November 17, 2005


A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. By James Horn. Basic Books. $26.

Jamestown, Virginia, gets surprisingly short shrift in most American history books, considering the fact that it was the first permanent English settlement in North America – 13 years before Plymouth, Massachusetts. The story of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom – never mind that what the Pilgrims really wanted was the freedom to be more dogmatic and less tolerant than the mainstream Protestants they left behind – has more resonance with modern American ideals than the story of settlers looking for gold, land and improved geopolitics. But it was Jamestown, not Plymouth, that paved the way for the ascendancy of the British Empire over such major 17th-century rivals as France, Holland and Spain (whose famed armada had been defeated only 19 years before Jamestown was settled).

The story of Jamestown is one of great bravery in the face of the unknown and presumably deadly: the previous English colony, at Roanoke, had simply vanished. Historian James Horn, O’Neill Director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a lecturer at the College of William & Mary, tells in A Land as God Made It of Jamestown’s first 18 years – in considerable detail. Horn has a deep understanding of geopolitics at the time of Jamestown’s founding, and his basic approach is international: he shows how the settlement decision was driven as much by the desire to counterbalance England’s colonial competitors as by hopes for finding gold or a passage to China (though those were present as well). Much of the book, especially its first half, is the story of John Smith, one of the few well-known names associated with Jamestown – thanks largely to Smith’s story of how he was captured by Indians and saved by Pocahontas. That account, Horn argues forcibly, is implausible – an exaggeration if not an out-and-out untruth. But other writings by Smith give a clear picture of what everyday life was like in Jamestown’s early years.

Smith himself provoked such antagonism among other town leaders that they eventually tried to kill him by dropping a lit match into his lap as he slept in his boat, igniting his powder bag. Horribly burned and in great pain, he survived – but was summarily shipped off to England by his political enemies, who “spent the next few weeks drawing up a comprehensive list of his abuses in office” to make sure he would be discredited and never return. Thus did 17th-century politics set the stage for much that would come later.

Jamestown set the stage in other ways, too. It was the first of England’s colonies to adopt representative government on the British model, and the first to bring together people of many different backgrounds. It was also the place where slavery was introduced into English-speaking North America – a development to which Horn pays surprisingly little attention. And it was a colony that first tried to form an alliance with Indians against Spain, then began a series of deadly clashes over territory when the hoped-for agreement did not materialize. The level of detail in Horn’s book will be daunting for non-specialists. But the writing is mostly clear, the excerpts from period documents are well chosen, and the book as a whole sheds valuable light on a too-little-studied subject.

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