Analysis Of Dr Rachel Herrmann's Arguments About The Jamestown

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Situated in the Chesapeake Bay next to the James river, a piece of land in what is now referred to as modern-day Virginia was founded on the 14th May 1607 as the frontier colony, Jamestown. This swampy land was prone to attacks by the Powhatan Native Americans, and worst of all – drought. The article, the ‘tragicall Historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown by Dr Herrmann, argues that the assumption of colonists resorting to widespread cannibalism during ‘Starving Time’ should not always be taken at face value. Especially since many of the accounts were written by people who had alternative motives and things to gain from pushing this idea. Herrmann also puts forward the argument that people who denied such a phenomenon to have existed should also be questioned, as there is still evidence to ‘prove’ that some form of cannibalism existed. In terms of abundance, Herrmann states that ‘Following the Starving Time, perceptions of abundance changed drastically’. Herrmann argues that no longer were the tales of wild beasts and birds roaming in their numbers throughout the ‘New World’, accepted as fact.

One argument that Herrmann makes is that the tales of Cannibalism, especially from the accounts of George Percy and John Smith are not an accurate depiction of what colonists ate during the ‘Starving Time’ of 1609-10. In terms of Percy, she argues that he had a lot at stake at the time, being that he was the colony’s president. In a letter to his brother, Percy made it clear that his writings were to defend his actions as president. I agree with Herrmann’s argument here to a great extent because in portraying the situation in Jamestown to be out of his control, Percy would be able to exonerate himself from Starving Time. Percy would be keen on this, because as President he had a responsibility to take care of the situation in Jamestown and keep it under control. Due to this reason, Percy’s writings have to be looked at through this light – exaggerations are likely, details could be added or missed out etc. It is correct to not take his account at face value and therefore the argument that Herrmann gives here, makes complete sense.

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Herrmann also adds to the scepticism of cannibalism accounts from this time by arguing that differences between George Percy and John Smith’s stories should ‘serve as a caution to historians who would take either tale at face value’. In Smith’s account, there is a mention of a wife who was murdered by her husband, powdered and then cannibalised; whereas in Trewe Relacyon, the wife was murdered, cut up, salted and her child ripped out of her womb and thrown into the river. The argument here is that these two sources, although talking about the same event, have different details and therefore should be looked at with suspicion. I agree with this argument completely because, since the event only has a few sources that mention cannibalism – it is easier to take both Percy and Smith’s accounts as full truths. However, if there happened to be more sources, as rational historians we would compare the many sources and filter out the few facts that did not match up, to build a bigger and more accurate picture of the event. Herrmann is right to err on the side of caution and be wary that facts not adding up between the two accounts indicate errors in the truth. According to Herrmann, one of the reasons that the two accounts show such disparity is because Smith and Percy both had individual goals in mind when writing their accounts. Smith, in his 1624 ‘’Generall Historie’’, presents the Starving Time in Jamestown as an issue that arose only after his absence – thus portraying Percy in a negative light. This naturally would have caused a rebuttal from Percy that would have contained a more explicit and possibly exaggerated description of Starving time. I agree with the argument to a great extent, as specific details of the accounts cannot be wholly trusted due to variation between stories. Even though a conclusion could be made that Smith was not present during the Starving time, and therefore Percy’s account should be taken as more of a truth – it cannot be ignored that Percy did have individual motives in his writing about Starving Time and Cannibalism in Jamestown. As mentioned previously, he sought to exonerate himself from those events, making his writing prone to possible exaggeration and/or alteration from the truth. Also, although Smith presents Starving Time as issue that came about after his absence, that doesn’t mean that he is wrong in doing so. When he was the colony’s president from the summer of 1608 to 1609, Smith’s rule was one of firmness. He disregarded ranks and occupation and made sure that everyone worked for the common good of the colony and when dealing with the Indians, he used threats and force to get food such as corn. Smith was seen to be a capable leader, therefore justifying the criticism of Percy’s presidency during 1609-10. This makes Percy’s writing even more questionable as his own bad leadership prompted him to defend himself in his account.

