Sunday, March 21, 2010

Remembering... Pocahontas

It's not known when she was born or even when she died; the only date we have for certain concerning the life and death of Pocahontas is the day she was buried, which was this day in 1617. Even in this there are more questions than answers, for while we know at which church she was buried - Saint George's in Gravesend - it's not known which of the graves in the churchyard is hers.

PhotobucketStill, Pocahontas exerts a powerful pull on the white consciousness; subsequent generations have reinvented her according to their own culture and relative level of white guilt. The consensus of opinion is that she was a beautiful Indian princess who, for some unspecified reason, aided and abetted European settlement on the land of her fathers before converting to the white man's religion and dying of one of their diseases at a tragically young age.

Within that description is much of the bias upon which European culture (and especially its fairytales) is based. Certainly she wasn't a Princess in the typical manner, except that she was daughter of a powerful chief, Wahunsunacock (better known as Powhatan) of the Powhatan Confederacy. Even as a putative Princess, naturally, she had to be beautiful, otherwise why bother? Certainly any relationship with John Smith other than the platonic was fabricated, although her love for John Rolfe seems to have been sincere enough.

As for her conversion to Christianity, having seen and heard the thunderous brimstonery of white missionaries often enough, it's safe to say that any canny young girl such as her could see what lay ahead for those who didn't embrace the alleged God of love who seemed to do nothing but punish people - even (and often specifically) the best ones.

In the end it was the newly christened Rebecca's public relations junket to England, intended to drum up colonists and much-needed support from the Crown, which proved her end. As unaccustomed to Europe's pollution as she was to its bacteria, she fell ill and died even before the ship bringing her home was out of the Thames estuary. Not even the means of death has been recorded; some reports have it as tuberculosis, others as smallpox.

As is so often the case, since nothing could have saved her in life, some quality or other managed to save her in death, for she lives still in our collective memory; Disney's Pocahontas (1995) is pretty but inaccurate, and even Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World (featuring Q'Orianka Kilcher as the woman herself) ends up derailing from the historical record into romantic bunkum fairly early on. Then again, if John Smith had looked anything like Colin Farrell, perhaps history would have turned out quite differently.
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