|Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies A-F » Captain John Smith|
Captain John Smith
Of the antecedents of John Smith, Esquire, Captain and Knight, little is recorded beyond the facts that he was of gentle blood and honorable lineage, and that he was born in Lancashire, England, in 1579.
Captain Smith saved by Pocahontas.
"Erecting towns, peopling countries, informing the ignorant, reforming things unjust, teaching virtue and gain to our native Mother Country."
There is a prophetic ring in this remarkable utterance of one whom his contemporaries persisted in regarding as a reckless adventurer, ambitious and unscrupulous. His frank denunciation of the feeble measures of Wingfield and the selfish villainy of Ratcliffe, another colleague, had earned the ill-will of the president and the relentless hatred of Ratcliffe. Smith, being under arrest, was not allowed to take his place among the councillors. He bided the day of justice with patience learned from adversity. When the supreme opportunity came he grasped it. An attack from hostile Indians proved Wingfield's unfitness for the military command, and the alarmed colonists turned instinctively to the bravest of their number. Wingfield anticipated the uprising by reiterating his intention of sending Smith to England for trial, for the double crime of mutiny and treason.
"The restive soldier suddenly flamed out. He would be tried in Virginia as was his right--there was the charter! and the trial took place. The result was a ruinous commentary on the characters of Wingfield and the council. The testimony of their own witnesses convicted them of subornation of perjury to destroy Smith. He was acquitted by the jury of all the charges against him, and Kendall, who had conducted the prosecution, was condemned to pay him #200 damages. This sum was presented by Smith to the colony for the general use, and then the foes partook of the commission, and the soldier was admitted to his seat in the council." (Cooke's "History of Virginia.")
By autumn the settlement was fearfully reduced in numbers and spirits. Fever, engendered by marshland malaria and famine, threatened utter extinction.
"From May to September, those who escaped lived upon sturgeon and sea-crabs; 50 in this time were buried," writes one of the sufferers. "The rest, seeing the president's projects to escape these miseries in our pinnace by flight (who all this time had neither felt want or sickness), so moved our dead spirits as we deposed him and established Ratcliffe in his place."
It was an exchange of inefficiency for deliberate wickedness, and in the excess of continued misery the more reasonable of the victims arose as a man and put Smith at the head of affairs.
The "terrible summer" left hardly ten men who could wield axe or hoe. Smith himself was ill with malarial fever, yet nursed the sick, prayed with the dying, and kept up the hearts of all by brave words and braver action. He bought corn and meat of the Indians when they would sell, and when they refused, secured supplies by intimidation. Yet we find him, as soon as the immediate peril was over, again the subordinate of envious leaders, and volunteering to satisfy malcontents in America and in England, by heading a party in mid-December to attempt the discovery of the great "South Sea," for so long the ignis fatuus of Western adventurers.
The explorers sailed up the James, diverging here and there into the tortuous creeks of the Chickahominy. When stopped by shallows, Smith procured a canoe and Indian guides and pushed on with but two other white men (Robinson and Emry) into the unknown wilderness, teeming with spies jealous of the foreign intruders. Attempting to land at "Powhatan," one of "the emperor's" residences, he and his guide sank into the morass and were fired upon from the shore.
"The salvages ... followed him with 300 bowmen, led by the king of Pamunkee, who, searching the turnings of the river, found Robinson and Emry by the fire-side. These they shot full of arrowes and slew."
Smith bound the Indian guide to his arm and used him as a shield, thus saving his own life. He was, however, captured, lashed to a tree, and would have been killed, but for his address in presenting the King Opecancanough with "a round ivory double compass Dyall"--his own pocket compass--directing the attention of the "salvages" to the movement of the needle, and describing the uses of the instrument.
"A month those Babarians kept him prisoner; many strange triumphes and conjurations they made of him, yet he so demeaned himself among them as he not only diverted them from surprising the Fort, but procured his own libertie, and got himself and his company such estimation among them that these Salvages admired him as a demi-god."
From the pen of a contemporary we have the account of what led to his "libertie." He had killed two of the attacking party, and was condemned by Powhatan to die for the offence.
"Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held; but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan, then, as many as could lay hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beate out his brains, Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death; whereat the emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper."
From other pages we get the stage-setting for this, the most dramatic incident in colonial history.
