When Historical Pirates Did PR: The Writings of Captain John Smith

A Generall Historie of Virginia, or, to give it its correct title, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles: With the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from Their First Beginning, Ano: 1584. To This Present 1624. With the Procedings of Those Several Colonies and the Accidents That Befell Them in All Their Journyes and Discoveries. Also the Maps and Descriptions of All Those Countryes, Their Commodities, People, Government, Customes, and Religion Yet Knowne. Divided into Sixe Books, and I think we all need to take a quick breath now. Pause. Better? OK, moving on, by Captaine John Smith sometymes Governour in those Countryes and Admirall of New England, starts off with a fulsome dedication to the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox that even the most ardent aristocrat might find just a touch overdone. It then continues with a preface assuring us that kings are great, before continuing on with no less than ten (count them, I did) poems assuring us that author John Smith is one awesome, awesome guy.

Even by 17th-century standards, this is quite something; several editions of the Bible, Shakespeare and Spenser have more modest introductions. And if, reading this, your first thought was that Captain John Smith had just a few public relations issues and/or really, really really needed money, or both, you’d be right.

Smith’s early life seems to have been ordinary enough. He was born on a farm, and attended at least one school before deciding, at the age of 16, to head off to sea. At this point his biography becomes, shall we say, a touch questionable. According to Smith, at least, his next few years were filled with battles, piracy, slavery, more piracy, beautiful Greek mistresses who fell in love with him, and daring escapes into Russia, followed by cold journeys through Europe.

I say “according to Smith,” because many of these interesting stories have only one source: Smith, a man called “an Ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe” by one of his irritated contemporaries. Smith, to be fair, disagreed with that assessment, assuring his readers—frequently—that his writings had only one goal: “…to humbly sheweth the truth.” It was a truth that Smith desperately needed to show people since—as he painfully admitted—the world was filled with people who constantly misunderstood him and his motives and therefore wanted to either mutiny against him or accuse him of mutiny or hit him or imprison him or hang him. Worse, after trying to mutiny against him or accuse him of mutiny or hit him or imprison him or hang him, they would then tell vicious lies about him and call him mean names. Those lies, he tells us, were what impelled him to come forward and write the truth.

What can I say? Pirates. Always misunderstood.

However embellished, however, Smith’s military experience was enough (or he convinced others that it was enough) to allow Smith to join a 1606 expedition with the Virginia Company that hoped to set up a new colony in Virginia for fun and profit. He was even appointed one of its leaders, a piece of good fortune that later saved him from getting hanged even after he was almost immediately accused (according to several accounts) of mutiny.

The colony soon had much bigger problems than Smith. Within months of their arrival, more than half of the colonists were dead from starvation and disease. Another ship arrived in the middle of January with more colonists but not enough food, adding to the deprivation. It took a full year before the colonists were able to plant crops.

That summer—1607, a solid year after Smith had arrived—he began to explore Virginia and the Atlantic coast. This is when Smith claimed to have met a lovely Native American princess, Pocahontas, during a confrontation with irritated Native Americans who, like so many others, wanted to kill him. As his 1624 account, written in the third person to keep up the guise that he was writing “history,” explains:

….but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then, as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains, Pocahontas the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death.

Both contemporaries and later historians responded to this account with, shall I say, a certain skepticism. For one thing, if Smith’s writings are to believed, no fewer than three women in his lifetime dramatically flung themselves in front of weapons in order to save him—an assertion generally greeted with some skepticism, although Smith himself seems to have taken it for granted that of course women would fling themselves in front of weapons to save him. For another, Pocahontas herself does not seem to have mentioned this little incident to anyone, either in Virginia or in a later visit to London. That alone is not particularly conclusive, since the historical records are incomplete, and because by then, she had married another Englishman, John Rolfe, and changed her name to Rebecca. It’s possible that she simply didn’t want to remember her initial meetings with Smith; she would hardly have been the only person who met him to feel this way.

And, for a third thing, Smith’s first account of this expedition, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note As Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part thereof (they knew how to write titles in the 17th century), published in 1608, also fails to mention any such encounter.

Though that’s not entirely conclusive either, since that book, which for the sake of my fingers I’m going to be calling A True Relation, wanted to present Virginia in the best possible light for any potential English colonists. Indeed, “wanted” may be too mild a word. By 1608, the struggling colony’s only chance of survival was to get more colonists to arrive with food, seeds, and the ability to do agricultural work.

Granted, by then, enough stories had filtered back to England that A True Relation had to admit that yes, the colonists did have a few troubles with Native Americans when they first arrived:

Anchoring in this Bay, twentie or thirtie went a shore with the Captain, and in coming aboard, they were assalted with certaine Indians, which charged them within Pistoll shot:

But everything was ok, because, guns!

in which conflict, Captaine Archer and Mathew Morton were shot: whereupon, Captaine Newport seconding them, made a shot at them, which the Indians little respected, but having spent their arrows retyred without harme,

OK… maybe not all that OK. But still, the guns had scared away the Indians, more or less, and in just one or two more paragraphs, all was well:

the people [Native American groups] in all places kindely intreating us, daunsing and feasting us with strawberries, Mulberries, Bread, Fish, and other their Countrie provisions wereof we had plenty: for which Captaine Newport kindely required their least favours with Bels, Pinnes, Needles, beades, or Glassas, which so contented them that his liberalities made them follow us from place to place, ever kindely to respect us. In the midway staying to refresh our selves in little ile foure or five savages came unto us which described unto us the course of the River, and after in our journey, they often met us, trading with us for such provision as wee had, and arriving at Arsatecke, hee whome we supposed to bee the chiefe King of all the rest, moste kindely entertained us, giving us in a guide with us up the River to Powhatan, of which place their great Emperor taketh his name, where he that they honored for King used us kindely.

