Thursday, June 25, 2009

History, Updated

Mixing It Up With the Naturals, 2007

When the first permanent English settlers—that’s Captain John Smith’s group—arrived at Cape Henry in 1607 in what is now Virginia Beach, Virginia, they had a few run-ins with Indians they referred to as “Naturals.” To avoid being noticed by Spanish explorers who had laid claim to this same land years earlier, the men of the Virginia Company sailed inland until they found a point on the James River that could easily be defended, if need be, from Spanish forces.

The Spanish turned out to be the least of their worries. The settlers couldn't have picked a worse place to set up shop than swampy Jamestown Island. Just about all were lost the first winter. Those who didn’t succumb to mosquito-borne diseases died from starvation.

But mostly, they perished because of their own indolence. Most of the first settlers were such dandies, sons of English nobility sent to the “New World” to make something of themselves while searching for what they’d been assured would be copious amounts of copper and gold, that they refused to plant a seed, throw over a fishing line or make any other meaningful contribution to their community’s sustenance. Here they were, sitting in a fertile, unspoiled Garden of Eden. But instead they starved to death waiting for ships to arrive from England with new supplies of putrid meat, hard tack and other delicacies of the English traveling cuisine of the day.

Modern historians have begun to debate whether Jamestown was indeed a grand foothold in the "New World" or just one of the most embarrassing footnotes in American history. Some even believe that the settlers may have resorted to cannibalism. And if that wasn’t enough to set Virginia's genteel historians on end, playwright Larry Kramer enraged them even more by suggesting that Jamestown was America's first homosexual colony.

Oh, and the copper and gold? Well, that turned out to be the Spaniards' ultimate joke on the effete English. There wasn’t any. Virginia was rich beyond imagination with all kinds of natural resources that England needed dearly. But the Virginia Company settlers were too blinded by the allure of easy mineral riches to recognize the bounty before their eyes.

As the 400th anniversary of the first settlers’ arrival approached, history lovers all over Virginia planned festivities to mark the occasion. Our resident fawning Anglophiles, who parse Ralph Lauren ads as carefully as Egyptologists do hieroglyphics, were whipped into a frenzy when the Queen of England made a pass through Virginia on her way to the horse races in Kentucky.

Virginia Beach, which likes to say it’s where “America began,” put on a really swell reenactment of the first landing near Cape Henry. A more populist History Fair was staged on the oceanfront boardwalk. But as the photograph above attests, instead of the “naturals” they encountered in 1607, actors portraying the settlers in 2007 encountered “Ms. Virginia” and compared bust sizes.

1 comment:

  1. That was well-written, Chris! Fascinating, isn't it. I often wonder what those first settlers really were like.