Penguin History of the United States of America (5 page)

Certainly it is not the damp and mild climate of England;
but many could be found to say that this is no disadvantage. Thomas Jefferson, for example, at the end of the eighteenth century, exulted in the fact that whereas in Europe one never saw a wholly blue sky, quite innocent of cloud, in Virginia it was common.

So much is true; but it is equally true that the new colony more than once came within a hair’s breadth of sharing the fate of Roanoke and Sagadahoc.

In 1610 the settlers had actually abandoned the site and were sailing down-river when they met the new Governor, Lord De La Warr, sailing up it, with men and supplies sufficient to allow the enterprise to be renewed. At that time – only three years after its founding – Jamestown appeared

rather as the ruins of some ancient fortification, than that any people living might now inhabit it. The pallisadoes… torn down, the ports open, the gates from the hinges, the church ruined and unfrequented, empty houses (whose owners’ untimely death had taken newly from them) rent up and burnt, the living not able, as they pretended, to step into the woods to gather other firewóod.

And in 1617 a new Deputy-Governor found it much the same: ‘… but five or six houses, the church down, the palisadoes broken, the bridge in pieces, the well of fresh water spoiled…’ The more the early history of Virginia
is studied, the more it must (and did) appear miraculous that the colony survived.

Three things explain the miracle.

First, in time, importance and honour, must be placed the spirit of some of the colonists, and some of their leaders. Captain John Smith may be taken as the type of both, partly because he has left remarkable accounts of himself and his experiences, partly because of his general importance, as propagandist, to the colonization movement as a whole, partly because without him the Virginian settlement must have foundered within two years of its birth.

Captain Smith (1579–1631) was a soldier of fortune who sailed with the first settlers. A man with, as it proved, justified faith in his own abilities and no weak reluctance to make enemies, he was actually placed under arrest for mutiny before the little fleet reached the Canaries, and remained in duress until it was found that the London Company’s sealed orders made him a member of the council that was to rule the colony. This, his high reputation among the settlers and the good offices of the Company’s chaplain restored him to freedom, which he proceeded to make the most of. During the summer he bestirred the Company into building adequate shelters; he hunted on its behalf and intimidated the Indians into providing maize for it. A map-maker, he energetically explored the area, with never more than a handful of companions. On one of these expeditions, during the winter, he was captured by Indians and taken to Powhatan, chief of the confederacy of that name. Powhatan might have killed Smith, but at the last moment Pocahontas, ‘the King’s dearest daughter’, ‘got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death’. This led to a temporary reconciliation with Powhatan, who gave the Englishman the name ‘Nanta-quaus’ and received in return two cannons and a millstone from Jamestown. On his return to that place Smith found his fellow-settlers preparing to abandon the undertaking and sail in the pinnace for England or Newfoundland; but he, threatening the boat with cannon from the shore, forced them to stay or sink. It was his third such intervention: on an earlier occasion one of the would-be fugitives had been executed for mutiny. This time the leading mutineers were merely sent as prisoners to England.

By the spring Captain Smith, though still, officially, no more than a member of the council, had emerged as the master-spirit of the enterprise. No wonder. He seems to have been born with all the gifts of a frontiersman, including the knack of handling Indians, gifts such as were to prove their value again and again during the conquest of North America. The body of the settlers were sensible enough to recognize it. They chose him as their President in September 1608. His ascendancy was not to be seriously shaken until the accident that put an end to his Virginian career, although after that accident (the explosion of a bag of gunpowder, ‘which tore the flesh from his body and thighs’) a plot was laid to assassinate him. But ‘his heart did fail him that should have given fire to that merciless pistol,’ Smith explains. Some later Presidents were to be less fortunate.

Smith left in September 1609. The two preceding years had seen him face, and for the most part overcome, a multitude of hideous problems.

