In this year of social justice reckoning, the popular Washington state cannabis brand Virginia Co became the latest in a slew of companies that announced changes in branding due to concerns over offensive names or logos. Many of these iconic brands are based on obvious stereotypes: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Eskimo Pie, and Land O’ Lakes butter, which features a smiling “Indian maiden.”
Virginia Co doesn’t have an overtly offensive logo, but, like the Dixie Chicks and the Colorado-based edibles company Dixie Brands, they’re reevaluating a name that evokes a historical legacy of oppression.
The brand’s founders issued a statement: “We want to say we are profoundly sorry to our community, our fans, and our retailers and partners for using the name and iconography of an English joint-stock company with a history of inhumane acts. We deeply regret the association we made with this reprehensible history.”
They went on to explain: “We founded our company here after moving from Virginia to this new frontier in America: the legal cannabis business. When deciding upon our company’s name, we wanted to find something that honored our Virginia home. We came upon a factoid that, in 1619, the colonists of Virginia, chartered by the Virginia Company, wrote the first cannabis legislation in the new world and we thought that was fitting. We are embarrassed to say, however, we did not complete our research about that company and we want to express our remorse for this careless mistake.”
So how offensive is the name?
King James I of England chartered the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in North America. Their first ships landed in 1606 and settled at Jamestown, which became the first English colony in the land they called Virginia. (The people who already lived there called the region Tsenacommacah.)
The Virginia Company predated the 1661 law that made slavery legal in the colony. But that doesn’t exactly put the Virginia Company on the right side of history. The company gave great authority to its appointed leaders; official policy outlined draconian measures for controlling and punishing dissident settlers and native people.
If you’ve read any US history at all, you’ve probably guessed that the Virginia Company officials were deeply racist. Recommended policy for control of native people included kidnapping children to convert them to Christianity and “removing” native religious leaders.
The leader of the local confederated tribes, Chief Wahunsenacawh (called Chief Powhatan by the English), attempted to create a good relationship with the settlers by offering food and assistance. But this goodwill quickly deteriorated when Captain John Smith and other company leaders took food by force. The native people responded with guerilla attacks, and the settlers burned native villages, including the precious corn crops which the settlers had relied upon for food.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Virginia Company’s record with its own people wasn’t great either. The colonists were mostly indentured servants who traded the company seven years of hard labor for the promise of land grants. Company leaders were harsh masters. Rations were so meager that some starving colonists tried to seek refuge with the local tribes. The punishment for deserting the company was “hanging, shooting, and breaking upon the wheel.” One man had a bodkin thrust through his tongue for attempting to steal oatmeal. He was tied to a tree and left to starve.
As Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, “The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609-1610, the ‘starving time,’ when crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty.”
In 1619, a slave ship called the White Lion brought 20 captives, who were likely Kimbundu-speaking people who had been captured on the west central coast of Africa. The captains convened with colonial leaders and traded their human cargo for food.
In addition to slavery, genocide, and torture, The Virginia Company was financially shady. The company left its investors high and dry, and became embroiled in countless lawsuits. It was dissolved in 1624, after Powhatan’s brother Opechancanough led an uprising that nearly wiped out the settlements.
So, yeah, not a great association…
While the modern day Virginia Co looks for a new identity, they’re striking their old name on their logo, which seems like a decent temporary solution. “Changing our name is only our first step of this pledge to work toward a better, more equitable future,” they write. “We are thankful for your support and your feedback. We especially want to thank those of you who reached out and challenged us on our name and what we stand for. You have encouraged us to be self-reflective and to examine ways to build a better tomorrow.”