Pocahontas

She may be a much loved film star now but during her lifetime Pocahontas was not short of insult, upset and injury. She died pitifully young, her real name has been forgotten, her most famous exploit is probably a fiction, she was taken hostage, she was ignored by a king — and she lived in Brentford!

Pocahontas was born around 1595 in present day Virginia, the daughter of Wahunsunacock, the Chief of the Powhatan tribe. Her given name was Mataoaka but because of her wilful nature she was called Pocahontas, which means “wanton one” in the Powhatan language. Legend says that one of her favourite activities as a child was to turn cartwheels in the street — stark naked!

The first English colonists arrived in Virginia in May 1607 when Pocahontas was about 13 years old. John Smith, a leader of the group recounted that he was captured by Powhatan hunters. According to Smith, he was laid across a stone and was about to be beaten to death with clubs when Pocahontas threw herself across his body:

“Pocahontas, the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death”.

Pocahontas and son

Recent research suggests that Smith was either making this story up, confusing it with a similar experience he had when he was captured by Turks in Hungary in 1602 or simply misunderstanding a ceremony to make him a Powhatan. Whatever the truth Pocahontas became useful to both the settlers and the Powhatans. In 1608, Pocahontas negociated for the release of natives captured by the British. Later she helped the settlers through a severe winter by bringing them much-needed food. John Smith credited Pocahontas with preserving “this Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion” for “two or three yeeres.”

In the same year Pocahontas is said to have saved John Smith a second time when he and other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by her father Chief Powhatan. They were treated kindly but missed the tide and had to stay the night. Pocahontas told Smith that her father was planning to kill them when they put down their weapons to eat and she begged them to leave. Alerted to the danger the settlers kept their weapons ready by them while they were eating and no attack came.

The following year, 1609, John Smith had to return to England for medical attention after being blown up in a gunpowder explosion. Pocahontas, who was now about 14 years old, was told that he was dead.

In 1613 Pocahontas was taken captive by the colonists who wanted to ransom her for British prisoners held by Chief Powhatan. During her time in captivity she was taught English and Christianity. She also met a pious and recently widowed tobacco grower John Rolfe who fell in love with her, even though…

“she is one whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed, and so discrepant in all nutritive from myself.”

Rolfe overcame his qualms and they were married on April 5th 1614, as Rolfe put it…

“for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation… and for Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled.”

The marriage helped create a climate of peace – the peace of Pocahontas – between the colonists and the Powhatan tribes. One settler wrote “we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powahatan but also with his subjects round about us”.

On January 30th 1615 John Rolfe and the recently baptised Pocahontas – now renamed Lady Rebecca – had a son Thomas.

In 1616 John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Thomas came to Britain to demonstrate that the colonies were safe for further settlement and the natives were friendly and amenable. While she was in Britain Pocahontas heard that her old friend John Smith was alive and well. Smith wrote to Queen Anne asking that Pocahontas might be treated with respect as a royal visitor, because if treated badly “her present love to us and Christianity might turn to… scorn and fury, and England might lose the chance to rightly have a Kingdom by her means."

When it was noticed that Pocahontas was affected by London’s smoky air the family moved out of the city to Brentford and lived for about six months in a house that once stood on the site of the Post Office Sorting Office, next door to the Pets supermarket. It has been suggested that they may have been invited to Brentford by the owner of Syon Park, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, whose brother George Percy had been governor of the settlements in Virginia in 1607.

Although Pocahontas was celebrated throughout London she was never given a formal audience with King James 1st. She and her companion, a Powhatan shaman called Tomocomo, did meet him at a performance of a masque at Whitehall Palace but did not realise who he was until afterwards. Tomocomo was disappointed that no presents were exchanged. He said to John Smith “You gave Powhatan a white dog, which Powhatan fed as himself, but your King gave me nothing, and I am better than your white dog!”

In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. However, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend when Pocahontas became ill. She was taken ashore and died, probably from pneumonia or tuberculosis. According to Rolfe, her last words were “all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth.” Her funeral took place on March 21st 1617. The site of her grave is unknown, but her memory is recorded by a life sized bronze statue in St George’s Church, Gravesend. There is also a tour boat operating out of Gravesend called the ‘M.V Pocahontas’.

A lot of Americans claim kinship with Pocahontas through her son Thomas, including designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild, astronomer Percival Lowell and the former First-Lady Nancy Reagan. As far as we know nobody from Brentford has stepped forward so far claiming the same lineage.

— from Martyn Day