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American Schemers
On the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, several new books tell the harrowing tale behind the myth.

Reviewed by Tony Horwitz
Sunday, March 11, 2007

THE JAMESTOWN PROJECT

By Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Harvard Univ. 380 pp. $29.95

SAVAGE KINGDOM

The True Story

of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement

of America

By Benjamin Woolley

HarperCollins. 496 pp. $27.50

THE BIRTH OF BLACK AMERICA

The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown

By Tim Hashaw

Carroll & Graf. 329 pp. $26.95

CAPTAIN

JOHN SMITH

Writings, with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America

Edited by James Horn

Library of America

1,329 pp. $45

JAMESTOWN

By Matthew Sharpe

Soft Skull. 327 pp. $25

All memory is selective, for nations as for individuals. The year 1620 is etched into Plymouth Rock and the minds of most Americans as the birth date of this country. We hallow austere Pilgrims with a day of national gluttony. The Mayflower is iconic -- the name of a moving company, a luxury Washington hotel and a recent best-seller.

But can you name the three ships that landed English colonists 13 years before the Pilgrims? Identify one person aboard, other than John Smith? Explain why they came and what happened to them?

Jamestown's 400th birthday arrives this year with a fleet of books to stir Americans from their historical amnesia. This awakening should be a snap. The saga of early Virginia has knights, knaves, shipwrecks, naked Indian dancers (cooing to sex-starved Englishmen, "Love you not me?"), and plenty of smoking and drinking. It's pulp fiction compared to the family-friendly tale of pious Pilgrims dining with gentle Indians.

But the tawdry side of Jamestown also helps explain why its founding has rarely been enshrined as the nativity of English America. As Karen Ordahl Kupperman observes in The Jamestown Project, "This is the creation story from hell." Instead of Thanksgiving, there's the spectacle of starved colonists eating rats, shoes, excrement and each other. One man even killed, carved up and salted his pregnant wife. He was promptly tortured and executed, like many others at Jamestown, a settlement plagued by crime, mutiny and indolence. Rather than grow food, colonists extorted it from Indians. The English ultimately thrived by exporting tobacco and importing Africans. Small wonder that Americans have traditionally abridged Jamestown's story to a single scene: Pocahontas's romantic rescue of John Smith.

Several new Jamestown books provide a much fuller and less sanitized picture. Together, they tell an epic of suffering -- by English, Indians and Africans -- that was fateful not only to the survival of a colonial fort but to the character of a future nation. Unfortunately, none of these books is likely to excite interest in Jamestown to match that aroused for Plymouth by Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. The Pilgrims, for now, appear safe atop their undeserved perch.

Kupperman, a historian at New York University and author of several fine books on early America, looks across centuries and continents to set Virginia in context as just one among dozens of colonial ventures. Her wide-angle approach illuminates the roots of European expansion and shows how colonization was understood by both the intruders and the intruded-upon. But it drains Jamestown's story of color and tension. Two hundred pages elapse before Kupperman starts narrating the events that followed the colonists' arrival in Virginia in 1607. Her retelling is tepid, as is her conclusion: "The key to building English societies abroad, however messy and incomplete, was discovered in Virginia and all successful colonies henceforth followed its model."

As its title suggests, Benjamin Woolley's Savage Kingdom (forthcoming in April) wants to grab the general reader by the throat. If Kupperman's book suffers from too little drama, Woolley's has too much. "On a cold January day in 1606, a messenger walked inconspicuously across the cobbles of London's Strand," a typical chapter opens. The short walk, we're told, was a journey that "crossed from one era of history to another." Only later do we learn the messenger's mission: delivering a dry document about the financing of colonization.

Woolley, a London-based journalist, has done prodigious research. But too often he improves on it, not only by injecting doubtful atmospherics but also by papering over critical historical questions. John Smith wrote several different versions of his capture by Indians and rescue by Pocahontas, casting doubt on the story's veracity and on Smith as a narrator generally. Woolley blends Smith's various accounts to give us the legendary tale, as if told by the captain around a campfire. He doesn't disclose this cut-and-paste job, except in an oblique footnote. Nor does he examine the meaning of the rescue or analyze almost any aspect of Jamestown's history -- a messy chronicle that cries out for authorial guidance.

Tim Hashaw provides plenty of direction in The Birth of Black America, which tells of the "Black Mayflower" that brought Africans to Jamestown in 1619. Shipped from Angola, then pirated from a Portuguese slaver, the Africans faced a mixed future in Virginia, which hadn't yet codified slavery. Some were enslaved for life; others became indentured servants, like poor whites, laboring for a term of years before winning back their freedom. A few eventually prospered; one family founded a large property called Angola.

Hashaw, an investigative journalist, makes the most of the scant material on Virginia's first Africans. But he dilutes this neglected story by chasing after a big-time scoop, alleging a conspiracy tying the Africans' arrival to the Pilgrims' departure. His detective work is hard to follow and detracts from the tragedy and import of the Black Mayflower. Just a month before the Africans were sold near Jamestown, colonists gathered to form the first representative assembly in English America. Already, in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed, America's founding flaw was evident. A society built on the contrary pillars of freedom and bondage was destined to fracture.

Jamestown was also seminal to the future nation because it unleashed one of the most exceptional and prophetic figures in American history. John Smith claimed that he "loved actions more then wordes," but 800 pages of the latter are collected in a mammoth volume from the Library of America that includes his writings, as well as other early narratives of English settlements.

Here you can read not only about Pocahontas -- whom Smith, contrary to Disney's Barbie-doll animation, described as "a child of tenne yeares olde" -- but also about the captain's incredible adventures on four continents. By the time he sailed for America, at the age of 27, Smith had roamed Europe, Asia and Africa as a mercenary, hermit, slave, pirate, fireworks expert and gladiator.

Smith was also a vivid writer, hurling invective at the English gentry ("Gluttonous Loyterers," "Tuftaffaty humorists," "tender educats") and delivering proto-American aphorisms ("who would not work must not eat"). But Smith's greatest contribution was his vision of "abounding America" as a land of opportunity for striving immigrants. "Here every man may be master of his owne labour and land," Smith wrote, so long as settlers were willing to work patiently at humble tasks such as farming and fishing. The first to heed his advice were the Pilgrims, who settled a region Smith had scouted six years before the Mayflower's landing and had christened "New England."

Extracting the gems from Smith's writing requires patient labor, too. His prose is disorganized, his elliptical sentences impossible to parse, and his spelling and syntax so erratic that English can seem a foreign language. The Library of America doesn't help; like its other compilations, this one has no introduction, and the textual notes are stuck at the back. For readers with access to a good library, Philip Barbour's well-annotated, three-volume The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1986) remains the gold standard. Alternatively, there are short anthologies, including The Journals of Captain John Smith (new this year and edited by John Thompson) and Kupperman's Captain John Smith (1988), which is excellently edited and introduced.

Still, it's handy to have Smith's complete writing in one volume, and the Library of America edition also includes the best dispatches by other early English settlers in Virginia. These accounts, like Smith's, convey the rich and under-appreciated story of pre-Mayflower America. But the captain deserves the last word. "I would yet begin againe with as small meanes as I did at first," he wrote in 1624, as others followed the path he'd pioneered. "For all their discoveries," he observed, "are but Pigs of my owne Sow." ยท

Tony Horwitz, the author of "Blue Latitudes" and "Confederates in the Attic," is writing a book about the early exploration of America.

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