Making the Best of the Starving Time

Published:May 13, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Sumendi cibum modus (Their Way of Eating Food), ca. 1590, by Theodor de Bry after John White (The Mariners' Museum)

The colonial historian Andrew Schwartz says it’s no big surprise that cannibalism existed at Jamestown. (Note: I think more caution is due here.) And he uses the occasion of a new archaeological find to draw some larger conclusions about the winter of 1609–1610, known as the Starving Time:

We must remember that despite the horror we see in the starving time, that the trials endured produced a stock of Virginians determined not to repeat their miserable mistakes, determined to make the absolute best of their available resources, and to best absolutely their inhibitive obstacles.

This paragraph struck me so strangely that I needed to reread it a couple of times. What miserable mistakes? What inhibitive obstacles? And why such an awkward and vague phrase as “inhibitive obstacles”? Also, why the passive tense, and why the need to carve a bit of uplift out of the Starving Time? After all, what it most directly produced was not a bunch of tough and newly wise Virginians, but a group of half-dead Englishmen and -women who desperately wanted to flee—who did flee until they were forced to turn around by the just-arriving new governor.

It also produced—or really just escalated—a war, the First Anglo-Powhatan War to be precise.

Which might help us understand what’s missing from Schwartz’s description of the Starving Time: Virginia Indians. As our entry on the Starving Time makes clear, that terrible winter was preceded by a series of clashes between the English colonists and the Indians of Tsenacomoco. To wit:

In an effort to ease conditions at Jamestown and possibly to distance himself from his critics, [John] Smith sent two parties of men to live off the Indians. One group, under Francis West, traveled to the falls of the James River; another, under George Percy and John Martin, went south and attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians. Both missions failed badly, with each group losing about half its men in fighting. When Smith sent reinforcements south, they found piles of English corpses, their mouths stuffed with bread “in Contempte and skorne,” according to Percy. The Powhatans understood that without food, the English could not continue in Tsenacomoco, and the Indians controlled the food.

So they did. And as the violence continued, Powhatan made the decision to cut off the English colonists’ access to food outside their fort. This was the proximate cause of the Starving Time, and certainly the largest of any number of “inhibitive obstacles” faced that winter.

This context strikes me as crucial in any attempt at understanding what mistakes the English made,  how they might have done better with the resources around them, and how, in the end, they bested those inhibitive obstacles. They were not the only ones occupying that land, and we must not forget it.

IMAGE: Sumendi cibum modus (Their Way of Eating Food), ca. 1590, by Theodor de Bry after John White (The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia)