- Faith and the Founding of Virginia
No less than a visit by the Queen of England capped off the flurry of activities that commemorated the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown—and fairly consumed Virginians—in 2007. Her Majesty, sharing with Virginia an appellation of common derivation, delighted the crowds that welcomed her to Williamsburg, Richmond, and Jamestown. The lucky spectators had come out on the winning end of a statewide lottery, necessitated by the widespread desire to catch a glimpse of Britain's monarch, which was ironic. Virginia Company officials, trying to raise revenue for their American enterprise, had run a lottery in the 1610s. Londoners fancied gambling, and lotteries kept Virginia afloat for several years.
Queen Elizabeth II's remarks before the Virginia General Assembly showcased the degree to which race has become the central framework for understanding the colonial South. She spoke eloquently of "three great civilizations," Western European, Native American, and African, coming together in Virginia. At least since the publication of historian Edmund S. Morgan's magisterial American Slavery, American Freedom, scholars have interpreted the story of early Virginia as centered on Indian-white and black-white relations, particularly the ways in which racial power underlay Virginia's history and, by implication, America's. The many Jamestown-centered books and articles that appeared around the 400th anniversary, led by James Horn's excellent A Land as God Made It, affirmed this race paradigm.1 Some regrettably reified the John Smith-Pocahontas mythical romance, but the best of them showed a sophisticated appreciation for Powhatan culture and perspectives. Historians often lament their lack of influence with the larger public. But at least in the case of the ethno-historical casting of the Jamestown story, it is not too much to say that the scholars' perspective has become received wisdom.
The Virginia colony, driven by the profit motive and marked by vicious racial violence (and, later, the brutality of African slavery) stands in sharp contrast to the religiously driven migrants to New England. To be sure, in both scholarly and popular views, the Pilgrims and Puritans visited aggression and cruelty on the Narragansett, Pequot, and other Indian nations. But the framework for understanding the New England way is religion, just as the story of Virginia centers on race and power.
But if we shift our perspective from the mainland of North America and away from imagining English America as the thirteen provinces that rebelled in 1776, a different picture comes into view. By looking from the 17th century forward, rather than from the late 18th century back, by adopting an Atlantic, or, we might more aptly say, an imperial perspective, the differences between New England and Virginia appear less sharp. And religion emerges as a central element in the Jamestown story.
First, a broader, more historically accurate perspective reminds us that Bermuda, not Plymouth, was England's second New World colony. The small Atlantic island chain holds the rare distinction of actually being "discovered" by Europeans and "settled" by the English, for the islands knew no indigenous population. Four hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina and some 700 miles from the Caribbean islands with which it is often (mistakenly) linked, Bermuda turned out to be a near paradise—healthful, temperate, bounteous, and safe—for settlers who made their way there in the decade between the Jamestown founding and the exodus of the Pilgrims. And Bermuda turned a profit its first year. By 1624, just over ten years into the enterprise, nine forts and a militia were in place, ministers (mostly Puritans) led services at six churches, and 2,500 residents were governed in part by an elected assembly. Bermuda, in short, became a model English colony—at the same time that Virginia languished and before the Massachusetts Bay colony was even chartered. Bermuda remains a province of Great Britain today. Bermudians enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the world—insurance and tourism are the principle industries—and the country has virtually no illiteracy or poverty.
Yet nothing in English colonists' initial encounter with Bermuda predicted this happy outcome. One hundred and fifty souls were stranded there in the...