Saturday, April 6, 2019

Q&A with Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Karen Ordahl Kupperman is the author of the new book Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia. Her other books include The Atlantic in World History and The Jamestown Project. She is the Silver Professor of History Emerita at New York University.  

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Pocahontas and three young English boys in your new book?

A: We need new narratives of early Virginia, England's first permanent colony. Now the narrative centers on conflict and death: the ignorant English with their "shoot first and ask questions later" stance and the Powhatans who faced the colonists' constant demands for food while the region was enduring the worst drought in 770 years.

Also, in the years around 2007, marking the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding, I spoke to many groups of high school history teachers, and it seemed especially important that they have this story whose actors played key roles and were the ages of the kids they teach.  

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Pocahontas today?

A: Pocahontas's story is curtailed in modern memory so that it focuses on Jamestown's founding period when she visited the fort as her father's emissary, and it emphasizes her sexuality. Given that she was a child of 10 at that time, this kind of presentation is odd.

The story of her later activities and her eventual captivity in Jamestown, her conversion and marriage to John Rolfe, and her celebrated reception in England tends to be downplayed. Robert Tilton argues that after the Civil War, Virginians pushed aside her marriage and her son Thomas Rolfe, amd emphasized instead the early relationship with Captain John Smith.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially intrigued or surprised you? 

A: The main sources for early colonial history are official reports and a few personal reports and letters that were published in England or survive in archives. Captain John Smith and William Strachey collected other's reports and published them in coherent narratives.

Pocahontas and the boys appear in the records only when they are doing something for the colony or are threatening it. The one exception is the memoir that Henry Spelman, one of the boys in the book, wrote about his life with the Powhatans and Patawomecks.

I went into these sources with preconceptions about the boys and found, as I thought about the way they were talked about, that all my preconceptions were wrong. I came to understand how they coped with a huge variety of situations, and how they continuously reinvented themselves as their circumstances changed. 

Q: What do you see as the legacy of Pocahontas and the English boys?

A: Virginia's beginning as an English colony has been seen as inferior, especially after New Englanders began to push the Pilgrims as the superior founders in the 19th century.

Pocahontas and the English Boys works toward getting beyond the dominant narrative and finding the varied stories of people on all sides in these colonial situations, and how they coped with all kinds of challenges.

Their story has modern echoes in that the more the boys knew, the less the colonial leaders trusted them. They thought they had "turned heathen."

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: My next project looks at music as a mode of communication. In encounter situations where the new arrivals and the Native people did not have knowledge of the other's language, participants on both sides sang and played musical instruments.

This happened around the world. Music indicated peaceful intentions, but it could also be used as a ruse to cover hostile plans.

Some intellectuals, such as Thomas Harriot, who had been in Roanoke as a young man, began to think that music might be a way to create a universal language that could be understood by all. Harriot created a syllabary for coastal Carolina Algonquian and argued that recording languages by sound rather than meaning would facilitate universal communication.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Henry Spelman's Relation is in the Harlan Crown library in Dallas and I was able to do a new transcription from the original pages.

This is the first edition from the original manuscript since 1872, and it presents the memoir as it was actually written, correcting errors in the version we have all been using. Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia, is out as a separate book from NYU Press.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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