Today, a story about Jamestown and
self-destruction. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Long ago, I visited the site
of the Jamestown settlement. What a disappointment!
Hardly anything was left but shards of a small old
stone church. The Virginia Company sent three
boatloads of male settlers off to Jamestown in
December, 1606. Within a year, most had died. The
next group arrived in 1608, and over half of them
died during the second year. After sixteen years of
that, eighty percent of some six thousand would-be
colonists had died.
In a classic study, Howard Kushner goes to early
Jamestown and uses it as a window into the workings
of suicide. School textbooks tell us that the
settlers made mistakes under great adversity, but
that they persevered. Well, they did not.
As historians piece the story together, they find
something else entirely. Those early settlers
arrived expecting a new Eden with fruit falling
from the trees and friendly natives by their side.
They soon found they had to grow their food, that
they were actually invaders facing hostile natives,
and that life was hard.
This was an age when suicide was considered the
worst capital crime. A suicide's worldly goods were
taken from the heirs, a stake was driven through
the heart, and the body was buried in a nameless
The legal system required an inquest to decide
whether a suicide was guilty of a felo de se
(a felony against self) or non compos mentis
(innocent by reason of insanity). Down through the
17th and 18th centuries, inquests gave increasing
fractions of non compos mentis verdicts. By
1800, suicides were routinely written off as
insanity. Of course depression is the mental
problem behind most suicides. And it needn't
trigger an overt act to destroy a life.
Kushner is pretty sure of the source of the
widespread depression that caused people to stop
holding onto life in Jamestown. It worked like
this: The settlers lived mainly on Indian maize.
Maize lacks the chemical tryptophan, an
amino acid, and it blocks the synthesis of
serotonin, and the result is depression.
Records show that the settlers didn't go out and
hunt animals. They didn't persevere at all in their
adversity. Instead of helping themselves, they gave
up to disease and starvation.
Explorers and immigrants are especially vulnerable
to a loss of hope. In 1880, suicides on the Western
frontier ran a hundred times higher than they do
across America today. Remember the old song,
Sweet Betsy from Pike. In various versions,
pioneers Betsy and Ike go through every form of
despair. The literature of the West, and the
various gold rushes, groan with stories like that.
So Jamestown is a reminder that we don't have to
put a gun to our head to end life. The tar pits of
despond will do the job as well. Let our body
chemistry go out of whack, and we can lose the
ability to grasp creative renewal. That's what the
Jamestown settlers did, and it truly is
self-destruction -- conscious or not.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds