A serviceable account of the entrepreneurial experiment that was England’s first permanent North American colony.
Williams (The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic that Changed America’s Destiny, 2010, etc.) sets a useful context for his study by addressing the processes and patterns of European colonization in the New World. As he notes, the Spanish, who were far ahead of the English, gave their overseas enterprises state backing, while the British crown preferred to privatize the ventures but still take a cut of the proceeds. So it was with the Jamestown Colony, whose backers “were daring and adventurous and willing to risk their lives in search of their personal fortunes and glory.” Very true, and few figures in the history of the time are quite so daring and swashbuckling as John Smith, who, Williams reminds us, had quite a career dashing about the Mediterranean, fighting Turks and seizing booty before heading off to the swamps of Virginia. His wealth-seeking fellow colonists had Smith’s knack for selling the place. Though they came in search of gold, they were content with sassafras roots, which they shipped back to the motherland by the ton, as well as other “valuable minerals and commodities that could be exploited for a return to the investors in England.” Ultimately, Jamestown went bust, but the colony inspired thousands of Britons to leave their home and journey to Virginia and the New World. Williams tells the tale competently enough, but he does not adequately address the complex back story of the colony and its relations with the native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay, which hinge on matters anthropological, economic and geopolitical. For that, we have other recent, superior books such as David A. Price’s Love and Hate in Jamestown (2003) and Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004), which fill in the considerable blanks here.
Literate and occasionally engaging, but those earlier books should be the reader’s first choices.