Known as the first permanent English colony in the Americas, Jamestown had a tumultuous history. From desertion to famine-fuelled cannibalism, the early years of the colony were not what the Virginia Company had predicted, let alone prepared for. Colonists were to settle and cultivate the land, turning a high profit for those in power. Havoc and protest weren’t on the agenda; yet that’s exactly what happened in the early years of the Jamestown colony.

In Tudor England, poverty and unemployment were on the rise, with labourers at the mercy of anyone who would employ them. This crime of socioeconomic negligence was addressed via the 1547 and 1597 Vagrancy Acts, indenturing or exiling those without work. Christopher Collier (1998), James L. Collier (1998), and Misha Ewen (2022), have reported that the Virginia Company utilised the Vagrancy Laws to populate Jamestown, shipping vagrant criminals to the New World to work. The problem was, that even when faced with famine, as was common in Jamestown,  attitudes towards vagrancy prevailed.

In The Generall Historie of Virginia (1622), Captain Smith, a former governor of the  Jamestown colony, frequently recalled the idleness of settlers. Few had the incentive to work, arriving in the colony which had previously been described as the “newfound Eden.” Lord Percy further notes this during the 1609-1610 Starving Time, claiming that only a small party of settlers were willing to perform hunting excursions to ensure the colony’s survival. 

Reading the works of Smith and Percy, there is a clear sense of class hierarchy that followed the colonists to the New World. The language used towards labourers by both is one of blame: blame for the Starving Time and for the economic failings of Jamestown. But is that fair? Ultimately, no. 

Neither man had the knowledge or governing capabilities to ensure the colony had incentivised labourers. The English law remained loosely present within Jamestown, however their dependence on labour, combined with being in an alien environment, was to the advantage of colonists. In this new unstable society, authority had to be earned and legitimised. There was little Jamestown Council or its governors could do to discourage idleness beyond execution. Yet in a period described by Smith as “a miserie, a ruine, a death,”  due to the Starving Time, drought, and the Anglo-Powhatan War, the threat of execution held less weight for colonists. Settlers were more interested in finding material riches and fleeing home. That’s exactly what one party did; flee home.

Sailing away from Jamestown in 1609, the Swallow carried 32 men instructed by Lord Percy to trade with the Indians of the Potomac River. Jamestown was becoming a rapidly crumbling colony; desperate for resources. The local Powhatan population had turned on Jamestown and its neighbouring outposts, and food scarcity was worse than ever. 

Percy previously had sent out a party of 50 men led by John Ratcliffe on a similar mission. However, Emperor Powhatan had Ratcliffe skinned and burned alive according to the 16 men who returned. 

Despite the Native hostility the English had previously faced, the Swallow’s trip was a success, to an extent. As Percy had hoped, a peaceful trade had been made between the Anglo-Native groups. However, upon hearing of cannibalism erupting in Jamestown, the Swan sailed back to England without consequence, carrying the corn Jamestown desperately needed. 

Jamestown was a Christian colony, hoping to save the “savage” Native population while cultivating riches. Sharing food and meals were ways to connect with your fellow Christain and God, whilst reinforcing one’s English identity. These ideas quickly disintegrated as settlers became the uncivilised savages they feared, devouring anything they could find.

Anything from leather boots, vermin, and domestic animals were consumed during the Starving Time, as English settlers’ level of disgust dropped as starvation worsened. In England, such actions were worse than vagrancy, if not utterly unholy. Yet, in the New World, these norms were replaced with an urgency and plea for survival. Again, there was nothing that English laws or morals could do to prevent the unravelling of civility. 

Once resources had reached an ultimate low, and the death toll rose due to disease and war with Indigenous groups; consuming corpses was next. As Percy recalled in disgust, “[Settlers began to] digge up dead corpses out of graves and to eate them and some have licked upp the bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes,” with some resorting to murder. 

Jamestown was far from the economic Eden for which The Virginia Company had hoped. Instead it reflected purgatory, with authority figures powerless to the desperation and desires of its settlers.

In England, when uprisings arose, the army and militias were sent in; sometimes the town would be burnt to the ground. It was never envisioned in the New World that such a reckoning would be performed by the lowest members of society, leaving the Crown-backed gentry helpless. Jamestown labourers, through their refusal to work without benefit, had a voice that previously would have been violently silenced. Their desperation for survival overrode any compulsion to serve the community or acknowledge the demands of those in authority. The early years of Jamestown were life or death, and settlers certainly weren’t going to let the gentry dictate how they lived. 

By Erin Botten

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *