May 6, 2007
It was a bright spring day, May 14th, 1607, when one hundred and eight men and boys from England went ashore in an area that we now call Virginia. Before a generation could pass, the indigenous people would be all but destroyed. They would become the sad reflection of the English missions of civilization and Christianizing. Having failed in this dubious experiment, the so–called Indians would be reduced to beggars in the land of their fathers.
Jamestown. During this month, and throughout the year, we may be hearing of memorials or even celebrations of the English settlement. We’re taught about the great English leader, Captain John Smith, and the struggle on an Indian’s chief’s daughter, Pocahontas, to save his life. Her plea to for the man’s life is as central to America’s founding mythology as the fantastic wolf–fed children of Romulus and Remus was to Rome. When most Americans think of America’s founding families, they think more often of Plymouth, Massachusetts, than of Virginia. England’s settlers landed in Virginia thirteen years before settlers arrived in New England. When local Indians resolved to let the English starve rather than endure their harsh treatments, Smith chose to attack and take what he wanted from his neighbors. As one recorder noted, “seeing by trade and courtesy there was nothing to be had, he, Smith, made bold to try such conclusions as necessity enforced, though contrary to his commission, let fly his musket, ran his boat on shore, whereat they all fled into the woods.? Englishmen were poor farmers, and further, many felt such work beneath them, so they either bartered foodstuffs from the Indians, stole it, or forced them to work for them. How many of us know that the first cross–cultural slavery in the Americas was of Indians, not Africans. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who accompanied Columbus on the voyage from Spain, wrote home to request permission to exploit Africans as slaves because the Indians were dying too quickly.
Jamestown was four hundred years ago, yet it set a pattern of conquest, destruction, and self–deception that continues down to this very day. The history that began with Indians did not end with them. The successful conquest of Indians led inexorably to the conquest of a third of Mexico, and seizure of their lands. It led to the Monroe Doctrine, looking at the nearest continent as this nation’s ‘backyard’. Jamestown. Four hundred years. Yes, let us celebrate and commemorate conquest, death and genocide. There’s something to be learned in this. But I doubt it’s the lesson we think it is.
From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu–Jamal.