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The First Act of Terrorism in English America

That fatal Friday morning, there fell under the bloody and barbarous hands of that perfidious and inhumane people, contrary to all the laws of God and men, of Nature and Nations, 347 men, women and children, . . . and not being content with taking away life alone, they fell again upon the dead, . . . defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into many pieces, and carrying some parts away in derision, with base and brutish triumph.

Edward Waterhouse’s shocking report to other horrified Londoners referred to the first massive terrorist attack against English-speaking civilians in American history. The “Barbarous Massacre” on Friday, 22 March 1622, was the most lethal day ever experienced by British colonists in peacetime, as Powhatan warriors slaughtered almost 30 percent of Virginia’s entire white population, including at least 35 women and 30 children; destroyed many buildings and other property; and threatened the survival of England’s embryonic empire on this continent. “Besides them they killed,” wrote one of the nine hundred English survivors, the Indians “burst the heart of all the rest.” After fifteen years of tortured progress, Jamestown was “brought down again to the ground” in only a few hours and was once again like a “Child . . . exposed in the Wilderness to extreme danger, . . . fainting and laboring for life.”

That terrible, traumatic “Flood of Blood,” as John Donne so graphically described it, was immediately recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as a major watershed event, different from anything that English citizens had ever experienced. Contemporaries regarded the “devilish malice” and “unnatural brutishness” of killing unarmed innocents in their own homes as an unprecedented, exceptionally heinous deed, since honorable Powhatan warriors had always spared the lives of women, children, and even enemy chiefs in their traditional warfare.

Although the term “terrorism” did not enter the English language until the 1790s, Jacobeans described that shock tactic much as we do today. It has always been a calculated, purposeful (never “senseless”) use of violence against unsuspecting citizens of an enemy power in order to make noncombatants experience the pain and suffering that their society has inflicted on others. In every age, terrorists have been fanatical, desperate crusaders for an ideological cause they deem more important than life itself, employing the “voice” of violence as a rational expression against oppression when peaceful discourse fails to resolve irreconcilable issues of cultural alienation. For Donne’s generation, the alienating ideology was religious, with “the instigation of the Devil” producing the gore of sacred rage.

Despite the current preoccupation with terrorism, scholars have shown little curiosity about its historical origins in America before the 19th century and remain squeamish about studying violence of any kind. Many scrupulously avoid terms such as “massacre” and “terrorism” because of their association with Eurocentric biases. When I coined the widely accepted label “Powhatan Uprising” thirty years ago, I did not envision how imaginative and erroneous other alternatives to “massacre” would become. Anthropologists, in particular, have run amuck with misleading euphemisms, referring to the massive 1622 attack as a “blow” or a “coup”—everything but what it was according to every definition. Helen Rountree disingenuously (and inaccurately) uses “massacre” only to describe what colonial troops did to Powhatan warriors, not to the “unpleasantness” (her term) of butchered English families. Frederic Gleach ignores the significant magnitude of the 1622 massacre by comparing it to “a slap on the wrist administered to a disobedient child.” Extreme political correctness has so distorted historical interpretations that thirty anthropologists in a forthcoming anthology felt it necessary to re-state and prove anew that indigenous peoples in the Americas engaged in violent conflicts even before the arrival of Europeans!

Susan Juster is one of the few historians researching “sacred violence” in colonial America. In the October 2005 issue of Common-Place, she noted how New England Puritans burned alive several hundred Pequot men, women, and children in 1637 and queried whether that atrocity was “a racial or a religious killing?” We can discount race, since Christian Europeans committed far more horrible atrocities against one another for generations. It is more important to determine how, when, and why such massacres made the transition from Britain to America and from Europeans to Indians. The answers will not be found in New England and not nearly as late as the Pequot War. The first fifteen years of Anglo-Indian relations in Virginia established all of the precedents of religious violence on our shores—including holy war, massacre, martyrdom, and terrorism.

The colony of Virginia was conceived in an atmosphere of Christian violence in the hate-charged aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, only recently acknowledged as the first modern terrorist conspiracy in England. Religious affiliation in that era connoted a host of ethnocentric prejudices designed to differentiate supportive in-groups from suspicious out-groups and to define loyalty and identity in secular as well as sacred contexts. The deadly quest for ideological dominance among divided camps of English Christians achieved a new level of depravity in 1605, because the Catholic conspirators planned the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians on the streets of Westminster when Parliament, government officials, and the royal family were blown to bits. Guy Fawkes allegedly justified the outrageous randomness of victims “under the pretense of conscience,” proclaiming that “a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy.” In 1610 Robert Herring described the abhorrent but aborted plot as the “quintessence of Satan’s policy . . . of inhuman malice and cruelty, not to be paralleled among the savage Turks, the barbarous Indians, [or] . . . brutish cannibals.” The shocking Gunpowder Plot gave militant Anglicanism new ideological ammunition with which to blast its persistently threatening religious enemies. Before the severed heads and quartered limbs of Fawkes and his fellow conspirators had even rotted, the same court officials who had exposed and executed them launched the Jamestown colony. As the final embodiment of old Elizabethan pride, prejudice, and paranoia, Virginia became the pet project of Anglican imperialists intent on exporting the Protestant Reformation to America.

