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The "Starving Time"



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This selection, taken from Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, describes a desperate chapter in the history of the colony. Under Smith's leadership, the colony had flourished during 1608 and early 1609, but Smith was forced to return to London in the summer of 1609 due to a gunpowder accident. The London Company sent 500 colonists to Virginia in the late spring of 1609, but a storm caused their leader's ship to wreck on the Bermuda coast, and the remaining 400 settlers arrived sick from the storm and the plague. They consumed the remaining stores, and the colony suffered extreme disease and famine during the winter. By March 1610, the colony was reduced from 500 to 60 people.

Now we all found the losse of Captaine Smith, yea his greatest maligners could now curse his losse: as for corne provision and contribution from the Salvages, we had nothing but mortall wounds, with clubs and arrowes; as for our Hogs, Hens, Goats, Sheepe, Horse, or what lived, our commanders, officers and Salvages daily consumed them, some small proportions sometimes we tasted, till all was devoured; then swords, armes, pieces, or any thing, wee traded with the Salvages, whose cruell fingers were so oft imbrewed in our blouds, that what by their crueltie, our Governours indiscretion, and the losse of our ships, of five hundred within six moneths after Captaine Smiths departure [October 1609 — March 1610], there remained not past sixtie men, women and children, most miserable and poore creatures; and those were preserved for the most part, by roots, herbes, acornes, walnuts, berries, now and then a little fish: they that had startch in these extremities, made no small use of it; yea even the very skinnes of our horses.

Nay, so great was our famine, that a Salvage we slew and buried, the poorer sort tooke him up againe and eat him; and so did divers one another boyled 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 knowne; for which hee was executed, as hee well deserved: now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado'd [i.e., grilled], I know now; but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.

This was that time, which still to this day [1624] we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured: but the occasion was our owne, for want of providence industrie and government, and not the barrennesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed; for till then in three yeeres, for the numbers were landed us, we had never from England provision sufficient for six moneths, though it seemed by the bils of loading sufficient was sent us, such a glutton is the Sea, and such good fellowes the Mariners; we as little tasted of the great proportion sent us, as they of our want and miseries, yet nothwithstanding they ever overswayed and ruled the businesse, though we endured all that is said, and cheifly lived on what this good Countrie naturally afforded. Yet had wee beene even in Paradice it selfe with these Governours, it would not have beene much better withe us; yet there was amongst us, who had they had the government as Captaine Smith appointed, but that they could not maintaine it, would surely have kept us from those extremities of miseries. This in ten daies more, would have supplanted us all with death.

But God that would not this Countrie should be unplanted, sent Sir Thomas Gates, and Sir George Sommers with one hundred and fiftie people most happily preserved by the Bermudas to preserve us [May 21, 1610]...


Consider These Questions



1. Why do you think the people starved? What do you think they could have done to prevent starvation?

2. Why does the author think the people starved? What does he think would have changed the situation?

3. Do you think the fact that this appeared in John Smith's book affected the way it was written?

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