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The Peacemaker Pocahontas: John Gadsby Chapman's The Baptism of Pocahontas

Robin Pertusi

The Baptism of Pocahontas

[1] For almost two centuries, John Gadsby Chapman's The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840) has hung in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, signifying one of the most transformative historical events in our nation. Neighboring such exploration scenes as John Vanderlyn's The Landing of Columbus, William Powell's The Discovery of Mississippi, and Robert Weir's The Embarkation of the Pilgrims, Chapman's work commemorates the founding and shaping of the future United States at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Pocahontas is our most iconic Native American woman, representing, as John Smith wrote to the Queen, "the first Christian ever of that Nation." Shedding her Native American identity for that of newly Christianized "Rebecca," and soon, as Smith also wrote, the first of that nation to marry and have a "child in marriage by an Englishman," Pocahontas is promotionally displayed as the "living emblem" (Robertson 556) or "living advertisement" (Faery 127) for one of our greatest achievements, the "effective process of English colonization" (Robertson 569). The peacemaker herself, Pocahontas is stripped of all that she was and fitted to become all that we needed – the prized sacrificial offering for bridging the two cultures. Pocahontas here, however, is the once square-peg mended to fit the baptismal round hole of assimilation. Rather than joining the two cultures, as assimilation would imply, we commend ourselves for the triumphant takeover of Pocahontas's identity.

[2] By planting Chapman's painting in the mythic soil of the U.S. Capitol, we affirm the instant suppression of an entire Native race. The long-standing debate over the truth of Pocahontas's story is rendered moot by the symbolism of the monumental moment, one in which the means to the end matter far less than the actual end. What does it matter if Pocahontas was kidnapped and forced into the arrangement with John Rolfe? What does it matter if she did not voluntarily choose to assume such an autonomous position while separated from her own people? For practically two centuries, we have indoctrinated the minds of our own people with our focus on the "baptism" of Pocahontas, proudly promoting the debatably dishonorable nature of the way in which we achieved such an understanding. We view the inclusion of Pocahontas in our nation's history as an honorary acknowledgment to her, subordinating conscious awareness that an illustration of her submission to the Christian faith is really an illustration of her submission to the English settlers and abandonment of her own Native heritage. Chapman's choice to offer Pocahontas's conversion for the Rotunda setting rather than her equally notable rescue of Smith, which he had painted earlier, is indicative of the malleable nature of the figure of "Pocahontas," as the numerous varying artistic interpretations of her life events also demonstrate.

[3] While the most commonly recognized version of Pocahontas may be the storybook princess, Chapman's emphasis on the newly Christianized and virtuous Lady Rebecca attests to the way in which "her new name and status" allowed for "the erasure of any real identity of something other than European" (Tilton 182). As the antithesis of the rescue scene, The Baptism of Pocahontas rings almost staid in its melodramatic mood, emphasizing "Pocahontas's courage not in terms of her heroism as a rescuer, but rather in her choice to place herself in the position of a 'repentant' recipient" (Tilton 126). Pocahontas "is presented in accordance with nineteenth-century popular iconography as a fairly generic Indian girl," yet she is outfitted in a "full-length, white, clearly European dress" (Tilton 112). Her black hair is down, and her tan skin is dark but most certainly not red like the less clothed Indians in the painting. Her kneeling position aligns her with traditional images of the Virgin Mary, as it was "of the utmost importance to Chapman to subordinate the Rescue and thereby focus greater attention on her baptism, the event that he would have his viewers believe was actually primary" (Tilton 126). It appears that Pocahontas has already adhered to the "coveted" role of the English, as Chapman has painted her to match the light coloring of the Reverend and her soon-to-be husband Rolfe, who both stand in stark contrast to the dark and earthly indigenous peoples who sit in the shadows. The deliberate positioning of Pocahontas turning her back to her tribe represents the clear divide in this piece; she has chosen to enter the metaphorical light of Christianity rather than hiding in the darkness of savagery.

[4] Yet, we cannot positively say that Pocahontas electively chose such a path. Chapman's painting stages such an opposition according to the rule of thirds, a practice that allows for a more methodical composition than the typical centered area of focus. By applying this perspective in The Baptism of Pocahontas, we see that Chapman clearly stages a divide between both the Englishmen and the Indians in the foreground of the piece, while pulling Pocahontas towards the Englishmen on the left. She is not positioned directly in the center of the piece, so as to state the predictable and obvious, but, rather, she is moving out of the darkness and into the light. Well, at least that is how we would like to believe it happened. The metaphorical light of religiosity is two-fold in its meaning here, as she not only appears to have found the light of God but she also quite literally appears to be lighter skinned than her own Indian relatives. In order to make this a subtle enough allusion, Chapman deliberately positions Pocahontas so that the "viewer is barely allowed to see her face, which is almost in profile, with eyes closed and head bowed" (Tilton 112). This tactful illustration only further emphasizes the triumphant victory that Pocahontas's baptism represented for our Nation; it is the act of Pocahontas crossing over and assimilating as one of us while rejecting her own people.

[5] The display of John Gadsby Chapman's The Baptism of Pocahontas in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda demonstrates one of the most poignant moments in the history of our nation's founding. It is indicative of how the conversion of Pocahontas to Christianity and assimilation into our culture is central to the understanding of English colonization. By redirecting the focus surrounding Pocahontas from the rescue scene to her baptism, "Chapman makes clear what will happen to those Indians who do not abandon their cultural heritage and adopt a white way of thinking" (Tilton 4). Instead of testifying to the historical account of "Pocahontas's bravery and willingness to sacrifice her life to save that of a foreign captive in an act that risked both that life and the love of her father," Chapman contextualizes the baptism with the rescue scene "as a type of reward for her well-known heroism" (Tilton 126). Pocahontas is suddenly placed "in the role of recipient," while "others of 'her people' who were perceived as standing in the path of American expansion could be guiltlessly eliminated" (Tilton 126, 4).

[6] We proudly exemplify Chapman's calculated contextualizing of Pocahontas's baptism, all the while disregarding her true story, true identity, and true motives in a perpetually uninformed interpretation of who she really was. Further, we practically disregard the fact that her baptismal transition from "Pocahontas" to "Rebecca" was only the first step in solving the Indian question, for her marriage to Rolfe would soon lead to the interracial marriages and offspring that followed. With "opportunity for speculation" being "extremely fertile," we might ask "what role Rolfe played in her conversion," "if they fell in love with each other," or if their later marriage was merely an arranged and "practical means of constructing a lasting peace between their peoples" (Wasowicz 379). Whether it was by choice or not, Pocahontas's baptism aided the colonists in ordaining control over the Indians and can thereby be viewed as a metaphorical representation of the role that Indian women were expected to assume in fulfilling English settlement. Should we be proud of such a plotted and possibly even wrongful victory? Well, it seems as though that is the question we may never choose to answer…

Works Cited:

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

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

Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Wasowicz, Laura. "The Children's Pocahontas: From Gentle Child of the Wild to All-American Heroine." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 105.2 (1995): 377-415. Print.