Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Starving Time: “Extreme misery and want.”

Fort Algernon, January 1610

         Somehow Francis West and his men aboard the Swallow escape from the enraged Patawomecks, leaving furious enemies behind. Meanwhile, upriver at Jamestown, Percy and the horde of hungry colonists are eagerly watching for the little ship that might be bringing precious grain. But the impetuous West and his crew have other ideas. When they reach Chesapeake Bay and approach Algernon Fort on their return voyage, something happens to change their course.
         Percy writes in his journal that “Captain Davis [at Algernon Fort] did call to them [West, et al.,] acquainting them with our great wants, exhorting them to make all the speed they could [to Jamestown] to relieve us.” Instead, says Percy, West and his company “hoisted up sails and shaped their course directly for England.”
         Was this Francis West’s decision? Was it a mutiny of the Swallow’s crew, seizing their chance to sail for home and leave wretched Virginia behind? No one knows. As one historian put it, “West’s unauthorized and surreptitious departure from Jamestown in the Swallow has been glossed over by most historians.” Except for George Percy, none of West’s contemporaries seemed to care about it, either. Francis West absconded with a Virginia Company ship, but no one in that august organization mentioned it. Perhaps it was because West’s great-grandmother was Queen Anne Boleyn’s sister, and his brother was governor of Virginia.

         Another Jamestown mystery.

         But as George Percy writes sadly, West’s departure in the Swallow in the winter of 1610 leaves Jamestown in “extreme misery and want.”

The Starving Time is about to get worse. Much worse.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Two Patawomecks Lose Their Heads

Jamestown, January 1610
         President Percy tries one more time to get food from the Indians. If Powhatan will not give them any, perhaps some other Indians will. Percy dispatches Francis West and “about thirty-six” men to take the Swallow on a long voyage down the James River to Chesapeake Bay, past Point Comfort and Algernon Fort (an outpost Percy named for his father and elder brother). Then the Swallow is to set her course northward up the coast to the Potomac River, where the sometimes-friendly Patawomecks live. But they, like the Indians at Nansemond and the Indians at Werowocomoco, have no food to spare. And if they can spare any, they are not about to give it to foreigners who are trying to take over their land.

         (This fact, so obvious in hindsight, apparently never entered the minds of the first Englishmen in Virginia.)
Twenty-three-year-old Francis West, like George Percy, is a younger son of a titled family. His elder brother, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, has just been appointed governor of Virginia. Young Francis and his men sail boldly up the Potomac River, and at last they reach the Patawomecks, who are not glad to see them. Miraculously, West persuades them to trade some of their corn for trinkets, probably pieces of copper and glass beads. He loads the Swallow with the precious corn, but before he sets sail, West makes a farewell gesture: he orders his men to cut off “two of the Savages’ heads and other extremeties.”        
         Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Starving Time: Grisly Death Upriver

Jamestown, December 1609
         People inside the little log fort kill and eat their dogs, the mastiffs they brought with them to hunt. They have already eaten the horses, and they are afraid to go outside the fort to hunt.

         George Percy sends a boat with John Ratcliffe and fifty men upriver to trade for food with Pocahontas’s father, Powhatan, who is now their enemy.
         When the English arrive, Powhatan invites them to come ashore. Thirty-four of them accept this invitation; sixteen remain aboard the boat,
         Powhatan’s men kill all of the unsuspecting Englishmen ashore except two: one gets back aboard the boat, and one, a boy named Henry Spelman, Pocahontas manages to hide and send away. 

         Powhatan’s women seize the English commander, John Ratcliffe and put him to death by torture:
         They tie him naked to a tree. Then they scrape the flesh from his bones “with mussel shells,” and throw the pieces onto a fire “before his face” until at last he dies.
         The survivors aboard the boat flee in terror.
         Fifty men went upriver, eighteen are coming back.
         And there is still no food at Jamestown.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Starving Time Begins

“This was that time, which still to this day we called the Starving Time: it were too vile to say and scarce to be believed, what we endured.”
            --John Smith, General Historie.

It is early November at Jamestown.
            John Smith, seriously wounded by a mysterious gunpowder explosion, has sailed for England. Pocahontas no longer comes to Jamestown.
            Death and disease have thinned the population at Jamestown to about 250 men, women, and children.
            The food supply that Smith left is gone.
            George Percy, now in command of Jamestown Fort, sends a party of men downriver to “trade for victuals” with the Indians. 
            A few days later, the men’s corpses are found--with their dead mouths stuffed full of Indian bread.
            Percy sets a food allowance for settlers inside the fort: half a can of meal per person--per day. That, he reckons, should last them three months.
            A can of meal is about 150 calories per day.
            The average adult needs 1500-2000 calories per day.