Saturday, April 19, 2014

“Suffering great hunger”

From October 1609 to May 1610, most of Jamestown’s 300-odd residents literally starved to death. Sixty were found alive inside the fort.
         Why? Scholars disagree to this very day. So do existing eyewitness accounts. The men who wrote the 1612 “Proceedings, agreed with Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie that there was food to last the winter, but George Percy’s “Trewe Relacyon” observed that the food supply was soon consumed and people began to starve.
         Tales of meager rations at Jamestown reached the ears of Don Pedro de Zuñiga, the Spanish ambassador in London. In December 1609 he wrote to King Philip III that people “are suffering great hunger there.”
          But there should have been enough food to last through the winter. Do the numbers: 500 chickens (one roast chicken could feed at least two adults, perhaps more) not to mention eggs; 500 hogs (one hog=about 50 pounds of dressed meat, or roughly 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of pork), some goats (some of which no doubt gave milk) and sheep (roast mutton, lamb chops) , not to mention the fish and shellfish in the rivers, plus the grain in the storehouse, should have fed 300 men, women, and children for five or six months, until a new supply ship came the next spring. But long before winter came, the “Starving Time” arrived. 

Who was to blame?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Starving Time: What Became of all the Food?

Reasons for the death toll at Jamestown remain a mystery to this day. There was plenty of food, but who ate it?         
         Two 17th-century documents provide a detailed list of supplies in the colony when John Smith left--supplies that should have kept Jamestown alive and well all winter until the next supply ship came:

         There were six mares and a horse (Gabriel Archer reported that he had brought “six mares and two horses” aboard the Blessing), five or six hundred hogs (these, including a good number of piglets from the summer litters, would probably have been on Hog Island, three miles across the river from Jamestown). Besides the hogs there were “as many hens and chickens,” plus an unspecified number of goats and sheep. There were nets for fishing and tools of all kinds, and a good supply of clothing. Besides all this, there were “3 ships [these were the pinnaces Discovery and Virginia, plus the larger Swallow Francis West had taken to sail to England], 7 boates, commodities ready to trade, the harvest newly gathered, 10 weekes provision in the store . . . 24 peeces of ordnances, 300 muskets, snaphances and fire lockes [types of firearms], shot, powder, and match sufficient, cuirasses, pikes, swords, and moryons [helmets] more than men.”
         To use these weapons if necessary there were a perhaps a hundred trained soldiers who had been in Virginia long enough to know the Indians’ habits and language.

What went wrong?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Starving Time: How long does it take to starve to death?

Jamestown Fort, Winter,1610

A colonist named Daniel Tucker, perhaps when Jamestown’s allotments of half-can of meal a day per person run out, builds a boat with his own hands, an occupation which, says George Percy, serves to “keep us from killing one of an other To eate.”

How long does it take to starve to death? A modern medical study estimates that “Complete starvation in adults leads to death within eight to 12 weeks.”
Inside the palisaded fort, people are literally starving. In a cruel paradox, the more they starve, the less they can digest food. Their stomachs cramp. Their digestive acids dry up. They grow paler and thinner by the day. They are listless. They are too tired even to chop firewood, and they are always cold. They begin pulling down the wood frames of once-occupied houses and burning them to keep warm. People’s skin dries and cracks and hangs in ugly folds. Slight scratches turn into running sores that will not heal. Their ankles are often swollen, though their legs are pitifully thin. Besides, it is still winter. Bone-chilling cold, on bones that have little flesh left on them.
                        How long does it take to starve to death? A modern medical study estimates that “Complete starvation in adults leads to death within eight to 12 weeks.” Death can come in a variety of guises: Hypothermia. Pneumonia. Anemia. Chronic diarrhea. Madness.
    Of more than two hundred people alive at Jamestown in October, only sixty survived until May.

[i] Percy, “Trew Relacyon,” 1100.