This finely illustrated edition of Thomas Harriot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) describes the first British colony in North America. It includes remarkable engravings of Native Americans by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598), explained by Harriot in English. These were some of the earliest and most influential images of the so-called ‘New World’ circulating across Europe in Shakespeare’s day.
Theodor de Bry’s engravings of Native Americans
Ironically, however, de Bry never went to Virginia, forcing us to question the accuracy of his work. His engravings are based on 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.
Both de Bry and White make a striking link between the people of the ‘New World’ and the first Great Britons. Images of American people – ‘a great Lord of Virginia’, ‘Ladyes of Secota’, ‘The Conjurer’ – appear alongside brutal pictures of Picts (ancient people of Scotland), one naked and brandishing his enemy’s head. This is used to suggest that ‘the Inhabitants of the great Bretannie have bin in times past as savvage as those of Virginia’ . Like Shakespeare in The Tempest, de Bry and White seem to challenge the idea that Europeans are, by nature, more civilised than others.
De Bry forges another connection between the Native Americans and God’s first man and woman by placing a beautiful engraving of Adam and Eve at the start of the volume. As he says in his letter ‘To the gentle Reader’, these biblical figures were banished from Paradise because of their ‘disobedience’. Yet, like the people of ‘savage nations’, they showed great self-sufficiency in providing for their own needs.
 The page which includes this quote is missing from this particular copy, as is the text describing ‘Picte 1’. Moreover, Plate 5 has been mistakenly placed alongside the text intended for Plate 2. Plate 5 actually shows ‘a woman nigbour to the Pictes’. The missing pages can be seen in another British Library copy with the shelf-mark G.6837.
- Full title:
- America. Part 1 in English. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants ... made in English by Thomas Hariot
- 1590, Frankfurt
- Book / Folio / Engraving / Illustration / Image
- Thomas Harriot, Theodor de Bry [illustrator]
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- 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:
- 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:
- 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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