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Book review: Savage Kingdom by Benjamin Woolley

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Jamestown historySavage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America by Benjamin Wooley is a good history of Jamestown that almost completely ignores that thing that most people think of when they think of Jamestown.

You would think that a book about the Jamestown settlement with the word “Savage” in the title would have a bit about the rumored (and now basically confirmed) cannibalism.

Turns out not so much.

Know before you read

It’s not *really* as “savage” as I expected it to be. Maybe I just read too much true crime, but I was expecting a little more of the rough side of the settlement, particularly the Starving time.

Totally aside from that little let down, it really is a good history of Jamestown – I haven’t yet read any other Jamestown books to compare it to, but I think this would be a good place to start.

You can read the transcript of an interview with the author here.

Jamestown Settlement

I love that the book starts in England – the “why” all these people decided to leave everything they knew and sail into the virtual unknown is so interesting. I recognize that some of them didn’t really have any other choice, but it is still far braver than I could have been.

In addition to the founding of this settlement, the Starving Time, and a look at how these settlers (barely) survived, Woolley spends a lot of time on Captain Smith, Pocahontas, and the (actual, non-Disney) history of these people. The relationships between the European settlers and the indigenous peoples whose homes were more or less invaded is always interesting. Especially since only one side of that conflict left any record of what happened.

Woolley does a good job of portraying that history as it is represented in the settlers’ writings – without trying to draw any conclusions of what is true or not true. This is especially important when dealing with Captain Smith’s version of events, since his story changed slightly with every retelling. Who knows what he embellished or left out?

Did you know the site of the Jamestown fort wasn’t actually discovered until mid-20th century? It’s fascinating to me that a piece of history that SO MANY people know about could be left undiscovered and unresearched for so long. I’m sure we still have quite a few new pieces of evidence and stories to come out of the archaeological work. I’m hoping someone else writes an updated history of the settlement in the next few years.

Final verdict? Good book for Jamestown history – needs an updated look at new evidence of cannibalism (or change the title).

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