We Are Starved

we are starved

The newest book from Colonial Williamsburg’s retired Chief Archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume, “Civilized Men” examines the transgressions at Jamestown in 1609.

Learn more: The Starving Time


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who are here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Ivor Noel Hume, who is the retired Chief Archeologist for Colonial Williamsburg and also writes extensively about Jamestown, including Pocahontas and, I just learned, a new play about John Smith. His latest article, “We are Starved” appears in “Colonial Williamsburg,” which is, not surprisingly, the journal of Colonial Williamsburg. When’s the play about John Smith, and what is it?

Ivor Noel Hume: The play? 

Lloyd: Yes.  

Noel: Well, it was originally intended to be a two-hour lecture. And the production company told me that lectures are given in lecture halls, and entertainment is in theaters. So the play was cut in half – half the cast was cut out of it.  I am not sure exactly how it is going to work out.

Lloyd: Well, it’s interesting to try; you said it was the last hour of John [Smith’s]

Noel: (Interrupts.) … his life.

Lloyd: … of his life.

Noel: Yes. 

Lloyd: Okay, we’re back in England, then.

Noel: Yes, yes, at the Three Cups – sorry, Three Tuns Inn, on Sea Coal Lane at 4:30 on the afternoon of June the 21, 1631.

Lloyd: Ah.

Noel: Which is fairly precise.

Lloyd: About as precise as we’re going to get in this. And you said also, the article, the “We are Starved” article, is about the settlement in Jamestown.

Noel: Right, yes.

Lloyd: And you say there’s another one on Pocahontas.

Noel: On Pocahontas, which is coming out this fall, on Pocahontas in London.

Lloyd: OK, so, John Smith and Pocahontas are both in London.
Noel: They are both in London. Well, she went to London and died there. And I’ve always felt that she was grossly mistreated in London.

Lloyd: I’ve not heard that.

Noel: She was sent over by the Virginia Company to demonstrate what you could do to a savage.

Lloyd: Oh, that’s not very pleasant, is it?

Noel:  No. And so they put her up at the Belle Savage Inn near Ludgate, which is called “The Beautiful Savage.” And I think they probably thought that was funny because it actually was a place where jugglers and performing horses and bear-baiting and things went on. And so they put her and her entourage and her unfortunate husband in that Inn, where the atmosphere was very bad because the river next door to it, the Fleet River, was fetid. The fogs settled over Sea Coal Lane, which is where the Inn is located. And I think that’s where she got the disease that actually killed her. Well, I’m sorry, we don’t know, actually, what she died of. But, she had been sick for three or four months before she finally died. She was on her way back to America. On the way, she got to Gravesend and there died.

Lloyd: Well, okay, what I had read, though it’s not carefully researched, was that she got sick when she boarded ship.

Noel: Well, no, she died when she got there, but she had been sick. The original illustration of her by Simon Van De Passe, an engraving done before Christmas, and her face is wasted away even at that point. So, I think it was just the smog of London. The wood fires that everybody was then burning and the coal fires – that’s why the lane next door to the inn is called Sea Coal Lane, because that’s where they used coal from the north. It came by sea.

But she was taken around by the Virginia Company to rich people, fat cats. And she was really looked upon as a curiosity. And she had her uncle with her, whose name was [Tomocomo], who had been sent over by Powhatan to keep an eye on her. He went back with the ship she would’ve gone back on, had she lived. And he told Powhatan, “Have nothing to do with these people.”

 Lloyd: (Laughs.) Good, sound advice!

Noel: Well, it was, actually. And so, it’s a very sad story. It isn’t a bit like it was shown in the recent movie. And throughout, she was a tool of the Virginia Company. The interesting thing is that one knows so little about her husband, although the king said that he thought he was treasonous by having married a foreign princess without his approval. And it is believed that John Smith, who wrote to the queen, got over that hump. So, John Rolfe, the husband, who is best known for his raising Virginia tobacco – he was pushed into the back. And when she was, when Pocahontas was invited to attend the Twelfth Night Revels by the king, she, and this is discussed in the article, she and [Tomocomo] were invited; the husband wasn’t.

Lloyd: (Chuckles.)

Noel: And it was a place, this kind of thing was a turnaround. The rich people dressed as poor people. The queen and the court women blacked their faces to be blackamoors. So, introducing Pocahontas into this kind of a venue must have been a real good laugh for everybody. 

Lloyd: Except, of course, Pocahontas.

Noel: And her husband, who was probably out drinking somewhere. 

Lloyd: Actually, hearing that, there wasn’t much nice that happened at Jamestown or to the people that were there.

Noel: There wasn’t. There was nothing. My concern is that the Indians got such a bad name.

Lloyd: Yeah.
Noel: But, virtually everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Sort of rather like Iraq, actually, the planning of it was so bad. The people who were leading the show were so inept. And when Smith arrived in 1607, he wasn’t on deck, viewing the land. He was in chains down below because they had accused him of an attempted coup. And that he, himself, wanted to be King of Virginia. There’s no truth in this, but that’s what they believed and that’s why they locked him up.

