Vir­ginia’s leg­is­la­ture rewrites the com­mon­wealth’s his­tory

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is a his­to­rian of the British At­lantic at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth University.

Last month, the Vir­ginia Gen­eral Assem­bly voted over­whelm­ingly in fa­vor of House Res­o­lu­tion 297. The res­o­lu­tion, in­tro­duced by Del. Ja­son Mi­yares (R-Vir­ginia Beach) and Del. Mark Cole (RFred­er­icks­burg), of­fers of­fi­cial state recog­ni­tion of “the enor­mous in­flu­ence of Chris­tian her­itage and faith through­out the Com­mon­wealth’s 400-year his­tory.”

While such a res­o­lu­tion may seem fairly in­no­cent at first glance, its claims to le­git­i­macy are based on du­bi­ous his­tory. HR 297 be­gins with a pream­ble that as­serts the pre­em­i­nence of Chris­tian­ity in the com­mon­wealth. In 1607, it al­leges, an ex­pe­di­tion sub­si­dized by the Vir­ginia Com­pany landed on the shores of what is now Vir­ginia Beach and “erected a wooden cross in sym­bolic ref­er­ence to the Chris­tian faith, in­voked a pub­lic prayer of ded­i­ca­tion, and pledged that the Gospel mes­sage would be spread through­out the re­gion and, from that re­gion, abroad.”

Shortly af­ter this trans­for­ma­tive mo­ment, the Jamestown set­tle­ment was born and, the au­thors of the res­o­lu­tion de­clare, “Judeo-Chris­tian prin­ci­ples, as es­tab­lished in the Law of Moses and set forth from the ear­li­est days of recorded his­tory,” be­came the law of the land.

It’s im­por­tant to pause here for a mo­ment to ex­am­ine this ini­tial as­ser­tion. The Vir­ginia Com­pany, char­tered by King James I in 1606, was a joint-stock en­ter­prise backed by wealthy Lon­don­ers seek­ing to profit from New World col­o­niza­tion.

The com­pany’s pri­mary goal was to mine North Amer­ica for pre­cious met­als and other raw ma­te­ri­als such as tim­ber, iron, min­er­als and medic­i­nal plants from which they and their share­hold­ers could reap enor­mous fi­nan­cial profit. Sec­ondary goals in­cluded lo­cat­ing the famed and elu­sive North­west pas­sage to the East Indies; es­tab­lish­ing a con­ve­nient base from which to at­tack Span­ish trea­sure ships; plant­ing Eng­lish civ­i­liza­tion in the New World; and lay­ing the foun­da­tion for the fu­ture in­dus­tries that would en­rich the Mother Coun­try, in­clud­ing pitch and tar man­u­fac­ture, silk and wine in­dus­tries and wood pro­cess­ing.

Although calls to spread Protes­tantism over­seas in or­der to com­bat the grow­ing dom­i­nance of Catholic Spain had served as a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor for Eng­lish New World col­o­niza­tion since the era of Queen El­iz­a­beth I, re­li­gion was of lit­tle in­ter­est to com­pany share­hold­ers and the first wave of Jamestown set­tlers. The prom­ise of ma­te­rial riches drove them more than any­thing else.

How­ever, things did not go ac­cord­ing to plan. The Jamestown set­tlers failed to find pre­cious gems, their mea­ger food and wa­ter sup­plies proved in­ad­e­quate, the mor­tal­ity rate spiked dra­mat­i­cally, and droves of men (and, later, women) dropped dead. The sur­viv­ing set­tlers sought help from the Powhatan In­di­ans, upon whose land they had planted their strug­gling colony, and traded var­i­ous trin­kets with them for food. For a time, Ma­toaka (also known as Poc­a­hon­tas), the daugh­ter of Chief Powhatan, acted as a go-be­tween, aid­ing the des­per­ate set­tlers in their at­tempts to trade with her peo­ple in or­der to sur­vive.

Now, here is where HR 297 re­ally takes lib­erty with the his­tor­i­cal record. Jamestown, the au­thors of the res­o­lu­tion as­sert, “in­cluded a rec­og­nized church wherein Chris­tian wor­ship, teach­ings, and bap­tisms were con­ducted in ac­cor­dance with the Gospel mes­sage, as ex­em­pli­fied by the baptism of Poc­a­hon­tas, a mem­ber of the Powhatan tribe of Na­tive Amer­i­cans in the re­gion.”

That is not the full story. Poc­a­hon­tas was ab­ducted dur­ing a visit and held cap­tive by the Jamestown set­tlers, whose lead­ers had aban­doned Chris­tian ci­vil­ity in fa­vor of more ag­gres­sive tac­tics as a re­sult of food short­ages. Dur­ing her long cap­tiv­ity, the Eng­lish con­verted Poc­a­hon­tas to Chris­tian­ity, re­named her Rebecca and mar­ried her to English­man John Rolfe. At the time, Poc­a­hon­tas was widely cel­e­brated in Eng­land as the first Na­tive Amer­i­can hea­then woman to give up her “sav­age” way of life and con­vert to the true faith. But should mod­ern-day leg­is­la­tors cel­e­brate Poc­a­hon­tas’s con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity given the vi­o­lent cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing her cap­tiv­ity?

Like so many be­fore them, Vir­ginia leg­is­la­tors seek to ap­pro­pri­ate the first Eng­lish set­tlers and Poc­a­hon­tas for their own ends, with lit­tle re­gard for his­tor­i­cal facts. It is their in­ten­tion to link what they char­ac­ter­ize as the “faith tra­di­tions brought to North Amer­ica by its first set­tlers” to the “mil­lions of Vir­gini­ans” who now iden­tify as Chris­tian. Yet there are far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions. Only Chris­tians, the Vir­ginia Assem­bly in­sin­u­ates, are “true” to the found­ing prin­ci­ples of the first Eng­lish set­tlers and thus “real Amer­i­cans.”

Whether one is a Chris­tian or not is be­side the point, how­ever. HR 297 does a dis­ser­vice to the rich and com­plex his­tory of Vir­ginia, early An­glo-In­dian in­ter­ac­tions, and the na­tion as a whole and, in the process, den­i­grates the her­itage of Chris­tians, nonChris­tians and na­tive peo­ples alike.


A print show­ing the out­door cer­e­mony mar­ry­ing Poc­a­hon­tas to John Rolfe.

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