You know the Disney movie, but did you know that Pocahontas existed? The story behind the legend is much darker. In the 17th century, the heroine of the animated film was exhibited in England to extol the benefits of colonization.
The legend of John Smith
Daughter of the chief of the great Powhatan tribe, Wahunsunacock, Pocahontas was born around 1595 under the name Matoaka, which means “little snow feather. Her nickname Pocahontas comes from her mischievous character, the term being translated as “little shameless one”.
In 1607, the English established the first settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, on her tribe’s territory. One day, Powhatan hunters captured an explorer named John Smith. Back in camp, the chief decides to kill him. It is then that Pocahontas, from the top of her 12 years, would have thrown herself in extremis on John Smith by imploring that he be spared. Her intervention works, the man remains safe and sound.
In reality, this pretty story was invented by John Smith himself, who, repatriated in England, tried to forge his legend.
In reality, a forced marriage
In the early 17th century, the young colony of Jamestown was decimated by cold, famine, and epidemics. Despite the invasive nature of the strangers’ presence, the Powhatans brought them food. It is to commemorate this sharing that the Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated each year.
But behind this image, the peace does not last long. The settlers trampled and transformed the land of the tribe’s ancestors. Tensions between the two sides quickly escalate.
One day, Pocahontas is captured by an English captain who is looking for a way to pressure the Powhatans and is taken to Jamestown. Held as a hostage, she was forced to dress like a European, learn the English language and convert to Christianity. Pocahontas was then renamed, Rebecca.
In 1614, Pocahontas/Rebecca was forcibly married to a widowed tobacco farmer named John Wolfe. Apart from the young woman, everyone is happy. The chief of the tribe is reassured to see that tensions are easing while the Virginia settlers take advantage of this to increase their trade.
Pocahontas, a propaganda tool
In this story of non-consensual love, it is the English who benefit the most. They managed to turn it into a propaganda tool that testified to the triumph of civilization over savagery.
In 1616, Pocahontas, John Wolfe, and their son, Thomas, join London. They were presented to the court. Exhibited as an exotic curiosity, Pocahontas is seen as a princess of the New World who has renounced her barbaric culture to adopt Christian civilization. The civilizing mission of the colonists was a success. In the kingdom of England, she embodies the hopes of the British Empire and praises the benefits of colonization and assimilation despite herself. She also showed that relations with the natives on the other side of the Atlantic were excellent.
She participated in a masquerade, in the presence of King James I. Immortalized by a Dutch painter who presents her as a European and whitens her features.
A reinvention of history by Disney
No matter how hard they try to make her look like a European, Pocahontas comes from another world, where the climate is much less harsh. She doesn’t get used to it. After two months in London, the family returns to Virginia. But on the day they embark, it is discovered that Pocahontas has dysentery and pneumonia. She died on the ship, in the middle of the Atlantic on March 21, 1617.
She is buried in England, far from her native land. We understand that Disney has rewritten the story to adapt it to children … and we prefer the legend of Pocahontas, a feminist and ecological myth that denounces the evils of European colonization.