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List Of Contents | Contents of Captain John Smith by, Charles Dudley Warner
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shared with his contemporaries the restless spirit of roving and
adventure which resulted from the invention of the mariner's compass
and the discovery of the New World; but he was neither so sordid nor
so rapacious as many of them, for his boyhood reading of romances had
evidently fired him with the conceits of the past chivalric period.
This imported into his conduct something inflated and something
elevated.  And, besides, with all his enormous conceit, he had a
stratum of practical good sense, a shrewd wit, and the salt of humor.

If Shakespeare had known him, as he might have done, he would have
had a character ready to his hand that would have added one of the
most amusing and interesting portraits to his gallery.  He faintly
suggests a moral Falstaff, if we can imagine a Falstaff without
vices.  As a narrator he has the swagger of a Captain Dalghetty, but
his actions are marked by honesty and sincerity.  He appears to have
had none of the small vices of the gallants of his time.  His
chivalric attitude toward certain ladies who appear in his
adventures, must have been sufficiently amusing to his associates.
There is about his virtue a certain antique flavor which must have
seemed strange to the adventurers and court hangers-on in London.
Not improbably his assumptions were offensive to the ungodly, and his
ingenuous boastings made him the object of amusement to the skeptics.
Their ridicule would naturally appear to him to arise from envy.  We
read between the lines of his own eulogies of himself, that there was
a widespread skepticism about his greatness and his achievements,
which he attributed to jealousy.  Perhaps his obtrusive virtues made
him enemies, and his rectitude was a standing offense to his
associates.

It is certain he got on well with scarcely anybody with whom he was
thrown in his enterprises.  He was of common origin, and always
carried with him the need of assertion in an insecure position.  He
appears to us always self-conscious and ill at ease with gentlemen
born.  The captains of his own station resented his assumptions of
superiority, and while he did not try to win them by an affectation
of comradeship, he probably repelled those of better breeding by a
swaggering manner.  No doubt his want of advancement was partly due
to want of influence, which better birth would have given him; but
the plain truth is that he had a talent for making himself
disagreeable to his associates.  Unfortunately he never engaged in
any enterprise with any one on earth who was so capable of conducting
it as himself, and this fact he always made plain to his comrades.
Skill he had in managing savages, but with his equals among whites he
lacked tact, and knew not the secret of having his own way without
seeming to have it.  He was insubordinate, impatient of any authority
over him, and unwilling to submit to discipline he did not himself
impose.

Yet it must be said that he was less self-seeking than those who were
with him in Virginia, making glory his aim rather than gain always;
that he had a superior conception of what a colony should be, and how
it should establish itself, and that his judgment of what was best
was nearly always vindicated by the event.  He was not the founder of
the Virginia colony, its final success was not due to him, but it was
owing almost entirely to his pluck and energy that it held on and
maintained an existence during the two years and a half that he was
with it at Jamestown.  And to effect this mere holding on, with the
vagabond crew that composed most of the colony, and with the
extravagant and unintelligent expectations of the London Company, was
a feat showing decided ability.  He had the qualities fitting him to
be an explorer and the leader of an expedition.  He does not appear
to have had the character necessary to impress his authority on a
community.  He was quarrelsome, irascible, and quick to fancy that
his full value was not admitted.  He shines most upon such small
expeditions as the exploration of the Chesapeake; then his energy,
self-confidence, shrewdness, inventiveness, had free play, and his
pluck and perseverance are recognized as of the true heroic
substance.

Smith, as we have seen, estimated at their full insignificance such
flummeries as the coronation of Powhatan, and the foolishness of
taxing the energies of the colony to explore the country for gold and
chase the phantom of the South Sea.  In his discernment and in his
conceptions of what is now called "political economy" he was in
advance of his age.  He was an advocate of "free trade" before the
term was invented.  In his advice given to the New England plantation
in his "Advertisements" he says:

"Now as his Majesty has made you custome-free for seven yeares, have
a care that all your countrymen shall come to trade with you, be not
troubled with pilotage, boyage, ancorage, wharfage, custome, or any
such tricks as hath been lately used in most of our plantations,
where they would be Kings before their folly; to the discouragement
of many, and a scorne to them of understanding, for Dutch, French,
Biskin, or any will as yet use freely the Coast without controule,
and why not English as well as they?  Therefore use all commers with
that respect, courtesie, and liberty is fitting, which will in a
short time much increase your trade and shipping to fetch it from
you, for as yet it were not good to adventure any more abroad with
factors till you bee better provided; now there is nothing more
enricheth a Common-wealth than much trade, nor no meanes better to
increase than small custome, as Holland, Genua, Ligorne, as divers
other places can well tell you, and doth most beggar those places
where they take most custome, as Turkie, the Archipelegan Iles,
Cicilia, the Spanish ports, but that their officers will connive to
enrich themselves, though undo the state."

