Jamestown's birthday notes a darker side this time
Quadricentennial of America's first permanent settlement shows Indian subjugation and African slavery.
HISTORIC JAMESTOWNE, Va.
As she visits the colony here on Friday, Queen Elizabeth II will see a Jamestown – and an America – much changed since 1957, when she last helped celebrate the nation's first permanent English settlement on the cattailed banks of the James River.Skip to next paragraph
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But if she is expecting a raucous birthday party like last time, Her Royal Highness will be disappointed. In fact, the word "celebration" has been stricken from the proceedings, and the event will for the first time include commemorations of the settlement's darker effects, including Indian subjugation and African slavery.
The shift is a reflection of an America that has moved into middle age, more prone to self-reflection and even self-doubt, and shaping its jubilees accordingly, historians say. Critics, however, say throwing a "noncelebration" is an offensive way to remember the legacy of Jamestown.
"The 1957 visit by the queen was the antiseptic version," says Peter Wallenstein, a history professor at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. "Jamestown has since come to symbolize both the beginnings of slavery and democracy, the downside and upside, which makes it harder to be full-throated celebratory."
Organizers say this year's event is meant to be more inclusive than ones in the past, especially the 1957 one, from which some blacks were excluded and the fate of Indians was hardly mentioned.
The result is several VIP visits – Vice President Dick Cheney and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will tour Friday with the queen; President Bush is due for the main events next weekend – as well as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who spoke at a February forum and who harshly criticized Jamestown's 400-year-old legacy.
Moreover, it was no surprise to many that Virginia's legislature chose this year to apologize for its role in the "peculiar institution," a trend that has caught on in other former slaveholding Southern states.
At the same time, what organizers call a more "sophisticated" message won't take away from the ultimate goal of the quadricentennial, which is for Virginia to reassert Jamestown's influence and to say, "We were really first, and we really did set the thing up, and every step of the way we played a powerful role in shaping the nation," says Mr. Wallenstein.
To be sure, Jamestown still plays second fiddle to the later Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay, who didn't set up a permanent shop in Plymouth until 1620, 13 years after Jamestown. Plymouth had the rock while Jamestown had muddy banks; the Pilgrims were spiritualists while the Jamestown folk were, at heart, capitalists; the Pilgrims had a feast while the early Virginians had a fast.
Upon their arrival in three awkwardly named ships, the local Indian chief, Powhatan, wondered wisely about their motives, which included the first inklings of Manifest Destiny, while John Smith, the prolific and self-aggrandizing chronicler of the settlement, waxed on about visions of the "new Rome" (he had of course visited the old one).