Did Jamestown really fail?

December 2, 2010
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"O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!"
--William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1
(Lombardi: "The Tempest Quotes")


Shakespeare's words are from The Tempest, a play believed to have been inspired by the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, one of three ships bound for the colony of Jamestown in 1609. The Virginia Company spent enormous amounts of money on propaganda, attempting to attract settlers and investors to the new colony in Virginia. Some of the goals of the company were to find gold, to supply ships searching for a route to Asia, and to set up colonies in the New World as competition with the Spanish. Was the Jamestown Colony really a failure, based on these goals? According to most historians, the colony failed to accomplish two of the three goals, but met with success on the third. The colony almost failed because the Virginia Company made a poor choice when they decided where to establish it, and they were unable to successfully work together; the colony succeeded because it survived, due to both the production of tobacco and the fact that the local Native American tribes were not able to destroy it because they were suffering from starvation and illness brought by the colonists. Jamestown colony was both a failure and a success.

The colonists chose as their landing area a piece of land sticking out into the river about thirty miles from Chesapeake Bay. The area was low and swampy, surrounded by bogs and marshes, and lacked fresh water. The choice was understandable because the island was on a channel deep enough to tie ships directly to the trees along the shore (Kelso 13). It also was easy to defend against the Spanish, who were considered the biggest threat (Grizzard and Smith xxv). In the summertime, the river level dropped by nearly 15 feet and the salt water moved upstream, trapping wastes in the bend of the river. The colonists didn't starve (there were lots of fish in the river), but died of typhoid, dysentery, and possibly salt poisoning (Mann 39). Whenever Captain John Smith would come back to the colony from exploring, he would find the colonists sick, crippled or injured--all unable to do anything but sit around and complain (Kelso 18). The heat, humidity and dirty water (and no beer, which is what they normally would have been drinking instead of water) also led to other diseases, such as scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, influenza, etc. The island has been called one of the New World's "worst gastrointestinal death-traps" (Grizzard and Smith xxv-xxvi).

The settlers in Jamestown have been portrayed as the lazy rich, who were unwilling to work. According to Grizzard and Smith, in 1608 the First and Second Supply was made up of 294 people, most of which were of higher social status (such as gentlemen, councilors, and surgeons). The 49 "laborers" mentioned were actually servants of the upper class colonists. The colonists expected to find natives who were ready to trade with them and a countryside with easily obtainable natural resources. The Virginia company sent men who were not trained to work in a wilderness colony. Smith said later that Jamestown "lacked enough industrious people" (xxvii). These "prospectors" didn't know how to hunt or farm, and may have felt betrayed by the company's promises. Since they didn't have any land of their own, they weren't exactly known for their cooperative spirits (Borio). They were sent over with unattainable goals, and faced with trying to explain their lack of success, they had a hard time telling the truth: colonization was hard and they needed support. They blamed each other. The leaders did not know how to motivate and encourage others to work, so they just blamed each other for not doing what they were supposed to do (Kupperman 8-10). Smith said the gentlemen were unhappy because they didn't have their nice things, and decreed that "he that will not work shall not eat" (Price 8). The voyagers who boarded the ships for Virginia came with "pure hearts and empty heads, expecting to find riches, welcoming natives and an easy life" (Price 13).

At first, the Natives helped the colonists when they were in need of food. They were not threatened by the colonists. In fact, they thought that the "tassantassas" (the Powhatan word for strangers) would probably self-destruct...they would die off eventually. They were slow to realize that though the colonists continually died, more and more would keep coming (Mann 39). By the time they realized this, it was too late: the natives were being wiped out by disease and starvation. The English discovered that tobacco was a very profitable crop, and took immense amounts of land from the natives to grow it (tobacco is considered the reason Jamestown was the first successful permanent settlement in the New World, exporting 750 tons of tobacco in 1639 [Borio]) (Mann 45). They did not rotate their crops, exhausting the soil, and had to keep taking more and more land. There were no domesticated animals native to North America, so the natives were unprepared to deal with the European invasion of livestock. Horses and cows trampled the natives' crops, and they found themselves competing for food with packs of feral European pigs. Smart, strong and hungry, the pigs dug through the dirt looking for food. The European honeybee allowed alien European plants and crops to spread all over North America, allowing the English to expand west, pushing the natives out of their territory (Mann 46). The Third Supply of colonists, most of whom were from the malaria-infested marshes of southern England, probably carried malaria ashore in 1619. It's likely that the natives caught malaria from the colonists. Natives who were sick would be unable to work to raise food or to attack the colonists (Mann 52-53). They also could not have replaced their population as the English could. By the time the natives realized the threat from the colonists, it was far too late to get rid of them, since they were sick, starving and retreating westward. In 1622, Opechancanough (Powhatan's brother), realizing the threat, attempted to push the Europeans into the ocean. More colonists were coming and the natives were dying. There simply weren't enough natives to fight the English off.

Jamestown colony almost failed because the Virginia Company made a poor choice when they decided where to establish it, and they were unable to successfully work together; the colony was a success because it survived, due to tobacco and the fact that the local Native American tribes were not able to destroy it because they were suffering from starvation and illness brought by the colonists. While the Virginia Company did not accomplish their original goals in Jamestown, and the colony might have been considered a failure as a result, by 1619, Jamestown was a boomtown, and the Chesapeake Bay area soon became known as the "Tobacco Coast" (Borio). Jamestown became the first permanent English colony in the New World...which, in anyone's view, would qualify it as a success.

Works Cited
Borio, Gene. A Brief History of Jamestown, Virginia. 1998. Web. 8/16/10.

<http://www.tobacco.org/History/Jamestown.html?printable=1.>

Grizzard, Frank E., Jr. & Smith, D. Boyd. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social and Cultural

History. Santa Barbara: ABC CLIO, 2007. Print.

Kelso, William M. Jamestown: The Buried Truth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press,

2006. Print.

Kupperman, Karen O. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 2007. Print.

Lombardi, Esther. The Tempest Quotes. 2010. Web. 8/17/10.

<http://classiclit.about.com/od/tempestwshakespeare/a/aa_thetempestqu_2.htm.>

Mann, Charles C. "America, Found & Lost." National Geographic May, 2007: 32-53.

Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New

Nation. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 2003. Print.





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