- Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
The story of Pocahontas and the English has long been a myth blown wildly beyond the bounds of historical evidence. In 1907, for Jamestown’s three-hundred-year anniversary, Collier’s: The National Weekly ran a cover image of Pocahontas in a long fringed deerskin and beaded moccasins with John Smith appearing as an English cavalier, bowing extravagantly like an ideal courtier in an Italian conduct manual; in the 1990s she became a free-spirited cartoon Disney princess.1 In the national imagination, she remains part romantic heroine, part poster girl for cross-cultural mediation. Such images convey the fantasy that early colonial encounters were beguiling but civil—the stuff of poetry, not blood.
The twenty-first century has brought its own string of commemorations. The four hundredth anniversaries of the founding of Jamestown, the death of Pocahontas, and the first recorded arrival of Africans in Virginia have generated new studies on law, governance, knowledge making, and human exploitation in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Chesapeake.2 Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Pocahontas and the English Boys marks another anniversary, that of the much-celebrated establishment of Virginia’s first General Assembly in 1619. During its first session, colonial councillors deprived Henry Spelman—one of the “English boys” in Kupperman’s title—of his captaincy following fellow interpreter Robert Poole’s accusation of Spelman’s treacherous dealings with Algonquian leaders. Kupperman explores these transcultural mediations, which were marked by concessions and accommodation as well as conflict. Readers will recognize her approach from her long list of impressive contributions to the field.3 A signature of [End Page 138] Kupperman’s work is her ability to relate a detailed knowledge of European and Native American histories while casting a sympathetic eye on the individuals who navigated particular moments in time. Her work conveys Indigenous resilience and resistance, merchant activity, European rivalries, and a sense of geographic mobility alongside keen observations into the fluidity of personal and national identities.
Pocahontas and the English Boys is intended for a general reader-ship, offering a straightforward narration that takes readers from the Chesapeake to London and back again, exploring the role of children and young adults in these moments of encounter. The book jacket promises “never-before-told” tales of boy interpreters, though these will be familiar to archaeologists and historians of Virginia, and its claim to reveal the “real story” of Pocahontas seems untenable.4 Rather than its new analysis of early Jamestown, the strength of Kupperman’s book is its accomplished synthesis of the story of early Anglo-Algonquian relations. Pocahontas, Spelman, Poole, and Thomas Savage, another interpreter, become case studies into the cultural “fluidity” and “self-invention” (8) that occurred across borders. The focus on childhood feels timely, resonating with contemporary interest in how young migrants respond to conditions outside the domestic structures of their home societies.
Kupperman’s command of the subject deftly combines nuance with readability. She begins the book with a note on sources, pointing out inherent biases in the material. Drawing on current scholarly interests, she deploys microhistories to explore ideas of translation, interpretation, and selfhood in colonial contexts.5 Kupperman imagines how English boys from modest backgrounds might have reacted to life in the Chesapeake, bringing attention to the physical conditions of travel and the importance of community life, kinship, and public and private spaces beyond the bounds of elite experience. Like Martin H. Quitt’s moving essay from 1995 on acculturation in Jamestown, Kupperman relays the hopefulness but also the fragility of ordinary people’s attempts to make sense of new environments and brings out the moments of curiosity and generosity when intercultural harmony still seemed possible.6 [End Page 139]
Despite its title, Pocahontas and the English Boys is not really about Pocahontas. Rather, it draws on preexisting scholarship, including the important work of Helen C. Rountree, to situate colonial events within wider frameworks.7 Though this...