…I gotta stop right there, because as a public relations statement, this is masterful. Let’s all give the pirate a hand, shall we? I mean, in one paragraph he’s managed to:

  1. Turn the fact that his colonial expedition was, only a few weeks after arriving, entirely out of food into a net positive.
  1. Assure readers that food in Virginia could be bought with mere pins and beads.
  1. Slyly note that being a colonist is so awesome, you even get to meet an emperor.

The giveaway, of course, was the “for such provision as wee had.” The colonists did not have that much, but leave it to Smith to twist this into a triumph.

Indeed, pretty much everything in A True Relation is like this: Something bad happens (often indicating that relationships between whites and Native Americans were not nearly as positive as Smith wanted potential colonists to believe), and is immediately turned by Smith into a positive. Sure, Powhatan insisted on taking an English hostage, but that was great, since that meant we found out where the pearls were! Sure, we did notice that the local population was starting to show signs of not being entirely happy with our presence, but it wasn’t cowardice or fear that turned us back, but the WIND! GREAT WIND! IT WAS ALL BECAUSE OF THE WIND! Sure, within a couple of months 46 colonists died, but the good news is, the survivors all hated Captain Wingfield, not me, and I felt better. OK, sure, shortly afterwards the survivors started hating me as well, but that was just because I wanted them to build nice houses instead of the mean tents we were using. If only they had understood that I was just looking out for their benefit!

I have to admit: I’m impressed by Smith’s ability to put an extremely positive spin on virtually every disaster that happened to the colony, not to mention the careful way he credits God (sometimes) or himself (a lot more often) for the few triumphs, while simultaneously assuring readers that the various disasters that did occur (death, attacks) were all either preventable or easily dealt with or were certainly all the fault of people not named John Smith. In one passage, for instance, Smith claims to have been attacked by 30 arrows, none of which hit him, but claims that the Native Americans were so impressed by his gun (and, apparently, not getting killed by arrows) that although they left everyone else in his group dead, this all turned out great since Smith was fed an absolute feast of bread and venison, and the Native Americans agreed to defend him against other outraged Native Americans. In other passages, after just admitting that several Native Americans had killed several colonists and wanted to kill him, Smith notes that the Native Americans that spoke to him, Smith, were all friendly and helpful and willing to give long, detailed descriptions of the local geography.

It all ends with Smith assuring readers that:

Wee now remaining being in good health, all our men wel contented, free from mutinies, in love one with another, and as we hope in a continuall peace with the Indians: where we doubt not but by Gods gracious assistance, and the adventurers willing minds and speedie furtherance to so honorable an action, in after times to see our Nation to enjoy a Country, not onely exceeding pleasant habitation, but also very profitable for commerce in general; no doubt pleasing to almightie God, honourable to our gracious Soveraigne, and commodious generally to the whole Kingdome.

As said, I’m impressed. Yet also, deeply skeptical. Not, I must say, because of the number of deadly arrows Smith somehow managed to dodge. I watch Arrow, where characters catch arrows in midair, so that part sounds completely reasonable to me. No, my skepticism comes from the awareness of the background of this report: By 1608, when Smith sent it off, he knew that unless more colonists agreed to make the largely unpleasant Atlantic crossing, the new colony was doomed. Thus, as noted, A True Relation’s focus on the bright side of colonial life: great health, lots of fish, lots of contentment, pearls in mussels, more venison than any one person could eat, and so on. Not to mention reassurances that all of the mutinies and violent conflicts with Native Americans were over. Which in turn meant leaving out whatever sparked the Pocahontas story, since that story highlighted those conflicts.

When Smith sat down sixteen years later to write A Generall Historie—the book containing the Pocahontas legend—however, quite a bit had changed. Smith no longer lived in Virginia, and had no particular desire to encourage colonists to live there. He did, however, have a powerful need to improve his reputation.

By then, a number of people had loudly accused Smith and other early Jamestown leaders of causing the deaths of numerous colonists, preventing other colonists from leaving a dangerous situation (confirmed by Smith’s accounts), and outright assassinating some German colonists. Smith’s self-confessed killing of several Native Americans was also blamed for inciting violence between Native American groups and colonists. Things had gotten bad enough that the Virginia Company, which had originally appointed Smith to a leadership role, arranged to have Smith arrested and sent back to England in 1609.

