Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cannibalism at Jamestown

(Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)

In early May 2013, the news hit the wires that cannibalism had been confirmed at Jamestown. A skeleton of a fourteen-year-old girl had been unearthed. In August 2012, the girl's skull, lower jaw, and leg bone were found among those of a horse, dogs, and squirrels. With hacks and breaks that more resembled what someone would do when butchering livestock, the remains had the telltale signs of ax and knife cuts.

While the information is extraordinary, it really isn't as shocking of a find as the news authorities have led us to believe. Among the colonists, the winter during 1609-10 was regarded as the "Starving Time." George Percy, a prominent member of the original Jamestown settlers, wrote about men, women, and children eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, and mice. He also mentioned starving colonists digging up corpses. One man killed his pregnant wife, cut out the unborn child, salted her and ate her. For his crime, he was burned at the stake.

The Starving Time had been brought on by a combination of poor planning, in-group fighting, and dependence on England and the Native people for supplies. At the time, the colony had approximately 200 colonists. Another influx of colonists arrived later in 1609 (the exact date is unknown), which set off class wars. One of the ships, the one carrying the supplies, was lost at sea.

(Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert)

John Smith was a commoner and refused to give up his leadership role. He sent groups both up and downriver before being mysteriously wounded and returning to England in October. When George Percy assumed command, he sent another group downriver to build a fort, which left approximately 120 colonists at Jamestown. By May 1610, only 60 colonists remained.

Not all of these people starved to death. Some were killed by the local Indians. The Paspahegh tribe was their nearest neighbor. The colonists had done much to make enemies of them--by stealing their land, food, etc. Is it really any wonder they would fill the colonists full of arrows when they used the latrines (which were unwisely built outside the fort)? Yet, "many" of the colonists ran off to join the Indians.

So yes, cannibalism did indeed exist during the Starving Time, but the press release sensationalized the first forensic evidence of an already known circumstance.

Kim Murphy

No comments: