Pocahontas has always been my favourite Disney film. To me she wasn’t illustrated like the other ‘Princesses’ – she was strong minded and adventurous. Characteristics that even as an adult I still resonate with. It was in the first lockdown that I listened to Greg Jenner’s Homeschool History episode on Pocahontas. He divulged the real history of her story and how Disney had romanticised the reality of British imperialism on Native Americans.
To start with, Pocahontas wasn’t even her actual name. Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka – Matoaka, which means ‘the flower between two streams’ and Pocahontas meaning ‘playful one’. Her father was a renowned Native American leader known as Chief Powhatan.
The first English settlers arrived in Jamestown colony in May 1607 (I can hear the song from the film in my head, “1607 we sailed open sea… the Virginia Company”). It is Mel Gibson’s John Smith that falls for the beautiful Pocahontas in the film, by chance meeting. In reality, Pocahontas’ brother kidnapped the colonist Captain John Smith and made a spectacle of him in front of several Powhatan tribes before taking him to meet Chief Powhatan. According to Smith, his head was placed on two stones and a warrior prepared to smash his head and kill him. But before the warrior could strike, Pocahontas rushed to Smith’s side and placed her head on his, preventing the attack. Chief Powhatan then bartered with Smith, referred to him as his son, and sent him on his way. Smith’s account of Pocahontas’ life-saving efforts is hotly debated, partly because he wrote different versions of this initial meeting with Chief Powhatan. Many historians believe Smith was never in peril and the placement of his head on the stones was ceremonial.
Upon researching this, what really took me by surprise was the truth of Pocahontas and John Smith’s relationship. There were notes that survived from John Smith. While he was a prisoner among the Native Americans, we know he spent some time with Pocahontas and that they were teaching each other some basic aspects of their languages. In his surviving notes are written sentences like “Tell Pocahontas to bring me three baskets.” Or “Pocahontas has many white beads.” So their relationship was based on teaching. In one case English, in another case an Algonquian language. I like the magic Disney brought to the film, with the idea that if you listen you will understand, and maybe that was the nod to the historical truth to their relationship. One built upon listening to each other.
An early storyline in the film is how the defiant Pocahontas does believe the right path for her is to not marry Kocoum. Alas, in reality, she did marry him. They also had a son together. For a period of time, it is believed Pocahontas managed to live a quiet life away from the English, until 1613 when she was lured onto the English ship of Captain Samuel Argall and kidnapped during the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
It is here where Disney picked up the 2nd Pocahontas film. Tactically placing John Rolfe as a negotiator, asking the Chief Powhatan to come to England, but the spunky Pocahontas offering to go in his place. All with the pure intention of bringing peace between the two. This romanticised, heroic story is far from the imperialist reality.
While kidnapped, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity by her captors and then married John Rolfe. Due to her (forced) religious conversion, her name was changed once again and she adopted the biblical name Rebecca. John Rolfe had succeeded in growing valuable tobacco crops (possibly with help from local tribes) but the Virginia Company was struggling, so, to raise funds, Rolfe and his new bride travelled to England. It was thought that showcasing Pocahontas would illustrate the company’s successes in converting the locals to Christianity. She was dressed in elaborate, vaguely regal, costumes and displayed at various functions.
The Virginia Company commissioned a portrait of Pocahontas dressed in expensive clothes with an engraved label that said, “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.” It is the only image drawn of her in person.
The sad life of Pocahontas came to a tragic end. Trying to return to her homeland, with John and their son, she became seriously ill onboard ship and was taken ashore at Gravesend in Kent, where she died of a mystery ailment. She is buried at a churchyard in the town.
Camilla Townsend, an American historian looking at the real life of Pocahontas, summarises (with some real food for thought) why the myth of Pocahontas has dominated the reality:
“I think the reason it’s been so popular—not among Native Americans, but among people of the dominant culture—is that it’s very flattering to us. The idea is that this is a ‘good Indian.’ She admires the white man, admires Christianity, admires the culture, wants to have peace with these people, is willing to live with these people rather than her own people, marry him rather than one of her own. That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our history. That we were not doing anything wrong to the Indians but really were helping them and the ‘good’ ones appreciated it.”
This blog was written for Herstory Club’s monthly theme on Women in TV and Film.