History of the World According to the Movies: Part 24 – Early Colonization

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Of course, Disney’s 1995 Pocahontas is probably the only movie from the early colonization era most people have seen. However, for those who were kids when this movie came out, a lot of what this movie says about the founding of Jamestown is bullshit. For instance, John Smith looked much more like his voice talent Mel Gibson in real life than as a blond stud. He also had a talent for bullshit so some of the accuracy in his writings is sketchy. Also, Pocahontas was only a pre-teen in 1607 and never had any romantic encounter with John Smith at all. Talk about all that ruining your childhood.

Sure I may go back and forth from European history with the rest of the world. Yet, in many ways, history relating to Colonialism and Imperialism runs very much from the 1400s until after the Second World War, which means we’re covering a very large length of time. It is also a time of early globalization but not as we know it since many peoples are subjugated by European powers who may soon use white supremacy to justify it. Also, this era marks the beginning of slavery in the western world with the slave trade which was just unspeakably horrible with terrible implications we’re dealing with today. Many Hollywood movies usually take place at this time since there’s a lot of famous literature from this period in history sometimes told as adventures {like Kipling’s from British India}, pirates, exotic locations, and great white heroes. In fact, many filmmakers like doing movies set during this era because not only can they do an action packed adventure set in exotic locations, but also have a white male protagonist the audience can relate to (well, white audiences in the US or UK at least). Nevertheless, expect the White Man’s Burden to come up a lot in these movies whether intentionally or not, especially in literary adaptations in which the source material can be rather racist.

We begin this era with the Age of Exploration, in which traders tried to find a quicker route to Asia in order to bypass the Muslim middlemen. Though Columbus didn’t really discovered America, he opened the Americas up for business with the Columbian Exchange and the world would never be the same again. The Age of Colonization and international trade had begun. At first it was Spain and Portugal amassing colonial and trading empires but later powers like France, Britain, and the Netherlands would join in and be fabulously wealthy from it. Of course, you have the Spanish Conquistadors colonizing much of Latin America through guns, germs, and steel (as well as native allies who were fed up with their overlords). Areas of the Spanish Empire would include some islands in the Caribbean, most of Central America, much of South America except Brazil, the Guianas, and Suriname, the American Southwest, and Florida. The French would soon amass a colonial empire reaching from Canada all the way down to the Mississippi founding cities like New Orleans, Detroit, Montreal, St. Louis, Baton Rouge, Quebec City, Mobile, and Biloxi. Then you have the British who settled in Roanoke in the 1580s (which failed) and Jamestown around 1607 which would be the first permanent settlement of the Americas. Nevertheless, movies sometimes get a lot of facts wrong during the early colonization, which I should list accordingly.

Columbus:

Christopher Columbus sailed to the West Indies to prove that the world was round. (Actually he wanted to prove that sailing west would lead to a shorter route to the East Indies since most people in his day didn’t believe that there would be two mass continents on the way. He was wrong. Also, most Europeans haven’t believed in a flat earth since antiquity anyway {maybe even before Jesus}. The notion that Europeans believed the world was flat around the time of Columbus was just some bullshit made up by Washington Irving, which is rather insulting if you think about it.)

Columbus was the first European to make landfall in the Americas. (The Vikings were about five hundred years earlier, but they didn’t stay long. However, what is significant about Columbus’ landfall in the Americas is that it marks the start of a permanent European presence that changed the world. Thus, even though Columbus wasn’t the first European in the Americas, his voyages made more of an impact on history than the Vikings did.)

Columbus met his friend Diego Arana while on a trading voyage from Lisbon. (He didn’t meet the guy until several years later.)

One of Columbus’ men was eaten by sharks on his first voyage to the New World. (Nobody died during that voyage, at least at sea anyway. The thirty-nine men he left behind were killed by the time he returned to Hispanola.)

Columbus realized he didn’t land in India. (He never realized he actually landed in the Bahamas instead.)

Christopher was nearly executed during a near mutiny on his voyage. (He wasn’t, but he almost had his crew mutiny twice.)

Alonso Pinzon was a supportive sidekick to Columbus. (He was a case-hardened mariner whose support made Columbus’ voyage possible.)

Columbus was a forward-thinking idealist with his good intentions subverted by greedy and evil Spaniards. (He was a failure as a colonial founder and administrator that all his official responsibilities and duties were stripped by 1500 when the crown took charge and sent Columbus and his brothers home in chains. He also blamed everyone but himself for his spectacular fall from grace. Oh, and he systematically enslaved the Taino Indians, introduced Old World diseases to the New World {like smallpox}, and syphilis to bring back to Europe {but unknowingly and on accident}.)

The Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria all made it back to Spain. (The Santa Maria wrecked so only the Nina and Pinta made it back.)

Columbus took three voyages in which he fell out of favor on his second. (He took four voyages with the second tarnishing his reputation and the third leading to his downfall.)

Columbus’ achievements were forgotten until his son Hernando’s biography of him recounted them. (He was named and praised by all 16th century chroniclers.)

Explorations:

Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1523. (He sailed to Florida in 1513 and died in 1521.)

Conquistadores:

The Spanish were among some of the cruelest conquerors in history who exploited the Indians for gold via slave labor, destroyed their culture, and forced them to convert to Christianity. (Yes, they did all of that and yes, they were cruel but they were better overlords than, well, the English. At least the Spanish married native women and lived in a society that accepted their mixed race children. Not to mention, they also tried to make Christianity more accessible to the Indians and there were priests who argued that they be treated better {and many Indians converted willingly}. Besides, the Spanish conquistadors wouldn’t have overthrown the Aztec Empire without their Indian allies {who were already sick of the Aztecs by then}. Not only that, but their defeat of the Aztec Empire showed that the Aztec gods have failed them. And though the Spanish had wiped out about 95% of the Indian population in the Americas, they mostly did it by accident usually through the spread of their germs and probably never set foot in most of the areas where Indians died by their diseases. The English gave Indians smallpox blankets and ostracized people for marrying Indians, with the exception of John Rolfe, of course.)

The Spanish conquistadors brought the collapse of Mayan civilization. (Actually Mayan civilization had been nonexistent for centuries before the Spanish set foot and they mostly brought the collapse onto themselves perhaps through environmental destruction. Also, the people the Spanish conquistadors met were Aztecs, not Maya.)

In 1560, the large El Dorado expedition was under Gonzalo Pizarro set off from Peruvian Sierras. The only document surviving from this lost expedition is the diary of monk Gaspar de Carvajal. (Gonzalo Pizarro {half-brother of Francisco, by the way} died twelve years before the Ursua El Dorado expedition. As a matter of fact, he was executed as a famous traitor to the king of Spain. Pizarro’s El Dorado expedition took place in 1541 and came down from Ecuador led by Francisco de Orellana, which Carvajal did accompany him as well as chronicle it but the main body was forced to turn back due to hardships like disease and hunger. Yet, a small detachment {including Carvajal} did press on and managed to follow the Amazon River all the way down to the Atlantic as well as landed on the coast of Venezuela in 1542. Dominican Friar Gaspar de Carvajal wasn’t on the El Dorado expedition but rather living safely at his Lima monastery because he didn’t want to go on another expedition to the Amazon ever again since he had lost an eye from an Indian attack. However, he’s in Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God to serve as the voice of reason and narrator.)

Lope de Aguirre went mad and was marooned in the Amazon. (He brought his men down to the Atlantic following the same route that Carvajal had taken nearly twenty years before, reaching the mouth of the Amazon on July 4, 1561 and sailed from there to the Venezuelan island of Margarita where he instituted another reign of terror that matched his ferocity in his behavior in the Amazon. At the end of August, Margarita was devastated, while Aguirre had left for the Venezuelan mainland. He met his death at the hands of royalist forces in Barquisimento on October 27, 1561 since he had killed expedition leader Pedro de Ursua, Don Fernando, and at least forty members as well as launched a reign of terror in the Amazon and incited a rebellion against Philip II and schemed to overthrow Spanish rule in Peru. His body was quartered and thrown into the street and a solemn proclamation was issued requiring any house belonging to Aguirre be leveled and strewn with salt so “no trace or memory….should remain.” Many of Aguirre’s men were offered pardons.)

Lope de Aguirre was a common criminal and a pathological killer who went insane. (He was a middle-aged mercenary soldier who came to the New World in search of riches like many conquistadors and went there at a young age. However, while he did kill a lot of people and instigate reigns of terror as well as may have been crazy, he was also an astute politician and leader of men. He also found on the Amazon theater on what he believed equal to the scale of his vast ambitions, a place he could be in his own words “Prince of Freedom” and “Wrath of God.” He also was a guy who incited a rebellion against Philip II as well as gave a speech calling his men to relinquish their Spanish nationality. He even wrote a letter to the king shortly before his death.)

