Taming Pocahontas

Taming Pocahontas

Andrea Severson

How a story of captivity, salvation and conversion became a tool to justify Britain’s conquest of the New World. 

The legend of Pocahontas and John Smith is perhaps the most enduring story of British colonisation in America. For Americans, their story was a sign of cooperation between Europeans and Native Americans, but the figure of Pocahontas represented something different to the British settlers. Her legend characterised their hopes of a peaceful union between themselves and the peoples they conquered.It is likely that John Smith fabricated most, if not all, of the story; but it is also possible that the story of Pocahontas’ supposed rescue of him was actually part of a tribal ceremony. Either way, Pocahontas represented everything the British wanted to accomplish for the Native Americans in the 17th century. Here was a pagan woman who left her ‘savagery’ behind and assimilated into the English way of life. The British justified the expansion of their empire through such stories, now described as ‘captivity narratives’.The basic story is familiar. Captain John Smith, who came to Virginia to help establish the colony of Jamestown, fell into the hands of a powerful tribe in the area. This tribe, led by Chief Powhatan, held him in captivity and, after providing a feast for him, stretched him out on two stones and prepared to beat him to death. Just when Smith believed that all was lost, the daughter of the chief stepped forward. She laid her own head over Smith’s and pleaded for his life. The debate continues as to whether this actually happened. If it did, many historians believe it was probably a tribal custom, known as an execution and salvation rite, in which a person was brought to the point of execution before a member of the tribe ceremonially stepped forward and ‘saved’ them. If this ceremony was the reason for John Smith’s capture, it is possible that Powhatan wanted to incorporate the British settlers into his alliance of tribes and, believing Smith to be a person of some power among the colonists, captured him to make that alliance. John Smith might not have understood that it was a ritual; his journals indicate he believed himself in real danger. But after this incident the Powhatans and British formed an alliance that helped sustain Jamestown through the winter.Man of the (New) WorldJohn Smith’s journey to the New World was not his first adventure. He longed for travel from an early age, but, aged 15, his father sent him in 1595 as an apprentice to Thomas Sendall of King’s Lynn so that he could learn about trade and commerce. The death of his father in 1596 freed Smith from parental control, allowing him to leave Sendall’s apprenticeship and follow his dreams of adventure overseas. Smith first left England at the age of 18 under Captain Joseph Duxbury. After a few years, he became involved in a war with the Turks and was captured and sold as a slave. He escaped from slavery and, eventually, obtained the rank of captain. Yet, despite the peril of these previous journeys, he is remembered for travelling with the Virginia Company to the New World.When Smith first met Pocahontas after he became a prisoner of her tribe in 1607, she was about 10 or 11 years old. He wrote that she seemed to be around the age of 13 and certainly no older than 14, suggesting that he saw her as a child and not a romantic interest. It is worth noting that, while Smith claimed romantic attention from many women in his journals, including during his time as a slave in 1602, he made no such claims about Pocahontas.In 1608, Smith became the president of Jamestown, but he had to rush back to England when a spark ignited his powder bag, badly injuring him. He saw Pocahontas once more when she visited England around 1616 or 1617 and was saddened to hear of her death soon after. He himself died years later, dictating his last will and testament on 21 June 1631.[[{“fid”:”42151″,”view_mode”:”float_right”,”fields”:{“format”:”float_right”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”external_url”:””},”link_text”:null,”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“1”:{“format”:”float_right”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”external_url”:””}},”attributes”:{“alt”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”title”:”Pocahontas, engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616.”,”class”:”media-element file-float-right”,”data-delta”:”1″}}]]The woman we know as Pocahontas actually had many names. Pocahontas was a nickname meaning ‘playful, frolicsome girl’. Her real name was Matoaka, but this name was used mostly among those closest to her. True names were often kept private among the Powhatans and so it was by her nickname that she became known. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan’s many wives. After supposedly saving John Smith’s life, she served as a messenger between her father and the British colony, but, as relations between the colony and her tribe began to deteriorate, the British captured her and held her for ransom. It was during this time in captivity that she became close to John Rolfe, a British settler of Jamestown who helped introduce tobacco to the colony. The couple decided to marry, a resolution that helped to stabilise relations between the British and Powhatan’s tribe. Upon converting to Christianity, she took the name ‘Rebecca’ and it was with this name that she travelled to England. Unfortunately, soon after setting sail back to America, she became so ill that the ship had to dock at the Thames port of Gravesend. There, on 21 March 1617, she died at the age of 22 and was buried under the name Rebecca Rolfe.While the story of John Smith’s captivity at the hands of Native Americans and subsequent rescue by Pocahontas is thrilling, it is in no way original. Captivity for ransom was a common fear among Europeans in North Africa and this fear soon spilled over to the New World. In this case, however, they feared captivity in the wilderness at the hands of pagan natives rather than by the Muslims of North Africa, whom they believed at least had some form of civilisation, as the British understood it. Captivity narratives were very popular in London. In fact, they became so much a part of British culture that, by the mid-19th century, British prisoners in Afghanistan spent much of their time writing about their experiences. The competitive atmosphere for writers of captivity narratives led many prisoners to embellish their stories in the hope of having them published in London. This practice leads us to wonder whether John Smith similarly embellished his journals, which were published initially without the story of Pocahontas’ rescue in 1612. His later writings continued to add elements to the story. The tale of Pocahontas’ rescue was included in a letter to Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen, in 1616 and another version appears in his The Generall Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, which calls into doubt his reliability as a historical source.Tall talesCaptivity narratives were writings devoted to the documentation of a subjugation experience by a British citizen in a foreign land. The roots of this genre can be found in the very beginning of European exploration. The story of St Patrick’s capture by Irish pirates, for example, follows a similar pattern. The stories increased in popularity with the discovery of the New World, becoming mostly associated with Native Americans holding an Anglo-American or British settler captive. These stories gained popularity because they showed the difference between the Europeans, who were ‘civilised’, and the other cultures that were ‘uncivilised’. Captivity narratives, especially those embellished to emphasise the cruelty of the native captors, played on these fears and validated British colonisation. As the British Empire expanded, these narratives became longer and more complex. Anthony Knivet, another British explorer, wrote about his capture by indigenous people in Brazil in 1625; Mercy Harbison similarly gave an account of the six days she spent in captivity after being taken by Native Americans in 1792; and John Williams wrote about being captured by the Mohawk in 1853, to name just a few. Such stories were not unique to Britain; they were found in other imperialist countries as well. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, for example, wrote about living among Native Americans in his book La Relación in 1542. In Britain, captivity narratives had a major influence on European ethnographic knowledge and captivity came to be seen as a legitimate way of examining other cultures in an intellectual way. Though the captivity experiences were genuine, narratives of the ordeals often served as ethnographies as well as a way for the former captive to gain fame.Smith’s tale of his dramatic rescue by Pocahontas was not the only captivity narrative he had written. In True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630), he wrote about his capture and enslavement by the Turks in 1602. In it, he alluded to a possible relationship between himself and Charatza Tragabigzanda, the woman who owned him. Although there is no proof that such a relationship occurred – and Smith never says outright that it happened – the fact that he alluded to it at all makes it seem less likely that his relationship with Pocahontas was anything other than platonic. The Turkish captivity narrative goes on to explain how Smith went to work for Charatza Tragabigzanda’s brother, whom he calls ‘Tymor Bashaw’. Her brother was not kind to Smith, as Charatza Tragabigzanda had hoped. Instead, Tymor immediately stripped Smith, shaved his head and beard and put an iron collar around his neck. As a Christian, he was considered the lowest of slaves and was treated as such. This narrative, like the one in Jamestown, ended happily for Smith, as he eventually managed to escape after killing his master.The tale of Smith’s first capture represents a captivity narrative in that it tells the story of a British citizen taken prisoner during a war. Like that of Pocahontas, it involves a cruel man holding