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Cannibalism at Jamestown

Recently there was an article in the Smithsonian about evidence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

Settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported last week. This is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas, according to the Washington-based museum and research complex. [Cannibalism at Jamestown]

This is not shocking since cannibalism was always suspected at Jamestown. A brief history of the place and the people will help us understand the reasons for this peculiar diet. During the 17th century, Spain was a superpower with the plundered wealth from South America and England wanted to get on with the same game. Hence Virginia company was setup to explore the land to the North of the Spanish colonies. In December 1606, much before the Mayflower voyage, three ships set sail to the East Coast of what would later be United States to establish a colony. It was a daring attempt because two previous colonies had disappeared. But driven by faith in their technology and superiority of their culture, they ventured to discover gold, which would bring wealth to them as well as their investors.

They landed near Chesapeake Bay in April 1607  and found a place near the James river to hide  from the sight of the Spanish ships prowling the waters. But things did not go as planned. First, they did not find any gold. Second, the summer came and the insects and humidity from the swamp started affecting the invaders who were not used to this. Third, the 13,000 native Americans who lived under the leadership of Chief Powhatan did not welcome the settlers with garlands, but with arrows. The settlers built walls, at twice the height of a man, to keep the natives away, but that did not save them from starvation.

They ran out of food and had to ration the barley. Among the 200 odd people who had set foot in the country, only fifty remained and those fifty were surrounded by hostile natives. Also to add to the misery, the area saw a drought unseen in seven centuries; salt water from the ocean crept into the river and the poisoning and dehydration that followed killed many more. That’s when their leader James Smith took a gamble and met Chief Powhatan. They could have been butchered, but fortunately for them the shiny stones they took with them got them food to survive. James Smith wrote an exaggerated account of his romance with the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, but she was a child when this happened.

The colony survived for three years and James Smith went back to England. The colony was repopulated with new arrivals from England and once again starvation set in. By this time the relation between the settlers and the native Americans had turned sour and they could not beg for food. The settlers started eating anything they could find: horses, cats, pet dogs and even poisonous snakes. According to one source, they even dug up corpses and ate them. The colony would have perished, but were eventually saved by the arrival of a supply ship with new recruits.


  1. National Geographic – The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown
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Missionaries, Businessmen and the Annexation of Hawaii

Ship's landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

Ship’s landing force at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, January 1893.

In the 19th century, the private sector consisting of missionaries and businessmen helped project American power to rest of the world. This pattern, where the NGOs intervened in the affairs of a nation, proved to be quite detrimental to the existence of Hawaii. Their culture was transformed, their economy was tied to United States and due to both, in a century their freedom was lost.

In her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire,Andrea Stuart writes about the motivation for Puritans and non-Puritans to migrate to North America from Europe in the 17th century. While the Puritans settled in New England to escape persecution, for others the Bible served as the recruiter for colonization. Anglican priests like Robert Gray, John Donne and Puritan teachers like Thomas Hooker and John Cotton seeded the dream of building a City on the Hill as well as spreading the word. Captain John Smith,  an adventurer, planter and the hero of the Pocahontas story wrote at that time about the need to “seeke to convert those poore Savages to know Christ and humanity”. But this urgency to take Christianity to the savages, which was used by the Spanish conquistadors just a century earlier, was just a smokescreen for advancing their business ventures.

In Hawaii, the same pattern followed two centuries later when Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists arrived by the boatloads to convert the heathens as well as to counter the Roman Catholics who had already set up shop there. These missionaries established good relations with King Kamehameha and opened up the islands to the Americans. Soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane.

As American capital and Christianity started flowing to the islands, the Government started taking notice. During that time, the Democrats were interested in expanding to the South, where slavery existed, while the Whigs were interested in expansion to the West. Secretary of State, William Webster, was interested in developing a special relation with the King because Hawaii would serve as a gateway to the riches of Japan and China. He was also interested in limiting the influence of France and Britain, who were interested in the islands. In 1851, the King and Webster agreed that if Hawaii was threatened by European powers, the King would transfer his power to the United States Government.

William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln, and an expansionist wanted a reciprocal treaty to be passed which would give special preference to Hawaiian goods. With this treaty, Hawaiian fruits and sugar would not be subject to American tariffs and in return Hawaii would be open for American manufactured goods. But then the Southern sugar producers did not want to compete with Hawaii and the treaty was defeated in the Senate. During the time of Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, the treaty was passed. American money flowed into Hawaii resulting in a surge of sugar and pineapple farming. The Americans got Pearl Harbor which they developed as a naval base and coaling station.

 A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.

