Did you know about Pocahontas' links to Norfolk?
- Credit: IAN BURT
She is probably best-known as a Disney heroine, but Pocahontas was a real woman with fascinating links to Norfolk.
She married a Norfolk man and left a legacy which is still being interpreted and celebrated.
On Monday, October 11 a celebration of her life will be held in Heacham as part of Black History month. The date is international Native American Day and the event will include talks about Pocahontas and African and Caribbean music.
It is called Pocahontas, Norfolk's Great Hero of Equality and Diversity. Danny Keen, chairman of Norfolk and Norwich Black History Month, said: “She is one of the most famous Native American women in the world, and is one of the most famous women linked to Norfolk.
“There are so many of us West Indians who actually have Native American blood and were not aware that we had Native American links.
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“For people like myself Pocahontas stands for so much.”
Long before Pocahontas was transformed into a Disney princess she was the daughter of a Native American leader, and is said to have saved the life of captured King’s Lynn sea captain John Smith in 1607. He credited her with intervening when he was threatened with death and helping negotiate his release. However she was later taken prisoner herself, by the English – when she converted to Christianity and married another Norfolk man.
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The wedding of the Native American Princess and John Rolfe of Heacham is celebrated as the first inter-racial church wedding in what would become the United States of America - and there is another Norfolk link as the priest, Richard Bucke, was originally from Wymondham.
The marriage is credited with helping save the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, which almost collapsed because of disease, attacks and starvation. The union brought peace to the settlement, allowing it to thrive. Many believe that without the coupling, and the Peace of Pocahontas, the English colony would have failed and the first language of the United States today would have been French, Spanish or Dutch.
Many of the Jamestown settlers were originally from Norfolk and the district is still called Norfolk.
Pocahontas herself was baptised as Rebecca, but even the name Pocahontas is a nickname, meaning little mischief. Her given name was Matoaka.
In 1616 she crossed the Atlantic with her husband and their son and the family stayed at John’s Heacham home. She is said to have planted the mulberry tree which still stands in the grounds of Heacham Manor (now a hotel with a restaurant and spa named for the tree.) The red mulberry was an important part of Native American culture with its fruit used for food, medicine and to dye cloth. Mulberry trees in the gardens of Buckingham Palace and Narford Hall are also said to have grown from Pocahontas’ seeds.
During her visit she met, and was feted by, the royal family – but never saw her own family again as she fell sick and died as she was about to return to America.
John Rolfe returned to America without his wife and his son. He left young Thomas in Heacham to be raised by relatives – although he returned to live in America as an adult and many Americans trace their ancestry back to the first marriage between a native American and an English man.
Another descendant was Whitwell Elwin, the Victorian rector who transformed the church of St Michael the Archangel, Booton, near Reepham, into an extraordinary gothic confection of arches and pinnacles, soaring over the surrounding countryside.
In Heacham church there is a memorial to Pocahontas, just above a tablet in memory of her parents-in-law, and the Heacham sign also commemorates the village’s links to the Native American princess.
Pocahontas, Norfolk's Great Hero of Equality and Diversity is at St Mary the Virgin Church, Heacham, at 2.30pm on Monday, October 11.
It will include local people of Native American descent and a speech about Pocahontas by 12-year-old Ishpriya Bird, daughter of Big Issue founder Lord John Bird. The afternoon will be led by the Rev Karlene Kerr, and Danny Keen, chairman of Norfolk Black History Month, who said: "The event will celebrate interracial amity and unity. A number of people who have had mixed marriages (eg, Sikh to Christian, etc) will be speaking. There will be Cuban percussion and members of the African Choir will be singing."
For more Norfolk Black History Month events, including fascinating tours of Norwich, music and dance workshops and a birthday celebration for Elveden suffragist Catherine Duleep Singh visit norfolkblackhistorymonth.org