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The Assimilated Pocahontas: Simon van de Passe's "Matoaka als Rebecca"

Edward J. Gallagher, Dept. of English, Lehigh University

Matoaka als Rebecca

[1] Simon van de Passe's engraving "Matoaka als Rebecca," the very first entry in the Pocahontas Archive image gallery and the only image of Pocahontas done from "life," is the best place to begin an exploration of the many visual representations of Pocahontas in the archive. In June of 1616 Virginia Governor Thomas Dale took John Rolfe and Pocahontas, now officially Rebecca Rolfe, back to England as part of a plan to boost the sagging fortunes of the Virginia Company. Pocahontas, now age twenty one according to the engraving, was an integral part of a promotional campaign, for she was, after all, a trophy, the "living emblem of the virtues of English colonization" (Robertson 556). Born daughter of a mighty Indian Prince, Pocahontas was now billed by van de Passe as remade, transformed – that is, as "converted and baptized in the Christian faith, and wife to the worthy Mr. John Rolfe." As such, she was now put "on the payroll and on parade" (Mossiker 209), proudly offered as "demonstration of the effective process of colonization" (Robertson 569), and exhibited as a "living advertisement for the Virginia Company's enterprise" (Faery 127).

[2] Specifically, what does the van de Passe engraving tell us about how the Virginia Company wanted Pocahontas to be seen? And, perhaps more importantly, how not? The beneficently transformative trajectory of Pocahontas's life from the naked, cart-wheeling savage child described by William Strachey to the "very formall and civill" English-like lady whom John Smith describes while framing his letter to Queen Anne demands, as nearly as possible, a complete erasure of Indian identity in favor of one acceptable to King James. Hence, Pocahontas, chastely clothed to forestall any hint of barbaric lewdness, appears virtually totally Anglicized in the uniform of the Court, and, in fact, her image is stylistically indistinguishable from others in the pantheon of nobility in the versions of Baziliologia: A Booke of Kings in which the engraving appeared. Baptized, married, and therefore with a new identity formed by not just one but two new names, Pocahontas as Rebecca Rolfe "declares her loyalty to her 'new people' and her new God and proves her love and constancy by appearing in seventeenth-century English dress" (Faery 85-86). Like John Gadsby Chapman's "Baptism of Pocahontas" (1840), another very important Pocahontas image, the voluntary adoption of markers of English culture here are self-congratulatory acknowledgments for the English public of the "desirability of English identity" (Faery 160). Thus, the van de Passe engraving is meant, above all, to "speak" the language of successful assimilation.

[3] Well, that was then. How did this image of the apotheosis of assimilation fare later? And how does it fare now? In truth, "Matoaka als [as] Rebecca" has met with various kinds of contrary commentary about what lies beneath its surface. Shortly after publication, for instance, John Chamberlain sent a copy of the engraving to a friend with the caustic comment, "Here is a fine picture of no fayre Lady and yet with her tricking up and high stile and titles you might thincke her and her worshipfull husband to be somebody" -- and here is the kicker -- "if you do not know that the poore companie of Virginia out of theyre povertie are faine to allow her fowre pound a week for her maintenance." For Chamberlain, the van de Passe Pocahontas is, therefore, a kind of fake and fraud. Similarly, contemporary critics with a feminist and multi-cultural bent like Karen Robertson and Rebecca Blevins Faery are sensitive to a tension in the image between the free-spirited Indian and the natural woman trapped inside the rigid, stiff, restrictive, and shape-defying masculine costume. Such viewers see an imprisoned Indian woman inside that costume, and to them the image "says" that assimilation was not successful. Faery, in fact, chooses to read the title of the engraving as "Matoaka disguised as Rebecca" (83).

[4] Linger with me for a moment before I go on to chronicle a few other classic reactions. Go take your own long look at the van de Passe image again. Trust your pulses. There's something "wrong" with the image, isn't there? Is it just me, for instance, who doesn't think Pocahontas looks twenty one but much older (and Townsend [151-52] says she's even younger than twenty one in real life at this time)? I can understand not wanting to give legs to Strachey's "little wanton" appellation, but, armored as an armadillo in her Court garb, Pocahontas looks quite uncomfortable, looks the victim of excessively "severe propriety" (Robertson 572). And that right hand. As you read around in the commentary, you'll see it described as slender, delicate, dainty. But, I swear, it looks skeletal and sinister to me – utilitarian, perhaps, but an aesthetic disaster, something Doctor Frankenstein might craft. And those eyes. Are they not a little disturbing, somehow? Not a little creepy? Maybe I go too far, succumbing to professorial overthink and overfeel, but I confess that, even before reading Faery, I thought of "Matoaka as Rebecca" in the way we would talk about "Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas" in the 2006 New World film, that is, as an actress playing a part, not the real thing.

