Pages from The Textbook of Alternate History: John Smith is Hanged for Treason
by Phong Nguyen
In 1606, Edward Maria Wingfield (1550-1631), the man who would eventually lead the Jamestown colony to its ultimate success in the new world with his austere demands and spirited leadership, was almost deposed by the rascal John Smith (1580-1606).Though in his short life John Smith did not accomplish much, or achieve any of his extraordinary ambitions, after his death, there was found among his papers a journal in which he had written a lengthy fictional account of his imagined future exploits. This serial novel, The Adventures of John Smith in Indian Country, was published posthumously, surviving for centuries as a children's classic, and is thought to have influenced the adventure stories of later American writers James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, though Smith himself never set foot on American soil.
The following account was written by Neville Shaw, who was with Smith when he was hanged, before Shaw's eventual arrival at the Jamestown colony.
John always talked of being saved by a beautiful woman. Sometimes it was on a beach, after having drifted ashore from a shipwreck. Sometimes it was in the woods, after being felled by an arrow wound, then tended to health again by the gentle care of a beautiful squaw. Then, there was his Indian Princess fantasy. There was always his Indian Princess fantasy.
Now we were preparing to waylay the three ships of the Virginia Company in an island of the Caribbean's, with the express purpose of hanging the yeoman Smith, who had proven himself not only a rascal, but a threat to the voyage. His conspiracy consisted mostly of boasts. He had, at one time or another, claimed that he could do something better than each of the other 104 men on board, including, fatally, the job of Captain Newport.
By nature imaginative, John thought often about his own death. When applied to the circumstances of his own end, his imaginings were intricate and endless. He saw himself cast overboard and drowning in the Atlantic. He saw his body speared through by an Algonquin arrowhead. But never in his imaginings did he envision himself dangling from the gallows, his body left to the scavenging birds of an uninhabited island thousands of miles from his homeland.
This I know, because I was assigned to be his guard and keeper—being the only man on board who could bear to listen to Smith prattle and whine drunkenly about life's vicissitudes. And in those last days, his prattling consisted mostly of fantasies about women and death. And then, eventually, just about death.
In April of 1607, we made land, which we dubbed Cape Henry. A few dozen men disembarked for the island, and set immediately to constructing their habitat. After they finished, they would gather wood to make a fire, then tie off the noose with which to hang the mutineer. We had made land for the explicit purpose of hanging John Smith.
From the port of the ship where Smith was shackled, he watched the construction of the sad edifice which was to be his gallows. The men were half finished erecting the instrument of his undoing, when night fell like a toppling wall. And still, Smith stood helplessly chained, thirsty and weary to the point of delirium.
Something stirred us awake. A sound, which might have been the warbling of strange birds, or insects, or animals, so foreign was the land to our ears. I stepped out of the ship's cabin and, in the wan light of a lantern, saw nothing but a blurred frenzy on the shore, and could barely even make out the despicable face of John Smith, only ten feet away, which was fixed in a state of either ecstasy or confusion.
"Do you know that sound? Those are your countrymen being slaughtered by savages!" I shouted at him.
He said, in a strained whisper, which is all he could muster, "Saved by Indians. Saved by Indians!"
"No, not saved, slaughtered!" I said.
But John Smith was not one to be corrected, even by his own eyes.
By morning, the mood was changed. Seven of our men had been brutally killed, and many others suffered wounds which would soon lead to their deaths, but none of the savages had been so much as scarred, and there was no one left to punish. No one, that is, but the rascal Smith.
So the gallows served as a reminder of our purpose for landing—that the whole episode was really the fault of one man alone, and that man, when he came to witness what evil his mutiny had wrought, did nothing but smile and gloat, as was his habit.
But the air was thin with grief, and the spirit with which the execution proceeded was not that of revenge, but duty.
From ship to shore, Smith walked the final walk—the walk dividing men from ghosts. As he stepped off of the ship, onto land, there was a momentary surge of tender feeling as his boot touched down on the soft sand—the yielding of earth, so unlike the textures of life aquatic, the invulnerability of anchor, wheel, and solid wood. In another life, Smith might have been an honorary savage. He might have followed the Indians into the forest and become their champion. But he had not yet fulfilled his ambitions even for this life, much less the next. He could not imagine doing anything partially; it was his curse.
He mounted the four stairs, taking each heavily, not with his usual brisk stride, yet with his chin jutting proudly into the air. Then, the fifth stair—that would be pulled away.