First and worst was the recurrent threat of starvation. There never were nor could be adequate food supplies from home; ships reached Virginia only four times between 1607 and 1609. The English were slow to master the arts of catching or killing American game, which was not, in any case, invariably plentiful. During the frequent quarrels with the Indians barter for food ceased. In 1608 Smith organized the successful planting and reaping of the colony’s own corn; but rats, come into Virginia off the ships, devoured almost the whole, so that the settlers had to be boarded out with the Indians. Nevertheless, by the end of his Presidency he had secured the food supply. The colonists had enjoyed a second harvest, and their European livestock – pigs, hens, goats and some sheep – were proliferating satisfactorily.

Next only to starvation as an enemy was disease. Jamestown had been founded on an isthmus that was ideal for military defence,
but, surrounded by marshes, was fatal to the health of all too many. Malaria came with Caribbean mosquitoes, like the rats, in the first ships. Plague and yellow fever came with the later ships; so, apparently, did jail-fever. Bad diet bred scurvy. Bad water bred dysentery. The damps and colds of winter were no discouragement to rheumatic disorders. Finally, psychological ailments may have appeared: in 1619 one of the settlers (who, it is true, did not live at Jamestown) insisted that Virginia was healthy, and that ‘more do die here of the disease of their mind than of their body by having this country victuals over-praised unto them in England and by not knowing they shall drink water here’. The contrast between conditions in their new and their old homes must surely have seemed unduly sharp to many. But in view of the physical predicament mental causes need scarcely be invoked to explain the fact that by the end of 1607 only thirty-eight men survived of the hundred or so who had originally landed.

Leadership could do little against bacteria or melancholy. It became accepted that it was necessary to ‘season’ settlers;
and, of course, the process of acclimatization often failed. So of the hundreds of settlers, including, from 1611 onwards, women and children, who were poured into Virginia, hundreds continued to die or to flee back to England, so that the population did not pass the thousand mark until the twenties; and still there were fluctuations. In 1628 there were reckoned to be 3,000 Virginians; in 1630 only ‘upwards of 2,500’. By 1643, it is true, there had been a dramatic increase, to nearly 5,000. Seasoning remained a slow business.

Death, disease and the Indian were to stalk the frontier of settlement throughout its history; they imposed a corresponding necessity on the frontiersmen and women to be incessantly watchful, prudent and hardworking. Yet Smith’s little band contained many who did their best to evade the necessity. Some, as has been seen, tried to abandon Virginia entirely; others deserted to the Indians; private trading undermined Smith’s attempts to regulate relations with the aborigines, and laxness enabled these to steal from the Company’s few precious stores. Mutiny was endemic, quarrelling incessant. And all too many of the settlers – ‘drunken gluttonous loiterers’ – were simply not prepared to turn their hands to the mundane tasks of obtaining food, either by hunting or agriculture, or of building shelters.

These last Smith eventually dealt with by swearing to turn off all who would not work to starve in the wilderness; but the moral he drew was that settlers who were merely gentlemen or soldiers were worse than useless. ‘Good labourers and mechanical men’ were what was wanted, and there were far too few of these among the first Virginians – perhaps some two dozen. ‘All the rest were poor gentlemen, tradesmen, serving men, libertines, and such like, ten times more fit to spoil a commonwealth, than either begin one, or but help to maintain one.’ ‘When you send again,’ he wrote to the London Company, ‘I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as we have: for except we be able both to lodge them, and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.’ Smith, at least, rapidly learned the lessons of tillage, and saw through some of the delusive visions that were encouraging the Virginia voyage in England.

The Virginia Company of London was little quicker to learn than the generality of Englishmen, and Smith complained bitterly about the unrealistic orders it sent him, commanding him to find gold-mines, and the passage to the South Sea, and Ralegh’s lost colonists, and not to fight the Indians, and to crown Powhatan King and vassal of James I. But though it is possible to sympathize with the Captain, it is not entirely possible to take his grievances as solemnly as he did himself. For the second factor, for lack of which Virginia would certainly have foundered, was the steady support that the parent company gave to its creation.

