Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Tsenacommacah is the native name for the land around and of which Jamestown, Virginia, is a part. Here are two reviews of books written in recent times about this area and its history:

Natalie A. Zacek - The Newest New World - Reviews in American History 34:2

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The Newest New World

by Natalie A. Zacek, in "Reviews in American History," 34.2 (2006) 150-155, John Hopkins Press

Books Reviewed:

Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet, eds. Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. xi + 368 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $59.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

James Horn. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005. xi + 289 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $26.00 (cloth); $15.95 (paper)

It is easy to imagine that many American historians will feel an urge either to shrug their shoulders or to roll their eyes when hearing of the publication of two new books with "Jamestown" in their titles. Over the past few years, the place which John Smith called "a misery, a ruine, a death, a hell" has seemed inescapable. In March 2004, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture sponsored a four-day conference on the subject of "The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624," at which no fewer than sixty-five scholars presented papers, nearly all of which dealt at least in part with Jamestown. Historical and tourism organizations throughout coastal Virginia have committed to an ambitious program of events to celebrate "America's 400th Anniversary," and state residents can apply for commemorative license plates, spend state quarters featuring an image of the three ships of the initial English expedition, and reap the benefits of transit improvements around the newly named "Jamestown corridor." Even the local multiplex has jumped upon this bandwagon, with heartthrob actor Colin Farrell donning John Smith's doublet and boots in Terrence Malick's The New World. But it would be a considerable shame should historians of colonial America and the Atlantic choose to pass by either of these volumes, as both rise far beyond quadricentennial hype and provide a host of insights, not only about the Jamestown venture itself but also about the wider political, social, and cultural world in which that venture was carried out.

James Horn seizes the reader's attention within the opening lines of A Land as God Made It. Rather than beginning his account of the colony with the all-too-familiar narrative of the arrival in 1607 of the Susan Constant, the [End Page 150] Godspeed, and the Discovery in the Chesapeake Bay, or with a discussion of the "lost colony" of Roanoke, Horn announces that "the English were not the first Europeans to discover Virginia" (p. 1). In the summer of 1561, a Spanish ship was driven by storms into the Bay. Proceeding inland, the Spaniards anchored along a river in order to gather supplies and repair their vessel, and there, on the banks of what may have been the Chickahominy, they encountered a small group of Indians, two of whom apparently agreed to board the ship and sail back to Europe with its crew. One of these two, Paquiqueneo, was given the name of Don Luis de Velasco, under which title he was presented at Philip II's court in Madrid. Anxious to return to his homeland, Don Luis sailed to Mexico, where he accepted the Christian faith and spent several years living amongst Dominican friars. Expressing a desire to establish a mission among his own people, Don Luis gained the support of the governor of Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, and in 1570, accompanied by dozen Jesuits, he at last returned to his home. Once resettled among his people, Don Luis soon turned his back upon the missionaries, who struggled to survive a harsh winter, and in February 1571 the apostate and his supporters attacked the mission, killing all but one of its residents. An enraged Menendez dispatched an expedition against his former comrade; unable to find Don Luis, he settled for unleashing a "chastisement" upon the Indians before returning to Florida. But although the Spanish mission met a quick and brutal end, in Horn's view it cast a long shadow over future relations between Europeans and Virginia Indians. Menendez's attack acquainted the Indians with the fearsome nature of European warfare, and simultaneously served as a warning to rival European powers that Spain had laid its claims to North American territories as well as those to the south. Perhaps more importantly, this moment of contact gave rise to tantalizing tales of the alleged wealth of this land, which Spanish mariners claimed was filled with easily accessible lodes of jewels and precious metals. All of these results were to have significant impact upon the next century's English colonial endeavors.

