Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pocahontas 400

The real Pocahontas 
It's rare for me to blog twice in one day - but we can't let March 21st 2017 pass without commemorating Pocahontas.  It's 400 years ago today that she died, at Gravesend, where she was subsequently buried.  The grave itself was lost when the church burned down in the 18th century - but there's a statue in the churchyard, and today there's a service being held.

After all, the adult Pocahontas was a Christian.  She and John Rolfe had the first recorded intercultural marriage in North America, and she had to convert in order for that to happen, particularly as Rolfe was one of "the godly", or Puritans.  Whether, like other indigenous people, she thought of Christ as another deity to add to an existing pantheon, we do not know.  In fact, we know very little of what she thought at all.  The thoughts of indigenous people and women from the 17th century are rarely recorded, and Pocahontas happened to be both.

What we do know is that she had great symbolic value as a cultural ambassador.  Received by James I and Anne of Denmark as visiting royalty, she represented a PR coup for the Virginia Company and its tobacco trade.  Her manners and her religion served to demonstrate that the English Empire could "civilise" the "savage".  Or so it suited them to say.  It may well have been as a result of this convenient narrative and celebrity status that Captain John Smith decided to invent the famous story of the child Pocahontas saving his life - it certainly seems unlikely to have happened in quite the way he described it, and we know she was decidedly cold towards him when they met on her visit to London.  Although Pocahontas died here, her Powhatan companions made the journey home, and seem to have been among the leaders of the Powhatan rising against the colonists in 1622.  The visit may have been a PR success with the British public, but it wasn't one with the indigenous people.

On Saturday, we showed our film HIDDEN HISTORIES at the British Library, as part of their Pocahontas celebrations - and in June's ORIGINS Festival there will be a number of events to mark the anniversary.  We'll be holding a special evening at Syon House, where she stayed for a time, and screening the great, if slightly fictionalised, film about her life, Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD - a film characterised by the spiritual energy of indigenous cultures.  Perhaps that is where we should be looking for her real legacy.

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