It happened today - March 22, 2016
On this date back in 1622, March 22, thousands of Indians around the fledgling struggling Jamestown settlement struck suddenly and treacherously, wiping out about a quarter of the English inhabitants. The result, obviously, was decisive in the balance of power. Jamestown flattened the attackers.
No. Really. The stunned colonists rallied, struck back, and crushed the power of the Powhatan Confederacy forever. If you needed proof of the lopsided nature of the collision between the “old” and “new” worlds, look no further than this incident.
I don’t totally blame the Indians. Under Powhatan they had welcomed the English at first. But gradually it had dawned on at least some of them that the newcomers were here to stay and, if not pushed into the sea, would disrupt the traditional way of life beyond recognition.
Among those most militant on this point was Powhatan’s brother or perhaps half-brother Opechancanough, who became head of the Confederacy shortly after Powhatan’s death in 1618. It was he who captured John Smith and brought him before Powhatan where Pocahontas famously saved him, perhaps spontaneously, perhaps in a piece of carefully contrived theatre. When he took over, he decided to strike. And while I cannot applaud the treacherous nature of the attack, in which the Indians came to trade as usual and at a signal slaughtered those who had welcomed them, I do understand his concerns.
Which is more than he did. His unease was justified, of course. But also rendered pointless, even dangerous, by his and his fellows’ inability to understand what was upon them.
At first they treated the Europeans as just one more tribe, useful in the habitual trading, maneuvering and skirmishing between various tribes and tribal groupings. Their strangely huge ships, wonderful technology and different skin colour were more or less written off as anomalies because they lay too far outside the experience of the native Americans to be assimilated into any other category. To them life was on a small scale; Powhatan and his advisors knew nothing of Indian tribes a few hundred miles away whereas the English knew about distant lands; indeed John Smith had been to Turkey (where he escaped slavery by killing his captor and fleeing on his horse) and Russia.
Gradually it dawned on the aboriginals around Jamestown that something else was happening, something far bigger than anything in their experience. But they simply couldn’t figure out what it was. Indeed, when Powhatan sent a trusted advisor to England with Pocahontas in 1616, he told him to count the English by cutting notches in a stick to report back how strong they were. As Smith noted, he soon grew “weary of that task”.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the crucial factor in the displacement of aboriginals by Europeans in the New World was diseases. But those diseases, and the lack of resistance to them, arose from intensive farming and urban living in Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia. And urban living and intensive farming were not isolated developments. They were the product initially of far more favourable geographic conditions, combined with the accident of a profusion of highly productive domesticable plants and animals in the “fertile crescent” with no equivalent in the Americas, that created a social and intellectual dynamism from the alphabet to monotheism to metallurgy and on down the line with no New World equivalent.
By the time Opechancanough launched his attack, just 15 years after Jamestown was founded by a handful of baffled, starving, disease-ridden Englishmen financed by delusional backers, the resulting imbalance was so great that the success of his assault, particularly given its treacherous quality, only doomed his people to lethal retaliation.
If it hadn’t happened it would be hard to credit. The Powhatan Confederacy numbered in the tens of thousands. Yet fewer than a thousand English, including women and children, were capable of routing them militarily following a stunning, shocking slaughter, and drive them to the margins of the contested territory, and there was never anything the aboriginals could do, then or later, to stem the tide.
It is no reflection on them as individuals or as human beings. It is a question of culture and technology feeding back on one another, creating a dynamic social organization among whose critical features is that the Europeans had a very accurate impression of the locals, their numbers, their way of life, their military abilities and everything else, while the aboriginals were utterly baffled by everything about the Europeans including the likely result even of a dramatically successful surprise attack.