Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Quest for Gold - the rest of the Jamestown story

A beautiful story, perhaps, but
it's not close to what really
happened, and there's a
troublesome remnant
left in us today.*
Pocahontas and John Smith have been beautifully portrayed in movies and stories, but inaccurately, and the part about the gold is usually downplayed.

It was Jamestown in December, 1607.

John Smith was twenty-eight when he was captured by Powhatan warriors.  Pocahontas was just eleven at the time, and perhaps had little if anything to do with Smith or saving his life.  Years later though, she was captured and held for ransom by a merchant trying to coerce her father, the Powhatan tribal chief, into a favorable trade deal.  During her captivity, she and John Rolfe fell in love.  They were married in 1614 and moved to England where she bore him a son.  She died there in 1617, perhaps of smallpox, at just twenty-one years of age.

Missing from the story ... the quest for gold!

Various story versions appeared over the years
like this romanticized depiction from 1870.
Smith's own account describes the occasion
as having occurred indoors in a longhouse.
It was later noted that Smith told a
similar story of a young girl saving
his life after having been captured
by Turks in Hungary in 1602.  A
bit of mixed memories, perhaps.
Years before Jamestown, Sir Walter Raleigh was charged by Queen Elizabeth I with establishing a colony in the new world. Founded in 1585, the colony at Roanoke was a stunning failure.  Everyone either starved or disappeared, and the disaster is remembered today as the Lost Colony.  Twenty years later, Jamestown faced a similar end.  Short of supplies, folks nearly starved to death; they weren't expecting to have to feed themselves, we discover.

Inspired by the riches flowing from Spanish colonies, the first Englishmen to settle permanently in America hoped for some of the same rich discoveries when they settled in Jamestown. They were financed by wealthy Englishmen who were perhaps overly optimistic about the prospects for wealth in the new world. The first expectation of the colony was finding gold.[ref]

From Anas Todkill's diary of the time, "There was no talke, no hope, no worke, but dig gold, refine gold, load gold."  A hopeful cargo sent to England in 1608 turned out to be pyrite, or fool's gold, and worthless.[ref]

Exploration and conquest had been underway for almost a century by the time England got in the game.  The Spanish had successfully and profitably claimed territories in the central and southern regions of the new world.

The Spanish learned from experience and adapted.  Their attempt in 1534 to colonize the site of today's Buenos Aires illustrates their progress well; it was a pointed failure.  They had hoped to exploit the land and labor of the locals, but there was no gold or silver to plunder.  To make matters worse, the locals refused to be subjugated and enslaved, even going so far as to club to death the Spanish navigator, Juan Diaz de Solis who had the audacity to claim their land for Spain.  And they ate him, or so we're told.

Not to be dissuaded, the Spanish pressed inland and encountered more cooperative folks, the Guarani, a sedentary and agrarian population whom they subjugated after a brief conflict.  The invaders married into the ruling families and set themselves up as the new aristocracy.  They made good use of existing forced labor and tribute practices, and quickly expanded abroad.  They were not interested in tilling the soil themselves.  They wanted others to do the work for them, and they wanted gold and silver to take for themselves.  The town they established was Nuestra Senora de Santa Maria de la Asunción, today's capital of Paraguay.[ref]

Hernando Cortez conquered the Aztec empire and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire.  The method they evolved was simple; capture the rulers and their families, marry the princesses, and take over the empire.  Conquistadors were given towns and regions and populations (encomiendas) to own/rule/enslave/exploit.  The indigenous peoples were forced to serve their new masters and eventually to pay tributes and taxes that left them at the bare subsistence level.  It reminds you of Wall Street where finance corporations structure the market and debt to extract a developing country's maximum production as payments to them.  The goal is identical.

