Was the Settlement of Jamestown a Fiasco?

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  • Topic: Colonialism, British colonization of the Americas, Colony
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Issue 2: Was the Settlement of Jamestown a Fiasco?
Yes:
Edmond Morgan builds an easy to understand case of explaining the initial failures of the Jamestown colony. He credits the failures to chaotic organization, laziness, the makeup of the population, and poor ideas for prosperity.

Morgan argues that one reason for failure was a lack of organization. He states that Jamestown lacked leadership. The colonies government was made up of a council and a president. The president had virtually no authority, and the council spent most of its time arguing and not actually accomplishing any governing. Once the colony established a governor, and they went through several, other problems arose.

The next problem that Morgan brings to attention is a combination of laziness and the makeup of the population. When the colonists first arrived to Jamestown they functioned as a socialist like community. The colonists farmed as a whole and everyone was given equal portions of the crop. This took away any incentive to plant and farm as much as possible. “The work a man did bore no direct relation to his reward.”(Morgan p. 31). Governor Dale then caught on to this and changed their functioning to that of a capitalist like private enterprise. He gave each man three acres or twelve if he had a family, and each man or family could keep what they grew except for a tax of two and a half barrels of corn per year. This put the colony into a surplus, at first. Then a new aspect of laziness and ignorance arose. Out of a population of roughly three hundred, roughly one hundred were gentleman. Morgan says this about gentleman on page thirty-two, “Gentleman, by definition, had no manual skill, nor could they be expected to work at ordinary labor.” In other words, the gentlemen were lazy, ignorant to the trade of labor, and thought too highly of themselves to participate in labor. This hurt the production of crops needed to survive.

The third problem that Morgan argues is that the colonists of Jamestown were pursuing the wrong ideas for prosperity. The colonists came to the new world to mine metals such as gold, silver, and iron, but were unsuccessful. The colonists tried many other ventures that failed. They had no idea that they could be a great exporter of crops, and eventually tobacco.

Overall, one would say that the beginnings of the Jamestown colony were an utter chaotic mess. Their lack of organization, ignorance, and flat out laziness led to many deaths and plenty of failures. At one point, in the winter of 1609-10, some colonists resort to cannibalism to keep from starving. As a consequence to their actions only sixty of the original five hundred colonists are alive by spring. This student believes that the colonists could have been saved by education and motivation combined with their capitalist private enterprise mind set.

No:
Karen Kupperman looks at the Jamestown colony in a more positive manor. She argues that although Jamestown had initial failures it eventually succeeded. Kupperman also argues that Jamestown was not the first colony to fail. She states that other colonies failed and then ceased to exist, but Jamestown learned from its mistakes and eventually was successful. She claims that Jamestown’s trials and errors eventually set the mold for the success of future colonies.

Karen Kupperman brings to attention that other colonies such as Roanoke were founded before Jamestown, and were unable to overcome their failures and would be abandoned. “So although Roanoke’s failure only temporarily dampened the English enthusiasm for establishing American colonies, Jamestown had to learn its lessons anew.”(Kupperman p. 39) Her argument here is that Jamestown had to learn its own lessons through trial and error. Kupperman paints the picture that Jamestown should not be judged by its original failures. It should be judged by its learning from those failures.

Kupperman also makes an argument, through the publications of John Smith,...
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