The emperor had heard the evidence with a "sour look," sitting in state upon a rude dais, covered with mats, his body wrapped in a cloak of raccoon skins. His dusky harem was grouped about him, watchful and interested. When the trial was over he bade one wife to bring water to wash the captive's hands, another a bunch of feathers to dry them upon. This was preliminary to the feast.
"So fat they fed Mee," says "A True Relation of Virginia," published by Smith in 1608, "that I much doubted they intended to have sacrificed mee to the Quioughquosiche, which is a superiour power they worship."
The appointment to the position of armorer in the royal household, and trinket-maker to the princess, was one of honor. Smith enjoyed it for a month only, but to his residence at Powhatan and intimacy with Pocahontas, he was indebted for the familiarity with Indian language and customs which was afterward of incalculable benefit to the Virginians. He describes Pocahontas in respectful admiration:
"For features, countenance, and expression she much exceeded the rest."
Her gala attire was a doeskin mantle lined with down from the breasts of wood-pigeons; bangles of coral bound her brown ankles and wrists, and in her hair was a white heron's feather in token of her royal blood. At the time of her rescue of Smith she was about thirteen years old.
In January, 1608, the emperor offered Smith a forest principality if he would remain with the tribe, but he petitioned to be allowed to return to Jamestown. The request was reluctantly granted, and an escort sent with him to the "Fort." This returned, bearing gifts for Powhatan and his wives, with marvellous stories of the cannon-shot fired into the sleety forest at Smith's command. We cannot but wonder what toy or ornament went to the petted child whom he had served in glad gratitude while a member of her father's household.
He had no time for sentimental musings. Upon the very day of his unlooked for return (January 8, 1608), Ratcliffe repeated Wingfield's attempt to escape to England in the only vessel left at Jamestown. The anchor was actually raised when Smith hastily collected a force and hurried to the landing. "With the hazzard of his life, with sakre, falcon, and musket shot, Smith forced" (them) "now the third time to stay or sinke."
In their sullen rage the foiled conspirators plotted and nearly executed a fiendish revenge. Once more we copy from the "General History," written by Smith and his friends.
"Some no better than they should be, had plotted with the president" (Ratcliffe) "the next day to have put him" (Smith) "to death by the Leviticall law for the lives of Robinson and Emry, pretending the fault was his that had led them to their ends; but he quickly took such order with such lawyers that he layd them by the heeles till he sent some of them prisoners to England."
The colony was almost destitute of food, and the memories of the famine of last year terrified the imaginations of those who had lived through it. "Gentlemen" having again predominated in reinforcements sent from England, the crops planted and gathered in Smith's absence had been meagre, while rats brought over in one of the vessels had wrought havoc with stored grain. Like an angel of mercy was the apparition of Pocahontas, at the head of a "wild train" of Indians laden with corn and game, approaching the fort. "Ever once in four or five days during the time of two or three years," the young princess, thus attended, visited the fort and succored the needy settlers. Smith declares that "next under God she preserved the colony from death, famine, and utter confusion." He might have subjoined that, but for himself, not even Pocahontas's bounty could have saved the settlement from the consequences of misconduct and misrule.
His was the only voice lifted to condemn the mad folly of loading a homeward-bound vessel with the glittering mud of a neighboring creek. That he was "not enamored of their dirty skill to freight such a drunken ship with so much gilded dirt"--was one of the mildest of his phrases, as, "breathing out these and many other passions," he harangued those who had "no thought, no discourse, no hope, and no work but to dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, and load gold."
Before the English assayers confirmed his judgment as to the value of this cargo, the intrepid adventurer had sailed, with fourteen others, up the Chesapeake into new and wonderful regions. Never losing heart, even when he believed himself to be dying from the sting of a poisonous fish, he discovered and entered the Potomac, the Rappahannock, and tributary creeks, fighting his way when not allowed to proceed peaceably. In July (1608) he led another party to the spot now occupied by the city of Baltimore, and made friends with a tribe called Susquehannocks, believed to be sun-worshippers. Returning from these voyages of three thousand miles in all, he drew in masterly style a chart of the countries explored, and sent it to England.
