Jamestown, Lost and Found


Part 3 of 3

Sturgeon up to 16 feet (5 m) long crowded the James River in the 17th century.
By Charles C. Mann.
Painting by John White (1585)

The question arises: If the colonists were pushing Powhatan out of Tsenacomoco, why didn't he push back? Clearly the Indians were more numerous and understood the terrain better. They were also well armed—colonial matchlocks were less accurate than native bows and took longer to reload. One answer is that Powhatan was slow to realize the foreigners would not self-destruct after all. Year after year, they died by the scores, amply proving to him that the English didn't know how to survive in America. Yet new shiploads just kept coming. Although Powhatan sent representatives to London, he apparently didn't understand the implications of their reports of its dense population. England could keep replacing colonists, no matter how many died. By the time he realized this, Powhatan was an old and tired man who had lost his appetite for what would have been a bloody enterprise.

Yet this doesn't explain why his brother Opechancanough, who was distrustful of the tassantassas and took the reins after Powhatan's death in 1618, didn't simply destroy the colony. He did organize a violent surprise attack in 1622 that killed almost a third of the English, but despite ongoing skirmishes, he didn't follow up with another sustained assault for 22 years, by which time the colony was firmly established. Nor does it explain why adjacent Indian groups didn't strike the foreigners either. One possible reason is that, by then, the English hadn't just made the landscape inhospitable. It had turned deadly.

THE FIRST KNOWN THANKSGIVING in English America was celebrated on December 4, 1619, at Berkeley Hundred, a brand-new plantation about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Jamestown. Thirty-eight fresh tassantassas had arrived there earlier that day with a deed awarding them title to 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares). (This transaction likely occurred without consulting the original inhabitants.) Like Jamestown, Berkeley Hundred was a private, for-profit enterprise backed by venture capitalists in England. The main order of business: Grow as much tobacco as possible. But the financial backers also watched out for their employees' spiritual welfare. The day of arrival, they instructed, should be "yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." After unloading their baggage, the tassantassas knelt in prayer on the cold shore.

History has not recorded where these kneeling men came from, but records suggest a substantial fraction—as much as a third—of the immigrants in Virginia before 1640 were from the marshes of southern and eastern England. In the 17th century, these areas were rampant with malaria. It was not unusual for 10 or 20 percent of the marsh population to die in a single year, according to Mary Dobson, a medical historian. In contrast to the rest of England, burials outstripped baptisms during much of the 17th and 18th centuries. Little wonder people from these areas wanted to emigrate to the Americas.

But rather than escaping malaria, the colonists brought the disease with them, thanks to the marvelously complicated life cycle of the single-celled plasmodium parasite that causes it. It spends its early stages in the gut of several species in the Anopheles mosquito genus. When these mosquitoes bite people, plasmodia swim into their bodies. Once in their new home, the parasites transform themselves into tiny creatures called merozoites, which eventually pop out of red blood cells in synchronized assaults—every 48 hours for Plasmodium vivax, the species first introduced into the Americas. Reacting in frenzy to the attack, the body's immune system sets off waves of intense fever and chills.

This type of malaria rarely kills victims directly, but leaves them weak for months, until the body gradually fights it off. But P. vivax can hide for as long as five years in the liver of sufferers who appear to have run it out of their systems, producing full-blown malarial relapses every six to nine months. Others can have the disease but show no symptoms, turning people in seeming good health into carriers.

In theory, it would take only one such carrier to arrive at Jamestown and get bitten by one of the mosquito species that inhabit the East Coast to establish malaria in the entire continent. In this way, one or more colonists must have "infected" the New World's mosquitoes with the parasite for malaria. "It's a bit like throwing darts," said Andrew Spielman, the late Harvard professor of tropical public health. "Bring enough sick people in contact with enough mosquitoes, and sooner or later you'll hit the bull's-eye—you'll establish malaria."

By 1657 the colonial physician and politician John Winthrop (son of the famed, identically named governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony) was commonly encountering what we now know as malaria in the course of his work. According to Robert Charles Anderson, the genealogist who is transcribing Winthrop's medical journal, the disease was probably well established in the Massachusetts colony by 1640. Since many more early colonists went to Virginia than Massachusetts, malaria could have been stalking the Tidewater there as early as the 1620s. This is speculative, but not implausible. Once malaria has a chance to get into a place, said Spielman, "it usually gets in fast."

If malaria arrived early, it may help explain why Opechancanough never mounted a sustained fight against the colonists, even when it became a matter of survival to his people. Malaria effectively saps the vitality of entire regions. In England's malaria belt, marshlanders were routinely dismissed as stupid, apathetic, and fatalistic. Similar abuse was heaped on the settlers at Jamestown; Strachey was one of many who denounced what he saw as their propensity for "sloth, riot, and vanity." But at least England could ship in new colonists rapidly. The Indians could not. If a substantial fraction of their population was malarious, it would have limited their ability to attack the colonists. From the native point of view, it would have been as if the environment around them had suddenly become toxic.

No matter how the parasite was actually introduced to Virginia, we know that malaria spread throughout the East Coast, eventually playing a major part in the pageant of U.S. history. Without malaria, slaves would have been less desirable to southern planters: Most people from tropical Africa are resistant to the plasmodium parasite, the product of millennia of evolution in its presence. The disease became especially endemic in the Carolinas, where it crippled the army of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. England had by that time drained its marshes and largely been freed of malaria. Meanwhile, the colonists had become seasoned. "There was a big imbalance. Cornwallis's army was simply melting away," says J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian at Georgetown University. McNeill takes pains to credit the bravery of the Revolution's leaders. But a critical role was played by what he wryly refers to as "revolutionary mosquitoes." Cornwallis surrendered, effectively ending the war, on October 19, 1781.

By then the Columbian exchange was in full swing. The Atlantic coast was dotted with monoculture fields devoted to such alien crops as wheat, rice, and West Indian tobacco. Black rats from Europe were devouring Indian corn stores from Maine to Florida. Meanwhile, European farmers were adopting New World plants like corn, potatoes, and tomatoes; chili peppers, unknown in Asia before Columbus, were on their way to taking over Indian, Thai, and Chinese kitchens.

No longer maintained by Indian burning, the shrinking forests of the East would become choked with underbrush—the overgrown, uninhabited "wilderness" celebrated by Thoreau. In the 1800s, the great grasslands of the Midwest, once kept open by native burning, began filling with trees. With the Indians vanquished by disease, some archaeologists believe, species they had formerly hunted, such as the passenger pigeon, experienced a population explosion.

On the James River, where the process began, land-clearing sped runoff and increased the river flow, sweeping aside the mats of vegetation that lined its banks in Powhatan's day. With its plantations, tobacco fields, and rolling meadows, the landscape of the Chesapeake Bay had been utterly transformed. It looked more like England than it had when Jamestown began, but it wasn't at all the same. Four centuries ago, the English didn't discover a New World—they created one.

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