A photo of the young crown princess Liliuokalani.(via Wikipedia)

Queen Lili’uokalani’ meanwhile was worried about the influence of American economics and politics on Hawaiian independence. As she started putting some limitations,  the US Department of State Minister to the Kingdom of Hawaii, John Stevens plotted a coup to overthrow the Queen. Following a coup, John Stevens recognized the new administration led by Sanford Dole and asked requested President Benjamin Harrison to annex the islands to the nation. But Harrison had only a month left as President and the Senate did not act. The next President, Grover Cleveland (the only President to have served  non consecutive terms), was not interested in expansion due to the cost and also because he believed that it would betray the ideals of the American revolution.

But that did not mean that Hawaii got its independence back. Hawaii  remained as a territory for almost six decades before they were given a choice to either join the Union or remain as a territory without an option for independence. Finally, a saga which started in the 18th century came to an end in 1959, when it became a state.


  1. America & World/Revolution, Lecture 21 by Professor Michael Parrish at University of California, San Diego
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Impact of the Columbian Exchange on the world

The Waldseemüller map

The Waldseemüller map (1507 CE)

The above picture shows a world map created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 CE. If you look towards the left of the map, you will see a narrow strip where the Americas are located. This is an important development because this map was created in just two decades after Christopher Columbus reached the New World and previous maps did not contain this land. This discovery of the Americas had a major impact on global trade and the Columbian Exchange changed the balance of global forces across the world.

Few years after Columbus failed in his mission to find the Indies, Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast. To impress the Zamorin, he took out the gifts he had bought and the people from the court who had come to examine them burst into laughter. These trinkets, they explained, were not the gifts suitable for a rich king. Even the poor merchants from Mecca or India gave better gifts. Did the Captain-Major have any gold, they asked. According to the accounts, Gama’s face fell.

This episode symbolizes the trade equation between the East and West during the 15th century. Asia produced spices, silk, porcelain and tea which the Europeans badly wanted, but there was nothing Europe produced that the Asians needed. Asia needed gold and silver and Europe did not have sufficient quantity of it.

First image of Potosí in Europe

First image of Potosí in Europe

But with the discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards ended up with a mother-lode of wealth. The image on the side shows a 1553 CE map of the city of Potosí in Bolivia. This was one of the sites of a major silver mine which the Spaniards reached after they had done looting the native coffers. Between 1560 and 1685 CE, Spanish America sent between 25,000 to 35, 000 tons of silver to Spain and in the century following that the amount doubled. In fact around 85% of the world’s silver supplies came from the Americas. This was extracted from 30 such mines.To compare it to modern times, it was like Saudi Arabia discovering oil.

Once they had access to the wealth, the first thing that changed was the shipbuilding industry as ships became cheaper and easier to build. Using Brazilwood, the Europeans built a large number of ships which were capable of transporting both goods and people on a large scale. These ships helped in further conquests, trade and colonization.

This brings to the second point regarding how the Columbian exchange affected the balance of global forces across the world. To mine the silver and gold, large manpower was required. But there were not many natives left to mine for these precious metals. Europeans brought with them epidemics like smallpox, measles and typhoid. Around 14 such epidemics helped in wiping out the native population from 120 million to 20 million within a century of Columbus setting foot in the region.

To replace the natives, Africans were imported into Brazil, the Caribbean and the East Coast of United States. These Africans were involuntarily brought in slave ships where they were packed like sardines. Many died of diseases along the way. Colonies were established all over the New World and the slaves died due to the miserable working conditions in these colonies. Due to the Columbian exchange, the native population of the New World was decimated, the African population was displaced and there was a population explosion in Europe.

Cross section of a ship showing how slaves were packed

Cross section of a ship showing how slaves were packed

The Columbian Exchange also helped in altering the flora and fauna in the world. While cotton, indigo, bananas and sugar reached the New World, tomato, maize, potato and cocoa reached Europe and then the rest of the world. Horses, cattle, sheep and pigs also spread in the colonies. Sugar emerged as one of the most valuable exports from the Americas. Though sugarcane cultivation originated in India, the Americas became a major exporter of the product. Also, the tomato reached Europe for the first time; till then the Italians cooked without tomato.

Now with the silver from the mines and the goods produced by the slave population, Europeans had products which they could sell in the global trading system. With access to cheap source of food and precious metals, Europeans entered the global trading system which was dominated by the silks from China and spices from India and changed the trade imbalance. Columbian exchange gave Europe sufficient wealth and goods to become a dominant trading system. It affected the lives of people — the natives, the conquerors and the Africans — in a profound way. It also affected the foods that people ate and the animals that they used for food and warfare.

(This was one of my assignments in a history course I am doing now)


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition). Third ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
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