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The Capture and Release of Captain John Smith | Study Guide

John Smith

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The Capture and Release of Captain John Smith | Quotes


Then finding the Captain ... that used the savage that was his guide as his shield.

The word "savage" is used throughout to refer to the Native Americans. It is a racist term that shows the English belief that Native Americans were lesser people. It is particularly notable here because it is clear that John Smith's Native American guide helps to save his life. Smith's description that he "used" the guide in this way betrays further his belief that the Native American is not fully a person. He refers to him as he would a tool, as if he were literally a shield.


Much they marvelled at the playing of the fly and needle.

Smith's language here is meant to communicate how impressed and amazed Native Americans are by European science and technology. His description of their wonder is not just related to their admiration of the compass; it is meant to summon up the wonder of children. Smith's portrayal of the Native Americans' reaction serves to reinforce his view that Europeans hold a dominant and superior role and reiterates the European assumption that Native Americans are simpler and less advanced.


Only thirty or forty hunting houses made of mats, which they remove as they please, as we our tents.

Smith's use of the word "only" shows that he is unimpressed with the size of the Native American settlement, which is the home of the war party that captured him. He compares the houses to tents, describing them in terms familiar to his English audience. Smith, like other colonists, did not understand the seasonal migration patterns of the Native American communities and how their settlements and dwellings reflected this practice.


The King's habitation at Pamaunkee, where they entertained him with most strange and fearful conjurations.

Smith's lack of understanding of what is happening is shown by his use of the word "entertained." The rituals he is a part of are likely not really meant to entertain him, and they are probably not for his benefit at all. An outsider, he is brought into a world of rituals and practices that he likely often misinterprets. He casts them as "strange and fearful conjurations," likening them to magical practices. Smith seeks to describe what he sees as the strange and un-Christian behaviors of the Native Americans, but he also shows his own views of the people he is among.


As if near led to hell, Amongst the devils to dwell.

Smith inserts short poetic flourishes like this into his text. They serve to aid in the entertainment value of his narrative and also to break it up. In this couplet, he describes his experience as like being led into hell, to live with its devilish inhabitants. He thus compares the Native Americans to sinful and evil monsters. This communicates clearly to his English Christian audience the threat Smith felt he was in. It again shows his view of the Native Americans as a lesser people.


Three days they used this ceremony; the meaning whereof they told him was to know if he intended them well or no.

Smith reveals that he was told of the ceremony's significance after it had concluded. Before that, it is implied, he was left mystified by what was going on. That he is told, however, reveals that at some level he is able to communicate with the Native Americans, although the text does not say how.


They imagined the world to be flat and round, like a trencher, and they in the midst.

A trencher is a thick slice of hard bread, used as a plate in European meals of the period. Smith's description of the Native American ideas about the world suggests his view that Europeans are superior because of their knowledge of science. The details about Native American ideas that Smith provides are of historical interest but must also be read through a critical lens. Smith may have misunderstood much of what he saw and heard.


After this they brought him a bag of gunpowder, which they carefully preserved till the next spring, to plant as they did their corn.

Smith uses this incident to show, once again, his idea that the Native Americans are simple, less advanced people. The comparison to corn, however, is important: at the time, the Jamestown colonists were starving, in part because they could not plant or grow enough corn. Smith wishes to ridicule the Native Americans' ideas about the world, but at this point it is they who are successfully growing crops in the Americas. It is the colonists who were likely naïve about the migration they had undertaken and who need to gain knowledge from the Native Americans in order to survive.


Here more than two hundred of those grim courtiers stood wondering at him, as he had been a monster.

Smith describes the Native Americans looking at him as if he were a monster. This is interesting since Smith frequently describes the Native Americans as monstrous. Their wonder at Smith reflects the fact that relations between Native Americans and English settlers were just beginning. For many of the people gathered, it is implied, Smith was the first European they had ever seen. His skin color and his manner of dress and grooming were all as alien to them as theirs to him.


Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could.

Smith diminishes his praise for the feasting and treatment he receives by suggesting it was only as good as a barbarian—an uncivilized person—could manage. Smith wrote his text in England, more than 15 years after the events he describes. He is speaking to his European audience, who understand themselves as more advanced than the "barbarous" people of the Americas.


Pocahontas, the King's dearest daughter ... got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death.

Smith suggests that his life is only saved by the favorite daughter of the king intervening in dramatic fashion. He writes that she lays her head down on his to stop the execution, risking her own life. It is possible, however, that these are details in a ritual of which Smith was unaware. The closeness of Pocahontas to the king (Powhatan) and the dramatic nature of her intercession could be read as pre-planned elements of a ritual, allowing Powhatan to be swayed by his daughter and permitting him to show Smith mercy. It has also been suggested that Smith simply made up this episode. Pocahontas did later make frequent visits to Jamestown, and she helped protect Smith and other colonists from an ambush by Native Americans in 1609.


For the King himself will make his own robes, shoes, bows, arrows, pots; plant, hunt, or do any thing so well as the rest.

Smith reveals the self-sufficiency of the Native Americans, who make all their own items. It is a vision of an egalitarian society that shares labor and insists on self-reliance for all members, even kings. Smith implies a contrast with his own society, with which he assumes his reader is familiar and thus does not describe. Specifically, he knows that educated members of English society (who were generally wealthier and near the top of the social structure) would find it very odd to make their own clothing and shoes, or to grow their own food. For a change, Smith does not cast Native American practices as inferior here, but simply points out the contrast with European habits.


Powhatan more like a devil than a man ... came unto him and told him now they were friends.

Smith once again uses term devil to suggest Powhatan's appearance is monstrous and frightening. This contrasts with Powhatan's announcement that Smith and he are now friends. Smith implies this "friendship" was something that was not in his power to refuse. This shows the reader that Smith and Powhatan may have different understandings of what it means to be "friends." It nonetheless establishes that Smith has a special status in Powhatan's mind, and it is this status that allows him to go free and make deals between Powhatan and the Jamestown colony.


He showed Rawhunt, Powhatan's trusty servant, two demi-culverings ... when they did see him discharge them ... the poor savages ran away half dead with fear.

The "demi-culverings" are cannons, actually called demi-culverins. Smith's account of the Native Americans running away "half dead with fear" is probably included as a comic detail to entertain his audience in England. But this also diminishes the significance of what he is doing. Although he is showing that the Native Americans do not understand what cannons are—and are afraid of their noise and power—he is nevertheless trading the cannons away to them. Smith is reassuring his audience that his gift of cannons to the Native Americans was not a betrayal and posed no threat to the colony.


Pocahontas with her attendants brought him so much provision that saved many of their lives, that else for all this had starved with hunger.

The terrible state in which the Jamestown colony found itself is revealed in this passage. Having frequently slighted the Native Americans and described them as monsters, Smith nevertheless shows that it was only Pocahontas's regular gifts of food that prevented the colonists from starving. This point also communicates to Smith's English and colonial readers that there are some Native Americans whom they should consider trustworthy and benevolent. By the time of Smith's writing, Pocahontas had been dead for several years, having lived out her last year in England. It is possible that because much of Smith's audience was already aware of her, Smith is deliberately playing up to her celebrity here.

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