A LAND AS GOD MADE IT: JAMESTOWN AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICA
By James Horn
Basic Books, $26, 337 pages
REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER
To borrow the old joke about the housemaid’s reply when the matron judged her work by writing her name in the dust on a tabletop, “Yes ma’am, ain’t scholarship a wonderful thing.” So be it with this history of Jamestown, the long-overlooked first permanent settlement and capital in what became these United States, the neglected cradle of the republic and nursery of elements crucial to American democracy.
The three crucial elements that gave America unique promise were “private property in land, a representative assembly for ordering local affairs, and civilian control of the military.” Indeed, what would America be without the noble rights of private ownership of real assets, elected lawmakers and supreme civil authority? And what would we be if two ignoble institutions had not spawned at Jamestown? Those would be slavery for most Africans who were brought here and extreme prejudice toward the peoples who were here first.
To return to the wages of scholarship, it provides grist and data for reconstructing what really happened: a grab bag of rip-snortin’ adventure, petty- and power-politics, blood-and-guts rivalries and more. “A Land as God Made It” involves all those things that occurred in the actual past — as revealed by the study of primary sources backed up by secondary analysis and original interpretation, then related through lucid narrative.
If this history doesn’t read like lively fiction (like, for instance, David McCullough and Steven Ambrose), neither do Henry James and James Joyce read like Agatha Christie and Patricia Cornwell. Different authors have different strengths. James Horn illuminates a seminal time and relates events that are as important to our heritage as they are overlooked in the standard syllabi. This work has the special merit of revealing a historical treasure — like a lost Gilbert Stewart found in the dusty attic of history, a subject whose importance becomes as obvious as our neglect of it seems silly and wrong.
Based on research just as deep and sound as that of more popular histories, this work is written more studiously and argued more cautiously — both qualities that deserve respect. If only Ken Burns or Stephen Spielberg would take this on, it could make captivating and instructive television. For after all, it has great ying/yang ingredients of true-life drama: shipwreck and survival, valor and betrayal, starvation and beneficent rescue.
It has great historical tipping points: the planting of Englishmen in North America, the discovery of tobacco, the demise of decent relations with natives. There is even enough raw violence to suit today’s media if only a hint of sex, with Pocahontas as the love interest.
As to why the place that sired our basic legacies has been ignored, Mr. Horn points to a post-Appomattox “cultural ascendancy of the North,” the rising dominance of Yankee universities and their scholars’ disinterest in Southern history; call it sectional bias. (One irony here: America’s oldest college is Harvard, the next oldest arose in Jamestown’s successor capital and neighbor, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.)
Be that as it may, most of us from kindergartner to geezer assume that American history began in 1620 in Plymouth, Mass., home of hardy Pilgrims, happy Thanksgiving, shy John Alden, witch trials, baked beans, etc. Not so; all that came second.
Mr. Horn tells another story at least as good, and as he tells it without mythologizing the epic series of feats and tragedies that begins with the voyage of the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery in 1607. It has heroes including Capt. John Smith, revealed here as an inspired adventurer, clever politician-diplomat, and leader of matchless arrogance — an “Ambityous[,] unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe” — who was almost assassinated, then shipped back to England in disgrace.
It has Pocahontas, of course, who saved Smith — not in the lover’s panic of grade-school stories but in what Mr. Horn dismisses as “probably a ceremony of adoption in which Smith was symbolically killed and then reborn” into her Powhatan tribe. Smith may not have known the significance of the ritual event, but he took advantage of it.
As truth is famously more interesting than fiction, the Jamestown experience is more ghastly than Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay myths. The Virginia settlers endured awful trials during the early years of “starving time” when most of them perished from disease, famine and massacre; and survivors were driven to cannibalism. They engaged in exchanges of unspeakable atrocities with Indians too savage to describe here.
Then just as most were set on abandoning the place in 1610, Baron De La Warr arrived with a fleet of ships bearing new settlers and provisions. He and his successor Sir Thomas Dale enabled the survival of the colony by imposing order and discipline on derring-doers run amok.
As periods of terror alternated with times of cooperation when Indians and interlopers trade grain and guns, it is tempting to call relations between the two a seesaw matter, but that’s too simple. This account often resembles a diplomatic history of the Balkans in its complexity and detail; Mr. Horn did not dumb it down.
Thus the two sides lived in a kind of slippery-sloped equilibrium until the Powhatan leader Opechancanough, seeing where the wind blew, tried a desperate stroke. Mobilizing his allies, on March 22, 1622 he launched simultaneous attacks on settlements up and down the James River; 347 English men, women and children perished.
Of course the colonists retaliated. When word reached London their sponsors got obsolete arms from the Tower of London — surplus weapons so to speak. King James I (of Bible fame) sent a virtual arsenal to be used “to the honor of our Countrey and revenge of his subjects’ blood.” There would be no more equilibrium between immigrant and indigenous Americans.
An important thread is how New World events related to those in Europe. One historical surprise is that Britain’s colonial ambitions nearly matched those of Spain and France in terms of religious fervor — the intent to save native souls through Christian conversion; the Protestants were as zealous proselytizers as the Catholics.
At the same time, England set out to colonize America as part of her perpetual competition with continental monarchies. Jamestown’s settlement both followed and fueled the perennial warring between Old World powers, just as in the next century our French and Indian Wars would help cement Britain’s victory in Europe’s Seven Years War.
Mr. Horn himself is well situated to study our first successful settlement as chief librarian at Colonial Williamsburg, the restored site of Virginia’s second capital, though he barely mentions his intimacy with the forgotten town he celebrates. No matter his vantage point, his resources and skills combine in a readable account of seminal events and iconic people. He even tells what had happened to the “lost” colony of Sir Walter Raleigh’s earlier settlement at Roanoke — and without a word about Virginia Dare of saccharine storybook fame. Yes, scholarship is a wonderful thing.
Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, is the author of several books, including “Colonial Williamsburg,” the authoritative history of the place and institution.