Jamestown was still in a state of what he calls "combustion," under the tyranny of Ratcliffe. Emboldened by Smith's return, the colonists deposed the hated governor, and formally elected Smith Governor of Virginia. The winter closed in upon an "affrighted" population. Storehouses were nearly empty, agriculture having been neglected in the gold fever. As Smith could not be "persuaded to use" the gallows, so he now announced that "no persuasion could persuade him to starve." In company with George Percy and fifty others, he visited his old ally Powhatan, and tried to buy food. A change had come to the emperor's heart. He addressed his quondam armorer as a "rash youth;" protested that he was afraid of him, and would not treat with the English unless they came to him unarmed. Warned by Pocahontas, who stole through the woods after dark to apprise Smith that treachery was intended, the party lay on their arms all night, and the force sent to surprise them retreated. Next day, Powhatan loaded the boats with corn, and Smith sailed up the York upon a similar errand to Opecancanough, Powhatan's brother. While in audience with him, the Englishmen were surrounded by a band of seven hundred armed savages. Seizing the wily chieftain by the scalp-lock, Smith held a pistol to his breast, and demanded a cargo of corn and safe-conduct for his party to Jamestown. The fifty men, without loss of a single life, took back enough food to victual the town.
Early in the spring of 1609, the president thus made known his policy to his constituents:
"Countrymen! You see now that power resteth wholly in myself. You must obey this now for a law--he that will not work shall not eat. And though you presume that authority here is but a shadow and that I dare not touch the lives of any, but my own must answer for it, yet he that offendeth, let him assuredly expect his due punishment.
"I protest by that God that made me, since necessity hath no power to force you to gather for yourselves, you shall not only gather for yourselves, but for those that are sick. They shall not starve."
Fields were tilled, the fort was repaired, wise Powhatan treated the pale-faces kindly for Smith's sake, and the emigrants felt for the first time firm ground beneath their feet. They had twenty-four pieces of ordnance, and three hundred stand of small-arms; three ships, seven boats, a store of more than two months' provisions, six hundred hogs, with goats, fowls, and sheep, and an established trading-station with the natives.
Like an aerolite from the summer sky came news from England that a fleet was to be sent out with a new colony, a new charter, and new officers; Smith's old enemy, Christopher Newport, was in command of the expedition. Smith had been complained of at home as "dealing harshly with the natives and not returning the ships full-freighted." His day was over. The king so willed it.
Smith's last official act was the establishment of a colony at Powhatan, renamed "Nonsuch," opposite where the city of Richmond was laid out over a century later. On his way back to Jamestown, he was cruelly wounded by the explosion of a bag of gunpowder. There was no good surgeon in the colony. To return forthwith to England was but anticipating by a few weeks what must be when the fleet arrived.
He returned to London at the age of thirty. "He had broke the ice and beat the path, but had not there" (in Virginia) "one foot of ground, nor the very house he builded, nor the ground he digged with his own hands."
In 1614 he returned to America, but now to the northern region assigned to the Plymouth Company. He gave name to Boston; explored and made a survey of the New England coast. On a second voyage he had a fight with a French squadron, was captured, and taken to Rochelle. While there he wrote a "Description of New England," for which service James I. appointed him "Admiral of New England." He died in London, in 1631, at the age of fifty-two, never having revisited Virginia. Upon his tomb, in the Church of St. Sepulchre's, London, may be still traced the outlines of the Three Turks' Heads and the inscription, beginning:
"Here lies one conquered that hath conquered kings."
Any sketch of his life, however brief, would be incomplete that contained no reference to the letter written by him to Queen Anne (the consort of James I.), in 1616, recommending the Lady Rebecca Rolfe to the royal favor.
He would "be guilty of the deadly poison of ingratitude," he wrote, if he failed to narrate what he and the colony at Jamestown owed to Pocahontas. He besought the queen's kindly consideration for the stranger just landed upon her shores, as due to Pocahontas's "great spirit, her desert, birth, want, and simplicity." His one call upon the wife of John Rolfe, Gentleman, was marked by profound respect on his part to one whom he accosted as "Lady Rebecca;" by profound emotion on hers.
John Smith's biography and epitaph are best summed up by one of his brothers-in-arms:
"What shall I saye, but thus we lost him that in all his proceedings made justice his first guide and experience his second, ever hating basenesse, sloth, pride, and indignitie more than any dangers; that never allowed more for himself than for his soldiers with him; that upon no danger would send them where he would not lead them himselfe; that would never see us want what he either had or could by any means get us; that would rather want than borrow, or starve than not pay; that loved action more than wordes, and hated falsehood and covetousnesse worse than death; whose adventures were our lives and whose losse our deaths."
|Copyright © 1999-2008 eDigg.com. All rights reserved.|