After reading one of my posts, a friend suggested I take a look at the book 1493… by Charles C. Mann. Only a few pages into it and I had a rude awakening. It appeared to me that up to this point I had merely been scratching the surface when describing our family’s roots, branches, history, and stories. And then, I started looking even further for confirmations of what I had read in the book 1493…
I always felt that our ancestors were noble people of smaller stature but hardy adventurers and spiritually strong and good people. (I believe that’s the extent of what my school teachers had taught me.) Not being a history buff, I also thought that in the early centuries, the world’s continents and countries were very much compartmentalized. Much to my surprise and perhaps my dismay I was uninformed, misinformed, and/or disillusioned–again, this is what I learned in school up until the eighth grade or so.
THE VIRGINIA COMPANY OF LONDON, 1606-1624
The Virginia Company
I also found that I knew little about the economic drivers behind the stories of the colonial adventurers and specifically by the London Company (a group of venture capitalists) who wanted to use a settlement in Virginia (Jamestown) in the 1600s as a trading post midway from England as a way to grab trade from China. This fact is even more interesting to me now given my knowledge of today’s backdrops of allies, enemies, world trade, and teetering economies.
There were two ways to become a member of the London Company. If you had money to buy shares in the Company but were inclined to remain safe and snug in England, you could invest as an “Adventurer.” If you really were adventurous and didn’t mind travelling to the new colony, you could become a member of the Company as a “Planter.”
Planters were required to work for the Company for a set number of years. In exchange for this work — or, more precisely, servitude — the company provided housing, clothing, and food. At the end of the servitude the planter would be granted a piece of land and be free of obligations to the company. In addition, the planter would be entitled to a share of the profits made by the company.
The planters were really servants of the company. They had no real freedom and were kept by force in the company. They had no choice but to accept any changes that the Governor or company decided to make, including an extension of their contracts. (Three-year contracts were sometimes extended to ten years.) Any letters sent to or received from England were destroyed if they contained any disparaging remarks about the company. Relatively minor offences could result in severe punishments. According to some colonists’ accounts, there were continual whippings, as well as punishments such as hanging, shooting, breaking on the wheel, and even being burnt alive.
Slavery and the Making of America
The other crucial event that played a role in the development of Virginia was the arrival of Africans to Jamestown. A Dutch slave trader exchanged his cargo of Africans for food in 1619. The Africans became indentured servants, similar to the many poor Englishmen who traded several years of labor in exchange for passage to Virginia. (The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 1680s.)
I consider The London Company’s priorities callous and greedy–not an uncommon vein that runs through governments and politics today. Their priorities were set on trade and the money to be made. Thus, all too often and for too long Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I’s chartered company ignored and disregarded the well being and lives of humankind. England’s interest in North America was so largely expressed through the agency of the Virginia Company that its story I’m sure fills many history books about the United States and the British Empire.
Tobacco seeds from the Caribbean, earthworms, soil, honeybees, pigs, horses, cows, and oxen from England–all of these changed the landscape and lives of the colonists.
The Columbian Exchange
“The Columbian Exchange” is the name given to the era in which livestock, agricultural products, and cultural influences moved between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492 is considered the start of the era, and as a result of the interaction, societies in both hemispheres benefited from new products and suffered from new [and deadly] diseases. [Author and historian Dr. Alfred Crosby is credited with developing the term, which was the title of his 1972 book on the subject.] –wiseGEEK
Chesapeake Bay is the remains of a huge, 35-million-year-old meteor crater. The impact-fractured rock at the mouth of the bay lets in the sea, contaminating the groundwater with salt. Few Indian groups lived in the saltwater wedge, presumably for just that reason. Jamestown was bordered and undergirded by bad water. That bad water, the geographer Carville D. Earle argued, “led to typhoid, dysentery, and perhaps salt poisoning”. By January 1608, eight months after landfall, only thirty-eight English were left alive.–Charles C. Mann,1493…
The Starving Time and Near Abandonment (1609–11)
George Percy, Governor of Virginia during the Starving Time
In the autumn of 1609, after Captain John Smith left [to return to England], Chief Powhatan began a campaign to starve the English out of Virginia. The tribes under his rule stopped bartering for food and carried out attacks on English parties that came in search of trade.
Hunting became highly dangerous, as the Powhatan Indians also killed Englishmen they found outside the fort. Long reliant on the Indians, the colony found itself with far too little food for the winter.
As the food stocks ran out, the settlers ate the colony’s animals—horses, dogs, and cats—and then turned to eating rats, mice, and shoe leather. In their desperation, some practiced cannibalism. The winter of 1609–10, commonly known as “The Starving Time,” took a heavy toll. Of the 500 colonists living in Jamestown in the autumn, fewer than one-fifth were still alive by March 1610. Sixty were still in Jamestown; another 37, more fortunate, had escaped by ship.–David A. Price, Encyclopedia Brittanica (online).
On some level the colony’s plight is baffling. Chesapeake Bay was and is one of the hemisphere’s great fisheries. Replete with pike, carp, mullet, crab, bass, flounder, turtle, and eel, this long shallow estuary was so biologically productive that John Smith joked about being able to catch dinner in the frying pan used to cook it. The Atlantic Sturgeon that swam in the James grew big enough, one colonist reported, that you could loop vines around their tails and be pulled underwater. (I didn’t believe this until an archaeologist at Jamestown told me he had uncovered bones from a sturgeon that may have been fourteen feet long.) Oysters grew in such numbers that one mound of discarded shells from native feasts covered nearly thirty acres.
How could the colonists starve in the midst of plenty? One reason was that the English feared leaving Jamestown to fish because Powhatan’s fighters were waiting outside the colony walls. A second reason was that a startlingly large proportion of the colonists were gentlemen, a status famine “ghastly and pale in every face,” some colonists stirred themselves to “dig up dead corpse[s] out of graves and to eat them.” One man murdered his pregnant wife and “salted her for his food.” By spring only about sixty people had survived what was called the “starving time.”–Charles C. Mann,1493…
In closing, I wish to thank my friend for gently exposing me to a whole new level of understanding about the histories, lives, and times of my ancestors. And, I promise as I write new posts that they will be more inclusive of the spices and flavors from others documented chapters in history. To me, this simple change will be like going from a black and white small screen movie theatre to delivering crystal-clear images and stories through an Imax immersive 3D experience.
I also highly recommend to you, Charles C. Mann’s 1493.. (just one of his several best sellers out there) for his storytelling and writing style, but also for his scope of content, the inclusion of so many important people of the day, and quoted sources from across the professional sciences (archeologists, botanists, genealogists, geologists, historians, sociologists, etc.) who could quantify, confirm, or deny the findings presented from the colonists and others from earlier times.
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Charles C. Mann; Vintage Books, New York City, 2011.
Africans in America: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p264.html
Buffalo Rising Online: http://archives.buffalorising.com/story/bill_1#sca
National Geographic Magazine OnLine Archives: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/05/jamestown
The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Virginia Company Of London, 1606-1624, by
Wesley Frank Craven, April 11, 2009 [EBook #28555]
Unearthing America’s Birthplace–Rediscovering Historic Jamestown: http://www.apva.org/rediscovery/page.php?page_id=6
wiseGEEK–clear answers for common questions:http://www.wisegeek.org