From this arresting opening, Horn moves on to examine the principal players and events that led to and followed the arrival of the small English fleet in 1607. He analyzes the statecraft of Wahunsonacock (whom the English knew as Powhatan) and Opechancanough, the pre-eminent leaders of the region that the Powhatans called Tsenacommacah and he provocatively argues that Opechancanough may have been none other than Don Luis/Paquiquineo and lauds the skill by which these two brothers gained control of "great and spacious Dominions" (p. 20). The book's central chapters present a detailed and convincing picture of the many challenges faced by Christopher Newport's initial colonizing venture, which included not only an unfamiliar landscape and an indigenous people whose leaders appeared alternately as friend or foe to the English but also vituperative disagreements between the leaders [End Page 151] of the expedition. For the English, "survival depended on a deadly game of keeping one step ahead of their enemies," and the only man who succeeded in this game was Captain John Smith, who was scorned and hated by many of his fellow colonists because of what they considered to be his low birth and his refusal to accept the decisions and policies of his alleged betters, both in Jamestown and at the Virginia Company's headquarters in London (p. 75). Horn does not accept Smith at their valuation, nor at his own, aware as he of Smith's penchant for viewing and portraying himself as an English hero, "acutely aware of the epic proportions of [his] voyages," but he lets the reader understand how important Smith was to the survival of the settlement, due not only to the military and cartographic skills that he had acquired though his youthful exploits as a soldier of fortune but also to his ability to keep Wahunsonacock, Opechancanough, and their people guessing about the abilities and aims of the newcomers (p. 86). The balance of power shifted continually between the English and the Indians, and these changes were simultaneously the cause and the result of the ever-changing balance of power between Smith and his opponents in both Jamestown and London.

Horn is at his strongest when narrating and analyzing the course of diplomacy and hostility between the Indians and the English, and the ways through which each group came to understand—or misunderstand—the other. But A Land as God Made It has more to offer, in particular a nuanced and persuasive account of the motivations and actions of the Virginia Company in the years following the first expedition. Although the Company was determined to keep the struggling settlement alive and to fend off potential Spanish incursions in the Chesapeake, throughout the 1610s it was far from clear what the investors hoped to gain from the colony. In the absence of mineral wealth, what profit might Jamestown generate for its investors? And what was the ideal relationship between the English and the Indians, mutuality and respect or hostility and eventual English dominance? Of course, the answers to these questions are familiar; by the early 1620s, the English settlers would have begun to produce tobacco, survived a devastating attack by Opechancanough and his allies, and taken the first steps towards the development of the political and economic institutions through which, in Edmund Morgan's words, "the rise of liberty and equality in America [were] accompanied by the rise of slavery."1 What is noteworthy in Horn's depiction is his ability to make this well-known and much-analyzed material new, and to allow the reader to comprehend the fragility, randomness, and contingency of these much-studied events

There are some small ways in which this book might have been made still more valuable. The illustrations, particularly the several maps, are well-chosen, with a high quality of reproduction, but readers would have been well served by the inclusion of a list of principal actors, particularly among the ranks of the colonists and the Virginia Company officials. Horn reserves some of his [End Page 152] most original ideas for the epilogue, but including them in the introductory chapters might have allowed the reader to better understand some of his aims before plunging deeply into complex narratives. Nonetheless, A Land as God Made It immediately earns its place upon the shelf of essential accounts not only of Jamestown, but also of colonial British America.

An article extracted from Horn's book is the first essay in Robert Appelbaum and John Sweet's Envisioning an English Empire, and it is easy to imagine Horn vigorously agreeing with Karen Ordahl Kupperman's contention in her introduction that "the history of Jamestown and the beginnings of English settlement in America is better served when we view it in an Atlantic frame" (p. xi). As Sweet states in his perceptive introduction, "the purpose of this volume is to better understand the various visions that shaped early Virginia," and to do so by enlisting both historians and literary scholars in this endeavour (p. 2). To accomplish this laudably ambitious goal, Appelbaum and Sweet adopt a three-part perspective, one that emphasizes first the early encounters between Indians and English in Virginia, then the international relations that influenced English imperial ideology and practice, and finally the ways in which settlers' and natives' visions of Virginia altered over the course of the seventeenth century.