Smith against his will and a woman who finds Smith interesting in some way. The only real difference between the two is that the account of Smith’s capture by the Turks portrays him as a hero, who escaped thanks to his own abilities, while the narrative of his capture by Powhatan places Pocahontas as the hero who rescued Smith just in time.A civilised womanThe captivity narrative told by Smith, however, is only half the story of Pocahontas. The rest has to do with her assimilation into British culture and her conversion to Christianity. Religion was an important tool for British expansion, as religious conversion was often used as a justification for expanding the Empire. The need to convert the natives was born out of the British conviction that God commanded them to spread his true religion throughout the world. This largely came from a genuine desire to help Native Americans achieve civilisation, since God’s commandments were believed necessary to preserve a peaceful society, for which the Native Americans should be grateful. William Kempe wrote in his book The Education of Children in Learning in 1588: ‘They for want of learning can have no laws, no civil policy, no honest means to live by, no knowledge of God’s mercy and favor, and consequently no salvation and hope of comfort.’ The ‘savage’ state the Native Americans lived in was seen as comparable to the state of the British during the expansion of the Roman Empire. It was believed that, with help, the Native Americans could make the same ‘progress’.To the British, any opposition to Protestant Christianity was viewed as evil, especially when the beliefs were as strange to them as those held by the Native Americans. In his treatise, Daemonologie, James I proposed that ‘savage’ nations were more vulnerable to the devil because of their ignorance of the Lord. The British also believed the practice of worshipping idols among pagan people was a service to Satan, because it violated the divine orders of God. John Smith himself, despite his close friendship with Pocahontas, was convinced that the Native Americans were far closer to the devil than to the angels and did not believe that a mass conversion was possible for them. When he described Native American religion in 1624, Smith claimed: ‘Their chiefe God they worship is the Devill. Him they call Okee, and serve him more for feare than love. They say they have conference with him, and fashion themselves as neare to his shape as they can imagine.’Still, European explorers had seen ‘savage’ cultures adopt Christianity before and most settlers had no reason to think it would not take hold in America as well. Much of this belief stemmed from the notion that God planted his message in every living person and that all the Native Americans needed was for the British to help that seed take hold. Conversion of indigenous peoples helped the British Empire to make sense out of the discovery of the Americas. It provided a reason for why God revealed this new continent to them and gave them a sense that they were part of God’s plan in spreading the gospel and saving souls. As the historian David Silverman has written, many Christians also believed that neglecting to spread the faith would cause God to punish them, or, worse, that they might themselves become as ‘savage’ as the indigenous peoples were if they did not impose some civility on them.Toast of LondonThe British expected Christianity to eliminate savagery and Pocahontas seemed to be a perfect example of their success. John Smith wrote a letter to Anne of Denmark before Pocahontas’ arrival in England, commending her as the first of her nation to become Christian, the first to speak English and the first to have a child through marriage with an Englishman. The circumstances that made Pocahontas an exception to the rule – that she had become close to the British colony from the beginning and found her place in their society as a messenger between Jamestown and Powhatan – also made her a perfect tool for spreading the Gospel. Perhaps because of this, Pocahontas is one of only a few real successes of the Jamestown colonists’ attempts at conversion.In 1616, when Pocahontas, John Rolfe and their young son Thomas made the journey to England, they were the toast of London, as living proof that the British could civilise the ‘savages’ of the New World. When they arrived in England, a crowd of people eager to see the Indian princess greeted them everywhere they went. The Bishop of London entertained Pocahontas with a festival and, thanks to John Smith’s letter, Lady De La Warr, the wife of Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, the governor of Virginia, presented her to the royal court as Mistress Rolfe.Pocahontas’ success in London was due, in part, to the fact that she had adopted British cultural norms as well as religious ones. She represented a conformity to British gender roles through her marriage with John Rolfe and her change of identity from the pagan Matoaka to the Christian Mistress Rebecca Rolfe. Women in Native American societies often had some influence over tribal