Americans Are Such Slow LearnersShameless Self-Promotional Note: The Poobah clicked over 25,000 unique visitors today. If there was a Grand Prize to celebrate, it would go to an unknown visitor from W. Babylon, NY who came to the Poobah via a search on (and this is real): "how to cope with a chronic complainer" - very appropriate I thought.
So, W. Babylon person...thanks. And don't let any towers fall on you.
You can continue your quest for cultural enlightenment now.
Four hundred years ago this month, three shiploads of settlers left England for the New World. Today, we think of Jamestown as a crowning achievement built by intrepid explorers challenging a dangerous and uncertain New World. In fact, the adventure was a problem-filled fiasco that nearly collapsed before finally taking root. Their problems were similar to those we face today - except dressed up in funny iron helmets, bulging pantaloons, and lace collars.
The epic voyage's poor planning was eerily Rumsfeldesque - as they say today, "mistakes were made". The Virginia Company - the Halliburton of the day - filled the colonists' ranks with a collection of n'er-do-well upper-class gentlemen and poorly trained lower-class peasants ill-prepared for a mission of exploration. They were commanded by cronies hand-picked by the company back in England.
The Unwelcome Wagon
After meandering at sea for months, the colonists arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay low on supplies and in a cranky mood. They were so glad to see land again, they pulled over and threw a fabulous Mission Accomplished celebration. Unexpectedly, a band of natives appeared to run the group off mid-ceremony - not unlike the Iraqi Welcome Wagon threw imaginary flowers, and later bombs, at the feet of their conquering heroes.
The ships traveled up the James River looking for a place to colonize. Again - much like a Halliburton project - they couldn't have chosen a worse venue if they'd run a billion dollar feasibility study. The place was swampy and full of malarial mosquitoes. The drinking water was so salty, it poisoned several erstwhile settlers. Despite the lessons of their aborted Mission Accomplished celebration, the settlers sat back and relaxed until attacked by another band of insurgents. The fort they belatedly built was an oddly prescient harbinger of Baghdad's Green Zone.
Eating Their Own
While the fort protected them from natives, it didn't protect them from each other. Chronic shortages of food and political infighting plagued the colony. Their uneven foreign policy with the Indians consisting of periods of peaceful trade interspersed with deadly attacks provoked by blundering settlers expecting European behavior from the locals. A sort of reverse Old Europe mentality to paraphrase Rummy. Each time there was a crisis, the weak Company-appointed leaders were jailed and replaced by self-aggrandizing braggarts like John Smith. Replace Smith's iron helmet with a cowboy hat and he bore a striking resemblance to our current leader, except the he somehow managed to actually keep things moving.
Reduced to eating rats, the colonists began to eat their own. Archaeologists say murder was a common occurrence and political upheaval was the norm. A slow bleed, reinforced by Smith's promises of just one more corner to turn, reduced the population to 38 starving souls. Despite the dire conditions, the gentlemen of leisure still only worked at the point of Smith's sword. Apparently, draft deferments were still a few years into the future.
Eventually, the demoralized settlers decided to make the long trip home. On the back to the sea, they met long overdue supply ships bearing the flag of KBR, er, the Virginia Company. They surged back to the abandoned fort and proceeded to eat nearly all the provisions in yet another Mission Accomplished celebration, leaving them where they left off except for additional mouths to feed.
Halliburton's Board Gets a Clue
Unlike the theocratic, evangelical New England colonies to come, Jamestown was supposed to be a business venture. The Virginia Company, heavily invested in sure-fire gold futures, found none. They eventually turned a profit by selling wild weeds. It's rumored the first weed farmer was named R.J. Reynolds - a man who swore by the medicinal powers of the stuff.
True capitalists, the Company belatedly realized you can't make things to sell if you have no skilled labor. They pitched glassmakers and other artisans the delights of life in the New World. Craftsmen surged in, buoyed by promises of free land after serving a six-year indentured servitude. The upper class gentlemen still refused manual labor and the servants' enlistment bonuses were held hostage to Iraqi-like stop-loss orders and involuntary deployments. Then, as now, the upper 1% profited the most.
Americans Are Such Slow Learners
As much by accident as tenacity, the colony survived and 400 years on left us with a country that still hasn't resolved the problems of poor leadership, bad policy, and poorly distributed economic gains. If there's one thing that can be said for Americans, it's this:
We're really slow learners.
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Wednesday, May 02, 2007