The first section, "Reading Encounters," covers the material most obviously linked to the Jamestown settlement. Alden T. Vaughan's "Powhatans Abroad: Virginia Indians in England" provides a lively and intellectually stimulating account of the Virginia Indians, most famously Pocahontas, who served as "cultural intermediaries" between colony and metropole, and Horn's "The Conquest of Eden: Possession and Dominion in Early Virginia" shows how the English and the Powhatans' consistent misunderstanding of each other's ideas of sovereignty rendered "a bloody struggle for possession . . . inevitable" (pp. 51, 48). In "John Smith Maps Virginia: Knowledge, Rhetoric, and Politics," Lisa Blansett applies textual strategies to a cartographic source, in a manner much influenced by the work of Richard Helgerson and Tom Conley, while Emily Rose's "The Politics of Pathos: Richard Frethorne's Letters Home" sheds light upon the production and dissemination of the heartrending letters through which indentured servant Frethorne described the miseries of his experiences in 1620s Virginia.2

The second section, "The World Stage," locates early Virginia within the wider world of Elizabethan and Jacobean international politics and contains some of the most insightful and provocative pieces. In "The Specter of Spain in John Smith's Colonial Writing," Eric Griffin delineates the "conflicted attitude toward Spain that pervades much of the colonial writing" of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (p. 112). Griffin propounds a convincing argument that John Smith's writing betrays an "intense Anglo-Hispanic identification" by which Smith "construct[s] himself as the model English conquistador" [End Page 153] (p. 133). Pompa Banerjee's piece on "Turkey and Virginia in John Smith's True Travels" not only "point[s] to the rhetorical function of Turkey as a resonant subtext" to Smith's account of his Virginia adventures, but also reads both texts and images circulated by Smith to posit his existence as a "white Othello," a picaresque figure who charmed his readers, particularly women, with his tales of romantic and military endeavors (p. 135). Susan Iwanisziw's "England, Morocco, and Global Geopolitical Upheaval" discusses what she sees as a triangular diplomatic and imperial relationship between Protestant England, Catholic Spain, and Islamic Morocco, and Andrew Hadfield's "Irish Colonies and America" offers a spirited critique of those scholars, such as David B. Quinn and Nicholas Canny, whom he believes are too quick to view the relationship between English colonial activities in Ireland and America as "part of the same process, with the one leading to another" (p. 174).

The final section's title, "American Metamorphosis," is vague, and perhaps intentionally so, as the essays therein are less clearly connected to one another than those in the previous sections. Robert Appelbaum's "Hunger in Early Virginia" could as easily have been placed in the first group, dealing as it does with the nature of English and Indian understandings of the presence and absence of food in human society. But regardless of its textual location, Appelbaum's essay is one of the two or three best in the volume; it expertly blends historical, literary, and anthropological analysis of texts and images depicting surfeit and dearth, and would be an excellent reading selection for an undergraduate seminar on European-Indian encounters. Jess Edwards's "Between 'Plain Wilderness' and 'Goodly Corn Fields': Representing Land Use in Early Virginia" historicizes seventeenth-century English rhetoric about appropriate forms of land use and dovetails neatly with Peter C. Herman's " 'We All Smoke Here': Behn's The Widdow Ranter and the Invention of American Identity," which centers upon the creation of new forms of cultural practice in late-seventeenth-century Virginia. One might wonder how much more there might be to say on the much-debated topic of the origins of African slavery in Virginia, but Michael J. Guasco's "Settling with Slavery: Human Bondage in the Early Anglo-Atlantic World" yields interesting and valuable insights into seventeenth-century English understandings of states of unfreedom, including villeinage, servitude, and the enslavement of captive English mariners in North Africa.

As is so often true in volumes of this nature, some of the essays seem better suited than others to the putative subject of the collection, and many readers may opt to pass over individual pieces due to their lack of interest in specific topics or particular methodologies. But, as we see from Constance Jordan's conclusion (an unusual but most welcome practice in edited collection), these dozen highly diverse essays allow open-minded readers to reconceptualize Jamestown as a "world…neither new nor old but both at once," one which [End Page 154] was the product both of very historically and culturally specific negotiations between small groups of Indians and English and of a much wider-ranging series of histories, theories, and encounters (p. 288). In company with A Land as God Made It, Envisioning an English Empire shows just how much more we can learn about "the birth of America," and how new the New World can still be to scholars and students alike.

Natalie Zacek, lecturer in history and American studies, University of Manchester, is completing a monograph on the development of white societies in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English West Indies.


1. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), 4.

2. See Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (1992); and Tom Conley, The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France (1997).