A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America

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Everyone knows the story of Pocahontas, and how she saved John Smith. And were it not for Smith’s leadership, the Jamestown colony would surely have failed. Yet Smith was a far more ambitious explorer and soldier of fortune than these tales suggest and a far more ambitious self-promoter, too, so reputed for his truculence that the pilgrims of the Mayflower snubbed him when he offered them his services, though he was the unrivaled expert on America. Now, in the first major biography of Smith in decades, award-winning BBC filmmaker and author Peter Firstbrook (The Obamas, Lost on Everest) traces the adventurer’s astonishing exploits across three continents, testing Smith’s own writings against the historical and geographical reality on the ground.

With A Man Most Driven, Firstbrook delivers a riveting, enlightening dissection of this mythology-making man and the invention of America.

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About the Author:

Peter Firstbrook is author of The Voyage of Matthew (about the explorer John Cabot), Lost on Everest (about George Mallory), and The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family. For 25 years, he worked for the BBC as a television producer, director, and executive producer specializing in historical documentaries. He has won over 30 international awards, including the Royal Television Society award for best documentary, twice. He lives in London.

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Prologue

I know I shall bee taxed for writing so much of my selfe, but I care not much.
John Smith
On December 30, 1607, an Englishman was dragged before the paramount chief of the Virginia Indians. His abductors brought out two large rocks, and placed him with his head resting on the boulders. He lay prostrate, waiting for a mercifully swift execution. It was dark inside the longhouse, and as the prisoner’s eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, he became aware that around him, about two hundred people were looking on in fascination. For most, it was their first sight of a European.

The prisoner was strong but not tall, standing only as high as the shoulders of his Indian guards. His thick beard mostly covered the ruddy complexion of someone who had spent most of his life in the open. The man was a few days short of his twenty-eighth birthday, an anniversary that he did not expect to celebrate. As he lay prostrate on the ground, his Indian guards raised their war clubs above his head, waiting for the command from their chief to execute him in their traditional manner by beating the brains out of his skull.

From the shadows of the smoke-filled longhouse, a young girl of perhaps ten or twelve emerged, naked from the waist up, and with only a wisp of black hair hanging down from the back of her shaved head. She turned to the great man presiding over the ceremony, with a familiarity and self-confidence that suggested she knew the chief well. She did, for he was her father. The girl pleaded that the stranger’s life be spared. The Englishman understood little about what was being said, for his comprehension of the Algonquian language was still rudimentary.

The chief considered his daughter’s appeal carefully. He was an old man, perhaps sixty or eighty years old, broad-shouldered, fit and powerfully built for his age. He wore a robe of raccoon skins with the tails still attached, and around his neck hung a chain of pearls. He was clearly held in awe by all those present, and at the least frown of his brow, their greatest will tremble.” The chief was dispassionate as he considered the young girl’s request, his face showing a grave and majesticall countenance.”

The Englishman had no option but to await the judgment that would soon seal his fate.

***

The rescue of Captain John Smith, English soldier and adventurer, by the Indian princess” Pocahontas is one of the oldest and most enduring legends to come out of the colonization of America. Smith wrote that at the minute of my execution she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.” Since that bitterly cold afternoon in December 1607, the story has been celebrated worldwide in books, paintings, feature films and animated cartoons.

The only European witness to the event was Smith himself, and his account has been questioned by historians ever since it was published in 1630. If the only debatable episode in Smith’s extraordinary life was this encounter with Pocahontas, then his version of events might not have attracted quite so much derision. But this was not the case.

Smith’s autobiography, The True Travels, is packed full of the most incredible incidents: that he fought, defeated and beheaded three enemy commanders in duels; that he was sold into slavery, only to murder his master and escape; that he was captured by pirates, survived shipwrecks and marched up to the gallows to be hanged only to be reprieved at the last moment. All this happened, or so John Smith claimed, long before he met Pocahontas and her father.

Some of Smith’s achievements are beyond dispute, most especially his success in saving the Jamestown settlement in Virginia during its first two brutal winters. Despite being a difficult and argumentative man, the surviving settlers recognized that Smith had exercised the skill and experience to help them survive. He also constantly clashed with his fellow colonists, and was charged with being a braggart and a liar. One leader of the colony wrote that Smith was an ambityous, unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe”.

Yet rather than being universally lauded for saving England’s first permanent settlement in the Americas which ultimately led to North America becoming part of the English-speaking world Smith was vilified, maligned and pilloried. So was he really such a villain? Or might he be the victim of envy, internal division and historical misrepresentation?

In his own writings, Smith did little to endear himself to a sceptical reader, or to an assiduous historian. He frequently claimed he was in the right, and that others were incompetent. His spelling was chaotic, his grammar confused, and his dates and timelines were an embarrassment to any self-respecting chronicler.

In his defense, Smith never claimed to be an historian, nor did he ever expect academics and writers to be poring over his memoirs more than four hundred years after his birth. Nevertheless, given his inflated ego, he would most certainly have taken great satisfaction had he known this would be the case.

In every sense, Smith was a true Renaissance man: a soldier of fortune, captain of cavalry, colonist, adventurer, diplomat, surveyor and mapmaker; he was also a pirate, a mercenary and a self-confessed murderer. Unravelling the facts from the fiction is complex, but the truth is more revealing and intriguing than you might have imagined.

Indeed, Smith never lost his capacity to stir indignation amongst his detractors, or to arouse great loyalty in his supporters. He combined admirable strengths with great weaknesses: he was authoritarian and autocratic, yet vulnerable and insecure. His life was a catalogue of defiance and confrontation, disorder and contradiction. It is these flawed and very human characteristics that make him such a fascinating character.

Smith left many diaries and memoirs of his astonishing exploits, but which of his more fanciful claims are the writings of a deceitful self-publicist and which are anchored in the historical record? This new evaluation of John Smith combines an appraisal of his life with a detective story, as we follow in his footsteps, constantly challenging and assessing his claims. In doing so, we can test his writings against the local history and geography, about which he wrote so much.

So what can be made of this man? Is he villain or victim? Even making exception for his archaic writing style, it remains to be seen whether Captain John Smith deserves redemption.

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9781851689507: A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America

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