Saturday, May 4, 2013

James Horn Takes His Turn on the Jamestown Cannibalism Story

At yesterday's New York Times op-ed page James Horn, the vice-president for research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg and the author of "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, chimes in on the Jamestown cannibalism story.  Here is a taste of his piece, "Consuming Colonists."

As weeks turned to months and winter set in, the colonists became increasingly desperate. “Now all of us at James Towne,” George Percy, their leader, wrote, were “beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger” that no one can describe “but he which has tasted the bitterness thereof.” 

To satisfy their cruel hunger, some colonists went into the woods in search of snakes and wild roots, where they were killed by the waiting warriors. In desperation, those left behind devoured their horses, dogs, cats, rats and mice, and when these ran out even their boot leather. But worse was to come.

Percy describes what happened, detailing carefully how English society unraveled in the appalling conditions. Driven out of his mind by despair, a colonist named Hugh Price, “in a furious distracted mood did come openly into the marketplace Blaspheming exclaiming and crying out that there was no god. Alleging that if there were a god he would not suffer his creatures whom he had made and framed to endure those miseries.” He, like others, met his end in the woods nearby, slain by Indians who killed as fast outside the fort “as famine and pestilence did within.”

As hunger became etched “ghastly and pale in every face,” Percy recalled, nothing “was spared to maintain Life.” Starving settlers dug up corpses out of graves and ate them. Some colonists, who died in their beds or were killed seeking food beyond the palisade, were taken up and eaten by those who found their bodies. Sometime during the winter, 14-year-old Jane died, was eaten and then discarded in a trash pit.

The famished looked hungrily on those alive who still had some meat on their bones. One settler murdered his pregnant wife “as she slept on his bosom,” then “ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” for which “barbarous” and unnatural act he was tortured to extract a confession and summarily executed.