Pocahontas based on an image by Simon de Passe

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[IMAGE] An engraving of a woman, wearing an elaborate patterned dress, a large lace ruff around her neck, a tall hat with a feather and a pearl earring. There is writing around the outside which says 'PRINC : POWHATANI IMP : VIRGINIA. MOTOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS'.
The Indigenous American woman Pocahontas after she arrived in England in 1616.
Pocahontas
published by William Richardson, after Simon de Passe
line engraving, published 10 August 1793 (1616)
7 1/4 in. x 4 7/8 in. (183 mm x 124 mm) paper size
NPG D28135
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Pocahontas (about 1596–1617) was an Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. American woman. She was the daughter of an Algonquian ruler. Her birth name was Amonute, but the English knew her by her nickname, Pocahontas. 

Pocahontas lived in the area that is now Virginia, in the United States of America. This was the first part of America to be Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. by English people. She would have witnessed their arrival, seen them building the colony of Jamestown and seen the conflicts between her people and the newcomers.

For 10,000–12,000 years before European Colonist A person who settles in an area that has become a colony (a country or an area governed by people from another, more powerful, country). arrived, Indigenous peoples had been living on and from the land in America. They remembered their stories and histories through Oral tradition The passing down of cultural knowledge and information through speech from one generation to the next. and objects handed down from one generation to another, few of which survive today. We have no written or visual records of how Pocahontas and other Indigenous peoples felt about the arrival of colonists who settled on their land.

Pocahontas is famous in early American colonial history. In Britain, the story of her life has usually been told from the viewpoint of the English Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. , rather than from hers. John Smith, an English Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. , claimed that she saved the whole Jamestown colony in the early years by providing essential food and information. But it is likely the real Pocahontas was even braver, stronger and more interesting than the stories suggest.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] An engraving of a woman, wearing an elaborate patterned dress, a large lace ruff around her neck, a tall hat with a feather and a pearl earring. There is writing around the outside which says 'PRINC : POWHATANI IMP : VIRGINIA. MOTOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS'.
Pocahontas, published by William Richardson, after Simon de Passe, published 10 August 1793 (1616)

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time - look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • She is wearing a patterned jacket and a hat with a feather. She is also wearing a high collar made of lace, and a pearl earring.
    • Her clothes were the height of fashion in the English Court The official place where kings and queens live and work. at the time this portrait was made (the early 1600s).
    • She is holding a fan made of ostrich feathers.
    • This portrait has been made to show Pocahontas as an English woman of high status.
    • She was presented in this way to give the impression that the relationship between the English Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. and the Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. Americans was a good one.
    • Pocahontas was known by her Powhatan family and friends as ‘Matoaka’, most likely once she became an adult.
    • ‘Rebecca’ was the name given to her by the English people who Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. the land where she lived.
    • ‘Virginia’ is the name the English Colonist A person who settles in an area that has become a colony (a country or an area governed by people from another, more powerful, country). gave the area they colonised. The name celebrates Elizabeth I, who was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’. The Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples who already lived there called the area Tsenacommacah, meaning ‘densely populated’.
  • The text refers to Pocahontas as:

    • ‘Daughter to the mighty Prince Powhatan Emperour’
    • Convert To change your religion or beliefs. and baptised in the Christian faith
    • Wife to … John Rolfe’.

Who was Pocahontas?

  • Pocahontas was the daughter of Wahunseneca. He was the powerful Algonquian ruler of the Powhatans, who lived in what is now Virginia, USA. Little is known about her mother.  
  • Pocahontas first saw English people when they arrived in her homeland in 1607. They had come to set up the colony, Jamestown, which was part of a bigger plan for England to claim North America. 
  • There were tensions between the Colonist A person who settles in an area that has become a colony (a country or an area governed by people from another, more powerful, country). and Powhatans. In 1613, the English colonists took Pocahontas hostage. They did this to try and bargain with her father and end their conflict with him.
  • While she was in captivity, she was Convert To change your religion or beliefs. to Christianity The religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the belief that he was the son of God. and married to John Rolfe, an influential Colonist A person who settles in an area that has become a colony (a country or an area governed by people from another, more powerful, country). who was a tobacco farmer. We do not know how she viewed Christianity or what her beliefs were. She was renamed ‘Rebecca’, a name that was popular in England.
  • Pocahontas, John and their son travelled to England in 1616. She was viewed in England as fascinating and Exotic Something exciting and unusual because it seems to be connected with foreign countries. .  
  • A period of relative peace in Virginia followed the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe. This paved the way for many more colonists to arrive in Jamestown.
  • Colonisation of North America eventually led to the destruction of Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples and their way of life, through violence, disease and loss of land.
  • Pocahontas became seriously ill and died just before her return voyage to her homeland. She was buried in Gravesend in Kent.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples lived in America for 10,000–12,000 years before European Colonist A person who settles in an area that has become a colony (a country or an area governed by people from another, more powerful, country). first arrived in 1607. They remembered their stories and histories through Oral tradition The passing down of cultural knowledge and information through speech from one generation to the next. and objects handed down from one generation to another. Few of these survive today.
  • This portrait has been made from the viewpoint of the English colonists. We do not know how people like Pocahontas felt about the arrival of colonists who settled on their land. 
  • The portrait celebrates the Conversion The act or process of changing something from one form, use or system to another. of an important Indigenous woman (Pocahontas) to Christianity The religion that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the belief that he was the son of God. .
  • It also celebrates the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
  • It is trying to show people in England that the attempts to Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. America were successful and that the relationship between the English Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. and the Indigenous Americans was strong.
  • Only one portrait is known to have been made of Pocahontas during her lifetime, a print made by Simon de Passe in London in 1616. This portrait is a later version of that print, published nearly 200 years after she died.

Questions

  1. Why do you think there are so few images of Pocahontas?
  1. Try comparing this image with the famous Disney image of Pocahontas. How are they the same or different?
  1. Do you think either of these images are an accurate portrayal of Pocahontas? Why?