There stood John Smith, looking defiantly out from the gallows, next to the noose from which he was to be hanged. Stripped of everything else to his name, Smith kept his vigilance. It was clear, from his eyes, that he, unlike many another condemned man, had spirit left to squander on rage. "We are already at war!" he cried, "And we have yet to reach the continent."
"We are at war," said Wingfield, who, by a draw of names, was charged with removing the board and thus ushering in the death of John Smith, "but you ought to be at peace."
"Isn't there any common sense left? We must open the instructions from the Virginia Company to find out what our functions are in the new world; otherwise, without leadership, we are doomed to suffer another ruinous attack!"
Wingfield considered this, then turned towards Captain Newport. "Traitor though he is, I must take John's point here," he said. "What say you, Captain?"
The Captain tried to raise his eyes to where Wingfield and Smith stood, but to do so would have been to face the glare of the sun crowning over the trees behind them. So he looked down at the sand as he spoke. "We were told not to break the seal on the Virginia Company's orders until we reached the Americas. But we have made land, for better or worse, and are much in need of laws."
Captain Newport broke the seal and opened the paper containing his employer's directives. On it were listed the names of the seven Governors of what was to become the colony of Jamestown.
Watching this, I thought momentarily of Walter Raleigh, who was sentenced so many times to death, but somehow emerged each time unscathed, and always with enough funding to launch another foolhardy voyage into the heart of darkness. Raleigh had always been inspiration for Smith, of course, but never more so, I supposed, than at that moment.
"Christopher Newport. . ." The Captain. There was no surprise.
"George Kendall. . . Bartholomew Gosnol. . ." Men of family. The gathered murmured their approval.
"John Percy. . . John Ratliff. . . John Martin. . ." The name "John" here, spoken thrice, was like the lashing of a whip to us, which struck the air but never broke the skin.
"And. . . Edward Wingfield, who is here designated to be the colony's commander and President."
Smith, disappointed but not surprised to hear his name unannounced, let go, finally, of the rage, letting it seethe until it turned cold with all nature's indifference.
President Edward Wingfield, in his first act as President of Jamestown, announced the verdict on John Smith: "John Smith of Willoughby, for your treachery to the King and his representative the Captain Christopher Newport, you are hereby sentenced by his Majesty's authority to be hanged from the neck until dead. Do you have any last words?"
Then, to the surprise of all, rather than making one last vainglorious attempt at fame in an oration to the men of Jamestown, Smith leaned over to Wingfield and whispered something in his ear. Years later, after the settlement of Jamestown was no longer uncertain, and his notoriety in England renowned, Wingfield confessed to me the final words of the rascal John Smith. He said, "No matter what you do for the colony, it is the land that will decide her fate. The only thing you can do is to live openly and inspire men; you cannot direct the course of events; you can only act your part."
Perhaps this is why Smith acquiesced so readily to the noose; that he was secure in the knowledge that he fulfilled his role as rouser and mutineer to the best of his ability. And who could ever ask for more of a man?
Shaw devotes much of the rest of his account to Smith's literary legacy. Though history tends to place Smith beside English and European writers such as Daniel Defoe and Johan Wyss, recent American scholars have tried to claim him as their own. That he devoted so much of his writing to the American landscape and American concerns (however inaccessible to his own experience) indicates a writer with the desire to be embraced by the new world.
By all accounts, Smith was the country's first anti-hero, and to some, the first American celebrity. His posthumous success as a writer of tall tales, and his legend as a charismatic trouble-maker, were undoubtedly more significant to the shaping of a nascent America than they have been to the literature of England, and for that reason it is fitting that so many American stories refer back to the sad tale of John Smith's failed mutiny. So it was that the first American novelists never truly saw America.
Suggestions for Class Discussion: Smith had hoped to be named as one of the governors of the colony, but the Virginia Company did not see Smith as fit to rule; what would have changed, were Smith to survive and help run the Virginia colony? Novel-writing was a rare undertaking in the 17th century, in America or England; if Smith had survived, would historians have mistaken his fictional stories for historical accounts? Might they have received The Adventures of John Smith in Indian Country as fact?
Phong Nguyen is fiction editor for Pleiades Magazine, and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and his stories have recently appeared in Agni, Iowa Review, Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Meridian, Rosebud, Inkwell, Phoebe, Confrontation, Portland Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Boulevard, Porcupine, Southern Indiana Review, Beloit Fiction Review, and others.