Pocahontas: the Gravesend connection

The new Disney film spells tourism boom for an unglamorous port, writes Peter Victor

Peter Victor
Saturday 05 August 1995 23:02

GRAVESEND, the Port of London pilot station known for its paper mills, cement and electrical goods, is preparing for a tourist boom on the back of publicity from Disney's latest blockbuster - Pocahontas.

The film, which opens in Britain in October and has taken $130m (pounds 87m) in six weeks at the US box office, has already boosted the number of American holidaymakers visiting the otherwise unremarkable port where Pocahontas, the world's first native American Christian, was buried. When it is launched here in a burst of hype, town hall officials expect a surge in the number of tourists on the trail of the young Mattaponi princess.

Disney has made the Pocahontas legend into a romantic story of a beautiful Indian maiden saving handsome explorer John Smith from certain death, sparking a love affair that crossed races and cultures.

The animated film, which features heart-throb actor Mel Gibson as the voice of Smith, and Irene Bedard as Pocahontas, has rekindled interest in her real-life burial place at St George's Church in Gravesend, where a statue stands as a monument to her.

The church has been visited by 50 American tourists more than usual in the past month and greater numbers are expected through the summer. St George's has set up a rota of parishioners to make sure it is open at all times for visitors. A Pocahontas mural has been erected at Gravesend railway station and the town has been featured on CBS and NBC coast- to-coast US television networks.

Pocahontas was only 21 when she died at Gravesend in 1617 while on her way home to America after visiting England with her husband - not Smith but another British settler, John Rolfe. She had saved Smith, a settler in her native Virginia, by putting her head on top of his as he lay expecting to have his skull ceremonially bashed in by tribesmen. Unlike the handsome hero of the film, he was later injured in a gunpowder accident and returned to England.

Pocahontas was later kidnapped and held to ransom by settlers. She learnt English while a captive and in 1613 converted to Christianity, being baptised Rebecca. In 1614 she married Rolfe, who brought her and their young son, Thomas, to England. She was received at the court of King James I in 1616. It was only then that she learnt that John Smith was still alive.

Shortly after this she became ill and decided to go home. Setting sail for America, she was forced to leave the ship at Gravesend where she died of smallpox. She was buried in the chancel of the parish church. The church was destroyed by a fire in 1727 and rebuilt. "Pocahontas is with us but we're not quite sure where," said a local authority spokesman last week.

The town's inhabitants seemed sanguine if a little surprised last week at the prospect of a tourist invasion. The irony of the situation is not lost at Disney. A spokeswoman said last week: "I was brought up in Gravesend and the idea of [the town] as a tourist attraction makes me laugh."

Nevertheless, locals are determined to make the most of it. Trevor Root, 53, ,was out last Thursday sketching Pocahontas in the bright sunshine of the churchyard. "I've been out of work for the past four years," he said. "I used to work in a graphic arts studio but I was made redundant and I haven't been able to get the hang of drawing with these computers. Because of the film coming out I thought I might get some publicity if I did a painting of the statue and sold it. I might be able to make a bit of money - why not?"

But, as with all romantic reworking of history, something has been lost in the translation. In the film, Pocahontas (whose name was really Matoaka) falls head over heels in love with John Smith, portrayed as a strapping blond man in his twenties. In fact Smith was a grizzled old red-haired seadog and former mercenary.

The discrepancy between life and film has puzzled young American visitors to Pocahontas's final resting place. Ferris Manwearing of Independence, Mississippi, wanted to know: "Why did John Rolfe get the name John Smith?" Deidre Maino, from New Jersey, put it more bluntly: "I thought her story was very interesting. It was different from the cartoon."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments