Writer, Broadcaster and Academic
Four centuries ago, and fourteen years before the Mayflower, a group of men - led by a one-armed ex-pirate, an epileptic aristocrat, a reprobate cleric and a government spy - left London aboard a fleet of three ships to start a new life in America. They arrived in Virginia in the spring of 1607, and set about trying to create a settlement on a tiny island in the James River. Despite their shortcomings and against the odds, they built Jamestown, a ramshackle outpost which laid the foundations of the British Empire and the United States of America.
Drawing on new discoveries, neglected sources and manuscript collections scattered across the world, Savage Kingdom challenges the textbook image of Jamestown as a mere money-making venture. It reveals a reckless, daring enterprise led by outcasts of the old world who found themselves interlopers in a new one. It charts their journey into a beautiful landscape and sophisticated culture that they found both ravishing and alien, which they yearned to possess, but threatened to destroy. It shows them trying to escape the ‘Savage Kingdom' that their homeland had become, and endeavouring to build one of the most glorious nations under the sun.
An intimate story in an epic setting, Woolley shows how the land of Pocahontas came to be drawn into a new global order, reaching from London to the Orinoco Delta, from the warring kingdoms of Angola to the slave markets of Mexico, from the gates of the Ottoman Empire to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
'A swashbuckling saga...sprightly and vivid.' Los Angeles Times
'In his addictively readable narrative, Woolley not only deconstructs the myth of Pocahontas to reveal a more complex truth, but also tells the multilayered story of how a ramshackle outpost of Jacobean England sowed the seeds of what eventually became the most powerful nation on earth.' Sunday Times
'Benjamin Woolley tells this story in direct, engaging prose, spreading before us a panorama, not just of the lives of the settlers and the natives and of the vacillating cordiality and hostility of their encounter with each other, but of the politics, intellectual climate and international relations which formed the wider context. His book is a delight.' Spectator
Prologue – The Great White Fleet
In August, 1907, Marine Guard Paul Elias Embler, found himself aboard the USS Alabama, coasting New England. Together with eight more ironclads steaming alongside, his eleven-and-a-half-thousand ton battleship was bound for Virginia to take part in one of the great naval events of history, the rendezvous of what came to be known as the ‘Great White Fleet’. On the orders of President Theodore Roosevelt, sixteen battleships of the US navy were to assemble in Chesapeake Bay, to commemorate three hundred years since the founding of first successful English settlement in America: Jamestown.
Like all the best witnesses of history, Embler had no interest in or much awareness of the ebb and heave of great events. He was more concerned about practical matters, such as rations of slumgullion and the theft of a bucket. He saw himself as a John Doe of his day, a typical, tough, plain-speaking, God-fearing American. Born on a farm in Asheville, North Carolina in 1877, he was the product of a nation that, like him, had reached maturity and was ready to face the world. However, in one crucial respect he was different. During those few precious months aboard the Alabama, he kept a diary, which he scribbled during the intervals between meals, watch and drill, dangling in his hammock or sitting on a duty bag next to Morrison the tobacco chewer. ‘Reveille at 5 AM. Breakfast at 7. Uniform of the day white. Quarters at 9:15’ began his first entry. The rest of the day’s events, including a lavish entertainment, are itemized in the same terse manner, any details being reserved for the meals:
Ship is off Newport RI. Dinner roast beef, gravy, spuds with jackets on, butter, bread and blackberry jam and coffee.
Word just past, lay aft all the dancers, a ball tonight.
Supper clam chowder, butter, tea. Hammock call 7:30. Tattoo at 9:15.
The following day he ‘mashed’ a finger during artillery practice on the ‘six pounders’ (the Alabama had sixteen, complementing four thunderous 13" cannons, fourteen 6" guns and four torpedo tubes). The day after that, he took cod liver oil for constipation. The following week, on Labor Day, he broke a teacup—‘I may have to pay for it,’ he lamented. September 5, a ‘beautiful day, calm ocean’, he feasted on slumgullion (‘offal or refuse of fish’). A fellow marine guard called Wilson was ‘up the mast’ for allowing the alcohol chest to be broken open during his watch. On September 5, the Alabama came to a stop following maneuvers, as did Paul Embler for a moment’s pious reflection. He quoted some lines from a poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland:
Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth to the vaulted sky,
And we mount to its summit round by round.
