Colonial Cannibals

“Nothing could cure his hunger/He opened her belly the way his father/Cut through feathers of sick chickens… With only flames as witnesses/He boiled pieces of her for the supper/He knew might be his last.” 

– From The Starving Time, Jamestown, 1610 by Henry Hart

Jamestown, Virginia: The first permanent English settlement in the New World (courtesy of http://www.preceden.com)

In the summer of 1609, the Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth, England as the flagship for a seven-ship fleet to Jamestown, Virginia. The ships carried supplies and roughly 500 settlers to the New World colony, which was in dire need of replenishment.

Lack of food, an inability to cultivate crops and deteriorating relations with the indigenous Indian tribe—the Powhatans—had caused widespread famine, disease and death. To make matters worse, Captain John Smith—one of Jamestown’s leaders and the man famous for his friendship with Pocahontas—injured himself in a gunpowder accident and was forced to return to England.

Smith had been integral in securing a truce with the Powhatan people. But his replacement, George Percy, was far less effective as a negotiator. And it didn’t take long for the truce to end.

Fortunately, though, relief was on the way. Or so the Jamestown colonists thought.

A hurricane in late July tore through the fleet, separating the ships and sending the Sea Venture to Bermuda, where it was intentionally grounded to prevent sinking. Sadly, most of the supplies were on the Sea Venture. So when the six remaining ships finally reached Jamestown, they too were short on food, but long on settlers.

No food + more settlers (most of them sick or starving) = disaster waiting to happen. You do the math.

Conditions continued to deteriorate in Jamestown when Chief Powhatan prevented trade with the colony and basically kept its settlers prisoner. Those who ventured outside the walls could be kidnapped, hurt or killed, while those who remained in the encampment starved to death.

Starving Time 1609-10 (courtesy of Sidney King)

It was the winter of 1609 and 1610, a period known simply as The Starving Time.

When things got really desperate, the Jamestown settlers had little choice but to eat everything in sight: horses, dogs, cats, rats and—according to a number of historical accounts—even each other.

More on that in a moment.

After grounding the Sea Venture in Bermuda, the captain and crew spent almost ten months constructing two new vessels: the Deliverance and the Patience. They set sail for Jamestown the following May and arrived two weeks later to a startling sight.

Of the 500 colonists who originally settled Jamestown, only 60 or so remained. And what’s worse, some of those who lived had to turn to a taboo practice to ensure their survival: cannibalism.

Incidentally, it was George Percy’s account of The Starving Time that inspired Henry Hart (see above). And in terms of actually knowing what happened during this period, historians have only accounts from witnesses to rely upon… or at least they did.

It was revealed this Wednesday that archaeologists excavating James Fort—the original site of the Jamestown settlement—discovered the first forensic evidence of cannibalism in the American colonies: skeletal remains from a 14-year-old girl that suggest someone may have tried to eat her.

Researchers unearthed a tibia as well as most of a human skull in what appeared to be a trash deposit from the 17th century. And from the looks of it, several people with very different butchering skills—one more professional and the other noticeably less so—tried to open the skull and even cut the face and throat.

“The person doing this was clearly interested in, based on what would have been accepted cuisine in the 17th century, cheek meat, muscles of the face and tongue,” said Douglas Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “And in terms of 17th century traditional cuts, [this] would also include the brain.”

Driven by desperate famine, a colonist in the Starving Time killed and ate his pregnant wife.

One colonist killed and consumed his pregnant wife! (courtesy of http://www.history.org)

The 14-year-old victim has been named “Jane” and is believed to have been a passenger on one of the six British ships that landed at Jamestown in August of 1609—the ones scattered by that hurricane only a month earlier. Like her fellow passengers, Jane was probably sick and malnourished. And when she finally died, other survivors saw it as an opportunity and obviously tried to make a meal out of her.

Gross.

Of course, desperate people do desperate things. In the case of The Starving Time, colonists did what they must to survive, even making sure to only eat the “recently dead” (rather than dining on the living in some kind of bloody free-for-all… for the most part, at least). And faced with starvation, disease and hostile natives, who among us would be incapable of doing the same?

Not this guy. A man’s got to eat, right?

Posted on May 3, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. They say Jimmy Hoffa ended up in a hotdog plant, though no one knows for sure.

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