Feature of the month: John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia

The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
John Smith
London: E. Blackmore, 1632
[S.L.] I [Smith, J. – 1632] fol.

John Smith (1580-1631) was well placed to write a history of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles because, as he writes vividly in the dedication:

of the most things therein, I am no Compiler by hearsay, but haue beene a reall Actor; I take my selfe to haue a propertie in them … That, which hath been indured and passed through with hardship and danger, is thereby sweetened to the Actor, when he becometh the Relator. I haue deeply hazarded my selfe in doing and suffering, and why should I sticke to hazard my reputation in Recording?

Smith had sailed to Virginia in 1607, where his vicissitudes included temporary imprisonment by native inhabitants, and became de facto governor of Virginia, where he believed in English domination of the Indians, as the only way to prevent Indian domination of the settlers.

Smith returned to England in 1609 and never returned to the colonies. But he produced three writings roughly contemporaneously with his stay there: A True Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as hath Happened in Virginia (1608; a letter published without his knowledge), and A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Coutnrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (two parts, both 1612; the second is entitled The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia). The Generall Historie of Virginia, Smith’s major work, is largely a collected edition of these earlier works. Typically for the time, it combines material from external sources with Smith’s own experience; unusually and importantly, it treats all of English America as a unit. It was first published in 1624, rushed out during the crisis over the Virginia Company which led to the forfeiture of the company's charter, and was reissued in 1625, 1626, 1627 and 1631 before appearing in this edition of 1632. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography summarises the work as follows:

Smith was confident that he knew what colonization required better than anyone else. In his view neither Virginia nor Bermuda with their staple economies and unruly populations offered viable models of colonization but developments in New England were encouraging. The first stage of colonization required soldiers and military discipline to secure the settlement, but they should give way to families and communities as soon as it was feasible. Only the emigration of a cross-section of English society would permit the development of towns and communities recognizably English in character and with a strong moral core. As for the Native Americans, though referred to by Smith as cannibals, they were not so degraded or inhuman as to be incapable of conversion.

It is a beautiful book, with historiated initials and with four folded plates which help to give Smith’s biography and which function as an advertisement for the work: one of the pictures on the second plate, showing Smith prostrate, bears the legend: “King Pohatan com[m]ands C. Smith to be slayne, his daughter Pokahontas beggs his life his thankfulness and how he subiected 39 of their kings. Reade the history.”

This copy is one of the few items formerly owned by Sir Louis Sterling outside the remit of his main collecting interest, English literature. It had previously belonged to the merchant and merchant banker Henry Huck Gibbs, first Baron Aldenham (1819-1907), who in addition to cherishing political interests enjoyed country pursuits, edited texts for the Early English Text Society, and was a celebrated bibliophile.

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  • 1 Jun 2016

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