A graceful narrative history of the troubled Jamestown colony, “an entrepreneurial effort organized and financed by . . . a start-up venture.”
So writes Virginian and Washington-based journalist Price, giving his tale a thoroughly modern spin at the outset. “English America,” he continues, “was a corporation before it was a country,” and the founders of the Jamestown colony were a mix of corporate types, including plenty of middle managers and martinets who, under the rubric of “gentlemen,” had no intention of working, not even to save their own skins. Alas, writes Price, those founders didn’t do their homework when they chose the spot for their new settlement; though the wide mouth of the James River allowed oceangoing vessels to dock right alongside the town—a helpful advantage, given all the boatloads of gold, silver, and other riches that the colonists were hoping to extract from the surrounding countryside—the site of Jamestown was really a malarial swamp ill-suited to agriculture, cattle, and humans. Put people in trying circumstances, especially people used to the soft life, and you’re likely to get ugly politics. That’s just what happened, Price writes, as struggles developed between aristocratic leaders such as the “selfish Wingfield” and “the imbecile Ratcliffe”—the epithets are those of another historian, though Price doesn’t give much reason to think them wrong, quoting a Jamestown resident who remarked that those governors could have undone Paradise itself—and the commoner John Smith, who was far better equipped than they to see the English through those first few years of warfare and starvation (with a little cannibalism to boot). Price throws a nice twist on the Smith-Pocahontas legend, which has cheerfully misrepresented the facts for four centuries now, and does a fine job of viewing the fortunes of the Jamestown company through the lens of contemporary English politics, all while offering a lively retelling of events.
A first-rate work of popular history, and sure to become a standard.