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Savage Kingdom: Virginia and the Founding of English America

by Benjamin Woolley

(HarperCollins / 467pp. / £25)

Review by Ronald Wright

FOUR hundred years ago, the first lasting English colony in America took root at Jamestown, Virginia, now a theme-park recently visited by the Queen. The United States tends to regard the New England Pilgrims of 1620 as more respectable ancestors than the “vagabonds and bankrupts and other disorderly persons” who initiated Indian-fighting, slave-owning and tobacco-growing at Jamestown in 1607. Yet, apart from differing levels of religious cant, the behaviour of the two colonies was much alike. Both were saved from starvation by the local ‘Indians’, and both began systematic extermination of their native hosts within some fifteen years. In that short time, relations between the races descended into mayhem, and the original Ameri-cans were transformed from foreign potentates worthy of being received at court in London to devil-worshipping savages fit only for “dunging the ground with their flesh” – as one Puritan gleefully wrote after burning a town full of 600 women and children in Connecticut.

Benjamin Woolley’s Savage Kingdom confines itself to the first decade and a half in Virginia. Taken on the terms of its subtitle – as a frankly English view of modern America’s founding – the book is a delight, a rattling good read packed with dreamers, schemers, rogues and desperadoes. Well versed in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods, Woolley steers confidently through the religious, political and personal storms that buffeted the flimsy English foothold. Things got off to a bad start. The Jamestown site was marshy, unhealthy, and devoid of precious metals. Half the settlers (at that time all men) died the first summer. More English came, only to suffer horribly in the “starving time” of 1609-10, when some were reduced to cannibalism; dead Indians were unearthed for the table, and one settler was caught with the butchered joints of his wife. In 1610, the colonists decided to abandon the place, but on the very day they were to leave Lord Delaware sailed in with reinforcements and supplies – a deliverance ascribed by many to the Lord.

Men went to Virginia, Woolley writes, “not because of how much they had to gain, but how little they had to lose”. Things began to improve with John Rolfe’s commercial development of tobacco and with his marriage to Pocahontas, daughter of King Powhatan, the wily overlord of eastern Virginia who controlled a small empire of 200 towns, some with large wooden temples and a hundred houses. Unlike movie Indians, most ancient Americans, including the Powhatans, lived by large-scale maize farming. It was the Indians’ corn – sometimes bought, often stolen – that fed the Jamestown English, who were much more interested in growing tobacco once the new addiction sank its lucrative hooks into London.

Woolley’s refreshingly old-fashioned biographical approach is the great strength of Savage Kingdom, bringing the players to life – especially John Smith, Powhatan, Rolfe and Pocahontas. But the method also has its flaws. Primary sources from these early years are few and suspect – many are textually corrupt, nearly all were written by people with axes to grind, and none were penned or dictated by a native American. There was much going on that the English could not see or understand, and more they didn’t care to reveal. The result is like interpreting only one spouse’s version of a failed marriage.

Woolley is fairminded, describing atrocities by both sides. But the Powhatan War of 1622, when the Indians killed about one fourth of the settlers, was hardly the undeserved outrage the English claimed. By then the invaders had burgeoned, while the invaded were collapsing from Old World plagues such as smallpox, and from damage to their ecology and economy from introduced weeds, vermin, and feral livestock. As the balance tipped in the whites’ favour, they became more arrogant, seizing land and food that wasn’t for sale, debauching the locals with alcohol (formerly unknown there), and enslaving both Indians and Africans. In Virginia as in Mexico and Peru, disease and demography were the key factors in European conquest. Readers wanting this wider context to the Jamestown story should find it in Alfred Crosby’s seminal Columbian Exchange (1972), and Francis Jennings’s provocative Invasion of America (1975). That said, Savage Kingdom is a fascinating introduction to the unpromising seed that, for better and worse, grew into the mightiest nation of our times.

Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is published by Canongate.

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