[5] In the final analysis, however, it is not surprising that the van de Passe image, as physically true to Pocahontas's actual appearance as it might be, is neither prized nor even popular in our general culture, for, after all, it links "us" rather with acceptance in England than with the great drama of our national nativity separating from England. The nerdiest of scholars would be supremely hard-pressed to identify "Rebecca Rolfe" as an important woman in American history. It is "Pocahontas," a name not even used on the van de Passe image, whom we know, whom everybody knows; it is "Pocahontas" in her active role as multiple-rescuer of Smith and the other colonists that our mythic appetite craves. It is the youthful Pocahontas before Smith and not the dutiful Rebecca after Rolfe who excites and entices the American imagination. And, so, let's look briefly at three outright repudiations of the van de Passe image in the mid-nineteenth century, at three Pocahontas lovers who, in effect, say to artists, "give us the maiden not the matron, give us the Indian not the Anglican": famous Southern writer, John Esten Cooke; the little known Mrs. Balmanno in Mary Cowden Clarke's compendium of world-famous women; and an anonymous contributor to the New-York Mirror.

New-York Mirror Pocahontas Illustration

[6] For each writer the van de Passe image is a cold specter, described with a shudder, that needs to be exorcised. "We do not want Mrs. Rolfe of England, we want Pocahontas of Virginia," cries Cooke: "Let us not have a matron in ruffles, and farthingales, and a hideous masculine hat, about as appropriate on the damsel as a sunbonnet would be on the head of the Medicean Venus." Similarly, Balmanno excoriates the portrait of the "instructed, baptized, converted, formal, civil" Lady Rebecca (her satiric emphasis of precisely the Virginia Company's terms of endearment) in "the horrible costume of that period": "Wearing an Anne of Denmark hat and short feather, a long tight boddice, a monstrous ruff, and still more monstrous hooped-petticoat and farthingale," Pocahontas bears "the same resemblance to her former self as does the airy blue-bell when pressed, dried, and pasted down in a lady's album, to its wild sisters, nodding gaily in the sunshine between the fern and fox-glove." The Mirrorist is more striking if not more verbally passionate because he or she writes with a version of the van de Passe image doctored to soften the face and smooth the hand (as if responding to criticism of the original) literally on the page before us, an image that is then conspicuously and completely ignored: "There thou standest, as thou didst stand in the presence of England's sovereign – rather would we see thee as thou wert arrayed when thy bare arm was interposed between the brow of Virginia's first hero and the uplifted arm of the smiter."

[7] Each of the three, but especially Cooke and Balmanno, crafts a vibrant wordpicture of his or her own to mentally hang in place of the van de Passe. Let Cooke's rapturous literary tumescence be our example. Speaking "as a Virginian" on the banks of the York River, "where her figure moved," Cooke "conjures," in contrast to van de Passe's iron matron, a deliciously nubile Pocahontas. See, "she comes," he begins, a tender teen virgin "with long raven hair, falling in profuse masses around delicate golden cheeks." See "the round glowing arms, encircled by bead bracelets." See "the small feet and ankles, encased in gay moccasins, all embroidered with pearls, and shells from the Chesapeake shore." See "the soft mantle of doeskin, covered with the plumage of the most brilliant birds, and lined with white down from the breasts of the wild goose." See Pocahontas, "slight, slender, graceful . . . as supple and undulating, as a young willow swaying to and fro in the breezes of spring." See "a maiden just opening from bud to blossom," "semi-nude, but chaste as a statue of modesty." And once you have seen that sensual carnival, Cooke concludes, you will realize that "Pocahontas is no longer a mere personage of history -- Mrs. Rolfe of the court of king James I. She is the queen of poesy and romance, or what is better, the devoted child who clasped to her bosom the head of a hero, and shielded it with her own."

[8] So, I invite you to use Simon van de Passe's engraving of "Matoaka als Rebecca" and the part of its interesting reception history briefly sketched here as a kind of hub around which to begin discussions of the ways in which Pocahontas has been visually represented over time. For instance, we have not nearly exhausted this particular image's specific impact in ways big (especially on the cluster of paintings by the Sully's in the 1840s and 1850s) and small (such as the interesting, almost invisible play on the image by George Wharton Edwards in the early twentieth century). Nor have we touched at all on its family relationship with John Gadsby Chapman's similarly "white" Pocahontas, whose baptism hallows our Capitol rotunda and to which Robert S. Tilton devotes a rich chapter in his Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Nor have we looked in the opposite direction, at the now iconic images depicting the almost always bare-bosomed "Pocahontas" with actively outstretched arm in the court of Powhatan rather than the court of James: palm up pleading with Powhatan (image 27), palm out staying the smiter (image 12), palm down cradling the captive (image 61). So much to talk about. And that has been my purpose here. To start the conversation. To suggest ways in which the image gallery in the Pocahontas Archive can be used to put history on trial.

Balmanno, Mrs. [Mary] "Pocahontas." In Mary Cowden Clarke. World-Noted Women; or, Types of Womanly Attributes of All Lands and Ages. New York, 1858. 283-308.

Chamberlain, John. The Letters of John Chamberlain. Ed. Norman Egbert McClure. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939. 56-57.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. Cartographies of Desire: Captivity, Race, and Sex in the Shaping of an American Nation. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.

J. E. C. [John Esten Cooke]. "Wandering on the Banks of the York." Southern Literary Messenger 26.6 (June 1858): 457-65.

Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend. New York: Knopf, 1976.

"Pocahontas." New-York Mirror: A Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts 18.3 (July 11, 1840): 17.

Robertson, Karen. "Pocahontas at the Masque." Signs 21.3 (1996): 551-83.

Townsend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.