Early on a late April morning, when the vast waterway of the James river vanishes into an endless misty horizon, you can imagine America as they must have seen it for the first time. True, the odd speedboat and the expensive homes scattered among the trees on the distant shoreline intrude on the primeval fantasy. But when you gaze across the reed banks and marshes, the woods glowing with the first green of spring, the New World must be much as it was for those English settlers when they first set eyes on "fair meddowes and goodly tall trees", after they made landfall in this corner of southern Virginia on 26 April 1607.
This year, Jamestown, the colony they founded, is marking its 400th anniversary as the first permanent English outpost in what is now the United States of America. On Friday, the Queen will visit the site, as part of a state visit to the US. Indeed, longevity has turned the monarch into a quasi-permanent feature of the festivities herself. In the visitors' centre erected to mark the occasion, you can see a photo of her doing the honours at the 350th anniversary in 1957, accompanied by the then Vice-President, one Richard Nixon.
Just as in the world, much has changed at Jamestown as well. When those 104 Englishmen arrived, this region of coastal Virginia was, of course, not virgin territory, but the ancestral home of the Powhatan Indian tribes, quickly thrust aside as the European colony took root. None of this much mattered back in 1957, when a few token Indians were wheeled out as props to the glorification of the nation that had already established itself as the greatest power on earth. This time, things are different.
Jamestown anniversaries used to be termed "celebrations". In 2007, however, the event is not a celebration but a "commemoration". Yes, this is where the seed of America as we know it was first planted. But now the darker side of one of the epochal events in world history is on view. This time, we are being asked to remember not just the founding of the US, but of "the displacement of the Indians" and of "human bondage". Today, the once mighty Powhatan tribes are reduced to a handful of reservations. As for slaves, they quickly made their appearance at Jamestown too. George Yeardly, for instance, who was appointed Governor of the colony of Virginia in 1618, had eight black servants.
Now these uncomfortable truths are being accepted. And with them you start to understand that great oddity in how most Americans regard the origins of their country. Why does the focus remain on 1620 and the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts - when more than 100 Englishmen had set up home a few hundred miles to the south more than 13 years earlier? Why has Jamestown been largely airbrushed out of the collective national psyche? The same goes for the ships too. Everyone knows about the Mayflower. But who remembers the Godspeed, the Susan Constant and the Recovery, that brought the settlers to Jamestown? There are obvious reasons why the Mayflower has hogged the limelight so long. New England and the North East dominated early US history. The Civil War too played a part. By the mid-1800s, Virginia's centre of gravity had long since left Jamestown - and Virginia, as a member of the Confederacy, lost the war. History in America, as everywhere else, is written by winners.
Then there is Thanksgiving, that most symbolic of all American national holidays. The Massachusetts settlers are not only supposed to have held the first Thanksgiving. It is said to have taken place as a seal on their good relations with the local Indian tribes. Cheerleaders for Jamestown still maintain the first Thanksgiving feast in fact was held in 1619, a year earlier, at a nearby plantation. But the claim does not withstand scrutiny.
In reality, Jamestown's relations with the Indians were mostly appalling - notwithstanding the tale of the Indian princess Pocahontas who supposedly saved the life of the settler John Smith by hurling her body across his as her father, Powhatan, was about to execute him.
Fighting was constant. In 1622 and 1644, Powhatan's younger brother and successor, Opecancanough, carried out massacres of European settlers in the area. Within a few decades the Indians had been herded into reservations. Their numbers shrivelled and their language died. Today for most Virginians, this lost civilisation exists only in the strange names of rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay: the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the Mattaponi, the Occoquan.
But there may be yet another, even deeper reason. It is tempting to see the Massachusetts and Jamestown settlements as opposite poles of the American experience, geographical symbols for God and Mammon. The story of the Pilgrim fathers reflects the moralistic side of the national character, a tale of brave and high principled men who left Europe to build a nobler society. That is still America's view of itself. The Jamestown settlers, by contrast, were adventurers, who went to the New World in the hope of making their fortune.
The Virginia Company of London was granted its charter by King James I in 1606, and the expedition set out that December. It was a miracle the settlement survived, buffeted by disease, starvation, wars and feuding among its own members. Of the 104 who arrived, only 38 were alive by the end of 1607. One settler is said to have eaten his own wife after she died in childbirth.
Edward Maria Wingfield, a gentleman soldier who helped to set up the Virginia Company, was elected the first president of Jamestown's settler council. But a year later he abandoned (or was removed from) his job and returned in disgust to England "to seeke some better place of imploiment". By most standards early Jamestown was a dismal failure. Most of the settlers died, not to mention countless Indians. There was no gold; the settlement was ultimately only saved when tobacco became a cash-generating export. The Virginia Company may have helped change history, but it was a disastrous short-term investment. Anyone who put money into the venture lost it.
Even the Pocahontas story itself - portrayed in the 1994 Walt Disney cartoon film - is a mirage too. The film has her as a Native American siren, dancing through the forests with the blond and muscled Smith, his voice depicted by Mel Gibson. In fact she would have been no more than 11 or 12 when she first met Smith, by all accounts a violent ruffian. In real life she was kidnapped by the settlers, and married another settler, John Rolfe, with whom she had a son and returned to England. There she became an exotic minor celebrity at King James's court, before dying of small pox in 1617 at the age of 21, just as the family was about to return to Virginia.
The new exhibits installed for Jamestown 2007 do put this record straight. More important, for the first time the Indians have played a serious part in the planning of the anniversary festivities. The Queen will meet their representatives, and the "commemoration" includes conferences to lay out what really happened. But what was done cannot be undone - and one place the Queen will not be visiting is the 150-acre Mattaponi Indian reservation, one of the earliest of its kind in the country, set up by Virginia's colonial General Assembly in 1658. It is to be found (with some difficulty) some 30 miles from Jamestown, on the banks of the Mattaponi river, at the end of a country lane called Indiantown Road. Though the tribe, now headed by Chief Carl "Lone Eagle" Custalow, has 450 registered members, only 60 people live on the reservation.
The Mattaponi tribe is at the core of the Jamestown story. Powhatan was its Great Chief. Outside a single-storey museum are signs in peeling paint, proclaiming that inside you may see the necklace belonging to his daughter Pocahontas, as well as the tomahawk wielded by Chief Opecancanough as he killed the settlers in 1622 and 1644.
But a first-hand inspection was impossible. Though a couple of electric lights burned, the museum was firmly closed when I arrived in mid-afternoon one day last week. So, too, was the dingy trading store, the schoolhouse and the church. Not a soul was around. Probably the inhabitants were away at work, in the modern economy of Virginia. Even so, a sense of aimlessness and abandon was tangible.
Only the Mattaponi Baptist church conveyed a link with the here and now. "Pray for Virginia Tech", urged the message on the Church bulletin board, referring to another massacre far more recent than those of almost four centuries ago. It was proof at least that the Christianising mission of Jamestown, or "God's Plantation" had succeeded.
But a page in the next day's Washington Post inadvertently caught the deeper irony. Juxtaposed were two articles. One was about Jamestown's 400th birthday. The other was about the fabric of American life and the risk posed by illegal immigration.Reuse content