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II Pocahontas and the Myth of Transatlantic Love

Why Pocahontas?

When the first permanent English settlers arrived in America in 1607, their sponsors had not given up hope of an integrated biracial community.

Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

A shipload of single men founded Jamestown, and yet Virginia’s origin myth revolves around a female.

Ann Uhry Abrams, The Pilgrims and Pocahontas

The figure of Pocahontas is at the core of an American foundational myth that for a long time has been considered the first love story of the ‘new world’ and thus paradigmatic for casting intercultural relations in the early colonial history of the Americas as harmonious and peaceful. As a Native American female foundational figure, Pocahontas may seem less prominent than the male European Christopher Columbus and his myth of discovery (due to her gender and ethnicity), yet her story has had an enormous circulation. The romanticization of Pocahontas and her encounter with the English settlers has become one of the most enduring narratives of American culture: this story was “recast and retold more often than any other American historical incident during the colonial and antebellum periods” (Tilton, Pocahontas 1), pointing to the “evolution of an American narrative” (cf. ibid.) over the course of two centuries and to the debate and refashioning of this narrative in the centuries to follow.

Unlike Columbus, Pocahontas did not leave letters or diaries, and many scholars have dwelled upon the voicelessness of this American heroine, who was appropriated by contemporaries - John Smith is the only writer to actually refer to words she ostensibly addressed to him verbatim - as well as by historians, writers, and critics from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Although less historically remote than Columbus’s ‘discovery,’ the historical sources of the myth of Pocahontas and of her apparent romantic interest in various Englishmen thus have to be viewed with skepticism and caution. My reconstruction of the narratives about her shows how she became the centerpiece of a foundational myth that often is presented “in the guise of history” (Jenkins, “Princess” 8) and that is heavily invested in ideologies of US-American nation-building and identity politics. As much as she has been used as a trope in colonial tales of assimilation, she has also variably been cast as a foundational figure in a non-Eurocentric narrative of American beginnings.

With Sharon Larkins and Peter Hulme, the following ‘facts’ of Pocahontas’s life can be considered as corroborated by historical evidence: that she was born around 1595; that she encountered Captain John Smith immediately after the arrival of the first English settlers at what was to become Jamestown (named after King James I of England) in 1607 (in the most prominent version of the story of this encounter she rescued Smith from death at the hands of her father, Powhatan, chief of a powerful Native confederacy); that she helped the people of Jamestown and continued to have a relationship with Smith; that Smith was injured in an accident and returned to England in 1609, Pocahontas believing him to have died; that she was abducted by Captain Argall in 1612 and held captive in Jamestown by the English; that she was converted to the Christian faith in 1613 while living in Jamestown; that she married John Rolfe in 1614 and that she gave birth to her son Thomas in 1615; that she traveled to England in 1616 and was a great success as the ‘Indian princess’ now called ‘Lady Rebecca’ at the English court; that in January 1617 she attended the famous Twelfth Night masque; that she was visited by John Smith during her stay and that they had one last conversation; that she died and was buried at Gravesend in 1617 on her way back to America (cf. Larkins, “Using;” Hulme, Colonial Encounters 140-41).

In the various retellings of her life, Pocahontas’s narrative often falls into two parts: her friendship with John Smith, the ‘rescue’ incident, and Smith’s return to England constitute the first part; the second part includes her captivity among the English, her conversion, her marriage to John Rolfe, the birth of her son, and her visit to England. In all these variations on the level of discourse, the underlying story of first contact takes on mythic significance as an allegorical narrative of the birth of a new (American) society. It is also the first American love story between the colonizer and the colonized which has us believe (at least in its conventional version) that Pocahontas was “sacrificing her life to rescue her (White) love object from her barbarian tribe, a reading which excludes the narrative of rape, cultural destruction and genocide” (Shohat and Stam, Unthinking 44).

The historical figure of Pocahontas, alias Matoaka, alias Lady Rebecca Rolfe has been represented as Indian ‘girl,’ ‘princess,’ female ‘noble savage,’ mediator, and indigenous femme fatal, depending on the respective ideological investment, ranging from national, regional, feminist, and ethnic agendas, to name only a few. This chapter tracks the myth of the ‘Indian princess’ and her transatlantic love story through four phases. First, it will historicize the myth in early modern discourses of expansion and in the context of early American colonial culture and history since 1607, the year in which Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement was founded and in which Pocahontas first met the English arrivals. Before 1607 we already find conventional gendered allegories of the ‘new world’ as a woman, a fact with which I will deal briefly in the next section. After a reconstruction of the early Jamestown years and the Pocahontas narrative in the 17th century, second, I will turn to the uses made of the Pocahontas tale in the period of the early republic and revisit the fabrication of the romantic love story between Pocahontas and John Smith in the first decades of the 19th century. Third, I will discuss the ways in which Pocahontas was made into an American ‘founding mother’ by various groups throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. And fourth, I will look at the most recent versions of this myth in American popular culture and literature, in which the revisionism of the second half of the 20th century has led to new accentuations; rather than privileging the so-called rescue scene and the friendship between Pocahontas and John Smith, recent scholarship and rewritings often focus on her marriage to John Rolfe instead. Again, these phases and trends do not start and end in one particular year or decade; rather, they reveal discursive formations and shifts over a period of more than four hundred years.

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