This Day (Sir Thomas Laughs Edition)

Published:May 19, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1611, a fellow called Sir Thomas Dale arrived at Jamestown. The governor had disappeared on sick leave and his lieutenant was away on business. So Sir Thomas took charge and, being a military man, proceeded to bang some heads. “He too hath ridden his horse o’er many Irish corpses,” the novelist William Vollmann memorably writes in Argall (2002). “Moreover he’s young. He’ll never sicken. He’s the man for Virginia.”

As it turns out, Virginia really needed a man at that moment. According to the colonist Ralph Hamor, soon after Sir Thomas leapt manfully from his boat, he observed his charges at “their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streetes.” Now, it could be that after two years of war with the Indians, extreme weather, diseases with names like the bloody flux, and something called the Starving Time—during which the always hospitable colonists may have had each other for dinner—they deserved a game of ten pin.

It’s not for us to judge. Sir Thomas, on the other hand … he judged like an Old Testament god. “Three Laborers who’d essayed to rob the Store-house of vittles he did commaund to be lashed unto treetops & left there to groan for food & drink, until they starv’d,” Vollmann writes. “A hungry Soldier sought to desert to the Salvages. Sir Thomas commaunded he be burnt alive.”

And when Powhatan tried to intimidate him? “Sir Thomas laughs [and] sends back counter-threats of death.”

IMAGE: Sir Thomas Dale