The new Terence Malik film “The New World” has recently opened. In it, Pocahontas, the Powhatan princess who befriended English captain John Smith and the colonists of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in the early 1600s, is a lover of Smith. In reality, Pocahontas was more of a savvy political strategist, according to historian Camilla Townsend. Townsend believes that Pocahontas’ actions throughout her life reveal a woman with a full grasp of the plight facing her people, and desire to save them from what eventually befell all Native Americans in the years to come.
Certain events in Pocahontas’ life are undisputed, such as the fact that she was kidnapped and held for ransom by Jamestown settlers in 1613, baptized in 1614, and married Englishman John Rolfe that same year.
“Pocahontas’ wedding was definitely a well-thought political move on her part, something she did for peace, because in the Indian world, high-born women married the enemy to prevent further conflict,” says Townsend. However, there is evidence that Rolfe loved Pocahontas (who took the name Rebecca Rolfe after her nuptials) and that she may have had real feelings for him in return.
“To suggest, however, that Pocahontas abandoned her people or loved John Smith, as The New World movie does, is ridiculous,” says Townsend. “She didn’t love the English. She used them. She was not the hapless Monica Lewinsky of her time. She was a James Carville.”
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