Editor’s note: This book review was originally posted at Literary Leisure  and written by Taylor Baysinger.


“And thy blush being turned to indignation, thou shalt wash, hast washed thy feet in the blood of those native unnatural Traitors, and now becomest a pure English Virgin; a new other Britain, in that new other World; and let all English say and pray, GOD BLESS VIRGINIA.”

Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgramage (1623)


Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America

by Benjamin Woolley


Four centuries ago, and fourteen years before the Mayflower, a group of men — led by a one-armed ex-pirate, an epileptic aristocrat, a reprobate cleric and a government spy — left London aboard a fleet of three ships to start a new life in America. They arrived in Virginia in the spring of 1607 and set about trying to create a settlement on a tiny island in the James River. Despite their shortcomings, and against the odds, they built Jamestown, a ramshackle outpost that laid the foundations of the British Empire and the United States of America.

Drawing on new discoveries, neglected sources and manuscript collections scattered across the world, Savage Kingdom challenges the textbook image of Jamestown as a mere money-making venture. It reveals a reckless, daring enterprise led by outcasts of the Old World who found themselves interlopers in a new one. It charts their journey into a beautiful landscape and a sophisticated culture that they found both ravishing and alien, which they yearned to possess but threatened to destroy. They called their new home a “savage kingdom,” but it was the savagery they had experienced in Europe that had driven them across the ocean and which they hoped to escape by building in America “one of the most glorious nations under the sun.”

An intimate story in an epic setting, Woolley shows how the land of Pocahontas came to be drawn into a new global order, reaching from London to the Orinoco Delta, from the warring kingdoms of Angola to the slave markets of Mexico, from the gates of the Ottoman Empire to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Savage Kingdom is not dry, like so many history books. Instead, littered with primary-source material that gives us an incredible window into the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it reads like a gripping story, and is a detailed play-by-play of the establishment of the State of Virginia. Who knew American history could make for an edge-of-your-seat read? (Maybe you did, but a childhood of mind-numbing U.S. history books had me thinking otherwise.)

It is easy, in learning history, to see only large-scale cause-and-effect — e.g., “Marie and Louis lived lavish lives and poured enormous amounts of money into decor and war, the Crown went bankrupt, the people were unfairly taxed; therefore, starving and impoverished, they became an angry mob, executed Marie and Louis, and initiated the French Revolution.” In reality, this view is too narrow; history is a confluence of events, and every detail plays a role — the whispered gossip, the words and works of the artists and critics, the legislative habits that become difficult to break. Woolley takes those details into account in Savage Kingdom, which gives us a look at events around the globe at the time of Jamestown’s inception. Above all, Savage Kingdom is a fascinating glimpse into life and politics in the early 1600s, particularly for English explorers and Spanish conquistadors, colonial settlers, British investors, and the indigenous peoples of the East Coast.

America has a long history of drawing the oddballs and outcasts, and of their persistence toward the goal of achieving social and economic mobility through hard work (“the American dream”), and this tradition began many years before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. The settlers of Jamestown faced stunning adversities — often catalyzed by their own penchant for evil and destruction — but against all odds, managed to conquer them, just as they did the Powhatan‘s land. When I started the book, it was with respect for my country but disgust for the behavior of its pioneers; having finished it, my feelings toward the Virginia venture are now as varied as the opinions of all those involved. It is clear that an astounding amount of effort went into researching and writing this book, and it earns 4 out of 5 tobacco plants from me.

I believe that a book should challenge readers and push us outside our comfort zones to expand our world views. You can definitely expect this book to challenge you. It challenged me to empathize with the settlers of Virginia. The atrocities committed during America’s founding years is the stuff of nightmares, so I was also challenged to push myself through some of the more grotesque occurrences — it never grew boring, but it did occasionally become nauseating and stressful. It is a story that needs to be told, but I’m skeptical of the idea that the gory details need to be explicitly shared. That is absolutely a matter of opinion, and I can see and understand the other perspectives: that it wouldn’t be an authentic account otherwise, that to omit the injustices done would be a further injustice, that summarizing what occurred as opposed to laying it all out in detail opens the door to alterations of history. I absolutely respect those views, but it is nonetheless the gory details that prevent me from giving the book full marks.

Content Advisory: Several disturbing instances of torture and murder are described, which may be upsetting to some readers. The archaic language of Woolley’s primary sources is quoted very often, and Woolley’s own writing, while eloquent, may be equally difficult for a younger reader. Therefore, I give Savage Kingdom an R rating and would advise an educator to read it herself before recommending it to a young person, to ensure that young person has the maturity level necessary to appreciate it. And make sure that young person knows how to use a dictionary.

Featured Image: James Forte at Jamestowne 1607 by John Hull (1607)