The idea of cannibalism among pilgrims and Native Americans at Jamestown, Va., isn’t exactly news. Many historical accounts of the time mention how settlers turned to cannibalism for survival. So while I wasn’t surprised to read the AP’s account today of new scientific evidence, I was surprised by how the AP chose to describe the conditions which led to such misery.

Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley said the human remains date back to a deadly winter known as the “starving time” in Jamestown from 1609 to 1610. Hundreds of colonists died during the period. Scientists have said the settlers likely arrived during the worst drought in 800 years, bringing a severe famine for the 6,000 people who lived at Jamestown between 1607 and 1625.

The historical record is chilling. Early Jamestown colonist George Percy wrote of a “world of miseries,” that included digging up corpses from their graves to eat when there was nothing else. “Nothing was spared to maintain life,” he wrote.

How is it that settlers on a new continent could have such want for food?  It wasn’t as if deforestation drove wild game away or that the ocean provided no fish.  It wasn’t even that the soil wasn’t ripe for horticulture.  So what happened?

Explorer George Percy’s account at the time went like this:

“So great was our famine, that a Savage we slew and buried, the poorer sorte took him up againe and eat him; and so did divers one another boyled and stewed with roots and herbs…  [the cause of starvation was] “want of providence, industrie and government, and not the barennnesse and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed.”

Lack of industry?  How is this possible?  It’s not like England sent a bunch of wimpy, lazy people to settle its first permanent settlement in the New World.  Some speculate that it was actually a lack of personal property rights that doomed the Jamestown colony from the start.

In the late 19th Century, for example, historian Philip A. Bruce wrote of the Jamestown colonists: “The settlers did not have even a modified interest in the soil… Everything produced by them went into the store, in which they had no proprietorship.”  Most of the settlers were indentured servants who had no financial stake in the fruits of their labor.  For several years, the colony of Jamestown limped forward, relying on a collectivist system to generate profits for the Virginia Company.  But when hard work presented no personal benefit, many abandoned their responsibilities and the whole colony suffered.  

Fortunately for Virginia, the British government sent Sir Thomas Dale to serve as “high marshal” of the struggling colony in 1611.  Upon his arrival, Dale observed that most of the settlers had died of starvation and the ones who’d survived spent much of their time playing games in the streets.  It didn’t take him long to identify the problem: the system of communal ownership.  It was under Dale’s leadership that private property rights were established.

As a result, historian Matthew Page notes inVirginia, The Old Dominion:

As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans — an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship couple with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.

And for those who like to continually criticize the New World’s new inhabitants for sparring with indigenous tribes, the implementation of personal property rights and a capitalist economic system promoted peaceful market trades, making capitalism a better system for peace and prosperity than the old communal failure.

The perils of such collectivism aren’t shocking to most conservatives who stake their philosophies in fighting for personal freedom.  But as old and documented as the failures of such policies are, modern progressives still think it can somehow work.  Those who don’t know history…

Personally, I prefer capitalism over cannibalism.