Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cannibalism at Jamestown

Possible reconstruction of "Jane" - Cannibalized victim
If you know anything about the Jamestown colony, this title probably doesn’t surprise you. In fact, when I initially read this article by the Washington Post, detailing the first physical evidence of cannibalism at the first permanent English colony in the new World, I thought it had long since been a matter of common knowledge. I call it the first physical evidence, because strong written evidence of the consumption of human flesh at Jamestown has existed almost since the colony’s infamous "starving time" of 1609 – 1610. Still, the newly discovered archeological finds at the site of the former colony are compelling and fascinating.

According to the Washington Post, the remains of a butchered 14 year old girl were discovered in an excavated cellar in the former English fort by the ongoing Jamestown Rediscovery Archeological Project. The girl, who has been nicknamed Jane, showed evidence of having been carved by an axe or cleaver and a knife. In fact, the skull, lower jaw, and the leg seemingly show the sloppy technique of the killer. Some guess that this demonstrates hesitation on the part of the one that butcher.

Although the identity of Jane is not yet known, researchers assume she was one of 300 new colonists who set sail from England in 1609 to resupply the struggling colony. Since its establishment in 1607, the Jamestown colony had consistently come into conflict with the local Powhatan Tribe. In addition, the settlement had struggled to provide food for its colonists from its initiation. With the arrival of the new settlers, things only became worse.

Though the new ships were meant to resupply the colony with both provisions and a healthy labor force, the 300 new people were more of a burden than a boon. According to the article, the crew of the ships horded supplies and the existing summer crop was woefully inadequate. Furthermore, the famous Captain John Smith, the military leader who had largely been responsible for organizing the colonists during their first years, was severely injured in a gunpowder explosion. Smith returned to England in October along with the departing ships.
Captain John Smith
What followed was a winter of famine and suffering known as the "starving time" in Jamestown history. One of the most detailed accounts of this winter comes from George Percy, one of the original Jamestown settlers and president of the colony after the departure of Captain Smith. First, Percy describes the desperation of the Jamestown settlers, saying:
"Then haveinge fedd uponn horses and other beastes as long as they Lasted we weare gladd to make shifte wth vermine as doggs Catts Ratts and myce All was fishe thatt came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some colde Come by And those being Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpents and snakes and to digge the earthe for wylde and unknowne Rootes where many of our men weare Cutt off of and slayne by the Salvages."
Hence, well before the colonists resorted to eating human flesh, they had fallen to eating animals like horses, dogs, and cats. Percy also described how those who looked for food outside of the fort walls disappeared, for which he blamed the local natives. However, things quickly become much worse at Jamestown. At this point Percy described what was really history’s first evidence of the cannibalism at Jamestown. According to Percy:
"And now famin begineinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face thatt notheinge was spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things wch seame incredible As to digge up dead corpses outt of graves and to eate them and some have Licked upp the Bloode wch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes And amongste the reste this was moste Lamentable Thatt one of our Colline murdered his wyfe Ripped the childe outt of her woambe and threw itt into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food."
Yikes, that’s pretty bad. Not only does it seem the desecration and consumption of a previously deceased human body occurred, but also the double murder, salting of, and cannibalization of one of the victims. Or course it is somewhat more shocking to see the crime was committed by a husband against his own wife and child. In addition, though I am thankful, I find it odd that apparently the murderer felt cannibalizing his own offspring was going too far. Instead, he disposed of the poor child in a river.

George Percy
Percy goes on to describe how the killer was caught and punished for his crimes. After being hung by his thumbs to prompt a confession, the murderer was then executed. However, Percy also explains that the situation had become so bad that many Englishmen abandoned the fort in an attempt to join native villages. In fact, by the time help arrived at the colony only 60 men of the 500 colonists who began the winter of 1609 remained alive. Sadly, it is guessed that Jane was not among them.

Finally, in the spring of 1610, the new Governor arrived in Virginia, after having been shipwrecked on Bermuda for some time. He and his men found the colony in such a bad state that they decided to abandon the whole project and head back home. However, as the ships began sailing down the James River they were intercepted by vessels arriving from England , carrying the new governor Lord Thomas West, the Baron De La Warr. Of course, the State, a river, and an entire nation of natives would be named Delaware after him. It as with the arrival of De La Warr that the modern story of Jane picks up.

Thomas West - the Baron De La Warr
According to the Washington Post, the 14 year old girl’s bones were found in a heap of trash that also contained the bones of dogs, a horse, and squirrels. This, again, supports the evidence presented by Percy. It is thought this garbage pile was made during the cleanup process after the winter and the arrival of Lord De La Warr. Maybe someone was attempting to conceal a crime from the new governor. Though no one really knows Jane’s true identity, it seems there are many who are already brainstorming how it could be discovered. The use of both traditional historical evidence and newly developed DNA technology has been discussed.

Though this new discovery did not come as a surprise to me, I still found it super interesting. Although gruesome by our standards, resorting to cannibalism in the face of a desperate situation is not without historical precedent. Even in New England, we are still haunted and by and fascinated with the story of the whale ship the Essex. The story of the Donner Party is so infamous in the history of western expansion that even those who have limited historical knowledge have heard of it. Yes, historic accounts of cannibalism are both plentiful and compelling. However, what makes this story unique is the physical evidence that now supports the centuries old accounts of the witnesses of the "starving time." Of course, the Jamestown Project is a continuing effort, one which has already shown interesting results. I find it particularly fascinating considering no one even knew where the Jamestown colony was when I was growing up. I certainly look forward to seeing what else can be uncovered from the site of the first permanent English colony in the New World. Gruesome or not, I'll be waiting.

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