To protect their colony in a Spain-dominated continent, London officials dispatched troops to Jamestown well trained in the vicious, anti-Catholic warfare in Ireland and the Low Countries. In England’s first Indian war between 1609-1614, those “New Israelites” became crusaders for religious conformity in a Chesapeake “Canaan,” sparing neither infants nor the infirm as they burned Powhatan villages, murdered native priests, assassinated chiefs, looted temples, conquered tribal territories, and starved a once-thriving population through harvest-time “feed fights.” Campaigning against “satanic evil” under “the banner of Jesus Christ,” the blood-red cross on the flag of St. George identified militant English “Angels” who merged ferocity with piety. After replicating the “Arms, Harms, Fights, Frights, Flights, [and] Depopulations” of Reformation Europe in Virginia, Anglican crusaders were rewarded with one convert—the captive, Pocahontas—but had succeeded far better in making “Savages and wild degenerate men of Christians.”

Forgetting their own proud resistance to the coercive campaigns of Catholic Spain, the English failed to realize that the Powhatans were no more likely than they were to commit cultural suicide by submitting to an alien religion. In 1622 the Powhatans rejected both the increased conversion efforts and the continuing territorial expansion of the colonists, correctly perceiving them as a two-pronged assault on their unique identity and future as a people. The English murder of a leading prophet of Indian resistance was the particularly arrogant atrocity that triggered the 1622 massacre. The Powhatans converted to English terror tactics in defiance of the Christian god, attacking unarmed civilians as a logical necessity because battles with armored musketeers in the earlier war had so reduced their forces.

The 1622 massacre inspired a new genre of anti-Indian hate literature, primarily because one of the victims was George Thorpe—the first acknowledged English martyr in America. The pious but misguided Thorpe had tried to eradicate native beliefs with kindness, making him all the more dangerous to the Powhatans. In London his death was described in gory detail, becoming a potent symbol of Christian “charity” that had been rejected and reviled. Thorpe had influential friends, many of them writers, including Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, John Donne, Samuel Purchas, and Robert Brooke. Several of them denounced the Powhatans for their “perfidious treachery” and “savage, wild, [and] degenerate”deeds, while not commenting on their complexions. They were lumped with other “Out-laws of Humanity” across the racial spectrum—papists, heretics, and infidels—who opposed Anglican orthodoxy and killed innocent Protestants. Donne, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, specifically compared the Powhatans to the Gunpowder plotters, labeling all such enemies of the state and the state religion as devious and malignant “Monsters”—men with an “Angel’s Face” but “Serpent’s Tail.”

It is not surprising that those Jacobean condemnations are eerily similar to anti-terrorist rhetoric today. In every age, the greater the power differential between oppressors and the oppressed, the more likely (and logical) it is for the weaker group to employ various types of “unconventional” violence against the stronger. European codifiers of international law declared the innovations of insurgency illegal because they challenged the monopoly that their large, technologically sophisticated “regular” armies had in committing “legal” slaughter to further “justifiable” conquests. Scholars must analyze all violence objectively and precisely to avoid perpetuating that old double standard, which continues to differentiate between “barbarous” guerrillas who are vicious and “legitimate” troops who are heroic in a biased Judeo-Christian context.

It was the holy men of Anglican England who were most disillusioned and vengeful in the aftermath of the 1622 massacre. The Rev. Samuel Purchas, who compared the Powhatans to the treasonous Judas, linked spirituality with territoriality. He argued that the precious blood price paid by Thorpe and hundreds of other slain Christians gave the English a “mortal, immortal” entitlement to all Powhatan lands and justified the shedding of Indian blood “in showers.” While London clergymen demanded an Old Testament-style holy war of extermination, the decimated colonists, instead, fought a measured, tempered military campaign that was neither ideological nor genocidal in intent or result. They quickly learned to coexist with their Indian enemies by forging enlightened alliances with Indian friends—and by repudiating both Christian conversion and Christian crusades as dysfunctional and dangerous practices.

The massacre survivors who had cheated death embraced a second chance for life by creating an innovative, hybrid “New Virginia” based on pragmatism, secularism, and materialism. Soon after 1622 they began calling themselves “Virginians” for the first time, and they altered their identities, expectations, and prejudices in adapting to American realities. The dominance of acculturated Virginia merchants and the absence of English missionaries finally resolved the old Elizabethan issue of whether secular commerce or spiritual conversion was the best way to satisfy and pacify Indians. By maintaining their physical and cultural distance and assessing each tribe only on the basis of usefulness and temperament, the colonists who had faced extermination, ironically, preserved the rich multiethnic diversity of the Chesapeake. Compared to the religious barbarity that was then raging in the Thirty Years War, that was an important innovation with the potential to make the New World revolutionary, exemplary, and truly “new.”

As Americans and Britons prepare to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in a world differently perceived since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and July 2005, they may realize that 1622 is a date with far more relevance for our times than 1607. Which Virginia will we, or should we, be commemorating? Will it be that of the early Englishmen who confronted indigenous people with the violence of arrogance and ignorance, or the chastened and changed Virginians who emerged from the ashes of a terrorist attack to disavow almost everything related to that hate-filled period? If the culturally diverse populations that still inhabit Virginia had not found a way to coexist, the history of our nation would be very different indeed. For their world, as for ours, the hardest of all goals is to live a fulfilling life without becoming either a victim or a victimizer.