A Nasty New World


Ron Rosenbaum reviews Bernard Bailyn The Barbarous Years, which details the “little-remembered” brutality of life in the American colonies during the 17th century:

Bailyn has not painted a pretty picture. Little wonder he calls it The Barbarous Years and spares us no details of the terror, desperation, degradation and widespread torture—do you really know what being “flayed alive” means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.)

And yet somehow amid the merciless massacres were elements that gave birth to the rudiments of civilization—or in Bailyn’s evocative phrase, the fragile “integument of civility”—that would evolve 100 years later into a virtual Renaissance culture, a bustling string of self-governing, self-sufficient, defiantly expansionist colonies alive with an increasingly sophisticated and literate political and intellectual culture that would coalesce into the rationale for the birth of American independence. All the while shaping, and sometimes misshaping, the American character. It’s a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide,” the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call “genocidal,” the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.

Above image from the Wiki entry for the Indian Massacre of 1622:

Captain John Smith, though he had not been in Virginia since 1609 and was thus not a firsthand eyewitness, related in his History of Virginia that braves of the Powhatan Confederacy “came unarmed into our houses with deer, turkeys, fish, fruits, and other provisions to sell us”. Suddenly the Powhatan grabbed any tools or weapons available to them and killed any English settlers who were in sight, including men, women and children of all ages. Chief Opechancanough led a coordinated series of surprise attacks of the Powhatan Confederacy that killed 347 people, a quarter of the English population of Jamestown.

Update from a historian in Virginia:

I want to provide a bit more context for your readers about the so-called Indian Massacre of 1622. If, as the reviewer of Bailyn’s book suggests, the details of this period “have virtually been erased,” the image and accompanying Wikipedia information you provide doesn’t much help the effort to un-erase it.

Of course, the 1622 attack was a massacre only from the perspective of the English settlers, who had, in previous years, razed Indian towns, looted religious temples, and stolen or destroyed whole fields of maze. Many of the English military men had fought in Ireland and happily repurposed for Virginia the terror tactics developed in those wars. For instance, according to an account by George Percy, English soldiers captured an Indian chief’s wife and two children and confined them aboard ship. This was in the spring of 1610. Annoyed that their superior, Percy, might show the Indians mercy, the soldiers instead threw the children overboard and shot “owtt their Braynes in the water.” The chief’s wife was later put to the sword.

The “Powhatan Confederacy,” meanwhile, was not a voluntary alliance as the word “confederacy,” used in the Wikipedia entry, suggests. In 1608, for instance, the paramount chief Powhatan surrounded and attacked a member group, the Piankatank Indians. For all intents and purposes, he wiped them out and moved another group of Indians into their newly emptied town. According to William Strachey, Powhatan then collected the dead warriors’ scalps and hung them on a line between two trees – in full view of English visitors, Strachey among them.

The attack of 1622 killed about a quarter of Virginia’s English settlers and a report drawn up for the Virginia Company of London suggested that the “Viperous” and “wicked” Indians, rather than be Christianized and civilized, ought now to be completely destroyed: “by force, by surprize, by famine.” “Conquering them is much more easie then of civilizing them by faire meanes,” the writer concluded, “for they are a rude, barbarous, and naked people.”

And yet what’s interesting is that the deaths caused by Opechancanough‘s attack were a drop in the bucket compared to deaths caused by disease and by what some investors in the Virginia Company described as mismanagement. One such investor was Samuel Wrote. In the wake of the attack he decided to crunch some numbers. He estimated that Virginia’s population in 1619, when the company’s current leadership had taken over, was 700. Another 3,570 men, women, and children had entered Virginia in the subsequent three years, adding up to a population of 4,270. But after Opechancanough’s attacks, and the deaths of 347 colonists, only 1,240 settlers remained. What had happened, Wrote demanded, to the other 2,683?

The barbarous years, in other words, involved much more than war, scalps, and flaying. But so also was it more complicated than a conflict between—as one Virginia history textbook puts it—the “obnoxious” John Smith and Powhatan, “a ruler of great spiritual, mental, and physical strength.”