Love and Hate in Jamestown by David Price

Who in their right minds would choose to read about colonial America? Aside from a handful of professors and graduate students, probably not many would do so. At varying distances of three-plus centuries, our view of America’s colonial period (roughly 1550-1775) is quaint at best. At its worst, it consists solely of stilted imagery about the European rape of a virtuous New World perpetuated in pop media and pop culture.

If you only read one book in your life about colonial America, I’ve got the one for you. That book is Love and Hate in Jamestown by David Price. While I’m not suggesting you’ll commence a lifetime of reading about colonial America, Price’s outstanding work will impress you for its style, polish, and drama. More than that, you will think differently about both the colonial period of the American experience and its relationship to twenty-first century America.

Price’s book offers several revelations to the modern reader. First, Jamestown was not a single site, but really part of a collection of several settlements. The sprawling nature of Jamestown points to the complexity of successfully settling in the New World. Second, the Starving Time, which represents one of the worst points of suffering for the English settlers, actually occurred nearly two years after the Susan Constant, Discovery, and Speedwell landed in 1607. Third, though the motivation for settlement was largely greed for gold, a surprising aspect of Jamestown was in its desire to convert Native Americans to Christianity, something we normally identify as more of a Puritan/New England goal. Fourth, more than a few settlers sought to sabotage Jamestown, whether on behalf of the Spanish or local Native American tribes. Finally, the decision of English King James I to transform Jamestown from a private corporate organization into a royal public one occurred as a result of his hatred of a few Jamestown officials. These points surprised me, and you may have your own list of unexpected findings in Price’s book.

Three figures in the book stand out. Sir George Somers is a forgotten character in colonial American history. He sailed a vessel from England in 1609 for purpose of re-supplying the decrepit Jamestown settlers. Foul weather shoved his ship off course, driving him to an unknown island now called Bermuda. Somers displayed remarkable courage and nerve in leading the contingent to the island, surviving there under difficult circumstances, and then re-launching to Virginia in a makeshift craft.

The other figures are a pair who may be known to you, John Smith and Pocahontas. I won’t attempt to summarize their relationship here. It’s sufficient to say that it’s far more fascinating than anything you’ll see in a cartoon movie. Interestingly, of the many things ignored or distorted by the Disney film, perhaps the most compelling is that Pocahontas chose to be converted to Christianity, became a vocal believer in God and Jesus Christ, and actually wanted to remain in England instead of returning to the New World. John Smith owed his life to Pocahontas, who saved him from death not once but twice. Pocahontas is a remarkable Native American woman.

As for Smith, the Price book sketches a portrait of a truly intriguing and timeless man. Among the best chapters of the book is the last. There, Price discusses the link between Smith’s ideas in the early seventeen century and how they foreshadowed many of the ideas and events that ultimately comprised the United States, the American identity, and the American Dream. Some of you may regard Benjamin Franklin as the “first American.” After reading Price, you may want to revise that opinion and consider giving the prize to John Smith.

After his first stint in Jamestown, something ignited in John Smith. For the rest of his life he sought to return to the New World. He authored several books about it. Though a thorough-going Englishman, Smith never let go of his belief that his English identity could best be pursued in America. A man who had once been a soldier-adventurer from European wars of monarchy was now the earliest incarnation of a phrase coined over a hundred and fifty years later in Franklin’s era, “this new man, an American.”

Smith will offer you numerous lessons for our world. As a leader, he learned to follow his instinct wherever it took him. Such a course may bring defeat and ruin at the hands of those who disagree with you. You will, however, enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that from your perspective, you did the right thing. For project management, Smith’s experience illustrates the role of quick action. Sometimes events will not allow for careful planning and analysis. Instinct-based action must take over. Finally, in the area of personal calling and mission, Smith is an example of someone finding a passionate interest. For the last half of his life, Smith worked and reworked himself as he followed a path toward his life-changing interest. For these reasons and others offered by Price, you will find John Smith a strangely familiar person.

We’re coming up on summer. Many of you will be looking for “good summer reads.” This book qualifies as such. Let me know what you think of it.