Smith left in the autumn of 1609. The incompetents whom he had superseded had returned, and the new rulers of the colony, Sir Thomas Gates and Lord De La Warr, had not yet arrived. Jamestown, which Smith had left tolerably well ordered, immediately began to fall to pieces, and there ensued the ‘Starving Time’. Yet as we have seen, the colony survived, if only just. The London Company continued to find for it money, and women and men (of an improved quality). It sent out efficient and unsentimental soldiers, such as Thomas Dale and Samuel Argall, to govern it
à la
Smith (that is to say, autocratically) until it had found its feet, and then it began gracefully to relinquish its absolute control as private enterprise
became desired and possible.
And when emergencies occurred it did all it could to come to the rescue. The worst such emergency was in 1622. By then the colony had spread far up both sides of the James, as far as the falls where Richmond now stands. Powhatan and Pocahontas were both dead, and the leadership of the Indians had devolved on the understandably bitter Opechancanough. On 22 March, ‘at eight of the clock on that fatal Friday morning’, he launched a carefully planned massacre which killed a third or so of the 1,200 settlers. On receiving the news the Company immediately applied to the King for leave to send to the beleaguered colonists ‘certain old cast arms remaining in the Tower and the Minorites’. The arms were sent, and used to such effect that the colonists soon reduced the Indians to submission. There was to be no more serious trouble with them for twenty years; and the next uprising (in 1644) was the last.

It was not easy for the Company to be so steadfast. One of the necessities which most plagued both the colony and its promoters was that of, somehow, showing a profit for the adventurers (that is, stockholders). It is thought that the Company gained great strength from being based on the comparatively vast resources of London, rather than on the slender funds which were all that Ralegh and the out-ports (Plymouth, etc.) had been able to raise for Roanoke; nevertheless even Londoners did not like throwing good money after bad. And profit proved very hard to come by. Consequently, after the glorious dispatch (and apparent failure) of the first few voyages, investors grew wary. The Company, whose original members could not, by themselves, raise more money, had already expanded its membership, selling shares at £12 10s. each and granting special privileges to those who would buy two or four such shares. In 1612 it hit on the idea of running a lottery. Royal permission was given, and until 1621, when the permission was revoked, the lottery was ‘the real and substantial food by which Virginia hath been nourished’. Its ending was a leading cause of the collapse of the Company, which came about in 1624. With a treasury emptied by the insatiable requirements of the colony and its leaders at bitter odds, the organization had outlived its usefulness. Virginia became a colony under the direct government of the King.

But before then the Company had redoubled its services to Virginia. During its first and greatest period its head, or treasurer, was Sir Thomas Smith, the old associate of Ralegh and the leading London merchant. He held office from 1609 to 1618 and conducted affairs ably and sensibly – much more ably than his successors. Several of the most valuable developments of the Company’s policy seem to have originated in his time. But in 1618 he was dislodged by a cabal headed by Sir Edwin Sandys, a somewhat impetuous, visionary man. He and Smith had dominated the Company since its beginnings, and their quarrel, which rapidly became many other quarrels involving many other persons – an amoeba of a quarrel – was, when all is said, the
root cause of the Company’s fall. But perhaps the quarrel and the consequent fall of Smith were necessary. For Sandys, during his brief ascendancy, gave life to two policies which were to be of the very greatest importance for the future of America.

First, he launched the headright system of land allotment. Under this arrangement, which replaced the old system of Company monopoly, a prospective settler received fifty acres for himself and as much again for every additional person whom he brought with him to Virginia – family or servants. The land was to be his and his heirs’ forever. In return, he had only to pay a fixed rent, to the Company, or towards the recruitment and support of the clergy, or towards the support of a college, depending on what portion of the public lands he had been allotted. This system spread from Virginia to many of the other colonies and became a Virginian right, as its name indicates, after the fall of the Company which had conferred it as a privilege. Under it, as the figures of population and occupation suggest, the growth of the colony was steady, if not swift: not even the great massacre could long interrupt it. The dream of landed independence in the New World began to come true, and accordingly the lure of Virginia was strengthened.

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