When Captain John Smith met Pocahontas

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The Independent Culture
Their meeting was the stuff of fairytales. He was brave, clever, handsome (though a bit short), and had come from faraway lands. If he lacked the innocence of the archetypal prince, and she the fair complexion decreed for a princess, these were minor aberrations. The script was right. He was being held captive by her father, the powerful chief-king; she alone could rescue him from certain death. Later on, although she was barely 13, they would marry and live happily ever after. Pocahontas, being a real princess, understood her role. Captain John Smith, a commoner, bungled his.

In the winter of 1607-08, Smith, out foraging for the hungry settlers of Jamestown, was captured and taken to Werowocomoco to face Powhatan. Some 200 Algonkians crowded into the longhouse. Words were spoken; pipes smoked. Then, as Smith wrote later, "two great stones were brought", and right on cue came the piercing cry and running feet, the young body thrown over his, bare arms cradling his head. Pocahantas, his saviour.

His saviour - unless, of course, it was all an act. Unless it was merely a traditional tribal sacrament of the execution-rescue variety, not uncommon among the Algonkians. The lives of chiefs were as a rule spared, and Smith was viewed (erroneously) as the White Chief. The Dark Princess saves the White Chief - standard ritual melodrama. Only Smith misunderstood.

Or, perhaps, pretended to misunderstand. His account alone survives. Ambitious for advancement back in England, he knew the charge of miscegenation could be disastrous. For two long winters an adoring Pocahontas brought the captain food for his starving band. Then, in 1609, he sailed to England without so much as a goodbye. Abandoned his princess. Ignored his clear obligation. Left to mourn, to grieve, to resort finally to the dependable, if pedestrian, John Rolfe.

Smith never did marry - give him that. He never realised success, either. And he turned the whole fairytale askew