diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Happy 400th birthday America

Virginia Quay, and DomeYou thought the Pilgrim Fathers founded America? You thought wrong. The first British settlers arrived in the New World in 1607, some 14 years earlier. These pioneers landed in modern day Virginia, at a place they named Jamestown in honour of the reigning monarch. And they had to sail from somewhere, and that somewhere was the Isle of Dogs. Blackwall, to be precise, close to the mouth of the River Lea, immediately opposite (yes, where else) the Millennium Dome. [map]

Exactly 400 years today, on 19th December 1606, three ships slipped anchor into the Thames and sailed off to found a nation. Aboard the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed were more than 100 brave souls, charged with establishing a new colony in Virgin territory. Their journey was an eventful one. The wintry Atlantic storms took their toll during the crossing, after the flotilla had spent several weeks becalmed off the coast of Ireland. One of the ships' captains, a certain John Smith, spent several weeks locked in the hold on trumped up charges, but was thankfully released on arrival at Chesapeake Bay. Here he helped lead the new colonists through their first tough years on alien soil, and maintained an uneasy local peace by trading with the native Indians.

One of those Indians was 11-year-old Pocahontas, princess of the Powhatan. You know her story, you've seen the cartoon (you may even have bought the Happy Meal). When she was (a bit) older she married one of the widowed settlers, and took on the somewhat unlikely name of Lady Rebecca. In 1616 her husband sailed with her to London, ostensibly to wow the local venture capitalists into throwing more money at the new colony. The royal couple spent several months living in Brentford (on the site of the present Royal Mail Delivery Office) and were guests of honour at a number of important social gatherings. The following year they made plans to return to Virginia, but sailed no further down the Thames than Gravesend before Pocahontas was taken ill and died. She was only 22, but her mixed-race marriage had helped a new nation take root.

Virginia Quay, BlackwallThe departure point of that initial 1606 voyage is marked today by a monument beside the Thames. The best way to find it is to take the DLR to East India, then head down towards the river past the brand new Budgens. This used to be dockland, but a vast Barratt's housing estate now covers the site. Walk along the Greenwich meridian and turn left at the water's edge, and there facing the Dome is the First Settlers Monument [photo]. The memorial was once topped off by a stone mermaid, but she got stolen overnight once and has since been replaced by a metal astrolabe [photo]. In fact the whole monument was given a much-needed restoration by Barratt's when they moved on site (I know, who'd have thought) and now stands proud and double-flagged beside the river. [map]

Not that anyone ever comes to visit, as far as I can tell. Mews residents in Jamestown Way may step out of their front doors and stare past the monument towards the Dome, and the odd waterside jogger may occasionally puff by, but this most historic site remains well off the usual American tourist trail. Although today, I think, will be an exception. There are a scattering of quatercentenary events planned, both at here at Blackwall and at the Museum in Docklands, to help commemorate the place where the American dream began.
From near this spot 19 December 1606 sailed with 105 adventurers the 'Susan Constant', Capt Christopher Newport in supreme command. Landed at Cape Henry, Virginia, April 26 1607. Arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, May 13 1607 where the adventurers founded the first permanent English colony in America under the leadership of the intrepid Capt John Smith. (Erected by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities)
The 'First Settlers' Monument at Blackwall
Model showing the Virginia Quay estate and site of the memorial
Museum in Docklands exhibition & full-size replica of the Discovery
Jamestown 1607 & Captain John Smith
The real Pocahontas
Official site for the Jamestown 2007 anniversary celebrations
Website to encourage Americans to visit historic England in 2007

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