Jamestown's birthday notes a darker side this time

Quadricentennial of America's first permanent settlement shows Indian subjugation and African slavery.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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).

The settlers were, to an extent, upper-class dandies who couldn't handle roughing it on the frontier; only 60 of the 500 or so settlers survived the "starving time" of 1609-10, when some reportedly turned to cannibalism.

But while enduring a standard of living 2,000 times worse than today's, it was also a diverse society of Germans and Italians, who saw the first interracial marriage in America take place when Pocahontas married John Rolfe.

Mr. Rolfe, in turn, became America's first entrepreneur when he planted "sweet" Spanish tobacco in the fertile James River dirt, laying the foundations for the capitalistic planter society that gave rise to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.

"A lot of people reflecting back on Jamestown for the 400th anniversary would argue that Jamestown with all its complexities and contradictions was really a better forecast of what kind of rambunctious society America was going to become," says Jim Kelly, director of museums for the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. "The sort of idealistic city on the hill [represented by the Pilgrims] was an eccentricity. Jamestown, on the other hand, was about getting a piece of the American dream."

But those similarities are an easy target for critics of American policy today. The quadricentennial comes at a time when the nation is enduring a somber and uncertain national mood, says Matthew Sharpe, a Wesleyan University English professor and author of the new book, "Jamestown," which retells the tale of Smith, Rolfe, Pocahontas, and Powhatan as a science fiction story.

"The bumblingness of the Iraq adventure, for instance, bears a striking resemblance to the Virginia adventure 400 years ago," says Mr. Sharpe. "We look to these early founding stories as mythologies of the origin of who we are now and as models for how to live, and Jamestown happens to present a very complicated model for how to live."

But critics of the Jamestown "commemoration" say that overlaying modern social mores on the Jamestown settlers amounts to a misreading and misapplication of history.

For one, it's not clear to historians whether the first Africans on the continent, who came to Virginia in 1619, were slaves or part of a system of indentured servitude that became chattel slavery 50 years later. Historian Harold Wilson of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., points out that the House of Burgesses, the early democratic body in the colony, urged the crown repeatedly to stop the practice of slavery before 1630.

"This is the first time that America has had a jubilee or centennial that we're ashamed of," says Doug Phillips, president of Vision Forum, a religious group based in San Antonio, which is sponsoring an upbeat celebration of Jamestown next weekend. "Not to be grateful for [the settlers' accomplishments] cultivates indifference and ingratitude, and it's not healthy for us as a people."

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