John Smith map Chesapeake Bay Virginia colonies

John Smith’s map of the Chesapeake Bay

Or, at least, that’s what the boring accounts of other people say. Smith’s version of these 1609 events is much more exciting. The men, he said, were not planning to arrest him, but hang him, until:

Sleeping in his Boate (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 pitiful manner; but to quench the tormenting fire, frying him in cloaths he leaped over-boord into the deepe river, where ere they could recouer him he was neere drowned.

OK, that all sounds bad, but it had, Smith pointed out, an unexpected benefit: it meant that his enemies—Radcliff, Archer and other men sent to remove Smith from his position—decided not to murder him after all:

…fearing a iust reward for their deserts, seeing the President [Smith], vnable to stand, and neere bereft of his senses by reason of his torment, they had plotted to haue murdered him his bed. But his heart did faile him that should haue giuen fire to that merciless Pistoll. So not finding that course to be the best, they ioyned together to vsurpe the government, thereby to escape the punishment.

If Smith felt that it was, to say, a bit odd that a gun “accidentallie” went off in his vicinity just as various people were trying to hang him and that it seemed just a touch odd for anyone to want to usurp the government from such a nice, likable guy, he did not mention this. Instead, he sensibly decided to make a run for it:

The President [still Smith] had notice of their proiects, the which to withstand, though his old souldiers importuned him but permit them to take their heads that would resist his command, yet he would not suffer them, but sent for the Masters of the ships, and tooke order with them for his return for England.

Smith bitterly noted that the colonists started to fawn on their new commanders the second Smith took off, and decided to exorcise some of his feelings about this through a very unflattering poem.

Just one paragraph later, Smith was to insist that had it not been for that unfortunate explosion, he would have solved every problem in Virginia. All he had done, in his mind, was make friends, gain enemies, explore North America, and force people to work if they wanted to eat. He also added, only slightly less bitterly, that when two “Dutchmen” had planned to betray Smith to Powhatan, the Native American leader “caused his men to beat out their braines”—which, I think, was something Smith was hoping the English colonists would do on his behalf, but didn’t.

I’m going to ignore the rest of Smith’s tirade here, since it doesn’t involve exciting things like explosions and conspiracy to commit murder, and instead just note that for Smith to defend himself against the seemingly very valid charge of being the manager from hell, he had to present the problems in Virginia as extremely difficult—something that could only be solved by someone who, like Smith, had the capacity of getting the Native American groups to trust him, and the ability to work around issues such as a lack of carpenters and other skilled tradesmen. Thus, Smith ramped up his descriptions of the tensions between Native Americans and the colonists, while also presenting himself as the sort of person that Native Americans would happily jump in front of weapons for. Thus, the Pocahontas story—showing that things were so tense that white colonists could be seized and killed at any time, while also showing that he, Smith, was such an amazing dude that innocent Native American girls would die for him.

And by this time, he was also in desperate need of money, forcing him to make A Generall Historie exciting (explosions! dramatic rescues! betrayals!) enough to appeal to regular readers. Whatever else can be said about the Pocahontas story, it’s dramatic, and if Smith perhaps cannot be relied upon for telling the absolute truth, he can at least be relied on for making his life sound exciting.

Between all of the self-serving stuff and the constant examples of just how amazing and heroic Smith was, A Generall Historie does have some good bits: explosions, adventures, lots of people shooting each other with guns and arrows or hitting each other over the head, and explanations about some puzzling bits from his last work, like all the stuff about how everyone died because they ate sturgeon. If the second account is to be believed, the colonists didn’t die from eating too much fresh sturgeon, but rather got sick from trying to eat bread baked from dried sturgeon. (I hope none of you were eating anything while reading this.)

It also contains Smith’s perceptions of Native American culture and life. Most of these accounts and perceptions have been hotly disputed, not to mention that it’s a bit unclear just how much he could have learned about that culture and life in between the times when exasperated people were trying to kill him. He does, however, provide one of the longest and most detailed accounts of that period from the point of view of white colonists, and archaeological and other sources have confirmed at least some parts of Smith’s descriptions.

Neither book makes for especially light, fun reading, but if you are interested in a very self-serving narrative about early colonial days, comfortable with the Jacobean language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, or interested in how 17th-century authors used the social media of their day to improve their reputations and earn money, both books might be worth a look.

Or you can just take my word for it that the historical Captain John Smith seems to have rather little in common with the heroic figure featured in Pocahontas, and a lot more in common with a later Captain Jack also created by Disney, except a lot less likable.

Smith returned to the Americas in 1614, exploring Maine and Massachusetts Bay as the “Admiral of New England.” He made two further attempts in 1614 and 1615, but by that time, he had run out of money, and his backers had run out of patience. He wrote four more books before dying in London in 1631 at the age of 51, surviving Pocahontas by about 14 years.

He did, however, meet her at least one more time at a social gathering in London—again, according to his own account. And if his other books largely faded into obscurity, his story about Pocahontas slowly became an American legend, joining the tale of her later capture, her baptism into Christianity, her marriage to John Rolfe which may have helped contribute to a temporary peace between white settlers and Native Americans, her travels to England, and her death at the tragically young age of 22. She left no writings of her own; nearly everything we know of her comes from the records of white men.

Next up: Disney’s considerably more cheerful take on all this, Pocahontas.

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