How far can the problems facing the colony of Virginia from 1607 to 1624 be explained by the quality of the settlers?

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How far can the problems facing the colony of Virginia from 1607 to 1624 be explained by the

quality of the settlers

In 1606 King James I granted a Royal Charter to the Virginia Company of London to establish an English settlement in the Chesapeake Bay region of North America. Thus in 1607 the Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown settlement on the banks of the James River in the Colony of Virginia. William Kelso has described Jamestown as the place where the British Empire began and the first proper colony of the British Empire. Prior attempts by the English to colonise North America had ended in disaster the most significant example being the lost Colony of Roanoke. Between 1607 and 1624 the Jamestown colony suffered what Kenneth Andrews describes as a “sickly birth”. This is due to the various problems the colonists endured such as disease, famine and conflict with the Powhatans. By far the biggest problem suffered by the settlers was high mortality rates; at least six thousand people settled in Virginia between 1607 and 1624, but by 1625 only one thousand two hundred settlers had survived. There has been much debate over the causes of the problems endured at the Virginia Colony. Traditionalist historians such as Edmund Morgan put forward the view that the poor quality of the settlers was the main reason for the problems suffered at Virginia. While clearly some of the problems suffered at Jamestown can be blamed on the settlers, there are also other more significant reasons for the problems faced by the colonists at the settlement such as drought. The main themes which will be assessed in this essay are malnourishment and starvation in Virginia, the quality of the governance of Jamestown and the relationship between the English colonists and the local Native American tribes of Virginia.

Throughout most of the period between 1607 and 1624 the settlers at the Colony of Virginia suffered severe malnutrition, starvation and ultimately famine. The most severe period of famine was during the winter of 1609-1610 which has came to be known as the Starving Time. During the Starving Time many of colonists suffered through severe malnourishment which led to diseases such as scurvy and pellagra and also severe starvation which caused catastrophic mortality rates. Many of the settlers were forced to eat rats, dogs, horses and recent evidence suggests that some colonists even resorted to cannibalism. The population of Jamestown before the winter of 1609 stood at around five hundred settlers, however by the start of the summer of 1610 the population had fell to just sixty. The traditionalist argument put forwarded by historians such as Edmund Morgan and  W.E. Woodward blames the quality of the settlers themselves for the problems of severe malnourishment and starvation. Morgan describes the colonists at Jamestown as workshy and idle, and states that the settlers “neglected the crucial business of growing food to stay alive” and “fritted away their time and energy”. The traditionalist argument comes from the fact that a substantial number of the original colonists at Jamestown were gentlemen. This is significant as seventeenth gentry would not have been expected to participate in manual labour and physically demanding work such as farming, which would have been required to make Jamestown work. There are also some primary sources which back up the traditionalist interpretation. For instance colonist Samuel Purchas spoke of other settlers being “consumed with idleness”. It is clear to a certain extent that some of the colonists at Jamestown were workshy and idle. However recent revisionist research shows that it would be unfair and inaccurate to put all of the blame for problems endured at Virginia on the quality of the settlers. Recent archaeological work by Jamestown Rediscovery at the site of the settlement has uncovered more than half a million artefacts which suggests that the settlers were much better prepared than previously thought. Kelso states that this new evidence “flies in the face of the conventional wisdom which says that the colonists were underfunded and ill equipped”. Kelso also states that Jamestown's fate was “beyond the control of the settlers”. This is due to recent scientific evidence which shows that a major drought, the worst in eight hundred years occurred between 1606 and 1612 which fits into the time frame of the Starving Time. Blanton states that “even the best planned and supported colony would have been supremely challenged” by the this drought. Clearly it would have been extremely difficult to grow food and crops in this climate. An example of a primary source which further supports the revisionist view is John Smith's account who wrote of an Indian leader who appealed to him to “pray to my God for raine, for their Gods would not send any”. This is groundbreaking research and clearly dispels the traditionalist view. Overall while some of the settlers at Jamestown were workshy and idle to an extent, it would clearly be inaccurate and unfair to place all blame for starvation and malnourishment on the quality on the settlers themselves and instead it is more accurate to blame the emergence of the Starving Time on the severe drought which hit the region.

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Another significant theme which must be addressed is the governance of Jamestown. First of all it should be noted that the Virginia Company of London was a business venture, so consequently its primary goal was to make profit out of the Virginia Colony for its investors. Therefore the Virginia Company of London's main interests in Virginia was to strike gold or to find a north west passage to the Pacific Ocean. It is fair to say                                               ...

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