The Adventures of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and a Sundial

Contributed by:
This booklet shares a tale of intrigue and ingenuity, savagery and foreign shores, sex, and scientific instruments. No, it is not “Desperate Housewives,” or “CSI,” but the “Adventures of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and a Sundial.”
1. The Adventures of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and a Sundial
Sara J. Schechner (Cambridge MA)
Let me tell you a tale of intrigue and ingenuity, savagery and foreign shores, sex and scientific
instruments. No, it is not “Desperate Housewives,” or “CSI,” but the “Adventures of Captain John Smith,
Pocahontas, and a Sundial.”1 As our story opens in 1607, we find Captain John Smith paddling upstream
through the Virginia wilderness, when he is ambushed by Indians, held prisoner, and repeatedly
threatened with death. His life is spared first by the intervention of his magnetic compass, whose
spinning needle fascinates his captors, and then by Pocahontas, the chief’s sexy daughter. At least that is
how recent movies and popular writing tell the story.2 But in fact the most famous compass in American
history was more than a compass – it was a pocket sundial – and the Indian princess was no seductress,
but a mere child of nine or ten years, playing her part in a shaming ritual. So let us look again at the
legend, as told by John Smith himself, in order to understand what his instrument meant to him.
Who was John Smith?3 When Smith (1580-1631) arrived on American shores at the age of twenty-seven,
he was a seasoned adventurer who had served Lord Willoughby in Europe, had sailed the Mediterranean
in a merchant vessel, and had fought for the Dutch against Spain and the Austrians against the Turks. In
Transylvania, he had been captured and sold as a slave to a Turk. The Turk had sent Smith as a gift to his
girlfriend in Istanbul, but Smith escaped and fled through Russia and Poland. In the midst of these
adventures, Smith was shipwrecked, enriched by piracy, and thrown into the sea as a human sacrifice to a
storm. After further escapades – real or embellished – in Europe and North Africa, he returned to
England around 1604.
In London, Smith signed up with the Virginia Company to plant a settlement on the Chesapeake. He set
sail in late December 1606. After the forgoing ordeals, the prospect of four hard months at sea might
have seemed a piece of cake to Captain Smith, but he took part in a mutiny and arrived at Jamestown in
chains. He was held prisoner until the letter of instruction of the Virginia Company – sealed until the
colonists had landed – announced him to be one of the colony’s governing counselors. So it was that in
June 1607, Smith began his embattled leadership of the colony.
Jamestown was fraught with problems, including a shortage of food, water, and supplies and an
abundance of dissent, laziness, and efforts to desert. Smith was reviled and revered. In the midst of the
chaos, he left Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay area not only in search of food and water, but
also in search of navigable passages to the Pacific and marketable commodities. This brings us to the
episode at the heart of this paper. Our primary sources are Smith’s own accounts published in 1608 and
1624.4 Here is what he claimed.
While exploring the Chickahominy River by canoe in December 1607, Captain John Smith was
ambushed by 200 Powhatan Indians and chased into the swamp. Wounded by arrows and mired in the
cold mud, Smith surrendered and was led to their chieftain, Opechancanough. Smith played for time. “I
presented him with a compasse diall,” Smith wrote in his True Relation, “describing by my best meanes
the use thereof, whereat he so amazedly admired, as he suffered me to proceed in a discourse of the
roundnes of the earth, the course of the sunne, moone, starres and plannets.”5 Smith added that the
Indians also “marvailed at the playing of the Fly and Needle, which they could see so plainely, and yet
not touch it, because of the glasse that covered them.”6 Notwithstanding the fascinating show, his captors
had him tied to a tree an hour later and were preparing to shoot when Opechancanough held the
instrument aloft and spared his life. For the next month, Smith was alternately fêted and condemned
while being paraded around various Indian villages. At last, he was brought before Opechancanough’s
father-in-law, the supreme chief, Powhatan. Powhatan questioned Smith about the colonists’ intentions
and held a trial of his prisoner. After debate among the Indians, Smith was forced to lie down on a large
stone slab. Just before a warrior was to bash in his head, the chief’s young daughter, Pocahontas, threw
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2. herself across Smith and asked that his life be spared. [Figure 1] Smith was then released on the
condition that he pledge loyalty to Powhatan as a subservient chieftain. Although Pocahontas appears to
have played a choreographed role in a shaming ritual (what better way to humiliate a brash soldier than to
have him saved by a female child?), Smith was convinced that he owed his life to her.7
This legendary event reveals more
than Smith’s ingenuity and ability
to embellish a good story. The
compass dial represents the clash of
two cosmologies – that of the
Indians and European settlers. It
embodies the belief that the
smallest things mirrored the large,
that number was the key to God’s
creation, and that by means of
mathematical instruments, men
could dominate that world (or at
least extricate themselves from tight
Smith’s Cosmology
Captain John Smith described his
instrument as a “round Ivory double
compass Dyall...[a] Globe-like
Jewell, [that demonstrated] the
roundness of the earth, and skies,
the spheare of the Sunne, Moone,
and Starres, and how the Sunne did
chase the night round about the
world continually; the greatnesse of
the Land and Sea, the diversitie of
Figure 1. Pocahontas ‘saves’ the life of Captain John Smith, from Nations, varietie of complexions,
Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624). Courtesy of Houghton
and how we were to them
Library, Harvard College Library (STC 22790).
