Monday, January 7, 2013

Death was everywhere

Just a short little excerpt from a review of Bernard Bailyn's The Barbarous Years.
This is one example of what happens when unprepared people are thrust into the "wilderness" on their own devices, and very little real advice.
A fairly good reminder that even in a society where most of the people are still working the land, it takes more to surviving in an agricultural community than simply knowing how to plant and harvest.

Charles C. Mann, The New York Times, 4 January 2012 (hat tip: MR)
“Death was everywhere,” Bailyn writes of Jamestown. The colony was a commercial enterprise, started by the Virginia Company with the sort of careful financial evaluation that in the more recent past was the hallmark of the dot-com boom. Once the colony’s backers discovered that Chesapeake Bay was, contrary to their initial belief, laden with neither gold and silver nor a passage to the Pacific, they tried everything they could think of to salvage their investment. Ship after ship of ill-equipped migrants — many of them abducted, many of them children — went out, each vessel intended to fulfill some new harebrained scheme: winemaking, silk-making, glassmaking. Each and every one failed, as did the Virginia Company, which went bankrupt in 1624. By then three-quarters or more of the Jamestown colonists had died, felled by starvation, disease, murder, wolves, Indian arrows and even cannibalism.
English people kept coming anyway, lured by a discovery that the Crown and company hated: tobacco. Hip, fun, disdained by stuffy authorities and wildly addictive, the smoking weed was an ideal consumer product. Thousands of migrants were willing to risk death for the chance to cash in on England’s squadrons of new nicotine junkies. The Chesapeake Bay became a barely governed swarm of semi-independent tobacco fiefs, owned by families, operated by squads of indentured servants, all squabbling with one another, Protestants against Catholics, English against other Europeans, everyone against Indians.


Dan said...

From 1607 to 1612 they suffered the worst drought in 770 years.

russell1200 said...


Yes, the drought. Although I seem to remember they seem to have been working harder on tobacco than food in any case.

Another recent theory I saw was that a ships captain (in Spanish employ?) was poisoning them (with arsenic I think).

The drought thesis is a little easier to prove. Tree rings are pretty reliable.