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Tony Grist

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The Barest Outlines Of A Life [Mar. 23rd, 2014|10:41 am]
Tony Grist
This is all we actually know about Pocahontas:

Her name means something like "crazy kid" or "naughty girl". It's only a nickname. Her "real" name was Matoaka.

She was the daughter of Powhatan by one of many "wives". According to the English she was a favourite of his. He sent her on a mission to the settlement at Jamestown when she was 9 or 10. The English thought of her as a princess but she was no more a princess than her father was an emperor. These were words the English used to make sense of an alien system of governance.  Algonquin society was matrilineal but only men got to be rulers.

One of the settlers talks about her turning cartwheels in the compound of the fort. Smith calls her "pitiful", meaning full of pity. We get a picture of her as a lively, tender-hearted child.

The famous story about her saving Smith's life is probably an invention. If you take Smith's word for it his life was saved on three different occasions by three different maidens. Doesn't seem likely, does it? Smith was a bit of a wide-boy by all accounts. Besides, the relationship between the settlers and the natives was basically friendly at this point.

She may have got married to an Algonquin warrior at 15. We just don't know.

In her late teens she was kidnapped and held hostage by the English. By the end of a year she'd cast in her lot with them. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. She was baptized, took the name Rebecca and married a widower called John Rolfe. His letter to the governor asking permission to marry suggests he was smitten with her. What she thought of him is unrecorded.

She and Rolfe had a son- and called him Thomas.

The family were sent to England to drum up support for the Jamestown colony. She was presented at court and met the crooked, dribbling, snuffy little king and didn't realize he was anyone important until afterwards. She also met Smith whom she'd been told was dead. He says she turned her back on him. Later they had a conversation which he reports. Only It doesn't make a great deal of sense.

At court she attended the performance of one of Ben Jonson's masques.

The only authentic portrait of her dates from this period. It shows her dressed as a fashionable English gentlewoman.

She spent time in London and time on her husband's country estate.

On her way home she was taken ill- suddenly-  and died- a few miles down river from her point of embarcation. She is buried at Gravesend. She was 21, 22- something like that.

And everything else is wishful thinking and political point-scoring.

[User Picture]From: wyrmwwd
2014-03-23 04:00 pm (UTC)
The American myth centers on the "great romance" between Pocahontas and John Smith, as does the Disney movie.

Of course, since Pocahontas would have been 9 or 10 during this so-called romance, Smith would have been pedophile.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-23 04:30 pm (UTC)
There's no evidence that Pocahontas and Smith were lovers in any sense of the word.

Such evidence as does exist suggests she saw him as a father figure.
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[User Picture]From: wyrmwwd
2014-03-24 12:18 am (UTC)
The U.S. has what can be called a "civic religion". It has its own creation myth and other mythological stories. This is one of them.

The Thanksgiving Myth is another big one. But most Americans believe every word as if it were word for word fact.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-24 08:30 am (UTC)
Yeah, well, every nation needs those things. We've got King Arthur and Alfred burning the cakes and Canute telling the tide to go back.
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[User Picture]From: wyrmwwd
2014-03-24 05:02 pm (UTC)
LoL. And your King Arthur has inspired an entire religious tradition here!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-25 11:43 am (UTC)
Arthur belongs to the world. He's a British king but most of the early work on him was done by the French.
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[User Picture]From: wyrmwwd
2014-03-25 05:28 pm (UTC)
I am about to write a paper on the religious significance of the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", which, now that I think about it... Arthur didn't have anything to do with the Crusades, but the movie centers on the search for the Holy Grail, so that I why I have it in my mind that it has to do with Arturian legend.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-23 09:46 pm (UTC)
That's quite likely, but it's even more likely that it never happened.
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[User Picture]From: rosamicula
2014-03-23 10:18 pm (UTC)
Pocahontas is fascinating, isn't she? I wrote an essay about her when I was doing my MA - when that bloody awful Disney film came out - and I had not long returned from Washington where she crops up all over the place.

The inbred families of the New England political aristocracy were immensely proud of being able to claim descent from her. This was problematic when Virginia introduced the miscegenation laws in 1662, so there a whole host of exemptions for a native female ancestor in certain patterns, just so they didn't fall foul of their own laws.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-24 08:33 am (UTC)
Hoist by their own petard!

Yes, she's fascinating- and she keeps her secrets. We'll never know how she saw her life.

Words can barely express how much I hate the Disney Corporation.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2014-03-31 05:16 am (UTC)
I remember there beng a "strip" about her in Girl magazine, along with Mary Slessor, Queen Esther, and other such notables
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2014-03-31 07:33 am (UTC)
I took The Eagle- which was Girl for boys- and it used to run those edifying biographical strips too. I remember General Gordon, Field Marshal Montgomery, St Paul...
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