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The Collation

Experiences of Captivity in the Books of John Smith

9 images panels in a grid depicting some of John Smith's (supposed) adventures
9 images panels in a grid depicting some of John Smith's (supposed) adventures

In the early modern period, captivity was a recurring danger, both for Europeans who traveled throughout the world and the people they encountered there. These captivities could take a number of forms: people could be enslaved outright, taken hostage, or held as prisoners of war. The nature and meaning of these captivities changed over time and according to the beliefs and traditions of the groups participating.1 Among the famous captives of the early seventeenth century, John Smith is perhaps one of the best known. Two books in the Folger Shakespeare Library shed light on three significant captivities in Smith’s life: two of Smith’s own captivities, as well as that of a woman his people held prisoner, known most commonly as Pocahontas.2 Captivity was part of the experience for those who shaped Jamestown, and these images suggest that the identity of a captive shaped readers’ understandings of what their captivity meant.

Title page of John Smith's
Title page of John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia. Folger call number: STC 22790c.2.

John Smith had already been a captive well before setting foot in Virginia. He was a dogged self-promoter, and his True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine Iohn Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America touted his bravery in the face of danger. An image in the Folger’s digital collections shows his experience being captured in what he identified as Tartaria. In one image, he is presented to the Bashaw of Nalbrits, barefoot and in a slave collar. This was part of a longstanding practice of taking European captives for ransom. As Smith described it, he was forced to labor in a field. The final image in the plate is a triumphant one. It shows Smith killing the Bashaw before disguising himself and escaping captivity.3

9 images panels in a grid depicting some of John Smith's (supposed) adventures
Plate from John Smith’s The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain Iohn Smith. Folger call number: STC 22796 Copy 1.

In the image of Smith’s escape from slavery he is depicted in the action of bringing a threshing bat down on his fallen captor’s head. Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles contains another image of a prone man, about to have his brains dashed out—in this case, the unfortunate victim in mortal peril is Smith himself. In 1607 Smith was taken prisoner by the local Indigenous leader, Powhatan, and in his Generall Historie Smith describes himself as being at the point of execution when he was saved by Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter, who pleaded for his safety. This too is a story of Smith’s bravery and daring—the image of his being taken prisoner shows him almost single-handedly facing a large group of attackers. Historians have questioned the veracity of Smith’s accounts, especially given that he did not tell the story of Pocahontas’ rescue until many years after these events transpired.4 What we can see here is how Smith wanted to be viewed—as a man who withstood repeated captivities and walked free.

6 panels showing different parts of John Smith's experience in Virginia
Plate from John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia. Folger call number: STC 22790.

There is a third major image of captivity in Smith’s books, one that is downplayed compared to his own heroics. Also in the Folger’s copy of the Generall Historie is an image of Pocahontas that looks quite different from the other representations of Native people in the plates. In 1613 the English captured Pocahontas and held her ransom in an attempt to force Powhatan to return a group of English prisoners. Depending on one’s perspective, her captivity ended with her conversion and marriage to John Rolfe or continued for the rest of her short life. The image in the Generall Historie depicts her as a Christian woman, heavily clothed and wearing a stiff lace collar. Throughout her short life, she was an important intermediary between the English and Powhatan worlds. Her marriage and conversion was in some ways a continuation of this diplomacy, but also a response to pressures from English settlers.

Printed portrait of a woman in period-typical 17th century clothing including a tall hat and a still lace collar. around the portrait is text that reads
Plate from John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia. Folger call number: STC 22790.

The image of the captive identified as “Matoaka, alias Rebecca” is very different from the plates of Smith’s captivities. Here she is not in the midst of escaping her captivity; as would be the case for many Indigenous captives, she was encouraged to assimilate to the European culture that held her. Smith’s versions of events would be repeated through the years, shaping history textbooks and popular depictions. These images in the Folger collection allow us to see how becoming a prisoner in the early seventeenth century could be presented quite differently, shaping diplomacy in early Virginia and the American imagination in the centuries that followed.

  1. On captivity in the British empire, see especially Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002).
  2. She was called Matoaka as a child and Rebecca Rolfe after her conversion, but Smith refers to her as Pocahontas.
  3. On Smith’s promotional writings, see Walter W. Woodward, “Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England: A Study in Early Modern Identity and Promotion,” New England Quarterly 81:1 (March 2008): 91-125.
  4. Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 52.