While you’re pondering the details of this year’s Thanksgiving menu (I’m thinking Greek fennel salad, chestnut-and-bacon dressing, and molasses ice cream), you might want to tune into the National Geographic Channel this Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET and offer a quick thanks to the deity of your choice that you’re not living in Jamestown, Va., in 1609-1610, the period described in survivors’ accounts as “the Starving Time.” Nightmare in Jamestown, a one-hour documentary that reconstructs the horrific early years of the first English settlement in the New World through the lens of forensic anthropology, is grimly entertaining, like a really, really dark episode of Lost. It’s also educational in the way of National Geographic specials: awash in cheesy costumed re-enactments, CSI-style computer graphics, and interviews with passionately dorky archeologists that make you wish your job involved brushing the dust off tiny fragments of bone.
Thirteen years before the legendary harvest feast took place in Plymouth, Mass., the 108 colonists who set out in 1608 on a gold-prospecting mission for an English investment corporation called the Virginia Company were met with a combination of ill luck (they happened to land in the New World on the cusp of the worst drought in 700 years) and terrible judgment (settling inland for fear of aggression from Spanish ships, they plunked themselves down in territory inhabited by more than 13,000 Indians, many led by Powhatan, one of the most powerful chiefs of the region).
As their gold-mining efforts failed and supplies ran low, archeological evidence suggests that the colonists resorted to eating everything from worm-infested barley to poisonous snakes to their own horses, cats, and dogs. According to some colonists’ accounts, the menu also included dug-up corpses from Jamestown’s own graveyards. The archeological findings neither confirm nor contradict these reports of cannibalism, but the voice-over narration makes the tawdry most of them.
Popular legend tends to downplay the corpse-eating angle of the Jamestown story and focus on the fabled romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan. This documentary focuses on Smith’s role as the author of a diary that would become the primary source for Jamestown historians and barely mentions Pocahontas at all, except to point out that she would have been about 10 or 12 when the colonists landed, making her an unlikely target for Smith’s affections (a version of events confirmed by the historical record).
A supply ship that brought provisions in the fall of 1609 carried rats bearing the bubonic plague (cue the montage of swarming rats superimposed over the faces of pasty, sweating colonists). During the dark days of the Starving Time, mortality rates reached 70 percent. By May 1610, only 60 survivors remained, but they were supplemented with new recruits from England (that must have been some recruiting campaign!), and, miraculously, the colony began to take hold.
Descriptions of the guerrilla-style Native American warfare that blindsided the Jamestown settlers can’t help but evoke parallels with our modern-day colonial venture in Iraq. The settlers “had complete faith in the superiority of their technology and their culture,” the narrator intones, all but chuckling grimly as he goes on to describe how inadequate the settlers’ armor was against Indian arrowheads, or how an Algonquin warrior could fire up to 10 arrows in the 30 seconds required to reload a matchlock musket. Sure, fennel salad may be tastier than leftover Grandma, but maybe America hasn’t come so far after all.