As announced last week, The Displaced Nation is honoring Pocahontas this month for the role she played in advancing communications between two very different cultures.
This week, we take a closer look at Pocahontas’s decision to marry the Jamestown settler John Rolfe.
Did the Rolfes have an easy time of it in their married life? History doesn’t tell us, but as the veteran of two cross-cultural marriages myself (first to a Brit, now to a Japanese), I tend to think not.
Sure, the union had its advantages for both parties. We know for a fact that two years after marrying Rolfe, Pocahontas was invited to voyage to England with her husband, where she met many prominent people, including King James I.
We know also that Pocahontas’s father, King Powhatan, gave the newlyweds property just across the James River from Jamestown, spanning thousands of acres.
But being in the mood to play devil’s advocate, today I will make the case for why Pocahontas and Rolfe should have hesitated before tying the knot.
Here are my top four reasons for cautioning against cross-cultural marriages like theirs:
1. Marriage across cultures is rarely seen as one of equals.
Rolfe felt he had to defend his decision to marry Pocahontas to his fellow colonists. Here’s what he wrote in a letter addressed to Sir Thomas Dale:
Nor was I ignorant of the heavie displeasure which almightie God conceived against the sonnes of Levie and Israel for marrying strange wives, nor of the inconveniences which may thereby arise,…which made me looke about warily and with good circumspection, into the grounds…which thus should provoke me to be in love with one whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed, and so discrepant in all nurtriture frome my self.
After much soul searching, Rolfe decided he could marry Pocahontas despite her crude education, barbarous manners and different colored skin — as long as she converted to Christianity.
In the above portrait of the couple, by J.W. Glass, Rolfe is instructing Pocahontas in Christian doctrines.
And now let’s turn to Pocahontas. Did she see Rolfe as her equal, given that he was a mere tobacco farmer, and a foreign invader, and she was the daughter of the most powerful chief in the region?
According to historical records, the news of the liaison was well received by the Powhatan tribes, helping to create a climate of peace toward the Jamestown colonists for several years.
I find it instructive to compare Pocahontas with Cleopatra on this point. Faced with the rising tide of Roman expansionism, Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony to protect her country from being swallowed up. Likewise, Pocahontas may have seen it as her duty to marry John Rolfe, as it meant she could continue working on behalf of her people. (In that sense, Disney may have been right about Pocahontas’s preference for Captain John Smith — but only because he had more power than Rolfe.)
2. The fantasy quotient in such marriages can lead to huge disappointments.
In Glass’s portrait of the couple, John Rolfe gazes down lovingly into the eyes of a young woman with long, straight, dark hair. He seems to be thinking of Pocahontas as his trophy Indian princess — how exotic she is compared to his English wife (who died on the boat coming over).
But what if, at that very moment, Pocahontas is calculating the advantages that could accrue to her and her tribe from their liaison — including representing her father’s tribes to the powers-that-be in London and arguing against their displacement.
Would it crush Rolfe to learn the practical agenda she had in mind for their marriage?
At the same time, though, the painting shows Pocahontas gazing upwards at her husband-to-be. A young girl, she must have harbored a few fantasies as well. Maybe she found Rolfe much more refined than the Indian men she had known — she’d already had an Algonquian husband by then.
In that case, how disappointed she must have felt when, after the wedding, she discovered his habit of chewing and spitting tobacco, overheard him swearing like the sailor he once was, and noticed his tendency to stomp around the place. Why can’t he be more like an Algonquian man and walk as quietly as a leopard?
3. Sons tend to turn into their fathers, and daughters into their mothers — but how can you possibly anticipate this if you can’t read the culture?
Having been married to a Brit myself, I find it amusing to pretend that Pocahontas met Rolfe’s parents before deciding whether to marry him. In my imagination, she, like me, fails to pick up on all the important cues — things like the necessity of being able to produce a Sunday dinner of roasted meat, potatoes, and two veggies, while her husband rests up from his weekly labors. (Rolfe, by the way, is credited with the first successful cultivation of tobacco from the colony of Virginia.)
Likewise, had Rolfe been able to meet Pocahontas’s mother, I imagine he would have thought of her as a kindly Indian squaw — having no idea of her ability to control, coerce and manipulate others to her will.
4. In times of strife, the last thing you want is a cross-cultural misunderstanding.
We marry for better or for worse, but during the worst of times, most of us could do without a partner who is culturally clueless.
For example, if Pocahontas received word that one of her close relations had died — how would she feel if Rolfe resorted to trying to cheer her up with sarcastic British humor: “Well, at least that’s one less Injun for us to worry about!”
By the same token, if Rolfe’s tobacco crop failed due to drought, he may not have felt like dancing with Pocahontas, despite her insistence it would bring on the rains.
* * *
Most of the above, of course, is pure conjecture, but it is also based very closely on my own observations. I’ve witnessed quite a few romances in the Rolfe-Pocahontas mould — particularly while living in Japan. And I’ve seen quite a few of them turn sour.
I’ve also experienced firsthand how devastating it can be if one’s spouse can’t communicate properly when the going gets rough and you don’t have the energy to make allowances for the fact that they come from a different culture.
In my experience, the most important quality one needs to have for a successful cross-cultural marriage is that of being a glutton for punishment — a quality I just so happen to have in spades.
Not wanting an easy life — that’s what it all boils down to. And, unless you have a calling for handling complication piled on complication, then I would suggest choosing a mate who lived in the same neighborhood as you growing up — preferably next door.
Question: Do you agree that cross-cultural marriages are unusually challenging?
img: Detail of “John Rolfe and Pocahontas,” by James William Glass (early 1850s), courtesy Wikipedia (public domain)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s RANDOM NOMAD interview, in which our special guest will answer a Pocahontas-related question.
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