The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Captain John Smith


An engraving of Capt. John Smith during his tenure as Admiral of New England. 

Early Childhood to the Colonization of Virginia

Born 1580 in Lincolnshire, John Smith was the son of a substantial farmer. He received a grammar school education and, like many adolescent boys, apprenticed under a merchant for a short time until his parents died. After being freed from parental control, Smith soon departed to the "low countries" to aid the Protestant Dutch in their fight against the Roman Catholic King Philip II of Spain. John Smith detested violence where Christians fought each other, so he withdrew from the area and eventually enlisted in the Austrian army to fight the Turks. Smith was enslaved during combat, but escaped to return to England just as King James I decided the country would colonize America. From his experiences, Captain John Smith was extremely skilled in surviving through strange circumstances, making him one of the most qualified for the endeavor. He was chosen as a leader of Jamestown and his strict policies ("he who does not work does not eat") allowed the colonists to survive. In fact, Smith pushed the mortality rate to almost zero due to the fact that "purpose and activity had engendered the will to live" (Kupperman, 15). Early on, Smith had a strong relationship with the Indians under Powhatan's rule. Treading carefully through Indian Territory, Smith was able to create maps and gather detailed information on the region and its inhabitants. Like Bruce, Smith was a careful observer. However, he lost all sensitivity and respect for the Indians after they began attacking colonial settlements. This was largely in response to being pushed further west as more colonists entered the Chesapeake region. After Powhatan's death, Smith developed a more hardened and simplified stance towards the Indians and their new leader, Powhatan's more aggressive brother Opechancanough. 

Providing Contextualization to James Bruce

Like James Bruce, Smith possessed adequate personal financial means, but depended on the patronage of nobility and royalty to fund his expeditions. In both the explorers writing, they exhibit aggressiveness and love to talk about themselves. Many readers at the time period found this as evidence to distrust the explorers' work. Unlike scholars, however, these two explorers were the actual protagonists of their expeditions and therefore had to talk about their own experiences because they were telling first-hand accounts. Nevertheless, their accounts of adventure were so fantastic that they were sometimes too amazing to believe by the public. John Smith's travel literature was "often the subject of ridicule because his work frequently [sounded] like the effusions of barroom braggart" (Kupperman, 3). Until recently, Smith's work was dismissed unless it could be verified by other sources. It was not until relatively recently that his work was recognized as a reputable source of information. Like Bruce, Smith's writing can be very confusing. Often, his paragraphs will go on tangents or change styles, hiding the main arguments and leaving the reader bewildered. As an explorer, John Smith was very cautious and conscientious of the territory he was in. Like Bruce, Smith respected the native culture and tried to learn from it in order to navigate more easily. Smith even wrote in his papers that while he agreed on the superiority of the English culture, he acknowledged the strength the Indian culture had on the American environment. Unfortunately, both Smith and Bruce experienced unfavorable reactions to their expeditions due to the fact that their stories seemed too farfetched and their writing made the literature confusing. 

          While John Smith was an explorer like James Bruce, he also managed an entire colony. An enterprise Bruce was unfamiliar with. Smith was part of a giant English experiment to colonize America and a considerable part of Smith's life is dedicated to his role within the colonies. Smith was in command of an entire colony and the policies he invented saved it from an inevitable collapse. Bruce, however, was somewhat of a nomad. He traveled regularly through East Africa in order to find the source of the Nile. His characteristics adapted to his environment like a chameleon, unlike Smith who was stationed in Virginia and forced to constantly be tough in order to keep the colonists alive. 

What Makes Capt. John Smith Memorable

Captain John Smith wrote in the "same tradition as historians and geographers, except for one difference that makes him significantly unique: he had been on the ground and could speak more authoritatively than any mere scholar" (Kupperman, 2). Smith was completely truthful in his descriptions of the American environment. While many promoters of colonization at the time were bold and cavalier in explaining the potential in American land, Smith tried to remain honest and accurate so to not mislead anyone. In fact, America was a formidable destination for many colonial families and it took drastic measures like the ones employed by Smith to overcome the terrain. Smith made English colonization possible in America and his contributions were vital in creating a strict, yet livable, location for incoming colonists. 


Captain John Smith