Powhatan’s Mantle

The Ashmolean’s Pocahontas-relevant artifact (DeDisneyfication, Part 5 Addendum)

Britain has some of the finest museums going particularly when it comes to historical artifacts from around the world. How they got there is a matter of controversy at the very least. The scene in Black Panther where Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) recovers a Wakandan artifact from a British museum, though obviously fictionalized, is a clear reference to the fact that these items are, in many cases, straight-up plunder.

Another artefact they discuss in the scene is from Benin, a kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria, with which the Portuguese began to trade in the 15th century. In 1897, the British sent a force of 1,200 to capture, loot, and raze the capital city as punishment for the country’s crime of defending itself from an attempt by a previous British expeditionary force of 250 bent on deposing the king and looting the capital. Much of the treasure taken by the British ended up in the British Museum, most notably the Benin Bronzes, a group of more than a thousand metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the African kingdom.

There are ongoing bids by several countries including Benin to repatriate various items such as these, which the British have largely ignored. The so-called Elgin Marbles are the best known of these, obtained via questionably legal means from the Ottomans, occupiers of Greece in the early 1800s when this took place.

I must admit to being of two minds about this type of looting as ruin sites like the Athenian Acropolis have often simply acted as quarries for the people living nearby, and many Greek and Roman works in particular might’ve been completely lost if not for imperialist pillagers like the Earl of Elgin. The bronze from the pediment of the Pantheon in Rome is rumored to have found its way into St. Peter’s Baldachin, and so we are left to guess what a key element of one of the most amazing buildings of the ancient world looked like. To be clear, this in no way excuses what was done in Benin—the British saved the bronzes from themselves, for themselves.

In any case, one of the more unexpected artifacts on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is “Powhatan’s Mantle”. This item is made of four deerskins trimmed, stitched together with sinew, and decorated with some 20,000 polished discs of shell depicting large a standing central figure flanked by a deer and mountain lion, along with circular motifs thought to represent villages. The 1656 catalogue of the Tradescant Collection—the founding set of artifacts for the Ashmolean—describes the item as,

Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.

The museum’s label for the item is notably wrong; it seems that it was neither a garment nor for that matter belonged to Powhatan (… discuss). It’s far too large and heavy to be worn unless the great chief, whose name was properly Wahunsenacawh, was some kind of Andre-the-Giantesque prodigy. Instead, it’s generally acknowledged that it was a decorative hanging. Incidentally, the name Powhatan was both the name of his people and village and may have been used as a sort of title for Wahunsenacawh as their leader.

Mainly though, one wonders how this artifact found its way here. It’s one of the earliest items from North America still preserved in a European museum. Different theories exist, such as that It was collected by the younger John Tradescant while visiting Virginia in 1637. Another more likely one is that Chief Wahunsenacawh gave it to Captain Christopher Newport in 1608 to present to King James I, not as a tribute but a gift from one monarch to another.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 6: The Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

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