Jamestown: Downton Abbey meets Lord of the Flies?
A major new TV drama about ‘America’s birth’ is coming in 2017, so what should we expect of it?
When and how did America get started? I mean, particularly, English (and English-speaking) America? What would it be like if we could go back in time and be there when it happened, at the point when the first English people made a success of colonizing the edge of the vast north American continent?
How much of this do we really want to know? If we lift up this particular rock of history, what darkness will we find lurking underneath? Religious intolerance, genocide, racism and enslavement, violence, hunger, and blatant land theft?
This is the challenge for the recently announced new drama series titled Jamestown, which starts production this month.
Jamestown is being made by Carnival Films (who also made Downton Abbey) for the British Sky TV (owned by Rupert Murdoch). Carnival have previously worked with Sky on the British adaptation of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, set in a gritty, contemporary crime-ridden London.
The brave story of the birth of a nation, Jamestown charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their lives in America…
Battling against inhospitable wilderness, suspicious indigenous people and a host of brutal challenges with ambition, power and entrepreneurial spirit on their side, these pioneers will define a new way of life. Jamestown will reveal the spirit of adventure and true grit of these early adventurers who travelled in search of a better life…
With whole-hearted tales of love, affairs, births, marriage and death, Jamestown tells a modern story in a historic setting. With all manner of trials, the settlers come together to conquer and adjust to the realities of their new lives on the other side of the world. Jamestown is a place for them to build new lives and start again but it is also somewhere past secrets can be buried.
The announcement of this new drama raises mixed feelings, as the historian Rachel Herrmann noted on Twitter.
English America did not actually start in Jamestown, nor did it start in 1619.
And, of course, there were thriving nations across the continent long before the Europeans turned up and decided to call the place America.
The Jamestown settlement was, in fact, first established in 1607, twelve years prior, and came very close to catastrophic failure in its early years. Indeed, it was not the first English settlement on the north American continent, since there was the complete failure thirty years before of the Roanoke colony, 150 miles to the south.
The early years of Jamestown saw poor preparation and management, hostile and bloody engagements with the native Powhatan nations, and near starvation — leading to murder and cannibalism. This very early colony quite literally resembled the horrors of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
The Jamestown colony would have been abandoned altogether in 1610, if Thomas West, Baron De La Warr (‘Delaware’) had not literally forced the starving remnants of the colony to turn their ship around and return to the place that they were desperately trying to flee from.
However, the new drama will start its retelling of the story a decade after such turmoil, in the years after the successful development of the tobacco cash crop which made the settlement economically viable.
Again, in the words of Sky TV:
Set in 1619, Jamestown follows the settlers as they establish a community in the New World. Amongst those landing on shore are a group of women destined to be married to the men of Jamestown, including three spirited women from England: Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), Alice (Sophie Rundle) and Verity (Niamh Walsh). Leaving their old lives behind, these women have embarked on this journey to start afresh, fulfil their dreams and become the female pioneers of an exciting new western outpost.
I have written before about the power of such historical dramatic narratives. For example, Carnival’s own Downton Abbey is a form of soft nationalism, envisioning a politics of nostalgia that encourages us to reexamine a safely imperial English era, in marked contrast with the present day.
In a year in which a US presidential candidate is gaining widespread nativist popularity on the basis of the slogan encouraging Americans to try to ‘make America great again’, the choice of a dramatisation of the first successful English settlement in America is controversial.
I do not expect Jamestown to be jingoist in such a Trumpian way, nor is it likely to be uncritical of the tensions of English appropriation and exploitation of this ‘new world’. But I do have concerns that it will fall short of the drama that I would like to see about this interesting point of history.
The production has now started on the series. So we can presume the story is set out and the scripts are finalised. All that is needed is acting, shooting, editing, and production. But, even so, I would dearly like to see the drama address these following issues.
- Take a lead from other attempts to retell British history from a post-colonial viewpoint
The task of telling the story (and history) of British colonialism is not an easy thing in the contemporary world. A commercial TV drama has to cater for its audience, who perhaps do not want to feel too guilty (or preached at). But there is still some public duty for broadcasters to challenge us to rethink our accepted knowledge about history.
What comes to mind here is the British Channel 4 series, Indian Summers, now airing its second series. Although principally about British India, that is the ‘Raj’, it also attempts to show different perspectives on the process of independence. It does so largely through storyline and characterization — most notably through Aafrin Dalal, a high-ranking Indian civil servant with anti-British sympathies.
Indian Summers is not without its problems, but it does show that a nuanced dramatic exploration of the power of empire can be attempted. This does require, in particular, a recognition that casting is central to such narrative.
In this respect, the actors announced for Jamestown give no indication of any strong roles for either indigenous or African characters in a story that should be making them central — as I will highlight below. I presume that Idris Elba was not available due to his commitments on the next Bond movie.
2. Recognise 1619 as the beginning of English enslavement of Africans in America
The choice to start the narrative in 1619 is interesting, although it is not clear yet whether this is intentional.
