You know you’re bored when you find yourself on YouTube watching old cartoons. One I came across was this clip from Disney’s Pocahontas:
Pocahontas was quite entertaining as kids’ films go. A bit bland on the story front, but some nice musical numbers and some superb animation. Also, the young-looking red-headed chap in the above clip? Voiced by none other than a pre-fame Christian Bale. All in all, a fine piece from the period after Disney had had its so-called Renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid) but before they ruined it all by trying to be ironic and self-aware.
The thing is, it’s based on historical events. Of course, that’s Hollywood “based on,” which means “loosely inspired by, and we reserve the right to completely change.” And knowing how history went, the happy “Why, English settlers and Native Americans can now live in peace thanks to John Smith and his hot girlfriend!” ending is a little uncomfortable. It’s true that there was a period of peace in Jamestown following the initial unrest, but that was more because the wealthy investors of the Virginia Company didn’t want to lose their money (which was a heinous amount) and told the settlers to chill the fuck out. Seven settlements had already gone down the pan, and Jamestown was short of food and surrounded by hostile Powhatan. The Powhatan were hostile because the English were in the habit of setting fire to their stuff, and the English were short of food because they relied on trade with the Powhatan for their supplies. Slow handclap, everyone. In fact, the peace was largely brought about by the British capture of Pocahontas in 1613 and a series of blackmail-style demands, followed by Pocahontas’ marriage to tobacco farmer John Rolfe.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last. In 1624 the Powhatan, under Chief Opechancanough, massacred a quarter of the population of Jamestown. The English retaliated with a series of attacks against the Powhatan. Opechancanough attempted to sue for peace, and the English invited them to a banquet. Where they poisoned their booze, killing 200. And so it went on, with both sides generally being dicks to each other.
The big exciting climax of the film, in which John Smith is about to be executed and Pocahontas throws herself in front of him, would appear to have been entirely made up by Smith. The only account of this event is from Smith himself, and he only mentioned it nine years after it supposedly happened, when Pocahontas was presented to Queen Anne. It’s also suspiciously similar to a tale he would tell in 1630 in which he had been captured by Turks, but fortunately the daughter of their leader…
Also worth noting is that not even Smith claimed to have had any sort of romantic relationship with Pocahontas (who was ten years old at the time, and whose real name was Matoaka). Nor is there anything to suggest that Smith raped Pocahontas, which seems to be the popular alternative suggestion.
Anyway, here’s Disney’s account of the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
As you may have gathered, the Virginia Company was based in London. One of the things the Disney movie got right was that the Company hoped that the settlement would result in the discovery of insane amounts of gold, as the Spanish had found further South.
Unfortunately, they found nothing. The Jamestown settlement didn’t start to turn a profit until John Rolfe started growing tobacco there. Oddly enough, the strains growing native did not lend themselves to mass cultivation, but plants imported from the Caribbean did a whole lot better, and the shareholders of the Virginia Company hoped to finally be able to achieve their ambition of swimming through money like Scrooge McDuck.
But still, the colony wasn’t doing as well as expected. As a publicity stunt, Rolfe was asked to bring Pocahontas to London in 1616, showing her off as a sort of “tame savage” in order to encourage more people to go over. Pocahontas by this time had been baptised in accordance with her pious hubby’s wishes and taken the name Rebecca. This, by the way, was when Smith’s account of her saving his life first appeared. This was also when Pocahontas discovered that Smith was alive, having been told in 1609 that he was dead. She was not, by all accounts, too pleased to learn the truth. She also didn’t realise when she had been introduced to King James I, as he was utterly wet and a weed.
Thereafter, she lived with Rolfe in Norfolk and – of all places – Brentford. Yr. Humble Chronicler heard about this some years ago in one of Robert Rankin’s books, but assumed it to be a throwaway joke (given that the other books by Rankin feature Brentford as the original site of the Garden of Eden and the Great Pyramid being teleported into Brentford FC’s grounds). It was a little weird to discover that, in fact, this one was the real deal.
Pocahontas died the following year in Gravesend of an unknown illness while returning to Virginia . Her last words, supposedly, were “All must die, but ’tis enough that my child liveth.” That child, Thomas Rolfe, had been born before she left Virginia. He would go on to have children of his own, and so on, and so on, until eventually Nancy Reagan was born. I’m not even joking – Nancy Reagan was straight-up a descendent of Pocahontas. Sadly, Disney missed that part out.
Coming soon: Tom ruins The Lion King by revealing that lions can’t talk.
James I was not a fan of tobacco, and here is his 1604 pamphlet A Counterblaste to Tobacco. This presumably caused the executives of the Virginia Company to hiss “Shut up!” at him.
And if you want to hear about some other Disney sources, try this blog for size.