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Remembering Mrs Rebecca Rolfe of Heacham... better known as Pocahontas

PUBLISHED: 11:43 18 March 2017

The village sign at Heacham, featuring Pocahontas.

The village sign at Heacham, featuring Pocahontas.

Archant

Mrs Rebecca Rolfe, married to a Heacham man, was buried 400 years ago this year. So why should we remember her? Because history knows her better as Pocahontas. Trevor Heaton reports.

You don’t have to go far in Heacham before you are reminded of its connection with Pocahontas. She’s right there, the centrepiece of the handsome village sign, in a carving based on the most famous portrait of her. There is a memorial to her too in the village church.

The Native American chieftain’s daughter was married to John Rolfe, a scion of the West Norfolk village’s leading family and a key figure in the early English settlement of America.

But 400 years ago this Tuesday, the last act in her brief 22-year life was played out in St George’s Church in Gravesend, on the south bank of the Thames, as she was laid to rest.

And history has refused to let her sink into obscurity. Not just history either: myths and misconceptions swirl round her like a sea mist. But unlike a sea mist, they refuse to disperse, and from founding-nationhood to Disney animation, pageants to paintings, every generation projects its own image onto her.

The facts of her life are fairly clear. Born around 1595 in what is now eastern Virginia, she was the daughter of the chief Wahunsencawh (also known as Powhatan). He comes across as a shrewd and rather wily character, adept at exploiting the confusion and, often, sheer ineptitude which accompanied the early English efforts to establish a permanent colony in North America.

An expedition had set off from England in 1606 to establish a colony on a marshy peninsula they called Jamestown, named (cannily) after James I. It was a rare example of acumen from the mix of chancers and Hooray Henries which made up the bulk of the would-be settlers.

These ‘gentlemen adventurers’, as they were known, were hopelessly ill-equipped for a New World, clinging instead to the belief - against all reason and any actual evidence - that the shores of the new land were packed with gold and other riches, just waiting to be collected.

Reality arrived six months after their arrival, as harsh winter weather underscored their foolhardiness in not even planting crops to feed themselves. The inevitable result was that they died in droves. Over one winter alone their numbers plummeted from 500 to just 60.

The settlers squabbled endlessly among themselves in a downward spiral of disease, hunger, and bloody conflict with the Native American peoples they, in reality, absolutely depended on.

There was at least one cool head among them, though. Not John Rolfe - his moment would come later - but rather the swashbuckling adventurer John Smith. His practicality and sheer bloody-mindedness reduced the death toll dramatically, guaranteeing the success of the mission.

Captain Smith was a remarkable character by any definition. A sometime pirate and mercenary, his many adventures included being blown up, capture as a slave, fighting against the Ottoman Empire, and surviving a stingray injury. But his most famous brush with death came - or so he claimed - when he was captured by Wahunsencawh’s tribe and threatened with execution.

Only the pleadings, it is said, of the young Pocahontas saved him from certain death. Here’s what Smith wrote (referring to himself in the third person): “Two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could lay hands on him [ie Smith] dragged him to them, and thereone laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the King’s dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his heade in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”

It is a powerful story, perhaps the first great tale of nationhood in what was to become the United States of America. It is the thing that ‘everybody knows’ about Pocahontas’ life.

But did it actually happen? Smith’s biographer Peter Firstbrook, whose 2014 book A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Invention of America, has done much to revive Smith’s reputation, was not able to establish the truth of the tale.

What IS true, however, is that Smith did not mention it in the early editions of his colourful accounts of his life. And as Smith was never a man to turn down the chance to mention his adventures, this seems a strange omission.

True or not, Mr Firstbrook is adamant that later layers of love interest often added to the story have no foundation. “We can dismiss any romance,” he said. “She was only 11 or 12 and he was 27. She had an exceptional position in keeping open the dialogue between the tribes and the settlers at times of most danger, like a tense exchange of prisoners.”

She must have had a very sympathetic personality to carry out this role. Perhaps there is a hint in her very name. Because ‘Pocahontas’ wasn’t her real name at all, which was actually Matoaka. Pocahontas is a nickname, meaning something like ‘the mischievous one’.

John Rolfe enters the story around 1610. Rolfe had been baptised in the Heacham village church of St Mary the Virgin in May 1585, making him ten years older than his future wife. The Rolfes were associated with the village for hundreds of years, only finally being forced out of their ancestral home of Heacham Hall in 1902 by a combination of heavy taxes and a sharp fall in income.

John Rolfe’s first wife and child had died by the time he reached Virginia. Rolfe’s arrival in the New World - surviving a shipwreck en route - was of immense significance, as the following year he was able to successfully commercially cultivate tobacco plants. Exports of this new, sweeter, tobacco began in 1612. Suddenly, the fortunes of the lame-duck colony were transformed.

Rolfe was deeply conscious of the need to keep good relationships with the native peoples. Eventually he decided the best way was to make the relationship binding and formal - through marriage. Although there was a strong political reason for the union, there does seem to have been passion and affection here too. Rolfe later wrote that he had ‘never bin so intangled and enthralled’ as he had been with his new wife.

A year before their 1614 marriage Pocahontas, who had herself been widowed by now, had converted to Christianity, taking the name ‘Rebecca’. Their young son, Thomas, joined them as they set sail for England in 1616.

Rolfe was by now the colony’s secretary, and the visit served as excellent propaganda for the new settlement which still had a pressing need to attract more capital and manpower to prosper. The couple were received at the court of King James, and Pocahontas became widely feted. Sadly, we do not know what she made of the court, the king, the buildings, the dress, the smells, the ships, the sounds and all the other alien features of this new and strange land.

It would be delightful to think that she made the journey from London to Heacham – by comparison with the 3,000-mile voyage from American, the coastal trip round to Lynn would have been but a short hop – but, sadly, there is no evidence of this.

Village tradition links her to a local copy of the King James Bible dating from 1617, and a mulberry tree in the hall grounds. As for the hall itself, that burned down in 1943. The local connection has been celebrated in such widely different ways as a village fishing lake, and a Pocahontas pageant in nearby King’s Lynn in 1997. It will be celebrated again this summer in Heacham with a Pocahontas-themed carnival on Sunday August 6.

The couple set sail to return to the New World but the by-now ailing Rebecca got no further than Gravesend. As she lay dying, she told her husband: “All must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth.”

The stories about her began almost as soon as she had been laid to rest in the chancel of that Kent church. Smith’s account of the supposed rescue has been added to by every generation since, right up the present day. Disney’s 1990s cartoon, for example, portrayed her as an idealised proto-environmentalist, while film director Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World attempted to revive the Smith-Pocahontas love affair narrative.

Her legacy lives on not only in the accounts of her life, but in her bloodline. Many people in the United States claim descent from the Rolfes’ surviving son, Thomas (although there is some confusion with an identically-named but unrelated early settler from around this date). And not just in the US either: another person who claimed kinship was remarkable Norfolk cleric the Rev Whitwell Elwin, 19th-century man of letters and creator of the extraordinary confection that is Booton Church, near Reepham.

As for Pocahontas, whatever the truth and myths of her life, her key position as one of the cornerstones of a new nation lives on. She is an abiding symbol of the binding together of the destinies of Anglo-Saxon and Native American peoples - and all the good and bad things that followed.

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