Gravesend’s Indian Princess Pocahontas
PUBLISHED: 18:12 20 May 2016 | UPDATED: 18:12 20 May 2016
The short but memorable life of the young Indian princess with links to Virginia and Gravesend, her final resting place.
Had Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this year, lived a little longer, he would surely have met Gravesend’s most famous historical figure.
On 3 June 1616, just six weeks after the poet’s death, Pocahontas arrived in England with her English-born husband John Rolfe. The hurricane that shipwrecked Rolfe in 1609 is said to have inspired The Tempest, while Pocahontas was ‘friend of the earliest struggling colonists’ as the windows at St George’s Church proclaim, in the ‘brave new world’ that fascinated Shakespeare.
Those colonists had been sent by the Virginia Company in London, set up by charter from James I, to settle at a suitable site.
In May 1607 three ships arrived at the place they named Jamestown, carrying 104 men and boys. Notables included the colony’s President, Captain John Smith, and George Percy, son of the 8th Earl of Northumberland. However, it was not a promising start.
The settlers were too reliant on the co-operation of mighty Powhatan, chief of the Algonquian-speaking tribes and overlord of the Chesapeake lands. He played fast and loose with the inexperienced settlers, quickly capturing Smith, who thought he would be killed.
Pocahontas was one of Powhatan’s children, born around 1596. Pocahontas and Smith are often said, probably incorrectly, to have had a romantic relationship; years later he said she saved his life, although it is now thought he misinterpreted her actions.
After a brief period of goodwill between settlers and Indians, during which Smith said Pocahontas helped ‘preserve the Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion’, a gunpowder accident saw him leave Virginia in 1609. The goodwill deteriorated. Settlers died from disease, fighting and famine. Farmer John Rolfe was coming with supplies and settlers on Sea Venture when it was wrecked off Bermuda. By the time he and other survivors arrived in May 1610, the 600 colonists had been reduced to fewer than 70.
Then the Anglo-Powhatan wars began. New governor Sir Thomas Dale oversaw the building of a new city, Henrico, where Rolfe began tobacco farming. There he met Pocahontas, who had been taken hostage by the English to encourage peace negotiations with her father.
Living at the Chaplain’s house, and already speaking English, she was taught to dress and behave as a lady and given Christian instruction. Rolfe, whose farm became a commercial success, asked Dale for consent to marry her.
Seeing a chance for peace, Dale and Powhatan both approved. Pocahontas converted, taking the name Rebecca on baptism, and they were married at Jamestown on 5 April 1614.
News of both peace and the conversion of Pocahontas was welcomed in England. The Bishop of London, Dr John King, was among those who fervently wanted to plant a Protestant colony in the New World and saw their holy mission as converting the savages.
However, the Virginia Company badly needed funds. Lotteries began and plans were proposed to set up a religious school for the children of settlers and Indians. When Dale suggested a visit by Rebecca, the Company eagerly agreed. Her status as daughter of a Chief would equate her with royalty, gain her entry into London society and encourage investment.
With their son Thomas, born in 1615, the Rolfes left Virginia in May 1616 and arrived in Plymouth on 3 June, with Dale and other Indians, including maids to emphasise Rebecca’s importance. In London she is thought to have lodged at La Belle Sauvage in Ludgate Hill. The Bishop entertained her ‘with festival state and pompe’, wrote Samuel Purchas, ‘beyond what I have seene in his hospitalitie afforded to other Ladies.’ Society artist Simon de Passe engraved her portrait, playwright Ben Jonson wrote about her.
Unfortunately the London air gave Rebecca respiratory problems, so in autumn they moved to Brentford, where George Percy’s family owned the Syon estate.
There she saw John Smith again, a difficult meeting, for until they arrived in England she had believed him dead.
On Twelfth Night 1617 at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, Rebecca attended Jonson’s masque The Vision of Delight and was received by King James. Tradition says the Rolfes also visited Heacham in Norfolk, where his family lived.
In March 1617 they left London on the George to return to Virginia: it was ‘sore against her will’, wrote chronicler John Chamberlain, but Rolfe was now Secretary to the Colony.
Her wish to stay was fulfilled. At Gravesend she fell ill and was taken ashore. On 21 March she died, aged 20, possibly from TB. The register of St George’s Church records her burial under the chancel, although gives John’s name as Thomas. Fearing for their sickly son, Rolfe left Thomas in England, telling Sir Edwyn Sandys: ‘My wives death is much lamented; my childe much desired when it is of better strength to endure so hard a passage’. He never saw Thomas again. Rolfe died in March 1622, shortly before a massacre, for peace had ended.
Thomas later married and settled in Virginia: among his descendants are eminent Americans. Hardly surprising then that at some stage America would want Pocahontas back.
In 1909 the Home Secretary received a request to carry out a search for her remains so they could be housed in a ‘magnificent memorial’ back in Washington. Meanwhile, in 1914 the Colonial Dames of America donated the commemorative windows to St George’s Church
In January 1923 the Home Office asked the Rector of St George’s, Canon Gedge, for consent to search. However, St George’s had been destroyed by fire in 1727 and later rebuilt.
Gedge advised that the partially burned bones from the chancel had been relocated more than once and that the church was enlarged in 1897.
He felt the most likely place was in the vault of the unknown Curd family and asked that any permission include a wider search if it be empty, because ‘it might be difficult to arrive at the precise spot’. Edward Page Gaston, an American investigator, was granted consent and said the search would be done ‘in a reverent but thorough manner’. At 6.30am on 30 May 1923, the vault was opened. It was a disaster. The area above the Curds’ coffins had become a dumping ground for displaced skeletons, animals and rubbish.
‘100 skeletons dug up!’ shouted the Daily Express, ghoulishly. ‘They brought up bucket after bucket of bones which were sorted into heaps on the grass.’ One skull ‘approximated to the Red Indian type’ but analysis by the British Museum proved inconclusive. Churchwardens expressed their disgust at 300-year-old bones being disturbed and local people muttered that the ‘curse of Pocahontas’ would fall upon Gaston. Canon Gedge reinterred 50 skeletons in a short ceremony to appease public opinion.
So, 400 years after she arrived, Pocahontas remains in the country where she wanted to stay, in the town where she last saw her husband and son: Gravesend, which is proud to commemorate the young woman who helped in the survival of the first permanent English settlement in North America. What a pity Shakespeare missed her. w