Saturday, November 15, 2008

The John Smith Project

(and here's something I had to submit last year on American Literature)

John Smith… Where to begin from? First of all, the real historical figure has little to do with the romanticized tall blond and charming adventurer from the Disney’s animated movie. One of the few images of this fellow is a portrait which appeared on a 1616 map of New England. Think of Robert De Niro’s character from “The Mission” and you’ll get the picture. He was born on January 9, 1580 in Willoughby, England and died in June 1931 at the age of 51. What REALLY happened between these two dates we can only guess, cause you see, this John Smith was like the British version of Baron Münchhausen. A boastful man who enjoyed telling stories about his own adventures, and even entitled his own autobiography published in 1630 “The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith”. But it is quite difficult to separate fact from fiction.

After the death of his father, at the age of 16, he leaves his home – merely a boy with a sword in his hand, looking for a chance to make a fortune. Soon he became a mercenary and fought for King Henry IV of France against the Spaniards. Then he fought for the Habsburgs in Hungary. Then he fought for Radu Şerban in Wallachia. Then he fought for… ah, sorry – then he was wounded and captured by the Turks. Sold as a slave, captured the heart of a beautiful Turkish girl, escaped, killed some Turkish captains on his way back to Transylvania, where he was knighted (and probably wiped out some vampires, but was way too modest to mention that in his TRUE travels and adventures).

At the end of 1604 he returned to England. December 1606 he boarded a ship and became part of the famous expedition to colonize Virginia. During the months of sailing John earned himself a name of a notorious troublemaker. He was, among other things, charged with mutiny and Christopher Newport, the captain of the three ships of the expedition, was going to execute him as soon as they arrive in The New World. But the Virginia Company designated Smith to be one of the leaders of the new colony, and this saved his skin.

In December 1607, while seeking food along the Chickahominy River, Smith was captured and taken to meet the Chief of the Powhatans, Wahunsonacock, at Werowocomoco, the chief village of the Powhatan Confederacy (yeah, try reading these names aloud!). Smith was eventually released safe and sound and later attributed this in part to the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, who, according to Smith, threw herself across his body. An American legend was born.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on friendly terms, but Pocahontas came to the hut where the English were staying and warned them that Powhatan was planning to kill them. Due to this warning, the English stayed on their guard, and the attack never came.
Here is a quotation from John Smith’s letter to Queen Anne:

“So it is, that some ten years ago being in Virginia, and taken prisoner by the power of Powhatan their chief King, I received from this great Salvage exceeding great courtesy, especially from his son Nantaquaus, the most manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit, I ever saw in a Salvage, and his sister Pocahontas, the Kings most dear and well-beloved daughter, being but a child of twelve or thirteen years of age, whose compassionate pitiful heart, of my desperate estate, gave me much cause to respect her: I being the first Christian this proud King and his grim attendants ever saw: and thus enthralled in their barbarous power, I cannot say I felt the least occasion of want that was in the power of those my mortal foes to prevent, notwithstanding all their threats. After some six weeks fatting amongst those Salvage courtiers, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown: where I found about eight and thirty miserable poor and sick creatures, to keep possession of all those large territories of Virginia; such was the weakness of this poor commonwealth, as had the salvages not fed us, we directly had starved. And this relief, most gracious Queen, was commonly brought us by this Lady Pocahontas.
Notwithstanding all these passages, when inconstant fortune turned our peace to war, this tender virgin would still not spare to dare to visit us, and by her our jars have been oft appeased, and our wants still supplied; were it the policy of her father thus to employ her, or the ordinance of God thus to make her his instrument, or her extraordinary affection to our nation, I know not: but of this I am sure; when her father with the utmost of his policy and power, sought to surprise me, having but eighteen with me, the dark night could not affright her from coming through the irksome woods, and with watered eyes gave me intelligence, with her best advice to escape his fury; which had he known, he had surely slain her.”

Who knows, maybe it was all true, as he describes it. After all most of John Smith’s works are geographical and historical writings, no fiction there. But on the other hand he was renowned for exaggerating his stories.

By the way, in case you wonder what happened to Pocahontas – she married the tobacco breeder John Rolfe, and became Rebecca. Seems like she really was into cultural exchange, cause some years later they went to England. Some claim that John Smith’s letter was written in order to earn some respect for the Indian princess and make the Queen treat her with dignity. (And as you can see for yourself Smith was quite handy with the words – seems to me like he knew very well how to convince the Queen to accept his point of view and to get what he wants. On one hand he was writing to the Queen herself, so it was natural to be as polite and gentle as possible. But on the other hand he demonstrates quite a vocabulary and surprisingly good writing skills for a guy who spent most of his life as an adventurer) This version sounds probable to me, because the events described in the letter had happened some ten years before, and the date on the letter, 1616, coincide with the year of Pocahontas’ visit in England. March 1617, on her way back to the New World, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames, when she unfortunately fell ill and died. The cause is likely London's smoky air, pneumonia or tuberculosis. Controversy also states that she might have died of smallpox.
But let’s get back to John Smith.

