jamestown massacres -- 3/24/15

Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. When the Virginia Company established the colony of Jamestown in America in 1607, its mission was both to provide supplies to England and to bring Christianity to Native Americans. In fact, according to its royal charter, its chief objective was the conversion of native peoples rather than financial success. This non-financial mission was quickly abandoned and massacres took its place:

"In America the Virginians would supply staples for famine-prone England and at the same time bring the gospel to the Indians. A company broadsheet explained that God no longer worked through prophets and miracles; the only way to evangelize the world these days was 'mixtly, by discoverie, and trade of marchants.' Living on the Indians' land and trading with them, the colonists would 'sell to them the pearles of heaven' by 'dailie conversation.' So the quest for commodities, [Samuel] Purchas, [the company's propagandist] insisted, was not an end in itself, and the company would fail if it sought only profit.

"Purchas initially believed that the land must not be forcibly taken from the Indians because it had been assigned to them by God. His Protestant ideology may have been paternalistic, but it also had a measure of respect for the indigenous peoples. Yet during the first two terrible winters, when the colonists were starving to death, some of their conscripted laborers had fled to the local Powhattans, and when the English governor asked their chief to return the fugitives, he disdainfully refused. Whereupon the English militia descended on the settlement, killed fifteen Native Americans, burned their houses, cut down their corn, and abducted the queen, killing her children. So much for peaceful 'dailie conversation.' The Indians were bewildered: 'Why will you destroy us who supply you with food?' asked Chief Powhattan: 'Why are you jealous of us? We are unarmed and willing to give you what you ask, if you come in a friendly manner.'

"By 1622 the Indians had become seriously alarmed by the rapid growth of the colony; the English had taken over a significant acreage of their hunting grounds, depriving them of essential resources. In a sudden attack on Jamestown, the Powhattans killed about a third of the English population. The Virginians retaliated in a ruthless war of attrition: they would allow local tribes to settle and plant their corn and then, just before the harvest, attack them, killing as many natives as possible. Within three years they had avenged the Jamestown massacre many times over. Instead of founding their colony on the compassionate principles of the gospel, they had inaugurated a policy of elimination imposed by ruthless military force. Even Purchas was forced to abandon the Bible and rely on the humanists' aggressive doctrine of human rights when he finally agreed that the Indians deserved their fate because, by resisting English settlement, they had broken the law of nature. More pragmatic considerations were beginning to replace the old piety. The company had not been able to produce the staples England needed, and investors had not seen an adequate return. The only way their colony could function was to cultivate tobacco and sell it at five shillings a pound. Begun as a holy enterprise, Virginia would gradually be secularized not by [John] Locke's liberal ideology but by pressure of events.

A 19th-century engraving depicting an incident in the Pequot War

"The Puritans of Massachusetts had no qualms about killing Indians. They had left England during the Thirty Years' War, had absorbed the militancy of that fearsome time, and justified their violence by a highly selective reading of the Bible. Ignoring Jesus's pacifist teachings, they drew on the bellicosity of some of the Hebrew scriptures. 'God is an excellent Man of War,' preached Alexander Leighton, and the Bible 'the best handbook on war.' Their revered minister John Cotton had instructed them that they could attack the natives 'without provocation' -- a procedure normally unlawful -- because they had not only a natural right to their territory, but 'a special Commission from God' to take their land. Already there were signs of the exceptionalist thinking that would in the future often characterize American politics. In 1636 William Bradford described a raid on the Pequot village of Fort Mystic on the Connecticut shore to avenge the murder of an English trader, contemplating the fearsome carnage with lofty complacency:

Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.

"When the Puritans negotiated the Treaty of Hertford (1638) with the few Pequot survivors, they insisted on the destruction of all Pequot villages and sold the women and children into slavery. Should Christians have behaved more compassionately? asked Captain John Underhill, a veteran of the Thirty Years' War. He answered his rhetorical question with a decided negative: God supported the English, 'so we had sufficient light for our proceedings.' "


Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 Karen Armstrong


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