The book A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America written by James Horn, relate to the hardships that the early European colonizers faced in their pursuit of rich and flourishing civilizations. The Europeans had traversed across the Pacific in search of wealth and new land to settle down. Expansionism was the primary goal of the European settlers who first arrived in America. Horn fixes the date of birth of America on April 26, 1607, when the English settlers arrived in Virginia.
The narrative of the book presents devious, materialistic, and belligerent settlers and hostile natives fighting with each other for the share of land and natural wealth. It traces the history of the permanent settlement of the British in the New World with the dissolution of the Virginia Company in the 1620s. The book chronicles eras of bloodshed and brutality by both the British and the Indians. The timeline of the book is from 1607 to 1622, i.e., from the time of the colony’s settlement until the Powhatan uprising.
Horn creates a vivid picture of the early years of British colonization in Virginia. He presents the events that occurred among the settlers in Jamestown, the colonizers in England and Spain, and the alliance in Powhatan. The events occurring in Jamestown presented a global context by Horn by associating the events in Virginia to that of the other parts of the world. Horn clearly describes why settling in America was important for the British and why the Spaniards were anxious to capture Jamestown.
Horn describes the reasons behind the change in the interest of Virginia Company and clearly explains why the settlers came to believe that no large gains could be garnered from the precious metals. Therefore, the interest of the colonizers altered to form large diversified companies. This event, according to Horn, further strained the relationship between the British and the Indians. The natives of Virginia believed that the colonizers were trading partners and that the former would retain their lands as long as the colonizers were allowed to do business on it.
The Powhatan alliance tried to improve relations with the British and waited for the opportune moment to strike a blow on their adversaries. In 1622, when the Indians found the right chance, they attacked and killed 347 settlers. The British Crown took away the charter in 1623 and assumed rule over the land. However, the new arrangement left no place for the natives. Thus, emerged a new social structure which was primarily due to the availability of free slaves and the booming market for cash crops like tobacco and this social order was to remain until the end of the Civil War.
The thesis of the book suggests that American history began with Jamestown writ. The emergence of the social structure that prevailed in America until the civil war was due to the events that led to the Jamestown writ. The aim of the paper is to ascertain the primary argument of Horn as posed in his book and to ascertain the overall cogency of the book.
Horn believes that the colonization of America in the early seventeenth century and that the birth of America began at that time. The author creates a bridge between the two parallel theories of American colonization – one from the Southerners and the other from the New Englanders. The former believed in the tale of John Smith and Pocahontas while the latter was more stringently inclined towards the Pilgrims. However, Horn believes that historians have put a strong emphasis on the New Englanders’ version of the colonization while the story from the south remained an unread chapter in history. Horn creates a central protagonist in John Smith and weaves his tale of British colonization in America around him. The tale of British colonization in America turns out to be brutal and bloodstained and spins around one man – John Smith.
Horn makes perfect use of the accounts provided by John Smith of his adventures and turns it into a book of history. This may be observed in one of the passages in the book: “Because the Indians had no knowledge of a written language (according to Smith), they could only explain Smith’s apparent ability to communicate over long distances by the use of magic”. According to Horn, the mythic love story of Pocahontas and Smith was not completely true. He believes that the colonizers were ready to abandon their colonies after the terrible starving during the winters of 1609-10.
Smith and Pocahontas were long gone, and the colonizers who left their colonies met with another ship of new colonizers. However, the Indians were more hostile towards the English colonizers and fought relentlessly over the possession of their land. However, the English kidnapped Pocahontas, and an uneasy truce ensued with her father, the Powhatan chieftain. Thus, the tale of war and truce between the colonizers and the Indians remains the main thesis of Horn in the book. Horn believes that the conflict-ridden history of the south shaped the history of modern America.
Though the argument presented by Horn garners support from many primary and secondary sources, it remains a little presumptuous to believe that the earlier conjectures regarding the colonizing history of America are inadequate. Though predominantly historians have been more inclined to believe the New England version of colonization, this book adds another chapter into the history of colonization.
The book is a detailed amalgamation of events and in certain instances, a dramatization of the facts, such as the description of the 1609 famine. Archaeological findings of William L. Kelso and other primary documents lend support for Horn’s book. However, some of the arguments and conjectures are too farfetched. Hence, at times, Horn’s arguments seem specious. However, the book does present some strong arguments to prove its point. The book creates an impressive narration of the history of colonization in Jamestown and presents a different argument to treat the history of colonization in America.
The book presents an excellent, unbiased account of the clash of two cultures and people. The book shows how the native Indians came close to exterminating the English colonizers but in the end, embracing defeat. The book voices the tale of the colonists who reeled at the verge of a breakdown but sprang back eventually. Overall, Horn narrates historical events with the art of a seasoned storyteller. His gripping style spins a unique tale of treachery, brutality, war, and bloodshed. The book has certain convincing arguments regarding the process of colonization in America and presents a clear picture of how the English settled in their first colony in Jamestown.
Scholars are interested in understanding how the history of colonization of America must read the book as it provides a clear and unbiased account of the ugly and distressing tale of the English colonizers who succeeded owing to an inexplicable mix of bravery, deceit, perseverance, trepidation, and sheer fate.
- James Horn. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 15-45.
- Ibid. 62.
- Ibid. 255.
- Ibid. 256.
- Ibid. 64.
Horn, James. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005.