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Invisibility

In the season finale of the Jamestown television series, Lady Yeardley realizes that in a man’s world she is invisible, even to her husband.

Lady Temperance Yeardley, wife of the governor, has functioned as the moral compass of the settlement throughout the first season of the PBS Passport television series, Jamestown. As she clutches a Bible, she is especially vigilant to remind “errant” Jamestown women of their place in the world. In Episode 4 of the series, she chided Joselyn (the Recorder’s wife) to keep in mind that the Bible teaches that “woman is the weaker vessel and inferior to man.” Which is why, she continued, “men have the right to dominate us physically, morally, spiritually and intellectually.” But that was then. Now, Temperance readily admits to the same women she had admonished earlier, that while she lives in fear of God and many other things, she mostly lives in fear of men. She is “afraid of what they will make of this world.” The first season ends as it began, with the women of Jamestown finding emotional strength through each other in the isolated and unsettled society they now call home. They are indeed “sisters of a sort.”

In Episode 8, the first season’s finale, we see Lady Yeardley’s growing fear of the moral corruption of the men governing the colony, especially her husband Governor George Yeardley. She suspects that he had stolen a so-called treasure map from a dead man’s grave and now she is standing in the room as he, Secretary Farlow and Marshall Reddick are justifying the acquisition of a shipload of enslaved Africans that will soon arrive in Virginia. At one point, one of the men realizes that Temperance was present and asks the governor if it is safe to discuss such things in front of his wife. Yeardley responds that he “quite forgets that she is there,” to which Farlow rejoins, “ah, she is a woman . . . she is not there.”

Women in the 17th-century colony were expected to be invisible. Their roles were clearly understood to be supportive, submissive and confined to the domestic sphere, while men tended to more important political matters. But many women did not remain invisible. They found ways to exert influence by using the laws made by men to better their lives. Some of these women and their personal stories will be part of a special exhibition, “TENACITY: Women in Virginia and Early Jamestown,” opening at Jamestown Settlement on November 10, 2018. The exhibit will use objects, images and primary sources to give voice to the 17th-century women whose life stories have been historically overshadowed by the men in their world.

The finale of Jamestown evokes the stories that animated the years surrounding 1619 in the Virginia settlement—plans for recruiting suitable wives for eligible planters, the first meeting of a colony-wide representative government, and the arrival of the first recorded Africans in English North America.

1619 arrival of Africans

The 1619 arrival of the first recorded Africans in Virginia, as depicted in the Jamestown television series.

As the first season ends, we are left with the powerful image of a group of enchained Africans being marched into the settlement. While these individuals are at once very visible, appearing unlike the rest of Jamestown society, their humanity is rendered invisible by the shackles around their necks and wrists. We do not know for certain the condition of servitude of the 1619 Africans and how they were treated as compared to English indentured servants. While there was no legal system of lifetime slavery in 1619, few individuals managed to live long enough to fulfill their terms of service and gain their freedom. Lifetime servitude was the norm for many. We do know that the first Africans in the colony ended up as servants in households of prominent men, such as Governor Yeardley. A 1625 Muster of wealthy planter and merchant Captain William Peirce’s household records the presence of “Angelo,” one of the 1619 Africans. Her story and the world of the women of Jamestown will be presented along with the other key events of the early colony in the “TENACITY” exhibit and the 1619 areas of the updated permanent exhibition gallery at Jamestown Settlement.

Bly Straube, Curator
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

 


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