decisions because they played such a large part in planting and harvesting the food, whereas the men were often more involved in hunting and fishing, which the British considered leisure activities. The settlers, therefore, did not believe that native men contributed much to their society but rather that they exploited the labour of their wives and daughters. This misunderstanding only strengthened the British desire to hold on to their traditional gender roles.Few marriages took place between British colonists and Native Americans because the cultural and religious gap often seemed too wide. When Rolfe, who had instructed Pocahontas in English and Christianity during her captivity, wrote a letter to his superiors explaining his reason for marrying her, he insisted that his desire for marriage had nothing to do with lust and everything to do with the salvation of her soul and the benefit of the colony. For Oscar Handlin, however, who has written about John Smith’s connection to Virginia in his 1975 book American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia, ‘his letter shows the torment of a lusty lonely middle-aged Englishman who had fallen in love with a maiden whom he desperately desired but who failed to meet the standards of his society’. In his letter, Rolfe wrote:For besides the many passions and sufferings which I have daily, hourely, yea and in my sleepe indured, even awaking mee to astonishment, taxing mee with remisnesse, and carlesnesse, refusing and neglecting to performe the duetie of a good Christian, pulling me by the eare, and crying: why dost not thou indevour to make her a Christian? In this way, Rolfe justified his feelings for Pocahontas, which he described as all-consuming, within a Christian context.A strange wifeRolfe, as a religious man, also feared he would incite God’s anger if he were to marry a ‘strange wife’, as he called her. According to the historian Sylvia Hoffert: ‘The colonists believed that all women were to some degree tainted with Eve’s lustfulness, deceitfulness, untrustworthiness, pride, greed and propensity for insubordination.’ The British believed it was for this reason that God had placed women under the mastership of men – first their fathers’, then their husbands’ – and that it was the duty of men to keep their women under control. In addition, they saw indigenous women as dirty, promiscuous and difficult to control; to marry one was to surrender to the lust and sexual vice of these women. British society also expected men to offer women intellectual and spiritual guidance, as well as support them economically. Thus Rolfe was able to justify marrying Pocahontas ‘for the good of her soul’; he believed that she would not be able to continue her life as a Christian properly without male guidance.Interracial marriages, almost without exception, involved a European man and an indigenous woman. This is probably because a woman’s place in society was almost entirely determined by her husband or male family members. Thus, if a woman were to marry a Native American man, she would no longer have any status in British society. Pocahontas, on the other hand, gained a position in the British social order through her marriage. Marriage to a white man was also a way of ensuring an indigenous woman’s survival and that of her family. Whether or not Pocahontas married John Rolfe for either of these reasons is unknown. Nevertheless, their union did have an effect on both the colony and Powhatan’s tribe, leading to better relations between the Native Americans and the British and helping to facilitate peace between them for the remainder of Pocahontas’ life. Although Powhatan did not attend his daughter’s wedding ceremony personally, as relations had soured between his tribe and the British colonists, he did give his blessing and sent her uncle to give her away in his place.The ‘taming’ of Pocahontas is a microcosm of the British desire to ‘tame’ Native Americans in general. The legend of Pocahontas, which began through her association with John Smith and continued with her marriage to John Rolfe, was important to colonial British society because it represented the hope that they could ‘civilise’ the cultures they conquered. They justified bringing their notions of civilisation to native peoples all across the empire through literary genres such as the captivity narrative, as well as the through the obligation they felt to spread Christianity and proper gender roles. Pocahontas fits into all these categories as the hero of a captivity narrative, a convert to Christianity and a woman who subscribed to the British expectations of gender. Ultimately, this is what the British wished to achieve among all their non-British subjects and, though they were not altogether successful in the end, Pocahontas gave them confidence that they could achieve their goal and that they could ‘tame’ the ‘savage’ nations of the world as they had ‘tamed’ her.Andrea Severson is a PhD student at the University of Texas at El Paso, studying gender and material culture.

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