Happy Thanksgiving: The Jamestown Massacre

The first fifteen years of Anglo-Indian relations in Virginia established all of the precedents of totalitarianism on our shores—including holy war, massacre, martyrdom, and terrorism. To protect their colony, London officials dispatched troops to Jamestown who between 1609-1614 spared neither infants nor the infirm as they burned Powhatan villages, murdered native priests, assassinated chiefs, looted temples, conquered tribal territories, and starved a once-thriving population through harvest-time “feed fights.”

In 1622 the Powhatans rejected both the increased conversion efforts and the continuing territorial expansion of the colonists, correctly perceiving them as a two-pronged assault on their unique identity and future as a people. The Powhatan Uprising, Friday, 22 March 1622, was the most lethal day ever experienced by British colonists in peacetime, as Powhatan warriors slaughtered almost 30 percent of Virginia’s entire white population, including at least 35 women and 30 children, and destroyed many buildings and other property. Although the term “terrorism” did not enter the English language until the 1790s, Jacobeans described that shock tactic much as we do today.

Edward Waterhouse’s shocking report to other horrified Londoners referred to the first massive terrorist attack against English-speaking civilians in American history.

“That fatal Friday morning, there fell under the bloody and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhumane people, contrary to all the laws of God and men, of Nature and Nations, 347 men, women and children, . . . and not being content with taking away life alone, they fell again upon the dead, . . . defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying some parts away in derision, with base and brutish triumph.”

The 1622 massacre inspired a new genre of anti-Indian hate literature denouncing the Powhatans for their “perfidious treachery” and “savage, wild, [and] degenerate”deeds. They were lumped with other “Out-laws of Humanity” across the racial spectrum—papists, heretics, and infidels—who opposed Anglican orthodoxy and killed innocent Protestants. It is not surprising that those Jacobean condemnations are eerily similar to anti-terrorist rhetoric today.

It was the holy men of Anglican England who were most disillusioned and vengeful in the aftermath of the 1622 massacre. The Rev. Samuel Purchas, who compared the Powhatans to the treasonous Judas, linked spirituality with territoriality. He argued that the precious blood price paid by Thorpe and hundreds of other slain Christians gave the English a “mortal, immortal” entitlement to all Powhatan lands and justified the shedding of Indian blood “in showers.”

While London clergymen demanded an Old Testament-style holy war of extermination, the decimated colonists, instead, fought a measured, tempered military campaign that was neither ideological nor genocidal in intent or result. They quickly learned to coexist with their Indian enemies by forging enlightened alliances with Indian friends—and by repudiating the British violence against them as dysfunctional and dangerous practices.

The massacre survivors who had cheated death embraced a second chance for life by creating an innovative, hybrid “New Virginia.” Soon after 1622 they began calling themselves “Virginians” for the first time, and they altered their identities, expectations, and prejudices in adapting to American realities. The dominance of acculturated Virginia merchants and the absence of English missionaries finally resolved the old Elizabethan issue of whether secular commerce or spiritual conversion was the best way to satisfy and pacify Indians. By maintaining their physical and cultural distance and assessing each tribe only on the basis of usefulness and temperament, the colonists who had faced extermination, ironically, preserved the rich multiethnic diversity of the Chesapeake.

In every age, the greater the power differential between oppressors and the oppressed, the more likely (and logical) it is for the weaker group to employ various types of “unconventional” violence against the stronger. It has always been a calculated, purposeful (never “senseless”) use of violence against unsuspecting citizens of an enemy power in order to make noncombatants experience the pain and suffering that their society has inflicted on others.

J. Frederick Fausz http://hnn.us/articles/19085.html

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