Lloyd: Well, actually, being locked up for that first year in Virginia wouldn’t have bothered me a bit, but by then, he was out. In one of the articles you’ve written, you said 104 or 105 men and boys came to shore.

Noel: Right.

Lloyd: Half were dead by the end of the year.

Noel: Yeah, that’s right.

Lloyd: That’s very bad odds.

Noel: Yeah, when Lord De La Warr came out to sort the whole thing out in 1610, he brought an army of 300 men with him, and within four months, half of those were dead, 150 were dead. And this went on for several years because it was known as a “seasoning time.” And if you came at the wrong time of the year, chances are you’d be dead. There was a case in the 1630s when there were 37 ships moored in the Warwick River, doing tobacco trade. The report said that 15 of the captains were dead.

 Lloyd: Now, did anybody live?

Noel: Not very long. I think by the time you get to the 1620s, there were probably 25 of the original settlers were still alive. The turnover was enormous.

Lloyd: Well, I know there is a sign at Jamestown now that says, “Of x number who came, only x number survived.” There’re very large numbers who came, compared to the people who lived.

Noel: That’s right. I mean, you get beyond the 1607 ships, the various supplies that came after that, thousands of people came over and disappeared. 

Lloyd: Somehow, history has neglected to point that out. I mean, obviously, it has, but you don’t think of it as being quite that fatal.

Noel: No, the thing you have to understand is that people’s life expectancy was far shorter than ours. And that people’s attitudes towards other people were barbaric. The recent novel that I wrote is called “Civilized Men,” which deals with 1610, which is De La Warr. And the Indians were far better able to live in this country than were the colonists.

And De La Warr hung people, tied them, had them tied to trees and starved, simply if they didn’t fall in line. All the kinds of torture things that were used in England at that time were used here. And in the field outside the fort, which is known as Smithfield, these executions took place. And Delaware’s army was kept there. So the Indians were able to -- their laws, their religion -- paralleled the English. But they weren’t as territorial as the English were. And that was the problem. The English took land and the Indians backed off it and were surprised when fences started to go up.

Lloyd: I had read that, that Indians did not believe in land ownership. They believed in land use.
Noel: Right.

Lloyd: So that when the English claimed ownership, the Indians didn’t know quite how to take it or what to make of it.

Noel: Well, right, exactly. And you know, when De La Warr came here, he destroyed the Paspahegh tribe completely. He massacred them. And the queen of the Paspahegh was taken prisoner and brought to Jamestown along with two of her children. As they were coming down the river, the men on the boat said, “Well, look, didn’t his Lordship say that we weren’t to keep these people?” And George Percy, who was in charge, said, “Well, I think we ought to do that, we ought to keep them.” So, to keep the soldiers happy, they threw the children overboard and used them for target practice.

Lloyd: Oh.

Noel: When they got to Jamestown, De La Warr said, “Well, why have you brought the queen?” Because, after all, she was sitting naked in the boat. And so they said, “Well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to kill her.” And he said, “Burn her.” And they said, “Well, we don’t think we want to do this, burn her, because she’s a witch.” And they didn’t. They took her ashore and killed her in some other way. This is how the English were treating the Indians.

Lloyd: I have read that, but it’s always sort of a sanitized version.

Noel: Yes, it was a dirty business. It really was. There was very little honor on either side, really. Although, my own idea is that when it came to be “Who are the Civilized Men,” it was the Indians.

 Lloyd: Ah, I am sure they would agree with you.

Noel: They do.

Lloyd: When did it become possible for the colonists to have a fair chance at survival?

Noel: Well, that’s a difficult question, because they did survive. They very nearly didn’t. You know, they had packed up and left before De La Warr arrived. Had they missed him by an hour, the whole thing would’ve folded. My thought is that it was probably 1617 when they were sufficiently established to survive.

In 1622, Opechancanough, who was the successor of Powhatan, invaded – attacked the English. And we call it a massacre, but they don’t. Words get misused over time. And they did not. They decimated the colony, but they couldn’t destroy it. Some places were well enough defended -- Jamestown Fort was. But that was their really last attempt. And I think the death toll was 346 or so. But there were then about 1500 people over here.

When the relief ship arrived, however, the Abigail, at the end of the year of 1622, they brought disease that wiped out twice that number. And the only reason that happened was because on board the ship Abigail was the wife of Governor Wyatt. So when they docked, instead of quarantining everybody, because the wife of the Governor was on board, they got them all off. So it was like firing a shotgun, a poisoned shotgun, into the colony -- six go here, three go there, two go here -- and they died like flies.
So the damage that was done was twice what the Indians had done from the relief ship. The second relief ship, however, went to Bermuda. And that had all the food supplies on it. And that blew up.   

Lloyd: This is one of those wonderful things where you sit around and talk about it and you finally say the only way to sum it up is “if it could go wrong, it did.”

Noel:  It did. Yes, you’re absolutely right.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. You’ll find Ivor Noel Hume’s article, “We are Starved,” in the online version of “The Colonial Williamsburg Journal” at www.history.org.

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