Herstory at its fucking finest.
In 1995, Pocahontas was the Disney film that every Joan, Nic and Sally were having a moral panic over. The raunchy physique of the protagonist upset feminists, the historical inaccuracies upset academics, its insensitivity upset Native Americans, and the Tories didn’t like the eco-friendly politics Just Around The River Bend had to offer.
Me? I fell in love with Pocahontas. She saves John Smith. She refuses to marry Kocoum. She’s tenacious, she’s kind, she’s brave. She runs around outside climbing rocks and adventuring alone and she has a canoe. In fact, if I were a Disney character for the day, apart from jumping into drawings on the pavement Mary Poppins stylee and telling Cinderella to ring social services I would so high five Pocahontas for being a babe of the highest order.
However. While I will fight to the death to defend Pocahontas as a great Disney heroine, she is, unsurprisingly, a horribly distorted, herstorical mirage who has come to define the core of Euro-Native American narratives.
So, on the four hundredth anniversary of her capture, I’m doing my best to relove Pocahontas, the real Pocahontas, the one without D-cups. The one who was abducted by colonists and forced into marriage and died way too young.
Pocahontas’s real name was Matoaka, and historians estimate that she was born around 1595. She was the favourite daughter of Powhatan, chief of the Tsenacommacah – a collection of tribal nations settled in Tidewater, Virginia. Her mother is unknown, but she would have been one of several wives that the chief had, each of whom bore him a single child and were returned back to their village to find a new husband. The chief supported each of his spouses until they remarried.
Pocahontas was a nickname, meaning “playful one”. Historians believe the Powhatan Indians concealed her real name from the English, and that Pocahontas only revealed it herself when she was baptised and picked her christian name; Rebecca.
She would have been a pre-teen when, in April 1607, a hundred or so colonists arrived in Virginia, including Captain John Smith. Much of Pocahontas’s legend comes from Smith’s diaries, letters and testimonies, which have since been considered complete tosh. He misdescribes the Virginia landscape, like, really bloody gets it wrong, his recollections are inconsistent and quite obviously preoccupied with maintaining stereotypes rather than dispelling them. The story of the “civilised savage” is one that reoccurs over and over in colonial and imperial history, so early accounts of how Pocahontas came to leave her family and move to England were distorted long before their Disneyfacation. The truth is, Pocahontas was a kid. She was a curious, friendly, ballsy kid who probably came to know and be accepted by the Englishmen after she’d befriended the young boys at the settlement, playing games and chasing each other. You know, kid stuff.
Mud sticks. And even four hundred years later John Smith’s big ol’, fibbing shadow looms over the story of Pocahontas. What historians are certain of is that John Smith was captured. In the months following their arrival the colonists built a fort close to the James River. It’s highly probably that they had many subsequent interactions with the natives. Some good, some bad. But in December 1607, Smith was exploring the Chickahominy River when he was captured by a hunting party, led by the chief’s younger brother. They brought him to Werwocomoco – the Powhatan capital – where Smith attests that he had a lengthy exchange with the chief.
In his original account, Smith doesn’t mention Pocahontas in relation to his capture at all. In fact, he describes his treatment at the hands of the natives as top notch. He remained well fed and comfortable until his release. It is only in 1616, when writing to Queen Anne in anticipation of Pocahontas’s arrival, that he mentions both her, and the supposed threat to his life.
What ensued were several retellings of the same anecdote; As the chief was about to execute him (he never explains how or why things deteriorated so badly between him and his captors) Pocahontas physically stood between her father and Smith, thus saving his life. Though historians have sought to explain Smith’s description of his near execution in his Generall Historie, there’s little support that any such incident occurred. In fact, in True Travels, his memoir from his time spent in Hungary, Smith describes a similar incident with a young girl after having been captured by Turks in 1602.
Pocahontas was actually a prisoner of war in the first Anglo-Powhatan conflict that began in the summer of 1609. After the outbreak of the war, the English took complete control of the James River. Captain Samuel Argall attempted to form allegiances with Native American groups in the northern lands of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom. The Patawomecks of the Potomac River hadn’t always been loyal to Powhatan, added to which was that there was a young English interpreter named Henry Spelman living with them. In March 1613, Argall found out that Pocahontas was staying in the Patawomeck village of Passapatanzy under the protection of the Iopassus.
With Spelman translating the negotiations, the Iopassus were pressured into assisting Argall with Pocahontas’s capture. Pocahontas was held on Argall’s ship for ransom, under the demands that not only did the chief let all English captives go, but that he supply the colonists with tools and weapons. The prisoners were returned, but Argall wasn’t satisfied with the supplies that the chief had give them, so Pocahontas was kept captive.
Not a lot is known about her year spent as an English prisoner. Early writings say that she was respected and looked after, even going as far as to say she was happy. But Angela Daniel’s The True Story Of Pocahontas (2007), which claims to “share the sacred and previously unpublished oral history of the Mattaponi tribe and their memories of 17th-century Jamestown”, says that Pocahontas was raped by her captors.
Pocahontas met John Rolfe while she was captive. Rolfe’s wife and child had died onboard the ship to Virginia. His time at the settlement had been spent growing tobacco, and he believed that by marrying Pocahontas he would save her soul;
“Motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation… namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout.”
Their marriage is the first interracial marriage recorded in history.
Pocahontas’s feelings about her marriage to Rolfe are, of course, not known. And even if history got it right, even if, after all she’d been through, she still wanted to knock about with the English, it means jack all. She might have been scared. Rejected by her family. She could be the oldest case of Stockholm Syndrome, ever. She could have been, oh I don’t know, young and confused, naïve even.
She moved into Rolfe’s home on the tobacco plantation after the wedding where they stayed for two years and had a son, Thomas. In 1616 they travelled to England, where she was portrayed to the nation as a princess and the living embodiment of the successful Virginia Settlement.
In 1617, while travelling back to Virginia, Pocahontas became very ill and died upon her return. She would have been about twenty-two. Theories range from pneumonia to poison. Her body was taken back to England, and buried at St George’s Church in Gravesend.
The self-serving tale of a girl from an exotic land who saved the heroic Englishman has haunted Pocahontas. Haunted the Powhatans. Haunted herstory. In reality her life was short and probably wouldn’t have been on Disney’s radar without the The Virginia Company and their interest in her’s and Rolfe’s marriage. But I’d still like to high-five her. And still for those qualities I admired in the version of her I loved as a child; for her tenacity, her kindness, her bravery.