This manuscript is William Strachey’s eyewitness account of life in the early colonial settlement of Virginia, North America, and his dictionary of the Powhatan language of the people he encountered there. These are bound with a rare and fascinating collection of hand-coloured maps and engravings by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598), some of the earliest and most widely influential images of Native Americans. They played a central role in shaping the European image of the so-called ‘New World’ and offer interesting perspectives on what it means to be savage or civilised.

Strachey’s Historie (1612) and Dictionarie (1618)

William Strachey (1572–1621) is best known for his first-hand account of the wreck of the Sea Venture off Bermuda in 1609, which is generally thought to be a source for The Tempest. Strachey survived the wreck and was later appointed Secretary to the English Colony in Virginia. His manuscript Historie of the travaile into Virginia Britannia was written in 1612 after his return to England but, probably because it is so critical of the Virginia Company’s management, they refused to publish it.

Alongside the Historie is Strachey’s manuscript Dictionarie of the Indian Language, translating over 1,000 words from the Virginia Algonquian language (sometimes called Powhatan) into English. It is one of many similar vocabularies which demonstrate the colonists’ need to learn the basics of the native language, challenging the idea that they are simply ‘blank pages’ awaiting civilisation. As such, the Dictionarie might complicate the view of language offered by Shakespeare in The Tempest. There Caliban, the so-called ‘savage and deformed slave’, first learns language from the Italians who land on his island. He could only ‘gabble’ before Miranda ‘took pains’ to make him speak (1.2.354–56). Yet he sees it as a form of corruption rather than civilisation: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t is / I know how to curse’ (1.2.363–64).

Theodor de Bry’s engravings of Native Americans

These images of Native Americans were hugely influential, but their accuracy is open to question. De Bry never went to Virginia, so the engravings are not based on direct first-hand experience. Instead, he used watercolour paintings by the English artist and colonist, John White. As part of Sir Richard Grenville’s 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island (modern-day North Carolina), White was commissioned to record the customs, religion, settlements and dress of the Eastern Algonquian peoples.

De Bry’s engravings present a more stylised image of the Native Americans than White’s original paintings. Black and white versions were re-printed from de Bry’s America (1590) and widely circulated in different travel narratives to represent people of different regions. For example, Harriot’s A briefe and true report was published in the same year with full English descriptions of each illustration. However, this is one of only a few surviving hand-coloured versions, appearing before the first mass-produced coloured illustrations.

There are imposing images of the North American people – lords, ladies and children of Secota, Roanoke and Pomeiooc; a conjurer, religious men, idols and burial practices; their means of fishing and making boats; their meals, dances, towns and tombs. But de Bry, White and Strachey also make a striking link between the people of the so-called ‘New World’ and the first Great Britons.

The illustrations of Americans appear alongside brutal pictures of Picts – ancient inhabitants of Scotland – one naked and brandishing his enemy’s head, others shown with elaborate body painting. This is used to suggest that that the inhabitants of Great Britain were once as ‘savage’ as the people of Virginia. Strachey reinforces this notion in his manuscript verse, saying ‘Wild as they are, accept them, so were wee’. Like Shakespeare in The Tempest, these men seem to challenge the idea that Europeans are, by nature, more civilised than others. Yet rather than suggesting a sense of equality between nations, it is used as an argument for imperialism. Just as the ancient Romans had ‘civilised’ the Picts, Strachey claims that it is the duty of the Europeans to ‘make’ the Algonquians of Virginia ‘civill’.