The Spanish Church sided with the strong during the 16th century. (Spanish missionaries in the New World were among the first people to denounce the conquistadors’ treatment of Indians {dating as early as 1511}, most famously Dominican Friar Bartolome de Las Casas. Many Spanish clergymen were also among some of the most renowned intellectuals of their day bringing old ideas about justice and responsibilities of kingship as well as a new culture of Renaissance driven thinkers like Erasmus and Saint Sir Thomas More. However, don’t get the impression that Spanish missionaries were totally wonderful people, because even the nicest ones had their limits in kindness and had played roles in wiping out Indians and their culture. Like the conquistadores, they also exploited Indians by having them work as slave labor and other abuses. Yet, though we do tend to somewhat blame Spanish missionaries for Indian cultural destruction, we also have to account that more Indian cultures were wiped out through European diseases, many of which never had contact with white people at all.)

Dominican Friar Gaspar de Carvajal died in a native ambush on the Amazon River. (He died of old age in his monastery in Lima in 1584.)

Dominican Friar Gaspar de Carvajal was a cowardly priest as well as corrupt religious fanatic who always sided with the strongest. (He was actually a born survivor who lost an eye during an Indian attack and had dedicated his life to the conversion of Indians {in other words, a missionary badass}. He had a benevolent attitude toward the Indians which was consistent with his fellow Dominican brother Bartolome de Las Casas.)

Spanish conquistadores believed in the lost city of El Dorado. (Actually this may have been based on a myth by the Chibcha Indians of South America. However, sometimes the Spanish authorities used this story to set up expeditions in search of this city of gold in hopes of getting troublemakers out of Peru, never to return.)

The El Dorado expedition of 1560 was lost. (Actually there’s more documentation of the last ten months of Lope de Aguirre’s life than his first fifty years because of this since it’s well documented. Also, people in South America very well knew what happened on this expedition.)

Francisco Orellana was buried in Nazca tomb in a Nazca fashion. (The Nazca culture was already extinct by 800 A.D. before the Spanish Conquistadors ever got to Peru in 1532. However, Orellana is said to have vanished while looking for a lost Nazca city. However, he’s unlikely to have met any Nazca.)

Jamestown:

Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life and carried on a romance with him. (Yes, she might have saved his life but no, she didn’t have a romantic relationship with him unlike what Disney says. Also, she was about ten or eleven at the time and she really wasn’t called Pocahontas but Matoaka. However, they did meet. By the way, when she saw him again, she slapped him in the face. Oh, and he also claimed about being “saved” by powerful women on more than one occasion. Not to mention, he didn’t write about Pocahontas saving his life in his 1608 account and that story first appeared in 1622, possibly to take advantage of her prominence in England. So it’s best to look at it with suspicion.)

Coastal Virginia was filled with mountains and thick pine trees. (Coastal Virginia is actually flat and swampy. Virginia’s mountains are hundreds of miles away from it.)

Governor John Ratcliffe was a villainous man. (He was actually more foolishly trusting than anything. Interestingly, he was flayed and later burned alive by Powhatan Indians in 1609 but of course, you wouldn’t see that in a Disney movie. Oh, and he wasn’t the first governor of Jamestown and wasn’t in charge during the voyage {though he was captain of the ship Discovery}. Nor was he sent back to England in chains after being removed. This was not over Indian treatment, but over enlisting colonists to build a governor’s house, trade with Indians, and handling food shortages. Not to mention, he and John Smith were allies and he didn’t think the Indians were barbaric because he’d been trading with them. Oh, and he died because Indians tricked him with a lure for food which resulted in his family unfriendly death in 1609. However, considering the circumstances Jamestown was facing, you couldn’t blame the guy.)

John Smith was a clean shaven handsome blond guy. (He was actually a short, portly, brown-haired, and bearded man as well as pushing thirty.)

John Smith was a decent guy when it came to the Indians. (John Smith was much more of jerk in real life and actually kidnapped an Indian leader so the guy’s tribe would provide him with plentiful resources. He had a tendency to exaggerate {or just plain make up} things in his accounts. He was also a mercenary and fantasist who could be ambitious, abrasive, self-promoting, and feisty. Still, he was competent even though he was unpopular among the colonists {well, the first wave who saw themselves as his social superiors}.)

The Indians and white Jamestown settlers all managed to make friends. (American history pertaining to Native Americans tells a very different story, very different. Besides, unlike what the Disney movie suggests, after John Smith had to seek medical attention for a “gunpowder accident,” relations between the Indians and settlers at Jamestown would shortly go to hell. Also, while John Smith would see Pocahontas again, he wouldn’t return to Jamestown.)

