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Jamestown, America’s other experiment

The first episode of “Nice Try!” looks at England’s first permanent colony and asks: Utopia for whom?


In 1516, the British author Thomas More wrote the book Utopia and introduced the world to a fictional, idyllic island where property was communal, people only worked six hours per day, and war was avoided at all costs. Leisure time was spent on wholesome activities, like intellectual pursuits, music, and gardening. Compared to the conditions in England at the time, Utopia was paradise.

When More wrote his book, Europeans were beginning to explore the globe. His story was loosely based on Amerigo Vespucci’s journey to the “New World,” and the idea of colonization offered the potential to create ideal communities, free from the constraints of existing society. But there was a very big issue: People already lived in these places, and were thriving just fine without Europeans.

In the first episode of Nice Try!, join host Avery Trufelman as she explores Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in America; how the settlement floundered and recovered; and the toll it took on the English and American Indians. The British landed in Virginia in 1607 and their experience in the following years was tumultuous: starvation, war, genocide, and more. But by 1619, when slavery was instituted by the colony, a new model for American settlement was established, wrought through a decade of trial and error. The story of Jamestown shows how failure can be a transformative experience and how the stories we tell ourselves about those failures inform the way we live today.

This episode features interviews with Irene Bedard, the voice of Pocahontas in the Disney film; Kathleen Donegan, professor of English at UC Berkeley, and author of Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America; Karen Kupperman, author of The Jamestown Project; and Olga Tsapina, the Norris Foundation curator of American history at the Huntington Library.

Listen to Nice Try! Utopian on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app, and subscribe for free to get each new episode automatically every Thursday.