Today marks the 400th anniversary of the funeral of Rebecca Rolfe – known to most of us as Pocahontas.
So many books and films (not to mentions ballets and plays) have been made about Pocahontas that it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction – and one of the reasons I enjoyed this London Historians’ event so much is that our two speakers, Dr Clare Whitehead and Professor Emily Rose dispelled some of the myths which surround this undeniably fascinating woman and in particular her famous visit to London.
We know that Pocahontas was born in around 1596 – the daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about 30 Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. We know, too, that she was captured by the English during the Anglo-Indian hostilities of 1613 and held for ransom – which her father refused to pay. During her captivity, Pocahontas learned to speak English and also converted to Christianity. In 1614, she married John Rolfe, a tobacco planter from Norfolk, England.
It was a second marriage for Rolfe, whose first wife, together with their child, had died before he travelled to Virginia – and possibly a second marriage for Pocahontas, also (scholars are undecided). Differing views have been expressed as to how happy Pocahontas & John’s marriage was, but according to Professor Rose there is plenty of evidence that Pocahontas did love her husband – and none that she did not.
It was in 1616, a good two years after their marriage (not straightaway, as some historians claim) that Pocahontas, Rolfe and their son, Thomas, travelled to London, accompanied by a large entourage. Previously, historians have argued that the purpose of Pocahontas’ visit to London was to attract further investment into the Virginia Company of London, which had funded the Jamestown settlement in Virginia where Pocahontas and John met and which by then was in dire straits. Far from it, argues Professor Rose – in actual fact, the visit’s purpose was to raise funds from a pious public, in return for the promise of spiritual reward. And it worked – hundreds of pounds (the equivalent of many thousands today) were raised from church collections and later used to build schools and colleges.
What is certain, also, is that Pocahontas took London by storm. We know that, during her time here, she attended the Royal Court’s 12th Night Masque, Ben Johnson’s ‘The Vision of Delight’, to which she was accompanied by Lord & Lady Delaware – a social triumph which made Pocahontas internationally famous (copies of her portrait were sold around the world). John Rolfe, in the meantime, was purposely kept in the background – this was very much Pocahontas’s moment, at the key event in the royal calendar, and she impressed all & sundry. That said, she was whisked away directly afterwards and there is little evidence of anything else that she did during her time in the UK. Contrary to popular legend, she did not, as has previously been suggested, tour the U.K. – Pocahontas never even visited Rolfe’s ancestral home in Norfolk.
Sadly, Pocahontas would never return to her home country. In March 1617, on board a ship for Virginia, she was taken seriously ill just as the ship reached Gravesend, in Kent. Her funeral took place in the parish of Saint George’s in Gravesend and it is generally believed that Pocahontas was buried there, too, although the exact location of her grave remains unknown. John Rolfe did return to Virginia, where he later remarried, but without their son Thomas, who would travel back to the colony 20 years later. Today, it is estimated that c. 20,000 descendants of Pocahontas live in Virginia.
What an interesting time we had tonight. It left me wanting to go & find out more about this fascinating woman, whose life was cut tragically short but who left a lasting impression upon everyone who met her – and continues to be influential right up until the present day.