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The Mother of All Exchange Programs


I’m editing our entry on Indian languages, and this bit stood out:

The paramount chief Powhatan probably understood long before the English arrived at Jamestown that children absorbed new languages faster than their elders. For this reason, in February 1608, he sent a boy named Namontack to live among the colonists. John Smith and Captain Christopher Newport reciprocated by handing over to Powhatan, in Smith’s words, “a Boy of thirteen yeares old, called Thomas Salvage.” (Because Smith had led the chief to think that Savage was Newport’s son, thus increasing the symbolic value of the exchange, Powhatan called him Thomas Newport.) The purpose behind these exchanges was to immerse children in the new language, either English or Powhatan, such that they might then serve as interpreters. Both sides assumed that these boys also acted as spies, but the benefits of the bicultural fluency outweighed whatever mischief they might cause.

It’s amazing to think of what it must have been like for these boys—terrifying, yes, but exhilarating, too. In her book Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005), Helen Rountree notes that the Indians also may have deceived the English about Namontack, leading them to think he was Powhatan’s son. Either way, “when [Namontack] got to England, he was encouraged by the Virginia Company to claim a high status in native society, even refusing to doff his cap to the king of England. As he became fluent in English, though, his real status as a commoner became apparent, and word of his standing filtered slowly back to Jamestown.”
“His case is interesting,” Rountree concludes, “[in that] he was the predecessor of Pocahontas in being used in London as favorable propaganda by the entrepreneurs of the Virginia Company.”
IMAGE: John Smith meeting Powhatan

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