Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

Captain John Smith

"To the West! To the West! To the land of the free,

Where the mighty Missouri rolls down to the sea,

Where a man is a man, if he's willing to toil,

And the humblest may gather the fruits of the soil."


Failure after failure had attended the early efforts of the English to plant colonies in the West. Still they would not give up.

"I shall yet live to see Virginia an English nation," the far-sighted Raleigh had said even when the news had reached him of the pathetic end of his little colony.

But it was not till the power of Spain had been destroyed that the English could hope to succeed in America. For an infant colony is like an army at the end of a long line of communications. If the line is cut, it must perish. Before England could plant thriving colonies in America she had to gain control of the ocean-paths leading across the Atlantic. Now this was done. The defeat of the Spanish Armada had made American colonisation possible to England.

And so in 1606 another infant colony, consisting of 105 persons, sailed from "merrie England" for Virginia, the "paradise of the world" as the poets loved to call it. Queen Elizabeth was dead, but James I. was ready enough for a chance of extending his dominions beyond the seas. The emigrants sailed in three small ships, which took four long months to reach the shores of America. They had intended to land on the coast of Virginia, but a great storm drove them out of their course, and they found themselves in a magnificent bay, called by the natives Chesapeake Bay. Landing on the banks of a river, which they called James river, after the king, they decided on a suitable site for a colony, which they called Jamestown. They began to build, but it was soon evident that the wrong stamp of colonist had come out. Out of the 105 emigrants there were but twelve labouring men; the others were gentlemen, unused to toil, unfit for hardships. Again and again the Indians attacked them.

Then came the old story—food ran short, disease followed, three or four died daily, and the survivors were too weak to bury them. At last half the little colony was dead.

Among the colonists was a young man called John Smith. He was strong and vigorous, and he saw something must be done. So he undertook to rule them. He first strengthened the town against attacks from the Indians, and, to get fresh supplies of food, he led parties to explore the neighbourhood. He cheered the few survivors, and all went well for a time, till one day Smith himself was attacked and taken prisoner by the Indians. He was led before the chief and doomed to death. For a time he warded off the evil moment by explaining the mariner's compass and telling the ignorant natives stories.

"And when I told them the wonders of the earth and sky and spheres, of the sun and moon and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round the world continually, they all stood amazed with admiration," said John Smith when he wrote of all his strange adventures with the Indians. But when his stories came to an end, all their fury burst forth again, and tying him to a tree, they prepared their arrows to shoot him. Another moment he would have been a dead man, when the chief stepped forward and bade them unbind the prisoner, who was to be taken before Powhatan, the king of the tribe.

From one village to another he was now led in triumph—the only white man among all the Indians—till at length he reached the king. The old chieftain was sitting before a fire on a bench. He was covered with skins of animals, whose tails hung around him like tassels. Near him sat a row of women, their faces and bare shoulders painted bright red. Smith thought he was well received, for the queen brought him water to wash his hands and a bunch of feathers to dry them instead of a towel.

But preparations to kill him now went forward. Two large stones were brought in, on which the unhappy Englishman was made to lay his head. Two dusky warriors stood, with clubs upraised, waiting the word to strike, when suddenly the king's little daughter of ten years old darted forward, laid her young head upon his, and thus saved his life. The king was deeply touched by this act of devotion on the part of his child Pocahontas. He at once set his prisoner free, and sent him back to Jamestown under escort.

He found the colonists reduced to forty now, and they were in the act of leaving when Smith arrived and once more saved the situation. Thanks to Pocahontas, there was now peace with the Indians, and food came in regularly. Moreover, they taught the colonists many things—how to grow maize and how to till the ground. Emigrants now poured over from England.

"When you send again, I entreat you send me thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, and blacksmiths, rather than a thousand such as these," Smith wrote home pitifully. He made a rule that every one must work for six hours a-day at least.

"He who will not work, shall not eat," he said. But the axes blistered their tender hands till the sound of oaths drowned the echo of the blows. To put down this swearing Smith decreed that every oath should be punished by a can of cold water being poured down the swearer's sleeve, which was the cause of much merriment and fewer oaths.

So John Smith succeeded where others had failed. He was the first to show that the true interest of England was not to seek gold in Virginia, as the early colonists had done, but rather, by patient toil and unwearying industry, to establish trade and commerce.

"Nothing," he used to say—"nothing is to be expected from thence but by labour."

The sequel to this story is interesting. Pocahontas became a Christian and married one of the colonists, John Rolfe, at Jamestown, and in 1616 she went to England with her husband. She had been the first native in America to become a Christian, and her romantic story drew crowds to see her. "La Belle Sauvage" was taken to the Court of King James by John Smith himself, who was in England at the time. But she had not been in England long before she was taken very ill, and she died before she could be put on board ship to return to her native country.