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Thursday, June 21, 2012

The English Colony at Jamestown was a failure. Unlike the Plymouth Colony, which was founded thirteen years later, Jamestown (1607) was not a refuge for people fleeing religious persecution or pioneers searching for a new home land. It was an economic venture that was focused on making a profit. Over the 16 or so years of its existence, it was plagued by every kind of difficulty imaginable; and five thousand of the total six thousand settlers died there. They came in several stages but each succeeding group barely lasted 24 months. Textbooks tell us that in spite of great adversity, the settlers persevered, but they did not.
Since little remains of the settlement site, historians try to piece together its story from scattered artifacts and the journals of men who were there, such as John Smith. Theories abound about why this English mission failed. Included are starvation, disease, poisoning, war with the Indians, incompetence, and even mass suicide. There seems to be some evidence for all of these.
In 1610, three years into the Jamestown venture, a disastrous winter struck the colony. Only 60 of the 500 colonists survived the FAMINE, now known as “the starving time.” Climactic records also indicate that the area was in the midst of worst drought in 800 years. Tree-ring analysis indicates that the native population was already suffering a serious crop shortage due to drought before the first settlers stepped ashore. The additional task of helping to feed the “helpless” colonists during hard times put a strain on both cultures.
Archeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project are now beginning to theorize that a form of the PLAGUE may have manifested itself among the settlers. Excavations have found the remains of black rats mixed in with the remains of food supplies. They believe that the famished settlers may have been eating the rats. Black rats are common only in Europe and are not an American species. More than likely, the rats made the sea voyage with the colonists. They are major carriers of the plague. Also unearthed were more than 70 skeletons that appear to have been buried in a great hurry by people anxious to avoid contact with the bodies, which also suggest the presence of a contagious agent. 
Malnutrition lowered the immunity of the settlers who more readily contracted diseases like MALARIA and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Traditional thought says that malaria was a New World disease for which the colonists had no resistance, but this has now been proven wrong. In fact, it is now believed that the malaria strain “P.vivax” was brought by the colonists from England. When combined with the African strain “P. falciparum,” carried by the slaves brought in for labor after 1619, the mix was lethal. Other researchers suggest that the high level of mortality is actually more consistent with TYPHOID FEVER.
Some pathologists contend that many of the deaths were the result of ARSENIC POISONING; perhaps at the hands of undercover Spanish operatives sabotaging the settlement. The heavy metal arsenic attacks the body’s energy producing mitochondria located in the cells. This would disable every system in the body as tissues shut down, followed by death. Pathologists have found parallels between the symptoms recorded by the settlers and arsenic poisoning; including bloody diarrhea, weakness, skin peeling, delirium and sudden, fatal heart attacks. Other researchers theorize that the settlers, since drought was ever present, ingested water from the swampy brackish waters near the settlement; which may have brought on salt poisoning, pellagra, and scurvy.
From the beginning, the Jamestown settlers were besieged by INDIAN ATTACKS from the Powhatans, a tribe of the Algonquian Nation. In the early days of the colony, John Smith and Pocahontas were able to maintain an uneasy peace, but Smith sailed for England in 1609 and never returned. Later problems with the Powhatans began to grow over two issues. First, the only cash crop developed by the colony was tobacco, which needed a lot of land to be raised profitably; and Jamestown was a commercial venture. More and more Indian land was usurped by the settlers. Periodic Indian attacks were a demonstration of Indian power as they tried to contain the colony. In 1610, the Indian attacks caused the settlers to abandon their small town and retreat into the Jamestown Fort. Second, the Powhatans saw the English attempts to Christianize and civilize them as a threat to their way of life. Their silence in the earlier years was interpreted by the English as subservience.   
In 1622, it was apparent to the Indians that the English intended to expand again. The Powhatan Nation unleashed a massive attack upon the Jamestown colony. They killed families in the plantation houses and servants and workers in the fields. Almost four hundred settlers were left dead. The harsh treatment of the bodies was symbolic of their contempt for the English. In addition to the loss of life, the settlers also lost the valuable crops and supplies that they dearly needed to survive the next winter. Another 400 settlers died as a result.
The numerous arrivals of new settlers included many “gentlemen of privilege” who possessed no practical skills to survive in the wilderness. They could neither farm nor fight. There were recordings in journals that describe the INCOMPETENCE of these men. Their presence offered no contribution to the success of the colony, but only a drain on colony supplies.
A more recent theory contends that widespread depression caused people to stop holding onto life in the colony and turn to SUICIDE. The hungry settlers lived mainly on Indian maize (corn) which lacks the chemical tryptophan, an amino acid. The absence of tryptophan inhibits the synthesis of serotonin, resulting in severe depression and, over time, leads to an increased rate of suicide. The settlers own records indicate that they didn’t go out and hunt animals and were generally lethargic. Pioneering types are especially vulnerable to a loss of hope. In 1880, suicides on the American western frontier were 100 times higher than today. Letting the body chemistry get out of balance, a person’s biology can lose the ability to renew itself. 
Whatever the cause, or causes, the Jamestown settlement seems to have been doomed from the beginning. Eighty percent of the settlers who ever lived in the early Jamestown colony died in some horrible manner -  starvation, disease, poisoning, Indian attacks, their own incompetence, and suicide.

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