Revisiting the First Settlement
Friday, April 27, 2007
Jamestown -- America's first permanent English settlement -- turns 400 next month, with a splashy, three-day birthday party May 11-13 commemorating the spring day in 1607 when the passengers and crews of the Godspeed, Discovery and Susan Constant disembarked on the shores of Virginia's James River after an arduous 144-day transatlantic journey. Its story, in some ways, is a tale of two cities.
And, no, I don't just mean the two separate, but complementary, historical sites with a claim to the name.
On the one hand, there's the original James Fort, where 104 English settlers made their first encampment. Now an active archaeological excavation site as well as a tourist attraction, Historic Jamestowne features a working reconstruction of a 17th-century glassmaking facility, along with the Archaearium, a state-of-the-art museum whose mission is the lively interpretation of the archaeological record.
On the other hand, there's the Jamestown Settlement. Just upriver from the true Jamestown site, the bustling living-history facility features a reconstructed fort, a Native American village and three replica ships staffed by costumed interpreters, as well as its own spanking-new museum. It's all about a Jamestown aboveground. One that you can see, smell, touch, taste and hear. The other is a city that lies largely buried and gone, but for the fragments we can piece together.
Rather, there exist two ideas of Jamestown: One, a place of cultural encounters, where the traditions and contributions of its earliest residents -- Native American, English and African -- are equally honored; the other, a place of myth that has largely, but not entirely, evaporated. It is the myth that the city was ever, in the words of the Settlement museum's senior curator, Tom Davidson, "an English village that was miraculously transported to the shores of the James River."
Not that the Settlement was ever a proponent of that blinkered view of history. Davidson says its mission has always been about "Jamestown in context."
That view is reinforced throughout the new permanent exhibition galleries of the Settlement museum, which opened in the fall. Immediately upon entering, for instance, visitors see dioramas of African and Native American villages, followed by a mock-up of an Elizabethan London street. If information was lacking from the Settlement's prior treatment of the cultural contributions of Native Americans and Africans, it wasn't because of cultural chauvinism, Davidson says, but because the knowledge base was insufficient.
Only in recent years has our understanding of some of the richness of Jamestown's cultural roots come into sharp focus, Davidson says. We now know, for instance, that some Indians lived peaceably within the walls of James Fort. And, although we have always known that Africans lived in Jamestown from 1619 onward, it was not until the mid-1990s that scholars were able to ascertain the details of their almost accidental arrival: Angolan slaves were captured from a Portuguese ship by pirates and brought to Jamestown to be bartered for supplies.
"What we've been able to do is something we would have liked to do 10 or 12 years ago," Davidson says. He calls the reconfigured galleries' focus on cultural interconnection more of an expansion of existing themes than a complete reworking. "But it's only as a result of recent scholarship that we were able to do it in a credible way, to present it as something more than a theory."
The thesis of cultural encounters also informs "The World of 1607," an ambitious, year-long special exhibition opening Friday at the Settlement museum. The series of four roughly three-month "cycles" explores globalism-flavored micro-themes: "War and Peace," "China Under the Emperor Wanli," "Image of the Other: England and North Africa in 1607" and "Trouble in Russia, 1607-1613."
What, you might ask, does a jeweled dagger have to do with Jamestown? Part of a display called "Diplomatic Gifts," and representing a Persian offering to one of the Romanovs (the Russian dynasty that first came to power in 1613), its presence is meant to be taken symbolically, rather than literally, according to curator Elena Lioubimova. In an age of war and the expansion of empire, she explains, it's a tangible -- not to mention gorgeous -- reminder that peace could be established without bloodshed.
It's an optimistic ideal, one whose essence is echoed everywhere you look at Jamestown. Just like America, whose difficult birth was not unmarked by violence or loss of life, the dagger represents great suffering and great beauty.
Staff writer Michael O'Sullivan covers galleries and museums for the Weekend section.