It is imperative that Americans, all Americans, recognize the imprint of the first Africans brought here and the first white women brought here in bondage. I’m trying to say that the word slavery and the term enslavement has lost so much of its weight until people mouth the words without realizing what they’re saying, what they’re calling up. When you read in history of the enslavement, the hundreds of years of enslavement, it’s too dreadful … too bizarre, too horrible. And yet we have to face it, or else we will never get rid of this blight of racism and guilt and hate which assembles in our race in the 21 century.
The significance of 1619 is, for many, due to it being the year in which the first records exist of the arrival of captive Africans, brought into Virginia to labour. In August that year, the governor John Rolfe described a ‘cargo’ of more than twenty people (’20 and odd Negroes’) who were bought by the colony ‘for victuals’. This was not the beginning of enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the Americas, but it was an important starting point for the British in this respect.
Needless to say, there is a striking precedent for the dramatic portrayal of the horrors of African enslavement. The 1977 TV drama Roots is an important part of American popular culture. And this year will see a remake of Alex Haley’s story, to be shown on the History Channel in the US.
This year also saw a record sum of $17.5 million paid by Fox Searchlight for Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation — a dramatization of Nat Turner’s rebellion against enslavement in Virginia in 1831 — to be released later this year.
In the light of the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter, as a continuance of the ongoing civil rights movement, the role of Africans’ enforced settlement in English-speaking America needs to be continually explored. As Mychal Denzel Smith has put it:
I want more films about slavery. I want a Marvel Universe of films about slavery. I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners.
Not because I have a desire to see the brutalization of black bodies on the big screen — I get more than enough of that from police dashcams and bystander cellphone cameras. I’m sympathetic to the argument of not wanting to see more black pain on screen. I loved both Fruitvale Station and Selma, but I can’t bring myself to watch them again, to cry uncontrollably through the violence and the feeling of helplessness. My desire for more films about slavery isn’t about me and my particular tastes. And I really don’t care if they win the affections of white critics. The reality is that film is how we create American cultural memory, and while it’s tempting to believe that because we’ve had a few major releases recently with slavery at the center, we have some type of canon to draw from, there isn’t. No slavery narrative exists.
And yet, none of the names given for the cast of Jamestown are actors of colour, which suggests no major parts have been given to narrate the stories of kidnapped/enslaved Africans in the colony. Such stories should be central to a drama on English settlement that starts in 1619.
I want so many films about slavery that white actors start to complain that the only roles they’re being offered are those of slave owners. (Mychal Denzel Smith — @MychalSmith)
3. There has to be an exploration of the continuing darkness of the English settlers’ relationships with the indigenous nations of America
I quite expect the Jamestown TV series to address at least some the complexities of settlers’ relationships with the indigenous people whose land they entered.
This is an important part of the narrative of the history of Jamestown, both before and after 1619. In the early years, relationships were often very poor — with frequent conflict, which was often brutal (on both sides). (LIKELY SPOILER ALERT): This continued up to 1622, when the Powhatan Confederacy tried to take decisive action against the new invaders. This led to the killing of over 300 settlers on 22 March. Of course, it did not end the English presence in the region, and hostilities continued between the English and the Powhatan until the late 1640s.
Looking back at this historically, there is always the sense of inevitability about what happened. In short, the indigenous people of America were displaced by the English (and other European) settlers. America is now culturally English and politically controlled by the descendants of Europeans.
One part of the beginning of this story is rooted in Jamestown in the early seventeenth century. It came about because of the need of the settlers for land for subsistence farming, and then for more land to develop the tobacco industry.
It is also rooted in the disastrous spread of European diseases (plagues) among the indigenous populations — mostly by accident.
But it is too simplistic to say that such (initially) unexpected consequences of contact on the American continent were the cause of the rapid loss of power by the indigenous nations. The European determination to colonise and make use of the lands and resources of the new continent put them in direct conflict with the Powhatan and other indigenous nations. It was a conflict that the English in particular were determined to win, sometimes at any cost.
In short, the disempowerment of America’s indigenous nations was a long process, that began in 1492 with the arrival of European colonialists, and which turned serious in the mid-Atlantic seaboard of north America from around 1619 onwards. Much of the history of the American nation that was ‘born’ out of Jamestown is tied to the determination of the English, the British, and other Europeans to have complete political and economic dominance of the continent.
The history of this country is a history of broken treaties with Indian nations, a history of massacres and forced removals that killed many thousands, a history of continuous greed for the land and other possessions of the Indigenous people and violence and wars to obtain what was so desired. The history of this country is a history of theft and slavery, a history of prisoner of war camps called reservations (that Hitler studied and used as models for his concentration camps — he admired the efficiency of the U.S. genocide of its Native population and emulated it in his own Final Solution), a history of official bounties on Indian heads, skins, and scalps. The history of this country is a history of kidnapping children and imprisoning them in boarding “schools,” rife with physical and emotional abuse — “Kill the Indian to save the man!” — a history of forced sterilization and medical experimentation without consent. If you look at it openly, it adds up to something that can hardly be called anything but ethnic cleansing and genocide.
And as Mychal Denzel Smith has noted about the narrative of slavery in American popular culture, this story of indigenous Americans’ disempowerment is one that is rarely explored.
