To mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, historian and journalist Benjamin Woolley has constructed a far-ranging account of the political machinations and human suffering that went into creating and preserving this tormented English outpost. Original investors gambled that the settlement would yield gold or other mineral riches. In this, they were soon disappointed. It wasn't long, however, before the region sprouted a more viable form of wealth: tobacco. In 1617, a shipload of that addictive weed netted the colony its first profit. Two years later came the first cargo of African slaves.

Those who know Jamestown only through college textbooks and random PBS specials are likely to visualize it as a lonely, sequestered place clinging to the edge of a trackless wilderness. Not so, says Woolley in Savage Kingdom. Virtually from the time they came ashore, the colonists discovered an array of Indian villages whose inhabitants might be friendly one moment, incredibly savage the next. Still, the interlopers were far more inclined to seek out the natives than avoid them and trading began almost immediately, in no small part because the settlers were low on food. Then there were the equally crippling problems of leadership and priorities. While common sense called for such mundane acts of self-preservation as hunting, planting and building fortifications, the group's charter and natural inclination were to search for treasure. The mercurial Capt. John Smith, who wrote his own lurid and self-aggrandizing narrative of the times, emerges as Jamestown's most fascinating figure. Pocahontas, Smith's supposed savior, is a peripheral character in Woolley's story until she marries settler John Rolfe. As long as Woolley focuses on the day-to-day life of Jamestown, the drama runs high, but it bogs down perilously when he delves into London politics. Isolated from the mother country, Jamestown became a complete story in its own right; ultimately, that was the story that mattered. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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