Cannibalism at Jamestown

Recently there was an article in the Smithsonian about evidence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

Settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported last week. This is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas, according to the Washington-based museum and research complex. [Cannibalism at Jamestown]

This is not shocking since cannibalism was always suspected at Jamestown. A brief history of the place and the people will help us understand the reasons for this peculiar diet. During the 17th century, Spain was a superpower with the plundered wealth from South America and England wanted to get on with the same game. Hence Virginia company was setup to explore the land to the North of the Spanish colonies. In December 1606, much before the Mayflower voyage, three ships set sail to the East Coast of what would later be United States to establish a colony. It was a daring attempt because two previous colonies had disappeared. But driven by faith in their technology and superiority of their culture, they ventured to discover gold, which would bring wealth to them as well as their investors.
They landed near Chesapeake Bay in April 1607  and found a place near the James river to hide  from the sight of the Spanish ships prowling the waters. But things did not go as planned. First, they did not find any gold. Second, the summer came and the insects and humidity from the swamp started affecting the invaders who were not used to this. Third, the 13,000 native Americans who lived under the leadership of Chief Powhatan did not welcome the settlers with garlands, but with arrows. The settlers built walls, at twice the height of a man, to keep the natives away, but that did not save them from starvation.
They ran out of food and had to ration the barley. Among the 200 odd people who had set foot in the country, only fifty remained and those fifty were surrounded by hostile natives. Also to add to the misery, the area saw a drought unseen in seven centuries; salt water from the ocean crept into the river and the poisoning and dehydration that followed killed many more. That’s when their leader James Smith took a gamble and met Chief Powhatan. They could have been butchered, but fortunately for them the shiny stones they took with them got them food to survive. James Smith wrote an exaggerated account of his romance with the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, but she was a child when this happened.
The colony survived for three years and James Smith went back to England. The colony was repopulated with new arrivals from England and once again starvation set in. By this time the relation between the settlers and the native Americans had turned sour and they could not beg for food. The settlers started eating anything they could find: horses, cats, pet dogs and even poisonous snakes. According to one source, they even dug up corpses and ate them. The colony would have perished, but were eventually saved by the arrival of a supply ship with new recruits.

  1. National Geographic – The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown

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