Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda? • Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011 • xii, 220 pp. • $29.95
Reviewed by J. Frederick Fausz, associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is completing a book on the "Barbarous Massacre" of 1622.
When an author claims to explain "what really happened," readers expect to find new information and fresh interpretations that improve upon previous accounts deemed inaccurate or deficient. But that is rarely the case in this flawed work, which mostly adds new errors in rehashing familiar material. Between 2007 and 2009, three books covered the Sea Venture wreck in Bermuda, overstating how survivors allegedly "saved" Jamestown. Although admitting that early Virginia has "been endlessly examined," Bernhard does so again for most of the book, critiquing Jamestown while celebrating Bermuda as a "paradise" (p. 3). But the "Two Colonies" approach fails, because a mere fifteen pages on Bermuda from 1612 to 1623 cannot sustain serious comparative analysis. The author compounds the problem of uneven coverage with too much descriptive detail on secondary topics and too little analysis of critical issues.
Bernhard chews more than she bites off, and her simplistic and redundant narration implies a popular, rather than a scholarly, audience. Near the end of the book, she is still stating the obvious: that Jamestown was founded in 1607; the colonies became the United States after they declared independence; and "Slavery ended in the United States in 1865, when the Civil War was over" (pp. 182, 192). She also talks down to readers with maddening repetition, stating five times that the Virginia Company records from 1606 to 1619 have never been found (pp. 4, 101, 156, 185–86) and five times that there were seven members on Jamestown's original ruling council (pp. 35–37). In addition, Bernhard tediously poses unanswerable questions before concluding that "no one knows" (pp. 70, 90, 97, 150, 189).
This book is weak when dealing with race relations, which is surprising because slavery represented one of the strongest ties between Virginia and Bermuda. Bernhard creates a controversy, where none exists, about the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia, and her coverage of Bermuda slavery is sidetracked by too many confusing details on the Rich family (p. 174). A scholar should know better than to title a chapter "The Confluence of Three Cultures," when the British (not merely "English"), Indians, and Africans—three races from three continents—each represented innumerable cultures. The author's zeal to evaluate side-by-side colonial development obscures the critical difference between a few Indian laborers brought to Bermuda, which had no native population, and the large, complex array of indigenous peoples in the Chesapeake that outnumbered the first colonists.
Bernhard struggles to explain the infamous "Starving Time" because her text never mentions the First Anglo-Powhatan War. A thorough analysis of that key conflict appeared in the Virginia Magazine two decades ago and has been widely accepted by leading experts for its insights into Indian and English actions. Furthermore, Bernhard reveals her gullibility by accepting at face value that John Rolfe truly loved Pocahontas and that she "wanted to become a Christian" (p. 163). She also exaggerates the death toll in the 1622 massacre and is clearly wrong that it "marked the end of peaceful relations between English and Indians in Virginia for generations" (pp. 184–85).
Other factual errors and missing citations to controversial statements further erode the author's credibility concerning "what really happened." For instance, Sir Robert Cecil was England's spymaster, not a "spy" for Spain (pp. 8, 36, 160); Yeardley's name was Argoll, not Argall (p. 179); and Jamestown's physician was Dr. Bohun, not "Boone" (p. 137).
Bernhard concludes with a trite observation that "there is still much to learn" about race relations (p. 192). But this book will not help.