Saturday, June 27, 2015

An accident that changed a life

          Like so many things about early Jamestown history, the source of John Smith’s accident remains a mystery. But the accident changed his life forever. Miraculously, he survived the severe injury and did not die of infection. But it is possible that, as a twenty-first-century scholar bluntly put it: the accident “destroyed Smith’s genitals.” David S. Shields, “The Genius of Ancient Britain,” in Mancall, ed., Atlantic World, 489-509, argues that Smith, so severely injured that he was unable to father children, turned to writing instead. 
          There is, however, no evidence of that. But the description of the injury’s location was very specific, and the gunpowder explosion in that area damaged “flesh” as well as skin. Medical evidence suggests that such a wound and its scars could have caused infertility, and/or serious problems with sexual relations. John Smith returned to England, and never returned to Virginia. He did not go to sea again until 1612. He never married. He put his formidable energies into writing about Virginia and New England. Years later, he wrote, "By that acquaintance I have with them [the colonies] I may call them my children, for they have been my wife, my hawks, my hounds, my cards, my dice, and total my best content. . . .”
If the gunpowder accident had been a deliberate attempt on Smith’s life, it had fizzled. Smith’s enemies would have to devise another scheme to get rid of him.
         They would not be long in doing so.

--Virginia Bernhard, A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda (2011), 94-95.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A bag of gunpowder explodes.

There are two versions of another Jamestown mystery: an accident aboard John Smith’s boat, in September 1609. One was written by Smith, and the other by George Percy, who had no love for Smith.

         According to Smith’s account, he had sailed with  “with his best expedition,” but there is no record of who was aboard the boat with him. While Smith was “Sleeping in his boat, (for the ship was returned two daies before) accidentallie, one fired his powder-bag, which tore the flesh from his body and thighs, nine or ten inches square in a most pitifull manner; but to quench the tormenting fire, frying him in his cloaths he leaped over bord into the deepe river, where ere they could recover him he was neere drowned. In this state, without either Chirurgeon, or chirurgery, he was to goe neere 100 miles.”
         George Percy’s version of this incident is somewhat different. When he wrote his “Trewe Relacyon” years later.

         And so Capteyne Smithe Retourninge to James Towne ageine [was] fownd to have too mutche powder aboutt him, the which beinge in his pockett where the sparke of a matche lighted, very shrewdly [sharply] burned him.” A pocket was a small bag tied around the waist, by men or women, to carry miscellaneous objects. A match was a slow-burning wick made of hemp, used to ignite a charge of gunpowder to shoot a musket. What Smith probably had was a leather gunpowder bag attached to a belt around his waist. In his sleep, the bag could have slipped from his side to the front of his body. As he slept, one of his men standing watch on deck, with a match kept burning at the ready, could have accidentally ignited the bag. A spark from the match, caught by a gust of wind, perhaps, could have been the cause of the accident. Percy, however, does not use the word, “accident.” Smith was a seasoned soldier, and it is unlikely that he had “too much powder” in his bag. . . . And there would be another attempt on Smith’s life when he returned to Jamestown.

--Virginia Bernhard, A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda (2011), 94-95.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

September 1609: Smith is about to meet with a mysterious accident

          For almost a year, from September 1608 to August 1609, John Smith, as the council president,  held Jamestown together. His enemies--Newport and Radcliffe, Archer and Martin had returned England. The Indians did not attack. The colonists had enough to eat.
         Then, in midsummer 1609, rot and rats destroyed their store of corn.
         A few weeks later, the remnants of the great Sea Venture fleet sailed up the James. Now John Smith had about 300 new mouths to feed, plus the hungry 200 or so already there. The ships also brought his old enemies: Gabriel Archer, John Ratcliffe, and John Martin. All of them had old scores [unknown to this day] to settle with John Smith. Another enemy, Francis West, was already at Jamestown. George Percy didn’t like Smith, either.
         Did they not like taking orders from Smith, the upstart son of a yeoman  farmer--or were there other reasons for them to hate  him?
         In September 1609, an “accident” upriver near Powhatan Village nearly killed John Smith, and it would change his life forever.

                                          The James River, view from Jamestown

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Another narrow escape for John Smith

On September 10, 1608, Ratcliffe’s term as president of the Virginia council was up. Who would be next? Of the original seven councilors, Newport was not now a Jamestown resident, Wingfield had been deposed, Gosnold had died, Kendall had been executed, and Martin was ailing. Gabriel Archer, Smith’s avowed enemy, and Matthew Scrivener, a newcomer who became Smith’s friend, were the councilors chosen to replace Gosnold and Kendall. When the vote was taken, Captain John Smith was elected president of the Virginia council. 
Not everyone was pleased.
When Christopher Newport returned to Jamestown that same September, John Smith was not pleased.
 Newport brought 70 more colonists, but as before, not enough food for them. Newport also brought orders from the profit-hungry, image-conscious Virginia Company: (1) hunt for gold,  (2) try again to find the Roanoke colonists (3) stage a coronation for the Indian king Powhatan, to make him a vassal of King James I. All this, when food was scarce, and the colony was depending on corn from the Indians. President Smith was furious.         
 Captain Newport and ex-president Ratcliffe hatched a scheme to get rid of Smith. They claimed he had gone on a food-trading expedition to Indian lands without asking their approval. On these trumped-up charges they wanted to depose him as president--and banish him from the fort. But Smith had friends as well as enemies at Jamestown, and the attempted coup failed. As one observer wrote of Newport and Ratcliffe, “their horns were too short.”

The palisade wall at Jamestown Fort: Enemies inside and out.