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Friday, May 03, 2013

Civil War and Cannibalism

I would like to start off by inviting all Rosen-readers to come enjoy Voices of 1863: Witnesses to the Civil War, which opened just this Wednesday. We've packed Gallery 1 full of wonderful Civil War documents that really illuminate the wartime experience, plus there's a chance to hear some of Dave Burrell's compositions inspired by our 1863 collections, and to dig deeper with a kiosk of the Today in the Civil War blog.

In unrelated news from two and a half centuries earlier, my news feed has been burning up with Wednesday's articles about the archaeological discovery of cannibalism at Jamestown. I was just at the Jamestown archaeology site less than a month ago on a spring-break trip with my children, so I was especially interested.

If you missed the story, you can read an account at Smithsonian Magazine or a number of other news outlets. Basically, the short version is that archaeologists have discovered bones from a 14-year-old English girl at Jamestown that show signs of having been dismembered for food during the 1609-1610 winter known as "the starving time".

John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles.
London : Printed by John Dawson and John Haviland for Michael Sparkes, 1626. A 626s
All the articles note that cannibalism at Jamestown was already known from contemporary accounts, which drove me to the Rosenbach's historical collections. Here's the description of the starving time in John Smith's famous Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles," published in 1624 (the Rosenbach has both the 1624 and 1626 printings, these images are from the 1626 version). I've modernized the spelling and inserted some breaks in the transcript which follows.

John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. London : Printed by John Dawson and John Haviland for Michael Sparkes, 1626. A 626s

Now we all found the loss of Captain Smith, yea his greatest maligners could now curse his loss: as for corn provision and contribution from the Savages, we had nothing but mortal wounds, with clubs and arrows; as for our Hogs, Hens, Goats, Sheep, Horse, or what lived, our commanders, officers and Savages daily consumed them, some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured; then swords, arms, pieces, or any thing, wee traded with the Savages, whose cruel fingers were so oft imbrewed in our bloods, that what by their cruelty, our Governor's indiscretion, and the loss of our ships, of five hundred within six months after Captain Smiths departure, there remained not past sixty men, women and children, most miserable and poor creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbs, acorns, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish: they that had starch in these extremities, made no small use of it; yea even the very skins of our horses.

Nay, so great was our famine, that a Savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and eat him; and so did divers one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered [i.e. salted] her, and had eaten part of her before it was known; for which he was executed, as he well deserved: now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd [i.e. grilled], I know not; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of. 

This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be believed, what we endured: but the occasion was our own, for want of providence industry and government, and not the barrenness and defect of the Country, as is generally supposed...

Sobering thoughts. Perhaps next week we will return to a more cheerful topic on the Rosen-blog.

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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