The bucket incident occurred the following week. The Alabama was being ‘coaled’, refueled, a day-long operation that involved nearly a thousand tons of coal being dropped sack by sack into the ship’s hold. That evening, a man called Donnell snatched Embler’s precious pail. ‘I hit him first, but I got the worst of it. I was knocked down very nicely,’ wrote the uncomplaining marine. ‘But I think he will let my bucket alone.’ Apparently, Donnell would not. Embler later reported it missing.
Within a few days, the bucket incident was forgotten. On September 26, a plump $13 pay packet in his pocket, Paul Embler watched Manhattan glide into view. The Alabama was entering the Upper New York Bay at a time when the great age of steam shipping was at its height. Two weeks earlier, Cunard’s superliner Lusitania, the largest vessel afloat, had arrived after completing her maiden transatlantic voyage in a record-breaking five days and 45 minutes. A reception flotilla of small ships had watched the approach of her ‘enormous hull, magnified by the mist, until her sides and stacks gave her the appearance of a skyscraper office building adrift’. ‘Seldom has a vessel arriving at this port been welcomed as was the new turbine liner,’ reported the New York Times. ‘Bedlam broke loose and every skipper within sight promptly pulled open his whistle valve and kept it open.’ The ecstatic reception helped prompt Cunard’s US-owned rival White Star Line to commission the even larger Titanic.
There were no fanfares or flotillas to greet the Alabama, looking tatty after a decade of service. A tug pulled her up the East River to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where, alongside the Rhode Island, Ohio, Connecticut and Louisiana, she was to have a refit and repaint. In prospect were two months of ‘liberty’ in a world of treats and terrors unknown to a farmboy from North Carolina.
As his ship nosed into the docks, Embler could see the buildings of Manhattan lining the opposite shore of the East River. He got his liberty the following day at 1pm. He drew a fresh set of clothes from the laundry (‘two suits of underwear, one undress cap, one full dress cap, one trousers size three long, four pair gloves, one suspender, four socks’), carefully marked each item with his name, and went ashore.
He found himself in the Navy Yard District, ‘a shapeless grotesque neighborhood’, as a travel guide described it. Stepping smartly along grimy cobblestone thoroughfares ‘filled with flophouses, crumbling tenements and greasy restaurants’, he crossed Brooklyn Bridge and plunged into the hectic streets of Manhattan. As he entered the electrified city, his attention was caught not by the modern architecture, the social conditions, the dense rigging of telegraph wires, the ‘great torrent of spending’ behind dazzling shopfronts of Indiana limestone, or the ‘luminous epilepsy’ of the Broadway lights, but by two gold front teeth. They belonged to ‘a beautiful girl, age 17’, one Violet Savage. Embler writes no more about that day’s proceedings.
Two days later, another liberty lured him and his friend Higgins to go in search again for those two gold teeth. But Violet Savage had disappeared. Any further temptations to think about her were quashed three days later by a letter from Hazel Hawkins, his girl back home. She was visiting her brother in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she wrote. After that, the only sexual distraction was an encounter with two ‘friendly ladies’ who ‘asked 25 cents of us to buy them a drink’. ‘They didn't get the dough,’ the now street-smart Embler observed. Instead, he diverted his energies into attending events at the Young Man’s Christian Association and exploring the streets. On October 15, he came to the foot of the new Singer Building on Broadway and Liberty St. It was ‘48 stories high, the tallest building in the world’, he noted in his diary.
Not yet officially opened, the Singer featured a slender tower erupting out of the roof of an Edwardian office complex. At the tip, a cupola equipped with search lights beamed rays into the clouds, projecting across the world looming silhouettes of America’s economic confidence—a message that needed to be broadcast especially bright and clear at the time of Embler’s visit, as a week later Wall Street suffered one of the worst panics in its history, following the collapse of the Knickerbocker Trust Company.
A line about a burlesque show, a few words on a brawl with Bowery toughs, an ever-lengthening list of desertions by those too fond of ‘whiskey and dissipating’, all added to Embler’s picture of a new America, boldly, recklessly rushing into the Twentieth Century, twitching with energy, ravenous to consume. In mid-November, one of Embler’s comrades, Marine Private Conklin disappeared. Nine days later, his body was found in the East River. He had apparently been drugged, robbed, thrown off a pier and left to drown. When De Witt Veeder, captain of the Alabama, tried to contact Conklin’s family in Michigan, he discovered the boy had signed up under an assumed name. Embler clubbed together with his fellow marines to raise $60, ‘to send the body home if his mother was not able to pay charges’. No mother was found, able or otherwise, and the body was buried in the grounds of the Naval Hospital. Embler, who in civilian life had been a florist, was given responsibility for the floral tribute. The city yielded up a glorious array of ‘very large white chrysanthemums and American Beauties. The Beauties were worth $6 per dozen,’ half a week’s wages.
By the time the four on grave-digging detail had finished burying the unknown marine, the Alabama refit was nearly complete. On December 6, she slipped back into the East River. Her tattered grey hull was now brilliant white, the gilded scrollwork of her prow glittering like Violet Savage’s teeth. Together with her four similarly spick and span consorts, she steamed off into the quiet ocean at midnight, bound for Virginia. A day later, the five ships reached Hampton Roads, and anchored together with the rest of the fleet (minus the Minnesota, fog-bound a few miles offshore) in the yawning mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
To the south of the rendezvous was Sewell’s Point. This was the venue of the Jamestown Exposition, opened by President Roosevelt on April 26 as part of the tercentenary commemorations. In a stirring inaugural speech, the President had reminded the crowds of the hardships faced by their predecessors when they arrived on those shores of Virginia. ‘Famine and pestilence and war menaced the little band of daring men who had planted themselves alone on the edge of a frowning continent.’ But their example had shown that, ‘if the average of character in the individual citizen is sufficiently high…there is literally no height of triumph unattainable in this vast experiment of government by, of, and for a free people.’ With these words, the President was supposed to press a gold button to set in motion the marvelous engines of industry and invention being exhibited. But, due to various bureaucratic bungles, the wires leading from the button did not connect to anything. The presidential Oz would have to wait to work his wizardry.
Around three million visitors came to Virginia over the following eight months, drawn by such attractions as hot air balloon displays, a huge relief map of the Panama Canal, daily re-enactments of the Battle of the Merrimac and Monitor, an exhibition of incubators featuring ‘live’ premature babies, a simulation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a reconstruction of the Klondike Gold Mine.
Now, on the cold, clear morning of December 16, the President had returned for the culminating event: the sailing of the Great White Fleet riding at anchor in the bay. He had come down the Potomac the night before upon the official presidential yacht the Mayflower, a rankling reminder for his Virginian hosts that the ship it commemorated was still considered the nation’s founding vessel, even though it arrived in the New World thirteen years after the Jamestown settlers.
The fleet’s rendezvous was the President’s pet project for the commemorations, and its organization had been a tremendous challenge, politically as well as logistically. Eugene Hale, chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, had tried to sink the venture by refusing Congressional funds. The President would not be deflected. The Exposition had attracted the attention of the world’s great powers, and this provided a unique opportunity to show them what the upstart United States had become. The ‘splendid little’ Spanish-American war of 1898, in which Roosevelt had made his name with his volunteer force of ‘Rough Riders’, had toppled the colonial governments of Cuba and the Philippines, dispensing with the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire. America had come to dominate her hemisphere, and possess a global network of naval bases in Guantanamo, Manila, Puerto Rico and Guam, soon to be followed by Pearl Harbor.
Impressive evidence of this new international status now sat upon the waters of the Chesapeake, ready to sail on the president’s orders. Following ‘many pathetic scenes of farewell’, at 10am sharp four bells were rung to get 223,836 tons of armament under way—the greatest quantity ever to sail under a single flag, according to the New York TimesNew York Times, carrying 12,793 officers and men, provisioned with a million pounds of flour, vegetables, frozen beef and slumgullion.
The Mayflower started to make her way towards the open ocean, dragging the great chain of ironclads in her wake, through waters studded with ‘shipping of every description’, past shores ‘black with people’. As the armada approached Cape Henry, the first landmark to be given a name by the Jamestown settlers, the Mayflower pulled aside, and beneath a canopy of coal and gun smoke, reviewed the ships processing by, each letting off a thunderous 21-gun salute as it passed: the flagship Connecticut, the Kansas, the Vermont, the Louisiana, the Georgia, the New Jersey, the Rhode Island, the Virginia, the Minnesota, the Maine, the Missouri, the Ohio, and bringing up the rear, the asthmatic Alabama (despite the repairs in New York, she suffered from chronic engine problems which would later force her to retire from the fleet) followed by the Illinois, the Kearsage and the Kentucky. A great moving map of the United States entered the ocean, and spread across the waters.
A decade later, the site of the Jamestown Exposition was handed over to the navy and turned into the largest naval base in the world, home to the United States’ Atlantic Fleet. Over the coming century an armada of swifter, heavier, deadlier vessels came and went, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, commissioned in 1986. It alone displaced nearly half the tonnage of the entire Great White Fleet.
The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, the three English ships that first slipped through those waters in 1607, together weighed less than the Great White Fleet’s consignment of canned fruit. Crammed inside the delicate wooden hulls of these ‘eggshells’ were just over a hundred settlers, limited supplies of food, a sealed casket of secret instructions and an alleged mutineer in chains. But, like the great ships that succeeded them, they also carried a vast weight of history.
The crews, the passengers, the mission, their starting point and intended destination, even the ships’ rigging and timbers had been shaped by the convulsive events underway in Europe. Powerful forces unleashed in the Fifteenth Century by the Reformation, the Protestant challenge to Catholicism, had provoked an ugly backlash in the Sixteenth Century, the Counter Reformation, during which Catholic forces and inquisitions battled to reassert Papal authority and religious unity across Europe. Catholic Spain, enriched by its empire in the Caribbean and Central America, domineered from the south. The Low Countries (modern Netherlands and Belgium), rich, vibrant provinces of the Iberian crown, rebelled in the north. Islam spread remorselessly through the east. And France, a Catholic country penetrated by a powerful Protestant or ‘Huguenot’ minority, threatened to disintegrate in the middle. Violent tensions had exposed fundamental questions about the nature of freedom, sovereignty, god and government.
In response, a small group of disillusioned and reprobate Englishmen had turned their attention towards the only compass point offering hope: the west. So great was their desperation at home and desire for escape, that they embarked knowing their fate would almost inevitably end in failure or death. Since 1492, when Columbus had drawn back the Atlantic veil and revealed to Europeans the existence of a continent, numerous attempts had been made to settle North America. Spain and Portugal had successfully colonized the West Indies, Mexico, Peru and Brazil, but even they could not plant a viable settlement on the north eastern shores of the continent to which they laid claim, and hundreds if not thousands had died in the attempt. At the turn of the Seventeenth Century, the only settlement on the entire North American continent was the isolated fort of San Augustin on the coast of Florida, which the Spanish were preparing to abandon.
The Englishmen who set off to overcome these odds were poorly prepared, ill equipped, badly advised and inadequately financed. As Roosevelt pointed out three hundred years later, they were prone to ‘dissension, distrust, the inability of some to work and the unwillingness of others, jealousy, arrogance and envy, folly and laziness’. Where the Pilgrim Fathers who had floated full of grace across the ocean upon the Mayflower provided an uplifting model of piety and conscience, this lot seemed only greedy and unscrupulous.
And then there were the ‘Indians’, misnamed, maltreated, displaced. Where we are told the Saints shared Thanksgiving and offered peace, the Jamestown settlers apparently opted for condescension and war, the precursors of slavery and genocide.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest was written during and inspired by the events surrounding the Jamestown adventure. It concerns a group of courtiers who undertake a perilous sea voyage. Caught in the eponymous storm, they are stripped of their rank and dignities and ‘belched’ by the ‘never-surfeited sea’ onto a strange, enchanted island. There, their destinies are transformed by mysterious happenings, hidden histories and lost souls. Visions of utopia vie with glimpses of hell; love blossoms alongside rape; the amnesia of a sweet deliverance is spoiled by flashbacks of barbarity. It begins with the breakdown of order, and ends with the play’s most famous line, the promise of a ‘brave new world’.
The story of England’s faltering attempts to settle America is much closer to Prospero and Caliban. Its master narrative is not the Biblical tale of saints finding a promised land, but of flawed men in a dirty struggle to survive, haunted by failure, hungering for escape.