So far he had been a mercenary, a soldier, a slave, a sailor, an explorer, a conqueror. Now he was about to become an author. His first publication came out the same year. It was followed by nine more published until his death:
- A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (1608).
- A Map of Virginia (1612)
- The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612)
- A Description of New England (1616)
- New England's Trials (1620, 1622)
- The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
- An Accidence, or the Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Seamen (1626)
- A Sea Grammar (1627) - the first sailors' word book in English
- The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630)
- Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631)

Most of his writings were like the tourist guide books of the 17th century – John Smith was a great promoter of the New World and his words encouraged many settlers to follow his steps.

"Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land...If he have nothing but his hands, he industrie quickly grow rich."

Most of the time Smith’s writings are dry, describing basic details and listing facts. You could go for pages and read nothing but brief geographical notes of his journeys, directions, on what date where they were, what was the climate there and so on. And occasionally his encounters with the local Indian tribes.

“…wee fought also with fortie or fiftie of those: though some were hurt and some were slaine;”

But John Smith wasn’t trying to scare off the potential settlers, just on the contrary – as we said he was using every chance to advertise the possibilities of the New World. And you can often find lines in which he speaks of the limitless opportunities you can find in Virginia – like, Hey you, just take the first ship and come here! It’s all yours for the taking! Here’s another fine example:

“…Accomak, an excellent good harbor; good land; and no want of any thing, but industrious people;”

And if you think this sounds like a shameless TV add on the home-shopping channel just wait for the next quote:

“And here in Florida, Virginia, New-England, and Cannada, is more land than all the people in Christendome can manure, and yet more to spare than all the natives of those Countries can use and cultivate. The natives are only too happy to share: If this be not a reason sufficient to such tender consciences; for a copper kettle and a few toyes, as beads and hatchets, they will sell you a whole Country . . . the Massachusets have resigned theirs freely.”
This was a powerful add indeed and it attracted thousands of people to set off in search for “their own land”… which wasn’t exactly their, you know… But the local tribes were regarded mostly as beasts and pagan savages, and the newcomers felt like the rightful owners, ready to shoot on sight any Indian. And who could expect different? After all John Smith’s motto was “To live is to conquer”

And not only was he a conqueror of lands, but also a conqueror of hearts.

Seems like John Smith had a way with the ladies. Just like some James Bond of the Great Geographical Discoveries!

It is hard for me to compare John Smith to any other popular author, especially Bulgarian, since his works are not works of fiction, but a mixture of journals, geographical notes and historical chronicles. His publications somehow remind me of Daniel Defoe’s style in “Robinson Crusoe” – more of a diary, collection of travel notes, than the usual adventure novel we know (and love) today. Defoe is regarded by many as the father of the English novel. He had a considerable experience as a journalist and probably that helped him a great deal to add realistic atmosphere to his work. Just check out the full title of the book: “The Life and most Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the coast of America, lying near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. Written by Himself”. Don’t you find it similar to “The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith… Written by Himself”? OK, we have no bloodthirsty cannibals here, but there are plenty of Indians itching to use their tomahawks on yours truly.

The only Bulgarian piece of literature I can think of is the so called “Fish Primer” (“Рибен Буквар”) by the famous educator Petar Beron, published for the first time in 1824. It was a textbook, named that way because of the picture of a whale on the front cover (yeah, yeah, I know the whal is not a fish but a mammal, but hey – it was 1824 after all, and back in those days there was no cable TV, let alone “Discovery Channel”, “Animal Planet” or “National Geographic”). The textbook has eight different sections. The first is the ABC Book with the Bulgarian alphabet. The second section contains Christian prayers. The third is called “Good advices” and lists 64 guidelines for a proper behavior and good attitude. The fourth section is quite similar, called “Clever advices” and uses some miniatures from Ancient Greece to give you a piece of wisdom. The fifth and the sixth sections are “Fables” and “Various stories”. The eighth is “Arithmetic”. What I find more or less similar to John Smiths works is the seventh section of the “Fish Primer”, which you might call an encyclopedia. It describes various animal species, not common for the Balkans (like camels, rhinos, crocodiles, dolphins, and of course the whale from the front cover) and gives information about different ingredients, spices, fruits and vegetables (like salt, coffee, tobacco and so on). Although it was written some two centuries after John Smith’s publications, it does basically the same – opens a window to a New World. Being a Bulgarian in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t exactly a dream life and the education opportunities were quite limited. Tobacco was quite common, but I guess not many people knew it came from America (or even where exactly this America is on the map). The style is also somehow similar – both Petar Beron and John Smith were trying to provide the reader with some general knowledge and give them an idea about foreign lands using their own (brief) words. Some of the things John Smith discovered with his own eyes the Bulgarian readers discovered two centuries later through Petar Beron’s “Fish Primer” – the first modern textbook in our national history.
And speaking of history John Smith surely left his trace in it. As he once said:

"History is the memory of time, the life of the dead and the happiness of the living."

And as you see, the man did his best to preserve the history he created himself.

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