Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith is my new favorite European colonizer! Call this a geeky-homeschool-girl moment, but I am fascinated with this guy.

I've learned that he is much, much more than a 2D Disney cartoon character, or just another evil English explorer out to exploit Native Americans. He was a brilliant, adventurous, out-of-the-box kind of guy I would love to have known. He was also extremely pompous, and self-absorbed. In fact, he’d probably be thrilled with his current pop-culture status. 

To be honest, he had something to be proud of. This guy started as the son of an English farmer, who was apprenticed to a shopkeeper at age 15. He wanted none of it, and may have tried to join an expedition with Sir Francis Drake, but John’s father did not approve. Mr. Smith died soon after, however, and his 16-year-old son was away as quickly as possible. He had his indenture canceled (I really wonder how he managed that), and set off to the Netherlands to fight for the Dutch. From here his list of accomplishments grows: winning prize money as a privateer in the Mediterranean, fighting with the Austrians against the Turks and becoming a captain, beheading three Turkish offers in single combat in Rumania, enduring captivity and slavery, escaping slavery by murdering his Turkish master. He was the ripe old age of 24 when he returned to England after all of these adventures. And he was just getting warmed up! Granted, most of what we know about Smith came from his own pen, but the guy couldn't have stretched the truth that much.
From what I know of the guy, Captain
Smith would probably have one or two
of these on his shelf. Photo from here.

Now this strong, bold, self-sufficient, and stubborn captain signed on with the Virginia Company and headed for Jamestown; he barely made it to the colonies as he was almost executed for insubordination. Smith was given a reprieve, however, and went on to be the president of the Virginia Colony’s council. In the record of his adventures in the New World, Smith wrote of himself in the third person, penning such hilariously self-promoting passages as this, “Captain Smith…by his own example, good words, and fair promises, set some to mow, others to bind thatch, some to build houses, others to thatch them, himself always bearing the greatest task for his own share, so that in short time he provided most of them lodgings, neglecting any for himself.” 

After handily surviving a period of sickness in 1607, Smith went on several expeditions into Native American territory, which got him captured by chief Powhatan. There is a good chance that the whole Pocahontas story was actually a kernel of truth wrapped up in a big exaggeration. In fact, it could be that Powhatan had no intention to execute the captain at all; the whole thing may have been an adoption ceremony which was unfortunately misinterpreted by Smith! It’s a funny, funny world. 

Anyway, this was not Smith’s last adventure. He was almost executed again for the loss of two soldiers who were killed “on his watch”, so to speak, but was (wait for it…) saved from hanging in the nick of time. The guy really led a charmed life, especially when you think about how he was injured (by having a bag of gunpowder explode in his lap while sleeping) and shipped back to England just before the “starving time” that afflicted the Jamestown colony. 
Though Smith never returned to America, he tried several times (and was, predictably, captured by French pirates). He spent the rest of his life writing many books about America (or compiling the writings of other explorers), sounding like one of the world’s first travel agents. He encouraged practically anyone and everyone to settle in America, speaking of “the healthfulness of the air, the richness of the soil, the goodness of the woods, the abundance of fruits, fish, and fowl in their season.…” He reached some measure of fame in his own lifetime, and though he died at age 51 he’d done more in those 5 decades than most people could do in 10. 

I am simply flabbergasted by this man. While certainly not what many would call "admirable", I just have to shake my head and wonder at Smith's tenacity, courage, and sheer chutzpah.

Info from: 
American Passages: A Literary Survey Study Guide. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004. Print.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

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