Who was John Smith? While most people probably think of him as a Disney character or an early American gentleman, the truth is the real man was much more complicated. Yes, he is famous for his assistance in establishing the first permanent English settlement in the New World, and famed for his encounters with the Powhatan woman, Pocahontas. The story of Jamestown and John Smith go hand-in-hand, but what about the rest of his life?
It turns out that Smith led a life of adventure unimaginable to people of his time, and he's still insanely well-traveled by today's standards. We know all about his exploits thanks to primary sources, including John Smith's journal, which he kept meticulously over the years. If anyone ever lived life to the fullest, it was John Smith.
When John Smith ran away from his family's farm and his apprenticeship, he only knew he wanted a life of adventure. He first went over to the European Continent, and found a group of English mercenaries who just kind of hung around France looking for fight-for-pay opportunities. Smith joined their group and fought in conflicts for France, and for Dutch independence from Spain.
It was during this period of intense exposure to various cultures he realized he needed to engage in academic and military study, in order to achieve his new goal of becoming a "gentleman soldier." So, he read the classics, from the ancients to Machiavelli. He trained in horsemanship under a famed trainer who worked for an English nobleman. He learned to joust, and speak Italian. Along the way, he picked up an aristocratic hatred of all things Turkish, and eagerly sought out opportunities to stir up trouble in the Levant.
On his way to Turkey to fight the Sultan, he was shipwrecked and discovered a new sort of adventure: piracy. He was taken under the wing of famed French pirate Captain La Roche, who trained Smith in all things pirate. Later on, he had ample opportunity to fulfill his dream of fighting the Turks.
Six years before he began planning his journey to Virginia, John Smith traveled to Vienna, where he joined forces with Austria to fight the Turks in what was called the Long War. Smith was wildly successful with the Austrians, and quickly got promoted to the rank of captain. Later, he was involved in the long siege of a city in Transylvania, where he was challenged to a series of three duels by Turkish officers. Smith emerged champion in these contests, beheading three Turkish officers in the process.
Later still, when he was on the run for the murder of a Turkish diplomat in Constantinople, he traveled through Ukraine and parts of Russia and Poland, finally weaving his way back to Transylvania in late 1603. There, he was warmly greeted by Prince Zsigmond Bathory. He was grateful to Smith for his efforts in fighting the Turks, and awarded Smith with his own Coat of Arms. Appropriately, it featured three disembodied heads.
Long before he was leader of a fledgling British colony in the New World, Smith led a life of adventure few have ever experienced. As a young man, he spent time as a mercenary soldier, fighting all over Europe, Russia, and parts of the Middle East. He also dabbled in piracy. He was successful to a large degree in both endeavors, but in 1602 his luck ran out. Engaged in battle with the Tartars (Mongols), he was wounded and left for dead. Some Turks scavenging the bodies discovered he was alive, and carried him off the field to tend to his wounds.
As soon as he recovered, his rescuers politely brought him to the local slave market, where, as Smith puts it, "we all sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place; where every merchant, viewing their limbs and wounds, caused other slaves to struggle with them to try their strength." He was purchased by a Turkish nobleman, who made a present of him to his Greek mistress, a woman who lived in Constantinople. She found Smith quite captivating, and (according to Smith) sent him to her brother, an Ottoman bureaucrat, with the idea of transforming the "exotic" Smith into a proper Turk. Apparently, she had secret plans to marry him and set him up with a government career.
Her brother, however, disapproved of her plans and removed Smith from her household and sold him into the lowest-ranked caste of slaves in all of Turkey. Smith became a slave to Christian slaves. You couldn't get any lower than that in the Islamic world.
Most of the time he was underfed (read: starving), and regularly abused by his masters. Cagey as ever, Smith cast about for a way to escape. He also apparently sought revenge, because as he was making his escape he smashed in the head of his purported paramour's brother. Knowing such an action would guarantee his death, Smith immediately hid the body, robbed the corpse of its fine clothing, stole the victim's horse, and fled the scene. After a few additional misadventures, Smith arrived back in England in 1604.
If John Smith was anything, he was full of himself. He was hired by the Virginia Company to accompany the gentlemen settlers to what would become the first permanent English settlement in the New World. He was chosen because of his life of adventure, experience, and general derring-do. He knew how to deal with wildly different cultures, and, most importantly, how to work and survive.
So, when he boarded the Godspeed in 1607, he was ready to lead. However, he quickly realized he was surrounded by soft, perfumed, lace-adorned members of the gentry, who had never worked a day in their lives. He laughed openly at them. He scorned, mocked, and teased. By the time the ships reached the Canary Islands (about midway in their journey), the fine gentlemen had quite enough of the cocky Smith, and they voted on whether or not to throw him overboard.
The vote was close, but Smith lived. He was shackled deep in the hold of the ship, though, and apparently continued to mock the crew and settlers from the brig. When the three small ships arrived in Virginia, Smith was still chained below. Colony leadership wanted to execute him upon arrival, but when they opened sealed letters they had taken with them from dignitaries in London, it was revealed Smith was to serve as the first leader of the colony. And so, the good gentlemen had to unlock Smith from his chains. Nobody was happy about this (except for Smith).