Cameron Colby, Jamestown (Osprey, 2024)
For some of the Indian tribes along the James River in what would become Virginia, the arrival of English ships in April 1607 meant little more than a new neighbour to accommodate and bargain with; for others, they were a threat to be destroyed. The first Englishmen came to exploit the land and local tribes then return to England wealthy men. That conflict of interest led to raids, skirmishes, open warfare, and two massacres along with other atrocities. Cameron Colby surveys those opening decades in Anglo-Indian affairs.
Colby begins with the English poking around in the New World in the late 16th Century before building Jamestown in 1607. Awaiting them was the Powhatan confederacy, a group of local woodland indigenous tribes, living in a very different political and cultural landscape than the English. Misunderstandings were almost inevitable. From its inception, the Jamestown settlement was rife with internal dissension and mutual distrust with the Indians. Under the leadership of John Smith, however, relations with the Indians improved for a while, but that broke down in 1609 prompting raids and counter-raids. This escalated into war after Smith returned to England. The Indians besieged Jamestown almost causing its abandonment, but instead, the English took the offensive.
The often fragmented nature of politics and war in the Chesapeake region is evident from Colby’s discussion of the leaders on both sides. Subordination was a flexible, sometimes nominal, concept among the Indian tribes, and perhaps surprisingly, at Jamestown too. The ebb and flow of conflict and peace was, therefore, driven by the character of the leaders on both sides. Colby next considers organisation and tactics. The Powhatan Confederacy lacked warriors, and their main mode of warfare was raiding, though some larger engagements took place. For defence, they built palisades around their towns. The bow-and-arrow was their primary weapon with clubs and rudimentary swords used in close-quarters. The English were often battle-hardened veterans of European wars and brought their tactics and weaponry with them. That meant muskets, pikes, and armour, and cannons to defend their fortified settlements. The opposing sides also had different strategic goals. Not all the Powhatan tribes sought the total destruction of the English, preferring to keep them penned into the Jamestown area. The English initially wanted conquest and booty before settling in to defend what they had before subsequent expansion.
Serious organised violence began in 1609. Colby narrates the First Anglo-Powhatan War, which began with a misunderstanding and an atrocity followed by the destruction of a native village and then a war in which English fort building failed, John Smith was wounded and evacuated, and his successor made a mess of things. The Indians besieged Jamestown for six months. Then, on the point of abandonment, a relief fleet arrived, and the tide of war turned in favour of the English, though not without setbacks. A new English commander, Thomas Dale, arrived in 1611 to press the advantages bestowed by armour and muskets. By 1612, the exhausted Powhatan curtailed their war effort and diplomacy ruled, ending with the marriage of Pocahantas to John Rolfe in 1614. By 1622, English settlement had expanded, but the colonists had grown complacent. On 22 March 1622, nine tribes of Indians struck across the colony and massacred everyone they could find. When the news hit England, reinforcements were sent, while the survivors in the colony counterattacked. Reorganised and regalvanised, the English turned the tide again until both sides were exhausted and a standoff ensued, though peace was not established fully until 1632. War erupted again in 1644, but by 1646, the English had finally pushed out the Indian tribes in the region. Colby concludes with a brief description of the area today with its ‘historic triangle’ of museums and sites.
Jamestown 1622 is one of the longer Osprey books you will read in the Campaign series format. Cameron Colby has a lot of ground to cover though for a complex series of engagements driven by misunderstandings between cultures that barely had anything in common – the longer than usual bibliography attests to that. Colby succeeds admirably for a survey such as this. Moreover, he balances the history by starting with the Powhatans in each section, steering away from the traditional Anglocentric narratives. He is ably supported by some excellent maps and artwork by Marco Capparoni. Students of Early Colonial America will undoubtedly enjoy this book, as will military history readers, wargamers, and anyone else in search of a fascinating story from the foundational period in Anglo-American history.