Let’s hope that Jamestown makes an effort to do so.
4. Cliches about ‘Pocahontas’ and her role in Jamestown need to be avoided at all costs
It needs to be said: the legend of Pocahontas is so central to the story of Jamestown that any dramatisation that wishes to be taken seriously needs to get its history right, as much as it can. Thus, the producers needs to remember (as do we when we watch the series) the following points.
- ‘Pocahontas’ was not a princess. She was the daughter (one of many) of the paramount ruler of the Powhatan confederacy, who was himself known as Powhatan (or Wahunsenacawh). Due to her being the daughter of (what the English took to be) a ‘king’, there has been a longstanding ‘disneyfication’ of Pocahontas into a princess.
- ‘Pocahontas’ did not fall in love with Captain John Smith. She was probably around 8 years old when he arrived in the area in 1607. It is also very unlikely that she threw herself over him to protect him from execution. That very memorable story was a revision that he added to his account of his time in Jamestown, many years later.
- ‘Pocahontas’ was not her actual name, it was a ‘nickname’. She was known as Matoaka, and then became Rebecca when she married John Rolfe in 1614 and was baptised as a Christian.
- As Rebecca Rolfe, she travelled to England in 1616 with her husband, where she met King James and Queen Anne and became the first (and probably still most) famous native American woman in England. However, she died as she left England to return home, and was buried in Gravesend.
- Her infant son Thomas survived, and was aged 4 in 1619. It is quite likely that this young Thomas will have an important role in the Jamestown drama. Thomas Rolfe’s descendants in the US include Nancy Reagan and Edith Wilson.
5. We need to at least explore the question of whether the arrival of the English and the establishment of Jamestown was an invasion
In February this year, a media controversy emerged in Australia over a guide produced by the University of New South Wales for students. The guide suggested that students should think about the ways they talk about the Europeans’ arrival in the land that is now called Australia. In brief, the guide suggested that the British Captain Cook did not ‘discover’ the land — he and his army of soldiers and settlers ‘invaded’ the country that was already inhabited by a multitude of people (the indigenous Australians).
Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonised. Describing the arrival of the Europeans as a “settlement” attempts to view Australian history from the shores of England rather than the shores of Australia…
The use of the word “settlement” ignores the reality of Indigenous Australian peoples’ lands being stolen from them on the basis of the legal fiction of terra nullius and negates the resistance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The fact that most settlers did not see themselves as invading the country… is beside the point. The effects were the same for Indigenous Australian peoples.
There are obvious parallels here with the colonization of Jamestown, elsewhere in Virginia, and in New England
Why is it so difficult to use the term invasion to describe English colonization of Australia and America?
Could a dramatic exploration of the history of Jamestown even begin to consider this question?
Most importantly, was the creation of a community at Jamestown — the apparent birth of the American nation — based on illegal land seizures by the English?
These may appear to be very contemporary questions to ask, anachronistic with reference to the politics of 400 years ago. But these questions were indeed being asked by some individuals involved in this process at the time.
In 1631, the unorthodox religious preacher Roger Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony. He was an unconventional figure: like many Puritans he was escaping from the fear of persecution in King Charles I’s England. But unlike most of the Puritans of Plymouth and Boston, he continued to resist conformity in the new environment. He established the first Baptist movement in America, and was one of the earliest and most influential thinkers on religious liberty and the separation of church and state. He also established the colony of Rhode Island, largely as a place of safety after he was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay colony.
On the issue of colonization, however, he was also a very radical thinker — both for his time and for our own. He spent time among indigenous groups in New England, particularly Narragansett peoples, and from this he wrote an account of the knowledge he gleaned in a book titled A Key into the Language of America, which in itself became a bestseller in England.
A recent biographer of Williams, Edwin Gaustad has put it as follows:
Williams questioned the very right of the English to occupy land that properly belonged to the Indians.
What was it about Christendom, Williams wondered, that empowered Christian kings to give away land that wasn’t even theirs? English colonization was nothing more than “a sin of unjust usurpation upon others’ possessions.”
Indians owned the land before Europeans arrived; they would continue to own the land until appropriate purchases or agreements had been made.
This was a single voice in the early days of English colonization of America. It was not a voice that prevailed, but it was there. Not all settlers thought that the lands of America were a ‘virgin’, unclaimed territory for them to take.
There were people already there.
And this needs to be asked within the drama of Jamestown.
And so finally…
The story of Jamestown is not simply a tale of heroic and villainous English settlers, battling the wilderness, the indigenous people, and themselves.
If the tale is to be told well, then it needs to say more than this. If it is going to meet its producers’ expectation of being ‘the brave story of the birth of a nation’, then the narrative has to explore the place of more than the English.
How was America created out of enslavement of Africans? How can we connect the ‘birth of the nation’ to the disempowerment of the indigenous people? What does it mean to think of the settlement by the English as an invasion, as the forceful dispossession of lands?
Are these the stories that Carnival Films are planning to bring to life in Jamestown?
We will have to wait until 2017 to find out. I would like to hope that the drama gets it right.
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