This richly illustrated volume of travel narratives was compiled and engraved by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598). It shows graphic images of cannibalism but also peaceful encounters between Europeans and Native Americans. The book was widely circulated across Europe in Shakespeare’s time and played a crucial role in shaping conflicting views of the indigenous American people as both noble and savage. These contradictions are reflected in The Tempest through Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban, whose name is perhaps intended as an anagram of ‘canibal’, but who is not a man-eater.
The text here is in Latin, but it was also translated (in the same year) into English, French and German. The first part is a Latin version of Thomas Harriot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590).
The second part gives an account of the French expedition to Florida led by René Laudonnière (1564). It includes de Bry’s engravings based on watercolour paintings by Jacques Le Moyne. Among these is a powerful image of Chief Athore showing Laudonnière a monument erected two years earlier by another French explorer, Jean Ribault.
Images of cannibalism
The third and most sensational section is the account written by the German explorer, Hans Staden (c. 1515–c. 1576), describing his expedition to Brazil. In 1553 he was captured by the infamous Tupinambá tribe, yet managed to convince them that he was not their Portuguese enemy, but a friend of their French allies. When he returned to Europe around 1557, he wrote his hugely popular and commercially successful narrative. Staden presented the Tupinambá, ambiguously, as people who raised families and were loyal to their friends but practised ceremonial cannibalism on their enemies. His tale was first illustrated with rough woodcuts on which de Bry based his more elaborate engravings. These show ships setting sail from the harbour, storms encountered on the journey and gruesome images of cannibalism.
Following Staden’s narrative, de Bry includes another account of a journey to the French colony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by the French-born Jean de Léry (first printed in 1578). The Calvinist de Léry actually fled to live amongst the Tupinambá because of increasing hostility from his colony’s Catholic leader. Like Staden, he refuses to give any simple definition of the American people, emphasising their social and familial virtues alongside descriptions of cannibalism. These contradictions are reflected in de Bry’s disturbing engravings of men, women and children calmly feasting on human body parts.
- Article by:
- Jyotsna Singh
- Ethnicity and identity, Power, politics and religion, Global Shakespeare, Comedies
Post-colonial readings of The Tempest were inspired by the decolonisation movements of the 1960s and 1970s in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Jyotsna Singh describes how these readings challenge more traditional interpretations of the play, questioning Prospero's ownership of the island and rethinking the role of Caliban.
- Article by:
- Liza Picard
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Elizabethan England
Elizabethan explorers undertook lengthy expeditions to discover new worlds. Liza Picard considers some of the consequences of these expeditions: overseas colonies, imported goods and the slave trade.
- Article by:
- Martin Butler
- Global Shakespeare, Power, politics and religion, Ethnicity and identity, Comedies
Martin Butler shows how Renaissance travel, trade and colonisation shaped the portrayal of Caliban and the Italians in The Tempest.
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