John Smith went scouting around after landfall in Virginia. (He was arrested and clapped in irons during the voyage {for concealing a mutiny} and wasn’t released until a month after landing at Jamestown. He did most of his exploring and trading after that.)

John Rolfe and Pocahontas had a serenely happy marriage and was easily accepted among the English. (She was probably not as happy or as accepted as depicted in The New World. One letter from an acquaintance said that Rolfe dragged her around as a “sore against her will.” Yet, the marriage did help stabilize native and settler relations. Oh, and Rolfe wasn’t above using his wife’s image to sell tobacco.)

John Smith was nearly executed on top of a bluff at dawn in front of angry colonists who had come to rescue him. (He was going to be executed in Powhatan’s longhouse in front of his warriors and counselors. The colonists didn’t know where he was. Of course, this is coming from the real John Smith.)

Chief Powhatan had a loving relationship with Pocahontas’s mother. (Maybe, but the guy had at least 50 wives each of whom gave him at least one child before being sent back to where they came from. Assuming she didn’t die in childbirth, we can say that Pocahontas’s mother would’ve suffered a similar fate though she’d be supported by Powhatan until she found another husband. So let’s just say that Powahatan and Pocahontas’s mother didn’t have a typical marital relationship.

Chief Powhatan was actually a good father to Pocahontas who was his only daughter. (Pocahontas was his favorite daughter but she was also one of his innumerable children by an estimated 50 wives. And of his kids, Smith also had contact with one of his sons. Also, he didn’t try to save her when she was kidnapped by the English, which led to her berating him and choosing to stay with the British as well as convert to Christianity. Of course, Powhatan had his reasons for not attacking the British camp. His people were also political savvy and very fierce in battle. Oh, and he may have ruled over as many as 34 tribes.)

Kocoum was an Indian who was betrothed to Pocahontas. (Mattaponi tradition holds that Kocoum was Pocahontas’ first husband who was killed after her capture in 1613 or may have not been murdered at all. Yet, there’s another theory that this guy could possibly be an Indian nickname of John Rolfe himself.)

Pocahontas was an Indian princess. (She was a chief’s daughter but she was presented at King James I’s court as one. Thus, she was viewed as a princess in her lifetime, just not among her own people.)

Edward Wingfield was shot and killed by settlers at Jamestown. (He died in 1630 in his eighties and wrote several books about Jamestown.)

Pocahontas was accompanied by her uncle Opechancanough while traveling in England who was to mark a notch on a stick every time he encountered an Englishman. (While the notches story is accurate, she was actually accompanied by her half-brother-in-law Tomocomo who was also sent to search for John Smith. He returned to Virginia with Samuel Argall and John Rolfe in 1617 but he didn’t have nice things to say about the English and was disgraced. Oh, and Opechancanough actually staged a massacre at the Virginia colony years later which killed 350 people in one hour.)

John Smith had tattoos. (The European practice of tattooing was dead for centuries and wouldn’t be readopted until a century later {unless if they were French Canadian soldiers}. However, it’s possible that John Smith might’ve had native tattoos though.)

King James I ordered John Smith to leave Jamestown. (He left for England in 1609 due to a gunpowder accident which resulted in severe burns, yet he recovered.)

Pocahontas was kidnapped by English settlers while John Smith was still in Jamestown. (Pocahontas was kidnapped in 1613. John left for England in 1609.)

Captain Christopher Newport had two fully functioning arms at Jamestown. (He had part of his arm severed before he landed at Jamestown.)

The first Jamestown colonists sailed on the Susan Constant. (They sailed on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery.)

New France:

Jesuit priests proselytized Indians and were accompanied by lay domestics on their missions back in 1634. (At this time, French Jesuit priests were sent in pairs partly to avoid sexual temptation. They only had lay domestics later in which they had to sign a civil contract and take a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience to accompany the Jesuit priests on missions. And no, they didn’t embark on long journeys so close to winter freeze-ups.)

French 17th century Jesuit priests baptized with saliva. (Saliva has never been a valid matter for baptism and no 17th century Jesuit {let alone any priest} would never have baptized anyone with their own spit.)

Algonquin Indians killed priests during disease outbreaks within their walls. (They never did this even though they knew that missionary priests may have spread the diseases that killed many of them.)

French colonists took Indian wives out of love. (They took Indian wives in order to help bring peace to the tribes and the French. Taking Indian wives also helped French Canadian fur traders do business with their indigenous in-laws, which benefited both parties.)

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One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 24 – Early Colonization

  1. Boy, my history teachers left a lot of this information out- and Disney did too! Columbus must have had good PR!

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