Revolution that changed history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 1995, 12:00am

THE words 'Our cause is just, our union perfect', penned 220 years ago by Thomas Jefferson, were the prelude to a revolutionary war waged by the Americans against their British rulers which is celebrated to this day.

'The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves,' Mr Jefferson wrote for the 1775 Virginia Convention, which called for a break from Britain with its high taxes and harsh arbitrary laws.

At the heart of these cries for independence and the birth of a nation were the towns of Williamsburg, the Virginia capital where Mr Jefferson studied law, Yorktown and Jamestown.

On the east coast of the United States, just 240 kilometres south of Washington DC, the historic triangle of three towns nestles at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.

Today, history buffs can visit all three to trace the transformation from British outpost to the site of the final surrender of British troops to George Washington, another of Virginia's 'Sons of Liberty'.

Jamestown was the site of the first permanent British settlement in the New World.

Three ships carrying 104 gentlemen adventurers, labourers and carpenters set off from London in December, 1606, for what one of the men called 'Virginia, Earth's only paradise'.

In April 1607, after four months at sea, the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery entered Chesapeake Bay. A month later, they anchored in the calm waters of the James River (named after the king of the day, James I).

Replicas of these three ships are still manned by sailors in Jamestown.

Searching for a site they could defend, the weary travellers pitched their tents in the marshy lands around the river.

But famine and malaria soon took their toll. By the end of that first year only 38 of the original 104 men (there were no women) were still alive in Jamestown.

The settlement might have disappeared as quickly as previous British colonies if it were not for the lust for gold.

The talk among subsequent settlers, wrote one of the original survivors, Captain John Smith, was of one thing only: 'No talke, no hope, nor work, but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, loade gold . . .' Unfortunately, it soon became obvious there was little gold in Virginia. Still, many of the new settlers did find what they were looking for. They were weavers, tradesmen, craftsmen and labourers who came to escape the degradation and virtual slavery of their mother country.

In and around Jamestown they were able to buy land cheaply and start their own farms.

Captain John Smith was himself pivotal in the success of Jamestown. Elected their leader in 1608, he was a popular man with a talent for self-aggrandisement and, reputedly, for charming women.

One of the most romantic stories of Jamestown, related by Captain Smith in his General Histories of Virginia, involves his encounter with the legendary Indian beauty, Pocahontas.

According to Captain Smith, he was captured by Pocahontas' father, Powhatan, who was absolute chief of the Indian tribes of Virginia. Just as he was about to be killed on the chief's orders, 12-year-old Pocahontas rushed forward and laid her own head upon John Smith's to save him. Her father was so moved by the gesture that he granted Smith his life.

Pocahontas saved Jamestown more than once. Captain Smith recorded that she gave food to the town's starving at critical times. Stability came only with the establishment of tobacco as a crop for export to Britain. But this period of relative security and affluence was to be short-lived.

By the end of the 17th century, many settlers had grown dissatisfied with what they called 'taxation without representation'. Merchants, too, were angered by the high taxes they were paying with little to show for it in the colony itself.

By 1765, leading merchants had formed non-importation associations. Trade with the mother country fell off and prominent men organised themselves as the 'Sons of Liberty'.

More and more of the 2.5 million white men and women who lived in America by 1775 began calling for economic and political independence from Britain. These feelings were echoed in other colonies in America and, in May, 1775, they joined Virginia to organise themselves on an inter-colonial basis and debate the possibility of independence.

George Washington, like his contemporary Thomas Jefferson a native of Virginia, was appointed commander-in-chief of the American forces. Three months later, on August 23, 1775, King George declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. The American Revolution had begun.

The war was to last for more than six years with fighting in every colony and hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

Finally, in 1781, the seventh year of the war, as both sides were demoralised and even George Washington admitted 'we are at the end of our tether', the Americans won a significant victory that changed history.

After successes in the south, the British tried to conquer Virginia. They made it as far as Yorktown where they set up camp. George Washington knew this was probably his last chance to defeat the British. He rallied his troops together with 6,000 French allies and they sailed down Chesapeake Bay towards the enemy encampment.

It was a decisive move. Their combined armies of 15,000 men pinned down the British army of 8,000 at Yorktown and, on October 19, 1781, the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, was forced to surrender.

When news of the American victory reached London, the House of Commons voted to end the war. The new world had become a new nation.

Peace negotiations were settled in 1783 and acknowledged the independence, freedom ad sovereignty of the United States of America.