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John Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas

March 8, 2011

Originally posted to my new Tumblr. This will probably make a little more sense in context, after the other post I’m working on. 🙂


On the mythology front, an appalling (if not surprising) piece of propaganda I only learned about recently.

Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America

John Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown, Virginia, completed in 1840, hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The meaning of this image in its physical and historical context provide the key to understanding Pocahontas’ appeal as an American cultural icon. Why, in 1840, would legislators choose to place this picture of a Native American woman in its pantheon of national heroes? The answer lies in the national self-image of the time in which it was painted and first displayed. In short, this is a flattering treatment of the “Indian Problem.” …

Three figures form the focal point of the picture. The minister, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe seem bathed in divine light, a tradition of European Renaissance painting indicating holy benediction. Pocahontas herself is dressed in a simple white gown, suggestive of earlier icons of the Virgin Mary with bowed head, and the colors of her clothing, shawl, and hair are repeated in the renderings of the other two men, further associating her with the Europeans and their culture. Her features are Anglicized and she is contrasted dramatically with the other natives, who appear wearing garishly ornamented costumes.

Most interesting are the figures of Opechankanough, her uncle, and Nantequaus, the infamous warrior who would later break the peace brokered with Pocahontas’ help and massacre the Jamestown settlement. Opechankanough sits in shadow, glumly ignoring the ceremony, while Nantequaus proudly turns away, his plumed head-dress rising defiantly over the heads of those assembled. The contrast carries an unambiguous judgment: Pocahontas is noble in her acceptance of English religion and culture, while the others are shown to be savage ingrates for rejecting the scene of obvious grace before them.

A government pamphlet appeared at the time of the painting’s unveiling in order to underscore this point. Titled “The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas”, the explanation first identifies the figures in the painting, emphasizing the historical accuracy of the work. Identifying Pocahontas as one of the “children of the forest” who has been “snatched from the fangs of barbarous idolatry”, the pamphlet congratulates the Jamestown settlers for spreading “the blessings of Christianity among the heathen savages.” They did more than “exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions”, the pamphlet continues. Even as the painting seems to celebrate the peaceful Christian conversion and assimilation of Native Americans, it also points to the recalcitrant heathens who reject such an offer, bent on conflict.

In this way The Baptism of Pocahontas both highlights the lofty intentions of the Jamestown settlers and condemns the obstinance of those who can be understood as ignoble savages. It propagates the idea of the noble savage in Pocahontas, one who is said repeatedly in the literature of the 19th century to have embodied Christian virtues even before she was converted. The painting also appears to make a case for the harsh treatment of antagonistic, unassimilated Indians. The policy of “removal” had begun seven years earlier, and it was apparent at the time Chapman’s work appeared that the entire continent would soon be invaded by ambitious American settlers.

Not surprisingly, the official story usually ignores the part where a teenage girl is kidnapped, held hostage, and coercively if not forcibly converted to Christianity, only escaping that captivity by marrying an Englishman (shown standing behind her in the painting). John Rolfe himself wrote that he was “motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God”#, while being deeply conflicted about marrying one of those heathen savages. He also claimed to love her, if anything adding insult to injury. She died from disease in England at about 22. And the poor woman has been denied humanity and used as a mythologized pawn ever since.

An important bit of the mythology: the consistent (and not-so-subtle) association of Matoaka with the very European Lady Sovereignty, used to justify/legitimize all kinds of destructive and just plain evilminded behavior.

Yeah, this stuff still hurts people.

ETA: It’s not mentioned in that text, but “Nantequaus, the infamous warrior who would later break the peace brokered with Pocahontas’ help and massacre the Jamestown settlement” was her brother. And apparently their father Powhatan sanctioned that attack on Jamestown. Gee, wonder why?! I’m not sure it qualifies as a massacre, per se, when the “victims” have repeatedly been warned that they really need to stop attacking other people. Scanning the text again, that kinda jumped out.

Continuing the image theme: Native American Sent into Slavery by Virginia Colonists, 1600s. Source.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. V.E.G. permalink
    April 26, 2011 5:12 pm

    Pocahontas is a direct descendant of Jefferson’s son-in-law, Randolph. Also, the man from Moffat County, named J. L. Williams, descendant of hers, died very unexpectedly in the Western Slope in Grand Junction.

  2. V.E.G. permalink
    February 6, 2012 8:27 pm

    Please do not forget, Randall Kent Burris, a direct descendant of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, gave his life saving a woman, Heather Carlson and her daughter. Burris is a white man with a touch of Native American ancestry.

  3. V.E.G. permalink
    May 21, 2012 9:46 pm

    Here is the ancestry of hero, Randall Kent Burris from Pocahontas:
    Pocahontas & John Rolfe
    Thomas ROLFE
    Jane ROLFE
    John BOLLING
    Martha BOLLING
    Thomas ELDRIDGE
    Jane ELDRIDGE-(siblings)-Sarah Eppes ELDRIDGE
    John Rolfe Bolling JOHNSON-(1st cousins)-Winifred Jones Thompson HILL
    Sarah Jane JOHNSON
    Clara Lightfoot King
    Eliza Belle Curtis
    Marvin Monroe Burris
    Ernest Gene Burris
    Randall Kent Burris

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