I hope you’re keeping well in these difficult times. I bring you a non-fiction book full of adventures, in case you are looking for something a bit different.
Captain John Smith, Adventurer: Piracy, Pocahontas and Jamestown by R E Pritchard
Captain John Smith is best remembered for his association with Pocahontas, but this was only a small part of an extraordinary life filled with danger and adventure. As a soldier, he fought the Turks in Eastern Europe, where he beheaded three Turkish adversaries in duels. He was sold into slavery, then murdered his master to escape. He sailed under a pirate flag, was shipwrecked and marched to the gallows to be hanged, only to be reprieved at the eleventh hour. All this before he was thirty years old. He was one of the founders of the English settlement at Jamestown, where he faced considerable danger from the natives as well as from within the faction-ridden settlement itself. In fact, were it not for Smith’s leadership, the Jamestown colony would surely have failed. Yet Smith was a far more ambitious explorer and soldier of fortune than these tales suggest. This swashbuckling Elizabethan adventurer was resourceful, intelligent and outspoken, with a vision of what America could become. In this riveting book, R.E. Pritchard tells the rip-roaring story of a remarkable man who refused to give in.
About the author:
Born in India, R.E. Pritchard read English at Balliol College, Oxford, before becoming a lecturer at Keele University. He has published widely on a range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century subjects, from Shakespeare’s England to the court of Charles II. He lives in West Oxfordshire.
Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. Having studied American Literature and read early historical texts, I was familiar with some selections of Smith’s writings (from A True Relation and The General History of Virginia), and we had discussed the different versions of his adventures and the mythology surrounding him in class, but I had never read anything else about him, so I took the chance when I saw this book, and it was worth it.
The book combines Smith’s own writing (his autobiographical accounts as well as his less personal ones) with research and use of relevant sources (at the end of the book there is a section of references for each chapter and further reading for those interested in a more detailed account, and also an index) to create a clear picture of the life of this amazing character. Although he might not fit into the romanticized and fictionalised figure we’re used to seeing in stories and movies, he was a fascinating man who went farther and had a clearer vision of the future than most of his contemporaries.
Pritchard does not allow himself any flights of fancy and sticks to documents and accounts of the period (Smith’s and others’) and to other author’s research to offer a chronological account of Smith’s life, with particular attention (and more space) dedicated to his American adventures. The style of those accounts is very factual, and it’s difficult not to imagine what somebody keen on embellishing and dramatizing the narrative could have done with the many assaults, attacks, kidnappings, dangerous situations, scary encounters, hopes and dreams, discoveries, betrayals, deaths, and disappointments. This makes for a less vibrant and exciting reading experience, but it also gives a more accurate idea of what the real man must have been like. This was not an individual keen on discussing personal matters, and he was not looking to offer readers a sensational narrative, but rather one that could convince others of the wealth and possibilities of the New World, and of the need to dedicate resources and investment to its exploration (and exploitation). He wanted his role to be recognised and his name to be remembered, for sure, but considering how his efforts were rewarded, it is far from surprising, and it seems that he deserved more credit than he ever got at the time.
The author allows the original texts (although he acknowledges some minor modernisation of the language to ensure its readability) to tell their story, rather than engaging in excessive comment, although he does provide necessary context and clarifications when required, in particular reminding us of the economic drive behind the expedition to America, which goes some way to explain some of the bizarre decisions taken by the powers that be back in England. (Let’s say common sense did not appear to be that common between those organising the expeditions and the practical side of things and any long-term goals seemed to be forgotten in favour of anything that could provide quick benefits).
If you are wondering about Pocahontas… She is mentioned quite a few times and despite the discrepancies in the accounts of her possible intervention on behalf of Smith (it seems that there are similar stories recorded by other adventurers who’d been similarly rescued by a young native girl, and it is suggested that perhaps it was some sort of ritual/performance some of the tribes used to greet/scare foreign guests), she is more than deserving of the attention she’s been given over the years.
The book also includes images from the original publications of Smith’s works, maps, illustrations, and portraits that help create a clearer picture of the period and the place in our minds.
I am not an expert on Smith or on early American History, but that is not necessary to enjoy this book. It is a good book for people interested in learning more about Smith and the early history of Jamestown, for amateur historians, and for those keen on researching the period (like writers of historical fiction) and obtaining good background information without having to read all the original accounts. I gained a good insight into the early years of Jamestown, and I think I got to know Smith much better than before. A no-frills account of a fascinating man and his historical period. Highly recommended.
Thanks to the author and the publisher for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, keep safe and take lots of care.