Antipodes, and many other such
like matters.”8 Although recent movies have misrepresented Smith’s device as a pocket compass, it was
a type of pocket sundial made in Europe and contained in a hollow ivory sphere.9 [Figure 2] When
opened, one hemisphere contained a magnetic compass whose wire needle was glued to the underside of a
card painted with a wind rose. The card – or fly – spun on a pivot and indicated north. The fly was
protected by glass held down by a brass sundial that stretched across the opening. Inside the other
hemisphere, there typically was a brass volvelle that showed the phases of the moon and could be used to
determine the times of tides or to convert the sundial into a moon dial. The exterior of the ivory sphere
was often ornamented with delicate patterns, or, as in Smith’s example, could be inscribed with the great
celestial circles – i.e., the ecliptic, the equator, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic
circles, and the colures – demarcating the path of the sun and planets in the heavens.
Smith’s sundial was a powerful token, a model of the universe he could hold in the palm of his hand. In
shape and inscribed detail, it mirrored the cosmic sphere of Aristotle and Ptolemy. According to this
view, the earth was located at the center of a finite universe and encircled by the moon, sun, planets, and
fixed stars (each generally thought to be carried in its own sphere). Although some astronomers
advocated the new theory proposed by Copernicus of a sun-centered system of the world, they were the
minority in 1607, and there was no concrete evidence at this time to prove that it was better. In any case,
a navigator like Smith need not choose between one cosmology or the other in order to find his way
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3. across the seas. All his instruments worked on the premise that the earth was fixed and the celestial
bodies revolved around it.
Figure 2. Ivory globe compass sundial, French, 17th century, similar to the sundial mentioned by Smith. Courtesy
of the Trustees of the British Museum (inv. 1926,10-16.3).
Just as the heavenly sphere was represented in miniature on the ivory globe, the magnetic virtues of the
earth were mirrored in the tiny compass needle. Smith might have subscribed to William Gilbert’s view
that magnetism was a mysterious, animistic power flowing through the world, which caused the earth to
rotate, held the moon in its orbit, and controlled the tides.10 He likely endorsed the common view that
stars and planets exerted heavenly influences on the earth.11
This interconnectedness was typical of the Renaissance belief in the unity of nature, the great chain of
being, and the correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm. All parts of the sublunary world,
including the political sphere or human body, were mirrors of the celestial world and heavenly order. A
disturbance in one sphere could cause a disturbance in a corresponding sphere. To the Renaissance mind,
such disparate things like stars, weather, illness, and civil disorder went together.12 This is why John
Smith could use his pocket sundial as inspiration for his lecture to the Powhatans on astronomy (heavens),
geography (earth), nations (politics) and ethnography (man). He saw in his ivory, compass sundial a
microcosm of the universe.
