Depending on what bad news article you read this week, you probably got the wrong idea of what was going on in Jamestown. This is understandable when the goal of a writer, or television presenter, or whoever is not to inform you but to shape your brain, one way or the other. There is no history anymore, I guess, it’s just what can be used to shape contemporary politics. Well, sorry, everything is not a sound bite. History matters.
But when you look at the insanity of it, it’s quite wonderful in how depressing it is. It is (despite bad news) not the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. It’s the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first General Assembly of Virginia. Some news articles have called this the birth of democracy in America. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a rough approximation.
Accordingly, Virginia went ahead and held an event. After all, the Virginia General Assembly can trace its roots to this original creation. So, if you were into history, and wanted to commemorate an event in today’s hyper insane world, why would you invite anybody of consequence? Instead, they went ahead and invited the most toxic president since Franklin Buchanan and Virginia’s governor (a guy who either has amnesia or is a liar or both).
Hmm, maybe instead, maybe just leave both those guys on the bench for this event, eh? Maybe not? Oh, they did it anyways? And it turned into a big political event and shitstorm? Gee, who ever could have foreseen that? Isn’t there like a firefighter who’s a mayor somewhere in all of Virginia. Like some guy who once pulled three urchins from a burning orphanage and as a farewell life tour he ran for mayor at 73? Get that guy to give the speech! For fuck’s sake.
What you have to remember about Jamestown goes beyond sound bites. Per the info garden of Wikipedia: “Of the 6,000 people who came to the settlement between 1608 and 1624, only 3,400 survived.” Hey anybody want to go to Antarctica with me, with some dogs and a sled, and we’ll set up a colony there and play with penguins. You’ve got a 43% chance of fatality within 15 years. Interested?
Jamestown was a failed business venture established on one of the worst sites for human habitation you could imagine. So much so that the original site was eventually abandoned completely. The only reason Jamestown survived was a sheer stubborn force of will and contempt for death which would serve the British Empire rather well (and also rather poorly) throughout its history.
By 1776, Virginia was the most populous and richest of the 13 colonies. Don’t think that didn’t come without a commensurate level of nightmare. Between disease, a challenged food supply, constant warfare, disease, and a health care system that still thought bleeding helped it’s a wonder anybody survived. Colonial America was many things, it was also a big meat grinder.
It’s worth remembering just how precious life was back then. Particularly when so many can’t see beyond the latest tweet. The act of establishing a General Assembly in the middle of a failed colony where everybody was walking death is quite the act of community. It’s a challenge to life itself, that despite all the hardships, they would survive and prosper. That they had a future.
Quite the gamble. But none of them could have done it alone. It’s worth remembering when everybody apparently hates everybody else that a sense of community is likely one of the only things that allowed them all to survive. In most ways, what America is traces its roots to these very early, first, dangerous steps. It’s worth our time to ponder it. Because we became that future.