Trump uses her name as a racist insult, Disney twisted her story, PETER FROST tells the truth about a Native American woman who died 400 years ago
COME with me to the graveyard of St George’s Church in Gravesend, a small historic Kentish port on the banks of the Thames estuary. Here, looking out across the river is a full size bronze statue of a young native American princess. She wears a single feather in her head-dress and the plinth names her as Pocahontas.
Ironically she gazes across London’s river to what is now Tilbury Cruise Terminal but what, on June 22 1948, was the spot where a ship called the Empire Windrush delivered its cargo of West Indians to a war-devastated Britain desperate for immigrants to work its buses, trains and hospitals.
Pocahontas’s story and that of her Powhatan tribe of people is one of racism, exploitation and finally genocide. Even her name is actually part of the white imperialist strategy to discredit and devalue this young woman’s part in her nation’s proud history.
Although she is widely known as Pocahontas that name was actually a pejorative insult to her feisty nature. Her family and tribe had given her the name Matoaka, her white husband and abuser gave her his name and she became Rebecca Rolfe.
White imperialist history has given her the derogatory name Pocahontas — it translates as little wanton, spoiled child or naughty one. No wonder US President Donald Trump still uses it as a racist put-down for political rivals proud of their Native American origins.
Four hundred years ago, immigration to North America was just as big an issue as it is today. A group of Christians had left Boston in Lincolnshire to head for the new colony of Virginia. Today American children are taught to call them the Pilgrim Fathers.
Popular US culture tells us they were looking for a place to escape religious persecution. In reality they were looking for a group of people that they could persecute themselves. They were seeking what they saw as savages so that they could convert them to Christianity.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted Jomo Kenyatta on this subject, but referring to another continent. He said: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land, they said Let us pray. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
It was no different as the British empire put down its roots on the east coast of North America 400 years ago.
This Native American princess remembered in Kent died exactly four centuries ago this month. There will be many events and much media coverage to tell her story. Much of it will be generated by the mighty Disney Corporation who made a particularly saccharine and racist version of her life in a 1995 romantic musical animated film that took her name.
Recent announcements from President Trump’s public relations experts have alerted us to the curious concept of “alternative facts.” The popular telling of the story of Pocahontas certainly falls into the category of alternative facts or what simple folk like me would call blatant lies.
In 1607 a group of English immigrants moored up in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. The most famous was captain John Smith. Smith was a nasty piece of work, a mercenary who had come to America to seize land on the east coast for the white Englishmen and other Europeans who made up his party and his sponsors.
The most famous account tells us that Smith was captured by a tribal chief who was ready to kill him until Pocahontas ran and placed her head over his, saving him from death. Today most serious historians agree that this romantic incident never happened at all.
The young Pocahontas would have been only about ten at the time. Her father was tribal leader of the Powhatan people, a family of tribes who lived on and cultivated the land Smith and his colonists were trying to steal.
The English were still exploring the east coast. Their plan was to take over the valuable lands on which the native people lived. This led to years of conflict between the Powhatan native Americans and the newly arrived settlers.
Then in 1613, the young princess was raped, abducted and made pregnant. She was forced to marry one of her abusers, another rich English settler called John Rolfe. When her son Thomas was born, both mother and baby were imprisoned by British settlers in Jamestown.
Rolfe was the man that developed the native American’s smoking herb into what would become one of the new American colonies’ biggest, most profitable and in the long run most unhealthy industries. He developed the commercial farming of tobacco.
Rolfe converted his teenage wife to Christianity and then with others held her for ransom. She was never allowed to return to her village, being forced to stay with the English. Her instruction in the Christian faith led to her being baptised as Rebecca.
Two years later the Virginia Company of London, the company which funded the Virginia settlement, brought her to England as a symbol of how in the new colony they had tamed the local savages. In London she was the subject of much curiosity and even presented to royalty.
London had many diseases, the common cold, tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza, small pox and syphilis to which a native woman born and brought up on the American east coast would have little natural immunity.
Her health failed and she became very ill. She took a ship back to her homeland but fell into a coma and died on board, still near to Gravesend where her body was taken ashore for burial. She was just 22.
History tells the rest. Chief Powhatan died the following spring of 1618. The English colonists turned on the local native people who had shared their resources with them and had shown them friendship.
The Powhatan people were decimated and dispersed and their lands were taken over. A clear pattern had been set which would soon spread across the American continent. Between five and 10 million native Americans all across the country would die in the next 400 years — one of the most disgraceful acts of genocide in human history.
Today in Donald Trump’s US, there are at least 318 million people. All but 2 per cent, just 6.6 million native Americans, are immigrants. The immigrants have arrived from all across the globe to make the melting pot that is today’s United States. That cultural mix is what made the US the amazing place it is.
Now President Trump is trying to rewrite history with a rather distorted view of the progress of US immigration. He is persecuting and banning the newer immigrants in his efforts to rewrite his own distorted and racist view of the country his German and Scottish immigrant family want all for themselves.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 18 March 2017.