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The Jamestown Project


Review: The Jamestown Project
(August Review, 2007)

The Jamestown Project
by Karen Ordahl Kupperman (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007)

Review by Larry Skillin

Historians have come to love the milestone anniversaries of significant historical events. Such anniversaries provide an entire year to schedule conferences, unveil new television documentaries, stage elaborate recreations, and release new books that reflect upon the current state of scholarship concerning the given topic. This year provides such opportunities as the four hundredth anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, the first of England's colonial projects in North America to survive permanently in what would become the United States. It is in this context that Karen Ordahl Kupperman offers her engaging and accessible interpretation of the settlement of early Virginia in The Jamestown Project.

This book will surprise readers looking to delve immediately into the adventures of Captain John Smith and the other English settlers as they struggle to establish a viable colony and interact with the local Native Americans such as Powhatan and his famous daughter, Pocahontas. Such familiar stories are included, and Kupperman brings them to life in strong and thoughtful prose as she interprets the latest research on the topic, but they are to be found nearly two thirds of the way through the text. The seventh of nine chapters is entitled "Jamestown's Uncertain Beginnings" and only the final three chapters are devoted exclusively to the description and analysis of the winding fortunes of the colony once it is actually planted in the New World. This structure, of course, is not accidental. Kupperman uses it to underscore her broader arguments about the need to reframe the story of early Virginia to better understand how it relates to the foundations of the English empire and the development of colonial America.

The Jamestown Project is built around two fundamental arguments. The first is that the activity of the Virginia Company and the establishment of Jamestown cannot be fully understood apart from the context of a much broader series of English efforts, however belated compared to other European powers, to enter the world stage and expand its influence. The second is to show, despite continuing reluctance to admit the Chesapeake as a foundational model, that "through a decade's trial and error, Jamestown's ordinary settlers and their backers in England figured out what it would take to make an English colony work." (2) Although the first of the arguments is more fully explored and defended than the second, Kupperman has merged them together well to provide a successful framework for her synthesis of recent research.

Five of the first six chapters of the book are devoted to exploring the primary argument that places the colonization of Jamestown within the broader context of English exploration. Kupperman begins her narrative in the Elizabethan era, exploring the potent mixture of religious, economic, and political incentives that led English merchants, explorers, clerics and courtiers to imagine the possibilities of cutting into the monopolies and empires of the Catholic powers of continental Europe and the Muslims traders to the East. These efforts led to projects in North America such as the ill-fated Roanoke colony, but also to others around the world as the English sought to cut into African and Asian trades, and aided efforts to fight back the Turks in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. All of this activity on the global stage fed into a generalized "English Hunger for the New" (Ch. 4) as all classes of men and women became fascinated with the possibilities of empire. Such interest could be seen in the voracity with which the public consumed the cultural expressions of global expansion in travel and captivity narratives, stage plays, poetry, clothing styles, and a growing demand for exotic foods, herbs and spices. Little by little, the English developed a stockpile of overseas experience that helped them understand the world better and what was needed to sustain long-term efforts in colonization.

This first portion of the book culminates in the sixth chapter, entitled "A Welter of Colonial Projects." Here Kupperman makes clear that the Jamestown project was only one among many that were proposed at the opening of the seventeenth century, and it was not necessarily the most promising. As the Virginia Company was forming and laying its plans, there were other efforts underway proposing settlements in Ireland, the West Indies, Guiana, Newfoundland, and New England. Jamestown was ultimately successful and is therefore extremely important in its own right, but these chapters make a compelling argument that the venture is best understood as part of the larger process of competition among colonial projects, each built upon the common English experiences of engagement with the wider world reaching back to the Elizabethan era.

The second major argument of The Jamestown Project, that "all other successful English colonies followed the Jamestown model," (3) receives surprisingly little explicit attention within the text. After lavishing the first argument with five chapters full of wonderful detail about the development of early English exploration and its importance to the genesis of the Jamestown project, Kupperman relies on a mere three pages to support her claims about the impact of Jamestown's success on later colonization. The final three pages of the book discuss Captain John Smith's published advice to the planners of the Massachusetts Bay Company and it represents the precise type of evidence that, if multiplied and described, could help validate her bold claims about the importance of Virginia as a model for New England and beyond. Unfortunately, the tantalizing trail of evidence abruptly ends and the final sentence reassures us again that "the key to building English societies abroad, however messy and incomplete, was discovered in Virginia and all successful colonies henceforth followed its model." (327) It could be argued that a defense of this thesis is implicit in the final three chapters. Those chapters that detail the trials, errors, adjustments, and improvisations that led to the foundations of stability in Jamestown could be considered the catalogue of lessons that other colonies and projects could learn from the settlers along the James River. Yet describing the lessons that could be learned from Jamestown is different than demonstrating that other English colonies in America and around the globe did learn from those experiences. While this matter does not detract from the value of the book in its other elements, this reviewer longed for one more chapter to explore these matters more fully.

The Jamestown Project is a very fine book with a long list of virtues. It is an extremely well crafted narrative that should appeal to many audiences with tales of adventure, piracy, warfare, struggle, innovation and the collision of cultural worlds. With that wide appeal, the book carries excellent content drawn from the very best research into our understanding of colonial Virginia and the wider Atlantic world. Kupperman's analysis is also sensitive to the importance of recognizing the agency retained by figures from the full social and racial spectrum of actors upon the historical stage. Finally, there is the strong central argument concerning the place of Jamestown within a broader framework of the development of early English exploration, providing a backbone for the entire book. All of these factors combine to make The Jamestown Project a very worthwhile book, particularly as a reflection of our understanding of the meaning and context of the events that we commemorate in this 400th anniversary year.


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  • The Jamestown Project

    The Jamestown Project (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007)

  • The Jamestown Project

    Map of Jamestown

  • The Jamestown Project

    Map of Jamestown

    Source: Insiders' Guide [source link]

  • The Jamestown Project

    Monument