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The sad and strange tale of Pocahontas

08:40 28 August 2012

Pocahontas Statue

Pocahontas Statue

Archant

The most treasured lady of Gravesend had many names – Pocahontas, Rebecca Rolfe and Metoaka – but Princess Dancing Sunbeam is the lesser-known one that was given to her by the Bishop of Rochester in 1958.

A group from Virginia had come to Gravesend to present the town with a bronze statue of the princess, which now stands in St George’s Church Graveyard, to mark Pocahontas’ final resting place. She died here, aged 22, in 1617.

Pocahontas was a pet name meaning “little wanton”, but the bishop suggested what he thought was a more suitable English version.

Installing the figure facing the Thames, he told the pilgrims: “You may well feel this corner of England is forever Virginia.”

While Pocahontas is known to have died on a ship passing Gravesend, where she was buried is unknown. It is just another missing piece in the puzzle in which the truth of her tale depends on the storyteller.

The most famous account is that of her encounter with Captain John Smith.

Smith, described as heroic by some but mercenary by others, was among the English who moored up in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, in 1607. He was allegedly captured by a tribal chief who was ready to kill him until Pocahontas ran and placed her head over his, saving him from death.

Different theories of this event exist and many historians argue whether it happened at all.

Pocahontas would have been only about 10 at the time the colonists discovered the tribes that were ruled by her father, Powhatan.

The English were exploring the East Indies with an eye to converting the “savages”. Years of conflict ensued between the Native Americans and the settlers, although Pocahontas was known to be a frequent visitor to Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

But in 1613 relations had worsened and an English captain decided to hold her for ransom.

In 2007 Linwood Custalow wrote the first Native American version of her life, The True Story of Pocahontas. The book tells a significantly different tale than the mainstream one that Disney and others have preserved.

In this version, Pocahontas was raped while in captivity.

She never returned to her village – she either decided she would prefer to stay with the English or she co-operated as a means for survival.

She was instructed in the Christian faith and was baptised Rebecca.

She married Englishman John Rolfe in 1614.

After two years of living with the settlers, the Virginia Company of London, a stockholding company which funded the Virginia settlement, brought Pocahontas to England as a symbol of the tamed “savage” and the success of Jamestown.

She was the subject of much curiosity and was presented to the public as a princess.

The new climate took its toll on Pocahontas’ health and a year later while setting sail to return to Jamestown she died on board a ship near to Gravesend.

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