Monday, May 12, 2014

Learning History: The New World

Life in the Early Colonies

America's history begins in Virginia. In 1607, three ships carried an all-male crew across the Atlantic Ocean in the hopes of establishing England's first successful -and permanent- colony in the New World. In 2005, Terrence Malick released his film The New World, a movie which tells the story of America's first English speaking settlement. 

Landing in Virginia
More specifically, Malick's story is about the famous, but untrue, romance between Captain John Smith and a Native American princess, of the Powhatan tribe, named Pocahontas. True, the film still suffers from the song-made and Disney enforced idea that 27 year-old John Smith managed to fall in love with an 11 year old girl, but it still has a lot to offer. Behind the errors of this made-up love-story is a valuable and visually stunning portrayal of life in Virginia for America's first English colonists. 

Malick, a director famous for making lofty, abstract, and deeply metaphorical films, has hidden a whole lot of information behind his pretty pictures. Let's have a look at what's good and what isn't.

What You Can Learn

An early depiction of an Eastern
Woodland village
  • John Smith did indeed arrive to the New World in chains and was nearly hanged. He was also nearly hanged when they made a short stop in the Caribbean. He was only released when it became clear that all hands would be needed to set up the new colony. The exact nature of his crimes has alluded historians, but it appears to have something to do with mutinous conspiracies
  • The film has an exact replica of the old Fort James, built across the river from today's excavation site 
  • Most of the people and their names correspond well to their actual role in the Virginia colony's foundation
  • It gives some glimpse of Powhatan culture, though it is flawed. The houses and other structures look true to their historical depictions, but most Native villages of the time would have been enclosed in a palisade fence.
  • Shows the fear the colonists would have felt upon their arrival in Virginia. They would have been in unfamiliar land and surrounded and totally outnumbered by possibly very hostile Natives. In fact, the colonists were attacked on their first night after landing, injuring two men
  • Pocahontas really is credited with throwing herself on John Smith as he was about to be executed, though some historians maintain that Smith fabricated the story. We do know, however, that she was at the head of every visitation to the Fort that brought food and helped the colonists make it through the winters
  • Shows the hardships endured by the colonists, especially in their first months. In one scene, barrels of food are shown to have been infested with worms and worse. John Smith wrote in his account of the founding of Jamestown that they buried 50 men "from May to September." The colony began with 100 men, so that 50 men were lost in four short months is a telling fact. Primary factors causing death were disease, exertion, and starvation. 

What You Need to Know Was Wrong

  • John Smith and Pocahontas had no romantic relationship, though she did in fact marry John Rolfe. Rolfe is the man credited with bringing Tobacco to England. There is some evidence to believe the love he held for Pocahontas was genuine, though some historians claim he used her as a ploy to market his brand of cigarettes 
  • Pocahontas was not given up by her father, but was actually kidnapped by the Jamestown colonists and held for random and to keep them safe from any attacks
  • The Natives held no notion of having made a deal that they would not attack the colonists if the colonists promised to leave in the spring. In fact, due to the language barrier, they would have had no means of communicating such an agreement even if they had wanted to!
  • Pocahontas came to visit the fort often with food, not just once
  • The burning of Powhatan villages did not occur until some time after Pocahontas and her father had both died
  • John Smith should have had a much bigger beard

Read more about Jamestown and John Smith

For more information about John Smith, Jamestown, Pocahontas, or the Powhatan, try these sources:

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