Commentary Magazine


Jamestown, 400 Years Later

We mark our wedding anniversaries with ever more precious materials—progressing from paper to gold to diamonds—but the process seems to be reversed with our national anniversaries. Over the years, the establishment of the first successful English colony in North America, which took place in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia, has been commemorated with ever diminishing means. This month, the 400th anniversary of the settlement was marked with a curiously stilted ceremony that, by official policy, actually avoided the word “celebration” itself.

One can understand why Native Americans and blacks might find little in this anniversary to celebrate. But it is noteworthy that the angriest attack of all should come from a British newspaper. According to the Guardian, if Jamestown is to be remembered at all, it should be as “the birthplace of African slavery, Native American genocide, and the global tobacco trade,” a veritable trifecta of human misery.

The newspaper has been widely and justly ridiculed for its remarks. African slavery, of course, existed long before 1607. It’s true that the American colonies served as a point of expansion for the international slave market into the New World. But the nation that grew from those colonies, along with its mother country, participated powerfully in the moral critique of slavery that led to its eventual extirpation in the West.

But this is not the most remarkable part of the Guardian’s essay. What really shocks the reader is the casual way in which it lists the export of tobacco as a historical crime alongside slavery and genocide. This is morally ridiculous, and factually inaccurate to boot. Tobacco was given by Native Americans (the Powhatan, specifically) to the Europeans, not the other way round. (The Guardian is evasive on this, speaking only of the “global tobacco trade,” as if the truly heinous crime were not the health risks of tobacco but capitalism itself.)

The consequences of tobacco’s importation were momentous, affecting everything from the balance of economic power in Europe to the rhythm and pattern of everyday life; only the potato (another New World product) rivaled its impact. The usual term for such a dynamic exchange of products, customs, and ideas between peoples is multiculturalism. It is amusing that the Guardian, a stalwart champion of “multicultural Britain” (as one can confirm by a simple check on Google) should be so squeamish about this.