Jonesing for a good Jamestown podcast?

Podcasts have never interested me much. I often find them easy to tune out and rarely feel like I have time to listen to one. Yes, I could listen to a podcast as I am walking around the neighborhood or making my way to work but that just seems so isolating. If there is a single piece of technology that communicates a complete lack of interest in interacting with other humans more than headphones, I have yet to come across it. Nonetheless, headphones are practically a necessity for anyone who works in an office setting and considering all the time I spend in front of my computer these days, I slip on the headphones almost every day now. In the interest of trying new things, I figured I would listen to a podcast rather than some random song on Spotify and visited my favorite new sites to find an interesting podcast. In the process, I found a great history podcast about Jamestown on the Curbed website.

Truth be told, I would not have figured Curbed would be a good place to find a Jamestown podcast. After all, Curbed is a news organization dedicated to mainly writing stories about mass transit, urban policy, and zoning restrictions, none of which seem terribly related to a failed colony in early 17th century Virginia. Nonetheless, the content creators did not seem too put off by this–much to my surprise, they actually had a pretty good raison d’etre for the episode–and I think listeners will find a lot to enjoy in the Jamestown podcast.

Prior to listening to the Jamestown podcast, I did already know some information about Jamestown. I learned about in elementary school (Blood on the River), I learned about in high school (AP US history), and I learned about in college (introduction to early American cultural history). As a result, a decent amount of the information discussed in the podcast was familiar to me already. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the podcast a great deal anyway.

Part of this deals with the narrator. I don’t remember her name being mentioned but whoever she is, she did a great job of making the piece interesting. Some narrators try just a bit too hard (cough cough, citylab) but I think the Jamestown narrator did a good job of threading the needle. Certain tidbits of information, such as the cannibalizing of the dead bodies, could have come across as needlessly macabre on an ordinary podcast but the narrator made this one of the funniest moments in the podcast. That may seem really odd but I challenge anyone to listen to her hypothetical about being cold and being hungry and then having to deal with someone licking blood off your face without finding at least some amusement in it.

Lest I give the impression the Jamestown podcast is all giggles and laughs, I should note it does deal with a number of serious topics, prejudice for example, and I would not suggest it to anyone looking for something “light” to listen to. All the same, I highly recommend the podcast to anyone interested in indigenous history, European history, or colonial history. The podcast has some great information related to the key figures in the Jamestown colony, as well as some of the lesser-known ones, and I think almost anyone who listens to it will come away better educated. And if y’all are anything like me, I suspect a great many of the people who listen to the Jamestown podcast will go on to listen to many more of the history podcasts in the Utopia collection. 

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.