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.

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