AS WILLIAM STRACHEY, later secretary to the little colony of Jamestown, put it in his account of the settlement, "Captain [Christopher] Newport had sight of an extended plaine & spot of earth, which thrust out into the depth, & middle of the channel . The Trumpets sounding the admiral stoke saile, and the Colony disembarked, and every man brought his particular store and furniture, together with the generall provision ashoare . That little halfe Stand of ground, was measured, which they began to fortifie, and thereon in the name of God, to raise a Fortresse."
Thus, on May 14, 1607, 400 years ago Monday, the second successful invasion of America began, on a low-lying peninsula on the north bank of what they were to call the James River. It was a moment of great significance for both the Old World and the New, for not only did it lead to the first effective implantation of the British nation overseas but, almost as if it had parted the waters, it began a period of colonial activity that in just three decades brought 60,000 settlers from half a dozen nations of Europe to what would become the United States, Canada and the Caribbean islands.
Jamestown was meant to be a populous colony eventually, not just a trading post, with permanent settlement from the mother country, agricultural exploitation, political hegemony and military control over, or protection from, the native people. Indeed, in the eyes of John Smith, the adventurer who was on that first voyage and stayed for two years in the colony, the peninsula was "a verie fit place for the erecting of a great citie." But this first settlement was men only, no families, and it took a long time for anything even resembling a village to be established there — and that only after years of disease, starvation and war after war with the Indians.
The most compelling fact of life there for many decades was death. The great majority of those sent to Jamestown between 1607 and 1625 by the Virginia Co. lost their lives — "neere eight thousand," according to Smith, and "not one of Five scaped the first yeare," according to a later governor.
The colonists, mostly military men, knew very little about agriculture and, for reasons never fully explained ("the extreme beastly idleness of our nation," suggested Smith), were never successful in feeding themselves. Instead, they tried to live on food bartered or stolen from the Indians.
Another problem was what Strachey called "cruell diseases," most likely from the mosquitoes and typhoid bacteria in the swampy water of the marshland where the colonists, in their hygienic ignorance, chose to settle.
But perhaps the main reason the colonists died in droves was that for the first few years, their chief occupation was, astonishingly enough, looking for nonexistent gold. As Smith later said, "There was no talke, no hope, no worke, but dig gold
all necessarie business neglected."
When they finally turned to other schemes — raising silkworms, planting sugar cane — they fared no better until about 1612, when John Rolfe introduced a tobacco type from the West Indies that was sweeter than the Virginia variety. It became the colony's first successful export. It was easy to grow, on land expropriated from the Indians. The picking could be done by indentured servants and (after 20 Africans were bought from a Dutch ship in 1619) slaves. Lightweight, it could be shipped in bulk (60,000 pounds by 1620), and it was enormously profitable.
Thus, this nation's founding colony was saved by a product of great human and environmental destruction. And that was only the beginning.
The settlers took it as their task to act according to the Bible, which King James' scholars had only recently translated into English, and sought to "subdue" and "have dominion over" the American wilderness. By midcentury, beaver, marten, otter, mink, antelope, elk and heath cock were exploited to near extinction, and the great old-growth forests were cut down in swaths so wide (half a million acres were deforested in Virginia by the end of the century) that some slow-regenerating species were effectively exterminated. Imported species — cattle, pigs, horses, rats, dandelions — with few predators or pathogens to hinder them, spread over vast reaches, creating brand new ecosystems as they went. From New England to North Carolina, any native humans who stood in the way of the Europeans were, like animals, fenced in, domesticated, scattered or simply exterminated.
In fact, the transformation of eastern North America within the century after Jamestown into a homeland for what William Carlos Williams was to call "the great voluptuary," the colonial American "full of a rich regenerative violence," may well have been the swiftest and most dramatic environmental change wrought by human agency on the face of the Earth up to that time.
In 1622, Samuel Purchas, in his work celebrating English colonization, noted that Englishmen had given their lives to settle in America and concluded that "the dispersed bones of their and their Countrey mens
have taken a mortall, immortal possession, and
proclaime and cry, This our earth is truly English, and therefore this Land is justly yours O English."
The Indians may have demurred, but so it was to be.
From Jamestown to us
How English settlers conquered their inhospitable environment 400 years ago.
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