Matoaka's Last Journey

‘Tis enough that the child liveth.’

Rebecca’s Tale (Part Three)

Wahunsenacawh did not attend his daughter’s wedding. Instead, he sent a brother-in-law and two nephews ‘to see the manner of the mariage and to doe in that behalfe what they were requested’. According to some accounts, he also sent Mataoka a pearl necklace as a present. His consent – tacit or otherwise – to the union was seen as a gesture that the two peoples should patch up their differences. Thus, whether founded on love, mutual respect or realpolitik, the marriage of John Rolfe and Mataoka brought about a period of peace between British settlers and Native Americans.

Rolfe had settled a plantation at Varina, about fifty miles upriver from Jamestown, where he undertook trials with tobacco strains. By 1612, samples of his crop were already being shipped to England where it found favour among smokers for its strength and sweetness. After their wedding, Rolfe and Mataoka/Rebecca lived together at the farm for the next two years. In January 1615, Rebecca gave birth to a son, who was baptised with the name Thomas.

Extract from ‘General Historie of Virginia’ by Captain John Smith

Inevitably, the marriage, Mataoka’s conversion and baptism, and the birth of Thomas were seen by the Virginia Company as propaganda tools. It decided to use these events to obtain further financial support for the colony. In the spring of 1616, the Rolfes sailed for Plymouth, England in the company of Deputy Governor Thomas Dale, arriving there in June. Several braves of the Powhatan travelled with them. They visited Heacham Hall and toured London. The Virginia Company represented Rebecca as an Indian princess and a symbol of the successful integration of the Native American into European culture. They commissioned her portrait. She was presented to the king and queen.

To what extent her reception was due to the intervention of Captain John Smith we cannot tell. However, on learning of the visit, Smith wrote to Queen Anne (Anne of Denmark, wife of James I) begging her favour to the girl who had been the ‘instrument to preserve this colony from death, famine and utter confusion.’

‘Pocahontas’, Smith went on, ‘was married to an English Gentleman, with whom at this present she is in England; the first Christian ever of that Nation, the first Virginian ever spoke English, or had a child in mariage by an Englishman, a matter surely … of a Prince’s understanding.’

In March 1617, the Rolfes decided to return to America. As they made their preparations for departure, Rebecca felt unwell. They embarked at London but by the time they reached Gravesend she was seriously ill, possibly with pneumonia. She was carried ashore and died in her husband’s arms. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth,’ she is supposed to have said.

Historical records are as we find them, for better or worse; and we can choose what to believe – and enjoy, admire or deprecate – in the various stories of Pocahontas’s life.
There is the modern myth exemplified, perhaps even promulgated, by that controversial film, an animated, musical romance by the Disney Corporation, owing only a small debt to history. Then there are the fictionalised accounts, admitted by their authors to be novels and nothing more. These range from imaginative fairytale to serious reconstruction of a pivotal moment in the history of Britain and America.
There is the extant historical record, seventeenth century documents of English explorers and colonists in North America, telling a tale of hardship, courage and evangelising. Then there is Native American tradition, which sings a very different song of fierce pride, independence and foreign greed and corruption. Oral tales of the Mattaponi tribes of Virginia challenge many of the events described in western sources. They contend, for example, that Thomas Rolfe was born out of wedlock as a result of the rape of Mataoka (possibly by Thomas Dale) while she was a prisoner.


Or, we may look instead upon nigh four hundred years of discussion and argument among travellers and historians, and conclude that, instead of world-shaping drama, Rebecca’s Tale is a mere anecdote of no relevance in the grand scheme of world affairs.

But somewhere in the midst of all lies a true tale of human endeavour and weakness, one that marks the very beginnings of the recorded history of the land that was to become the United States of America.


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