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 (Michael B. Jordan) recovers a Wakandan artifact from a British museum, though obviously fictionalized, is a clear reference to the fact these items are, in many cases, straight-up plunder.

Another artifact discussed 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 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 Nigeria, to repatriate various items from British museums, which the government has been noncommittal about. 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 a large standing central figure flanked by a deer and mountain lion, along with circular motifs thought to represent villages. The 1656 catalog 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 was neither a garment nor did it belong to Mataoka’s (aka Pocahontas) father, Powhatan (… discuss). It’s far too large and heavy to be worn unless the great chief, whose name was properly Wahunsenaca, was some kind of Andre-the-Giant-esque 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 Wahunsenaca 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 it was collected by the younger John Tradescant while visiting Virginia in 1637. Another more likely one is Chief Wahunsenaca 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.

There was actually a pair of visits to the Jamestown colony by Newport in 1608. Both were supply missions, as the Jamestown settlement was doing a terrible job of growing crops to feed its people. While the Powhatan had initially allied themselves with the English as they were worried about the activities of the Spanish, when John Smith reneged on their treaties and turned to the coercion of supplies from the surrounding villages, the relationship soured.

When Newport arrived in January 1608, there seems to have been some attempt to settle these troubles since Wahunsenaca sent a young man, Namontack, to London with the English ships as a gesture of goodwill, even though Smith seems to have been the aggressor. Nonetheless, the more likely timing for the transfer of the artifact in question is on Newport’s return with more supplies and colonists from England, when there was a noted exchange of gifts at an attempted coronation of Wahunsenaca, which he refused as he was already a king.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 6: The Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: The Cultural Importance of Arisu

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

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

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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