he said slowly. “We have lost too many good men because of him. Now we shall send him a message he can understand.” Turning to Captain Martin, he said, “Take your broadsword and cut off this one’s right hand.” He jerked his head toward the Indian Okewan.
         Martin’s mouth dropped open in disbelief, and he put his hand on the hilt of his sword, not to draw it, but to keep it firmly in its place. “My lord! You cannot mean that! These two have come here in good faith!”
         “Savages have no faith!” De la Warr said. “Words do no good with them. Blood is the language they understand!”
         “But me no buts! I gave you an order! Will you carry it out, or not? . . . .
         Blood spurted, and Okewan’s right hand, cleanly severed at the wrist bone, hung at the edge of the tree stump and then fell on the grass.

--excerpt from JAMESTOWN: THE NOVEL.