Number as the Key to Knowledge
Smith’s sundial embodied mathematical projections of the sun’s path through the sky and motions of
shadows on a horizontal surface, and as such was as much a mathematical instrument as an astronomical
one. For those Renaissance scholars influenced by Neo-Platonic and Pythagorean writings, mathematics
was the key to unlock Nature’s secrets.13 John Dee and others maintained that God “created all things in
Number, Waight, and Measure,” and that the act of creation had been a mathematical process.14 At this
time, mathematics also took a more practical or Vitruvian turn in the work of architects, surveyors,
navigators, gunners, cartographers, and time finders.15 Dee bridged the worlds of the Neo-Platonists and
Vitruvius, and took it upon himself to train practitioners (particularly navigators) in the use of new
methods and mathematical instruments. Smith was schooled in the Vitruvian works of like-minded
reformers, including Thomas Digges, William Bourne, Robert Norton, Thomas Smith, Edward Wright,
John Tapp, Martin Cortés, John Davis, Lucas Janssen Wagenaer, Edmund Gunter, John Aspley, Robert
Norman, William Borough, and Robert Hues.16 William Barlow spoke for many when he said in The
Navigators Supply:
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4. A great helpe also would it be for the furtherance of skill, if those that are practisers in that Arte [of
navigation], and such as are Students of the Mathematikes, might often conferre together. For except
there be a uniting of knowledge with practise, there can be nothing excellent: Idle knowledge without
practise, & ignorant practise without knowledge, serve unto small purpose.17
Smith left Jamestown for England in
1609, but was soon after dispatched by
London merchants to explore and chart
the waters of New England in 1614 and
1615. It was in the spirit of the English
mathematical reformers, that Smith
published accounts of his Virginia and
New England expeditions that were
notable in cartography and scientific
detail.18 He also published in 1626 the
first English manual for seamen, An
Accidence or The Path-way to
Experience. Necessary for all Young
Sea-men, or those that are desirous to
goe to Sea. The book offered practical
advice on various duties aboard ship and
explained terms related to rigging, types
of vessels, and ordnance. It also
explained the navigational instruments
and skills required of a seaman. An
enlarged version appeared a year later
with a new title, A Sea Grammar, and it
Figure 3. ‘Experience’ and ‘Art’ share information on the frontispiece was followed in 1631 by Advertisements
of John Seller’s Practical Navigation (1669). Courtesy of Adler for the unexperienced planters of New
Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Chicago, Illinois. England or anywhere.19 These were
aimed at would-be colonists. Smith said that he did not write them “as an instruction to Marriners nor
Sailors...But as an intraduction for such as wants experience, and are desirous to learne what belongs to a
Sea-man.”20 Smith believed that hands-on practitioners and scholars should share knowledge for the benefit
of English commerce and the glory of the commonwealth. He was very practical, remarking that lots of
books will show one the theory, but to be good, one must learn it by practice. [Figure 3]
Captain John Smith understood well how bold action and new mathematical tools and technologies could be
joined to explore, subdue, and shape the world. Smith included a portrait of himself [Figure 4] on his
important map of New England, published in 1616 in his Description of New England and 1624 in his
Generall Historie. In the corners we see troops, a globe and dividers, soldier on horseback, and a ship–
symbols of Smith as a man of action. Below the portrait, poet John Davies of Hereford praised Smith:
These are the Lines that shew thy Face; but those
That shew thy Grace and Glory, brighter bee:
Thy Faire-Discoveries and Fowle-Overthrowes
Of Salvages, much Civilliz’d by thee
Best shew thy Spirit; and to it Glory Wyn;
So thou are Brasse without, but Golde within.
If so; in Brasse, (too soft smiths Acts to beare)
I fix thy Fame, to make Brasse Steele out weare.21
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5. Davies compared Smith to a finely engraved
brass instrument magically tempered to be
stronger than steel, and indeed, the
swashbuckling and intrepid Smith was a robust
mathematical practitioner. He felt invincible.
But the English cosmology represented by
Smith’s sundial was on a collision course with
the world of the Native Americans. Thomas
Harriot, the scientist-explorer, who tutored
Raleigh’s sea captains on navigation and spent
nine months at Roanoke Island in 1585,22 wrote
that the Indians did not know what to make of
“Most thinges they sawe with us.”