It may perhaps be admitted that he knew better than the London or the
Plymouth company what ought to be done in the New World, but it is
absurd to suppose that his success or his ability forfeited him the
confidence of both companies, and shut him out of employment.  The
simple truth seems to be that his arrogance and conceit and
importunity made him unpopular, and that his proverbial ill luck was
set off against his ability.

Although he was fully charged with the piety of his age, and kept in
mind his humble dependence on divine grace when he was plundering
Venetian argosies or lying to the Indians, or fighting anywhere
simply for excitement or booty, and was always as devout as a modern
Sicilian or Greek robber; he had a humorous appreciation of the value
of the religions current in his day.  He saw through the hypocrisy of
the London Company, "making religion their color, when all their aim
was nothing but present profit."  There was great talk about
Christianizing the Indians; but the colonists in Virginia taught them
chiefly the corruptions of civilized life, and those who were
despatched to England soon became debauched by London vices.  "Much
they blamed us [he writes] for not converting the Salvages, when
those they sent us were little better, if not worse, nor did they all
convert any of those we sent them to England for that purpose."

Captain John Smith died unmarried, nor is there any record that he
ever had wife or children.  This disposes of the claim of subsequent
John Smiths to be descended from him.  He was the last of that race;
the others are imitations.  He was wedded to glory.  That he was not
insensible to the charms of female beauty, and to the heavenly pity
in their hearts, which is their chief grace, his writings abundantly
evince; but to taste the pleasures of dangerous adventure, to learn
war and to pick up his living with his sword, and to fight wherever
piety showed recompense would follow, was the passion of his youth,
while his manhood was given to the arduous ambition of enlarging the
domains of England and enrolling his name among those heroes who make
an ineffaceable impression upon their age.  There was no time in his
life when he had leisure to marry, or when it would have been
consistent with his schemes to have tied himself to a home.

As a writer he was wholly untrained, but with all his introversions
and obscurities he is the most readable chronicler of his time, the
most amusing and as untrustworthy as any.  He is influenced by his
prejudices, though not so much by them as by his imagination and
vanity.  He had a habit of accurate observation, as his maps show,
and this trait gives to his statements and descriptions, when his own
reputation is not concerned, a value beyond that of those of most
contemporary travelers.  And there is another thing to be said about
his writings.  They are uncommonly clean for his day.  Only here and
there is coarseness encountered.  In an age when nastiness was
written as well as spoken, and when most travelers felt called upon
to satisfy a curiosity for prurient observations, Smith preserved a
tone quite remarkable for general purity.

Captain Smith is in some respects a very good type of the restless
adventurers of his age; but he had a little more pseudo-chivalry at
one end of his life, and a little more piety at the other, than the
rest.  There is a decidedly heroic element in his courage, hardihood,
and enthusiasm, softened to the modern observer's comprehension by
the humorous contrast between his achievements and his estimate of
them.  Between his actual deeds as he relates them, and his noble
sentiments, there is also sometimes a contrast pleasing to the
worldly mind.  He is just one of those characters who would be more
agreeable on the stage than in private life.  His extraordinary
conceit would be entertaining if one did not see too much of him.
Although he was such a romancer that we can accept few of his
unsupported statements about himself, there was, nevertheless, a
certain verity in his character which showed something more than
loyalty to his own fortune; he could be faithful to an ambition for
the public good.  Those who knew him best must have found in him very
likable qualities, and acknowledged the generosities of his nature,
while they were amused at his humorous spleen and his serious
contemplation of his own greatness.  There is a kind of simplicity in
his self-appreciation that wins one, and it is impossible for the
candid student of his career not to feel kindly towards the "sometime
Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England."







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