Edward Maria Wingfield (1560?-1613?)
Contributing Editor: Liahna Babener
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Surprisingly, despite its centrality in the colonization of America, there is also very little particular data and few firsthand accounts of the Jamestown enterprise. A comparison with other eyewitness accounts (cf. John Smith, Frethorne letter in the anthology) helps clarify and balance Wingfield's point of view. Presentation of background on the settlement history of Jamestown is also useful, as is a review of the political, religious, and social issues that shaped colonization experiences in various regions of America, particularly New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South.
Students are most interested in the problems of maintaining discipline, managing provisions, and fostering cooperation. They like to explore the contrasts between settlements undergirded by strong religious ideology and those driven by economic ambitions (often reluctantly concluding that the former are more "successful" if also more regimented communities). Students also debate whether Wingfield is too timorous, whether he pads his case, and whether he manipulates their sympathies.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The problem of leadership and political authority in early colonial government. Class, economic, and political conflicts among constituencies of colonists. The impact of these issues on evolution of colonial democracy. Relations between New World and mother country.
2. Wingfield's personal strengths and failings as a colonial administrator. The conflicts between the drive toward anarchy and the pressure for authoritarian government, where Wingfield is poised precariously between the two.
3. Conditions of life at Jamestown, including class stresses, daily life and its deprivations, illness and calamity, the absence of women, etc.
4. Can we begin to discern an image of America (as a culture in its own right, as distinct from its English occupants) in this document?
5. In what ways does the Jamestown experience as Wingfield tells it reflect the fact that it was an all-male society?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
We may view this document as a political treatise, apologia, manifesto, historical chronicle, and memoir. A consideration of the conventions of each genre and a comparison with other examples of each from the colonial period is illuminating. We may use it to discern the ethos of a male English gentleman, and explore the collision between his world view and the realities of life in Virginia under the devastating stresses of colonization.
Because the document is a self-defense, it is useful to determine whom Wingfield meant to address, and how his particular argument might appeal to his implicit audience. Would investors in the Virginia Company respond differently from fellow colonists? Would upper-class readers respond differently from the working class? Which groups might be alienated by his self-portrait and vision of leadership?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare express accounts of Jamestown settlement and issues of colonial governance by John Smith ( A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia, 1608, and General History of Va., 1624), George Percy ( A True Relation of . . . Moments Which Happened in Va., 1608), and Richard Frethorne ("Letters to His Parents"). Other documents that explore the pressures facing colonial executives and the crises of colonization and community include Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation and Morton's The New English Canaan. Especially suitable for its parallel case of deposed leadership and its differing vision of government is John Winthrop's "Speech to the General Court" included in his Journal. What differences between religiously and economically motivated settlements can be seen?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Discern the underlying world view of Wingfield, taking into account his background as an upper-middle-class male Englishman and perhaps a Catholic.
(b) Identify his various strategies of self-justification. Are you sympathetic? Why or why not? Do you think his audience is won over? Explain.
(c) Which issues seem more imperative: political struggles over power or economic struggles for provisions? What about military concerns about the colony's safety from Indians?
(b) Recreate a vivid picture of daily life at Jamestown.
(c) How might the situation have been different if women had been present in the colony from the outset? If Wingfield had been an artisan or worker?
(d) What were the particular obstacles to effective governance at Jamestown?
There is surprisingly little particularized history of Jamestown. Wingfield appears as a footnote or brief entry in most textbooks or historical accounts of the Jamestown colony. In John C. Miller's chapter "The Founding of Virginia" in This New Man, The American: The Beginnings of the American People (1974) there is a substantive and articulate account of the colony's story. Richard Morton's treatment of the same material in the first two chapters of Vol. 1 of Colonial Virginia (1960) is also useful and very detailed, though, again, does not contain much express material on Wingfield. I had hoped to find a feminist reconsideration of the Jamestown experience to address the problems of a gender-imbalanced society, but found no sustained inquiry on that issue.