Mathematicall instruments, sea compasses, the
vertue of the loadstone in drawing yron, a
perspective glasse [mirror] whereby was
shewed manie strange sightes, burning glasses,
wildefire woorkes, gunnes, bookes, writing and
reading, spring clocks that seeme to goe of
themselves, and manie other thinges that wee
had, were so straunge unto them...that they
thought they were rather the works of gods then
of men.23
Harriot observed what Smith would note
twenty years later: that knowledge of
mathematics and its worldly applications – in
navigation, surveying, optics, chemistry,
fortification, gunnery, time keeping, and more
– gave the European settlers powers that
seemed magical to the Indians. For better or
for ill, the explorers would use these powers to
dominate the New World landscape.
Sara J. Schechner, Ph.D.
David P. Wheatland Curator
Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments
Figure 4. Smith as Admiral of New England, from his map
Department of the History of Science
of the same in his Generall Historie (1624). Courtesy of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
Houghton Library, Harvard College Library (STC 22790). [email protected]
A version of this article first appeared as “The Adventures of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and a Sundial,” in
East and West: The Common European Heritage, Proceedings of the XXV Scientific Instrument Symposium
(Krakow: Jagiellonian University Museum, 2006). To see the sundial story set in a broader, more comprehensive
context, consult Sara Schechner, “New Worlds, New Scientific Instruments: Cosmology, Mathematics, and Power at
the Time of Jamestown,” in The World of 1607 (forthcoming 2007).
Pocahontas, written by Carl Binder, directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, Walt Disney Pictures, 1995; and
The New World, written and directed by Terrence Malick, New Line Cinema, 2005.
P. L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
The Compendium - Volume 14 Number 1 March 2007 Page 6
6. John Smith, A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of noate as hath hapned in Virginia (London:
1608); John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London: 1624).
Smith, True Relation, sig. B4r.
Smith, Generall Historie, 47.
I. N. Hume, The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 171-181.
Smith, Generall Historie, 47.
Cf. French spherical, ivory compass sundials, 1624 and circa 1675-1685, British Museum, inv. 1894,1211.9 and
1926,1016.3; German ivory compass dials, circa 1600-1650, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Chicago,
inv. W-26, M-254;and an ivory globe sundial, Seville, 1626, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard
University, inv. HO81Z-17. Smith’s dial was different from the fragments of German sundials recovered in
archaeological sites in Virginia. See N. Luccketti and B. Straube, 1998 Interim Report on the APVA Excavations at
Jamestown, Virginia (Richmond: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1999), 23-25; A.
Outlaw, Governor’s Land (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), item 219.
William Gilbert, De magnete...physiologia nova (London: 1600).
E. Garin, Astrology in the Renaissance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983); F. R. Johnson, Astronomical
Thought in Renaissance England (New York: Octagon Books, 1968); and W. Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the
Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).
E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, 1960).
John Dee, The Mathematicall Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara (1570), ed. Allen G.
Debus (New York: Science History Publications, 1975); Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, ed. and trans.
Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1981), book 2, chap. 13.
Dee, Mathematicall Praeface, sig. biiiiv, *.i.
Leonard Digges, A Boke named Tectonicon (London: 1556); E. G. R. Taylor, The Mathematical Practitioners of
Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968); J. A. Bennett, The Mathematical
Science of Christopher Wren (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); G. L’E. Turner, Elizabethan
Instrument Makers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
John Smith, An Accidence or The Path-way to Experience (London: 1626), 33, 36; John Smith, A Sea Grammar
(London: 1627), 69, 83.
William Barlow, The Navigators Supply (London: 1597), sig. Lv.
John Smith, A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and
Religion (Oxford: 1612); John Smith, A Description of New England: or The Observations, and discoveries, of
Captain John Smith (London: 1616); Smith, Generall Historie.
John Smith, Advertisements for the unexperienced planters of New-England, or any where (London: 1631).
Smith, An Accidence, sig. A2.
Smith, Generall Historie, foldout map between 202-203.
H. H. Miller, Passage to America: Ralegh’s Colonists Take Ship for Roanoke (Raleigh: North Carolina
Department of Cultural Resources, 1983).
Thomas Harriot, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (Frankfurt: 1590; reprinted, New
York: Dover Publications, 1972), p, 27.
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