However, I disagree with Herrmann when she references the Washington Post stating that ‘archaeological studies of the Jamestown site make no mention of bones bearing signs of cannibalism, even in the case of corpses during the starving time’. I disagree with this argument to a great extent because there are many articles and documentaries that state, bones found in the Jamestown sites had surgical marks on them – indicating signs of butchering and cannibalism. This evidence comes from forensic scientists, such as Doug Owsley – a Forensic Anthropologist. Owsley, in an interview describing the bones of a girl found in the Jamestown site states, ‘there are dozens of cuts on the face and the throat area, to remove the tissues. The clear intent was to remove these facial tissues and the brain, for consumption’. He goes on to say that ‘the evidence is absolutely consistent with dismemberment and de-fleshing of this body’. The girl’s skeletal remains all bear marks from a knife of some sort. There have been many retorts to these conclusions stating that scientists cannot confirm that she was murdered, however, it was likely that the colonists ate her after she had died of natural causes. In stating that the bones bear no signs of cannibalism, Herrmann overlooks the various conclusions brought together by forensic scientists and historians and therefore, I disagree with the argument that she puts forward here.

Another argument that Herrmann makes is that although primary sources about cannibalism shouldn’t be taken at face value, we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the possibility of cannibalism occurring during the Starving Time of Jamestown. Sir Thomas Gates, the governor of Jamestown denies that cannibalism existed, stating that when the Swallow left Jamestown, a full three months-worth of provisions were left. Herrmann argues that even if there were three months of provisions left, food could have spoilt, cattle could have died and starving colonists may have stolen and depleted food stores quicker than expected. It is also pointed out that Gates denied that starving time even existed stating that it was a ‘clever tale’ and an ‘invention to slander Virginia and justify abandoning the colony’. I agree with the argument that this is unlikely to be the case, as there are multiple sources and pieces of evidence that prove Starving Time to indeed be a real event. Gates also had his motivations for denying that cannibalism and starving time existed in Jamestown. Herrmann argues that Jamestown was an unstable Protestant colony in the New World, and that Gates sought to show that the Catholics from Spain did not pose a threat to the new colonial enterprise. She argues that Gate’s writing was a two-pronged approach to show Londoners that the Spanish were not a threat to the colony and also to show that the settlers were not destroying the colony from the inside. This shows that intention of Gates’ writing was not necessarily to tell the absolute truth, but instead to convince the people back home of the capability of leadership in the colony. Therefore, Herrmann’s argument is correct, and we should be wary of believing Gate’s claims about cannibalism and Starving time.

The last main argument that Herrmann makes in her article involves the changing of ideas about abundance in colonial Virginia because of Starving time. She argues that Starving time was the event that made colonists redefine what they meant by ‘’abundance’’ and that it would serve to function in Virginian and American memory. She argues that one of the reasons it was such a powerful event was because Americans, until the 18th century, didn’t question whether or not cannibalism took place. They assumed that it had and blamed the fact that the early Virginian colonists were lazy and didn’t work. Herrmann refers to Richard Slotkin – he stated that Starving Time provoked ‘an almost religious response to encourage the formation of a collective identity’. It didn’t help that many stories involved the myth that land required almost no work in order to reap benefits. She uses Arthur Barlowe to show this: ‘’the earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour’’. The argument made here is that these such tales were very misleading to many settlers who sought a better life and investors who saw Virginia as a great money-making opportunity. The Starving time would have been extremely damaging to the myth of effortless farming and benefits. I agree with this argument to a great extent because it is entirely true that America was thought of as the prosperous and food abundant biblical garden of Eden, as it was portrayed in popular stories, and that the events of 1609-10 would have been a massive reality check to the settlers and English people back at home who still bought into the idea of abundance in Virginia. I also agree that tales of cannibalism and starvation would have been extremely damaging to the almost perfect reputation that the New World held in English society.

In conclusion, the arguments that Dr Rachel Herrmann puts forward are well educated and coherent points, referring to multiple sources and books to reach a conclusion. Her argument about Percy lacking legitimacy in ‘’Trewe Relaycon’’ is correct due to the motives that he held. The argument about both Smith’s and Percy’s accounts not matching up also makes sense, since they were both writing about the same event and still included major differences in their accounts. Although I disagree with Herrmann’s argument about the archaeological evidence of cannibalism in the Jamestown site, I also agree with her argument that we shouldn’t rule out its existence. Finally, Herrmann makes a well thought out point about the changing ideas on abundance in Virginia and America, and how this change helped Virginians move forward.  


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