By capturing the indigenous ruler, the Spanish could take his accumulated wealth for themselves and take his place as rulers of the people.  When Cortez arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, they were welcomed peacefully by the emperor Moctezuma.  The Spaniards took the opportunity to fire their guns and terrify the citizens.  They ransacked and pillaged everything down to chickens and eggs, tortillas and firewood, all demanded of the people.  And treasure!  They went everywhere and took everything they saw that they wanted from everyone.  They forced the emperor to take them to his treasure house where they took everything; golden ornaments and necklaces with pendants, arm bands with gold and quetzal feathers, bracelets, and the turquoise diadem ... they took it all, and they melted the gold down into bars for transport.

As they expanded their conquest across the continent, the Spaniards apportioned among themselves the towns and their inhabitants, treating them as common slaves.  The expedition leader would seize the king of a territory along with his household and hold them prisoner for months while demanding more gold and treasure.  One king, Bogota "was so terrified that, in his anxiety to free himself from the clutches of his tormentors, he consented to the demand that he fill an entire house with gold and hand it over; to this end he sent his people off in search of gold, and bit by bit, they brought it along with many precious stones."  The house was not completely filled, however, so the Spaniards tortured the king for an extended period for failing to fulfill his promise.  After suffering for a period of days, the king eventually died.  These practices were repeated in various forms for the rest of the century and beyond.

Once the initial pillaging was complete, the conquerors moved on to adapt various institutions to exploit the labor of the region.  Cities with populations of 100,000+ like Petosi were established as labor for mining, and so on, ad nauseum. The implementation would press the local population down to the subsistence level, and everything above that would be extracted as wealth for the elite.  Sound familiar?  Latin America became the most unequal continent in the world.[ref]

So then, back to Jamestown.  Late in the game, England has recovered from civil war and had a lucky win against the Spanish Armada, and finally begin their play for the new world.  They chose the northern continent because that was all that was left.  All the desirable parts of the new world where precious metals were available and where indigenous people were available to exploit for labor, all those were claimed.  There were actually available documents showing North America offered too little return on investment to make colonization attractive.  In terms of profit, it was noted that the farther a colony was from the equator (the hot area), the less profitable it was.  "England got the leftovers."

Still, getting rich was the plan behind the early colonies attempted by the crown and by the wealthy backers.  The Virginia Company that backed the Roanoke and Jamestown efforts was expecting profits; they weren't invested for loving altruism but for wealth.  Of course.  When early attempts at exploiting indigenous peoples finally failed, the colony begged for skilled people to be sent.  "carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees," a thousand of such to be sent and to be well equipped for the work of survival.  They didn't want any more goldsmiths.  Their request was ignored.

The parent company directors realized their plan wasn't working, that they couldn't exploit the locals.  The only option left was to exploit the colonists themselves.  They put men in barracks, set up work teams and tasks and rigid rules, with the company owning all the land.  Of the 500 Jamestown colonists who entered the next winter, only 60 survived until March.  It's a much discussed segment of our history.  This is not just nice folks looking for a new place to live, this is wealthy corporations (like Wall Street today) looking to extract wealth from a region and population much as the Spaniards had in the previous century.

Our history is more complex than just Jamestown, of course, and there are more stories for each place and time.  I've provided this narrative to perhaps illuminate one of the extraordinarily corrupt foundation stones of our business and capitalist thinking.

The quest for gold (wealth, more) gives us an enforced inequality that persists as a cultural norm, perhaps even an imperative in the minds of Europeans and Americans today.*

The death toll estimates suggest a massive population decline of perhaps 50% for the period.  While disease played a significant part, there were wars, massacres, displacements and refugees, genocide, economic oppression and enslavement that destroyed civilizations as well as individual lives.  Millions had their world and lives taken from them. And their children.

The same initiative launched from Europe into Africa in the 19th century with similar results.  The injustice and inequality put in place in African cultures and governments persist today.

*Curious if bits of that stuff are embedded in your own thinking?
There's only one way ...  :)  Really.
And here's what it looks like.

P.S.  According to her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Pocahontas was visited by John Smith in England before she died. She was so shocked, she hid her face, and could not speak for two or three hours. Finally, she said, “They did tell me always you were dead, and I knew no other ’till I came to Plymouth (England). Yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin to seek you, and know the truth – because your countrymen will lie much.”

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