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A Portrait of Rebecca: What Became of Pocahontas?

27/04/2015 10:23 BST | Updated 23/06/2015 10:59 BST

To this day, Simon van de Passe's 1616 engraving of Rebecca Rolfe is displayed in London's National Portrait Gallery.

It was the first of many depictions of the indigenous Virginian woman, who married English colonist John Rolfe 401 years ago this month in 1614. This is the only known depiction of Rebecca, formerly known as Pocahontas, rendered from life.

After a voyage of 5 months, English entrepreneurs arrived in Tsenacommacah, now modern day Virginia in America, with a charter from the Virginia Company of London, a Capitalist Venture.

Not without difficulty did the colonists establish the first English settlement at Jamestown on May 14th 1607. The Virginia Native Americans, a population of 14,000 people, had already lived in this Algonquian speaking region for around 10-12,000 years. Amongst them was Pocahontas, born around 1595, daughter of Wahunsenacawh, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah.

It was hoped that the 1616 engraving and her exposure to English society would attract more colonists and investors. Although not a princess in the context of Powhatan culture, she was presented as such to the English Public; in the 1616 engraving, she holds an ostrich ploom as a sign of royalty and her beaver skin hat recalls that of a Jacobean Lady in Waiting. The inscription on the portrait, commissioned by the Virginia Company, reads: "Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia." In his 19th century book The Story of Pocahontas, Charles Dudley Warner remarks "It was the English who magnified the imperialism of her father and exaggerated her own station as princess." This visual representation reveals just one of the many ways in which a Central European Optic shaped a particular view of Native Americans. In truth, she would have led a life not too dissimilar from other young girls in the region.

At first the English were welcomed by feasts and tobacco ceremonies by the natives who were initially glad to trade provisions with them for metal tools. However, the English were looking for exploitable resources that could be shipped home quickly for an easy profit; the likes of citrus fruit and gold would otherwise have to be imported from abroad. The initial group of colonists, under Governor Ratcliffe, never planned on growing all their own food and in the summer of 1608, the Indian Corn Crop came in late...

The Powhatan people soon realised the English did not settle to trade with them. The English wanted more control over the land. By 1609 the colonists burned down the natives' houses and stole their food supplies. When Pocahontas first befriended Captain John Smith, president of the third Jamestown Council, she was around 12 years old. She began to make frequent trips to the settlement, delivering messages from Powhatan and arranging for the exchange of food and weapons. However, between 1609 and 1610, around the time of the first Anglo-Powhatan War, all but 60 out of 500 colonists died during this "Starving Time".

Various attempts at faming led to kidnappings and murders by the Powhatan. This along with disease obliterated the initial English population. The first Anglo-Powhatan war lasted until Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas. He held her for ransom and demanded the release of English prisoners held by her father.

Whilst held captive, Pocahontas met Rolfe. In a letter to Governor Dale, this member of the Third Supply Fleet asked for permission to marry the Virginian Native for "the good of the plantation...and the honour of God." Pocahontas's feelings about the marriage are unknown. When he heard she was to be engaged to Rolfe, Wahunsenacawh immediately gave his approval and the two sides came to a peace treaty. The colonisation of Tsenacommacah was to shape a war-like form of masculinity, in which women were 'saved' from their own people through the patriarchal institution of Christian marriage. However, this colonising mission itself was shaped in masculine terms by marriages like Rebecca and John's. Such relationships were underpinned by political dimensions and inspired by the Church's endorsement of colonialism. Masculinity, in this way, intensified the virility of the colonial mission and the relationship between colonialism and masculinity became mutually reinforcing.

To the disappointment of its investors, the colonists failed to discover gold or silver. However, Smith's books, written after his return to England detailing his adventures in Virginia, sparked a resurgence of interest and investment in the colony.

Their biggest trade breakthrough came when Rolfe introduced several sweeter strains of Tobacco from the Caribbean. According to Hamor, the marriage served an especially useful function; Rebecca taught her husband the Powhatan method of curing tobacco. Rolfe's first harvest of 4 barrels of tobacco leaf was exported from Virginia to England in 1614 and soon he was exporting vast quantities of this new cash crop, securing the survival of the colony. By marrying Rolfe, Rebecca became implicated in the steady expansion of land for the growth of the new English cash crop and dominance of the colonists.

As well as the resurgence of commercial interest in the colony back in England, there was a moral call by clergymen to support the stranded colonists. Before her marriage, Pocahontas was instructed in Christianity by Minister Alexander Whittaker. The new name he baptised her with was derived from the Book of Genesis; interestingly, Rebecca left her own people to join her husband's tribe becoming the mother of two nations.

The colonial power distributed through the institution of the Church also exacerbated the differences between the settlers and the inscrutable natives who had an incompatible way of life. Its authority strengthened the superiority of the Central European worldview and helped maintain White dominance in the region.

By applying Christianity as an unshakable maxim to uncomprehending natives, the colony provided validity for its claims that the indigenous people were inferior. Incomprehensible under the scrutiny of this Central European gaze, the two groups were divided further and the natives were presented to the English Public and potential investors in a way that justified the colonists' interventions and called for their redemption. Through this particular optic, the English developed knowledge about the natives presented as objective truth. Their so-called redemption of these degenerate "heathens" allowed them to re-appropriate the land. In Orientalism, Edward Said wrote that for the colonists "to dominate it, to have authority over it and authority here means for "us" to deny autonomy to 'it'...". Such currency is appropriated by the colonists to assume control over the native people and the land.

As part of a Propaganda campaign, the couple travelled to England in 1616 with their young son, Thomas. Rebecca, the first Native American to arrive in England, was apparently treated well in London. She was even brought before the King James 1, whom Jamestown was named after.

In England she became an icon. The Virginia Company wanted to present the indigenous people as peaceable, compliant and eager to receive the teachings of Christ. Rebecca thus became the embodiment of the "right thinking savage".

An Indian woman of high status would have had facial tattoos. In spite of this, the van de Passe engraving appears to have eliminated these and although this particular depiction from life emphasises her indian features, later portraits often portray her as more European in appearance.

Whilst on show in London, Rebecca acquired the social capital of the dominant culture; her European dress and manners namely constituted her visual assimilation to English society. Her objectification helped to secure the force of the propaganda campaign and her image capitulated to its discourse.

The couple's marriage was known as a "golden age" for both sides in the Virginian region. It brought eight years of peace before a second war from 1622 to 26. Although the English reported that she wished to remain with her new people, as a diplomatic figure for both sides, Rebecca still expressed concerned for the security of those she had left behind.

On their return to Virginia in March 1617, Rebecca, who at just 22 led a most remarkable life, died of a brief illness. Her body was buried in Gravesend. Charles Dudley Warner commented that "After almost 40 years of tenuous existence surrounded by a generally hostile Indian nation, the Virginian Colony emerged victorious and effectively devastated the Powhatan nation and broke up the confederacy by 1646." The English colonists were successful compared to other european invaders before them because they resorted to diplomatic means until they could secure reinforcements from their densely populated motherland.

Today America is unrecognisable. Rebecca did not "learn what things could be done in the Christian name she loved," and did not "see her husband in a less honourable light then she left him...". Warner writes, "dying when she did, she rounded out one of the prettiest romances of all history." Sadly, today she is remembered because of "her friendship for those who destroyed her people."