When the astrologer Simon Forman went to the theater in 1611, one of the plays he saw depicted a powerful empire moving into the west to conquer—and, supposedly, elevate—a group of barbarians who lived at the world’s periphery. Forman’s thoughts at the Globe Theater may have turned to “no act of common passage, but / A strain of rareness” as he watched this colonial drama unfold. For Londoners, such New World concerns had been top of mind for more than a generation. Jamestown had been founded in Virginia four years before. And Sir Walter Raleigh’s had attempted to establish a colony in what would be North Carolina in 1585, an attempt followed by the infamous “lost colony” of Roanoke, in 1587. Those earlier colonies were part of Queen Elizabeth’s tentative gestures toward American colonization, and though they were largely unsuccessful, the discoveries made, and the imperial justifications proffered, by figures like Raleigh, his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, and Martin Frobisher, were part of the public consciousness. These themes of conquest would have seemed especially pertinent as the English once again tried to establish a toehold across the Atlantic, under the reign of the new monarch, James I. Yet as familiar as this story of a civilizing empire’s sojourns among a savage people may have seemed to a Jacobean audience, Forman’s basic plot-recounting in his diary about William Shakespeare’s “story of Cymbeline, king of England, in Lucius’ time,” with its tale of faith and culture that “came with the Romans into England,” make it clear that, even then, the conversations surrounding “civilization” and “savagery” could be complicated, nuanced, self-serving, and ironic.
Forman’s is one of the few contemporary accounts of Shakespeare’s staging, and he says little about how the Romans were differentiated from the Britons in Cymbeline. That doesn’t mean that the period wasn’t replete with depictions of the ancient Britons and Picts, as well as their cousins, the contemporary Irish and Scots, against the former of whom the English were engaged in a genocidal campaign. Furthermore, as is made clear by James E. Doan in New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua, those colonists (off in distant Virginia, while Forman enjoyed Cymbeline) “made early ethnological comparisons between the Irish and the native American cultures.”
Keith Pluymers argues the same thing in Environmental History, writing that “images of the Algonquians and Virginia’s landscape closely resembled Ireland” in colonial depictions of America. Such language was deployed, in part, because conquerors like Raleigh and Gilbert were veterans of the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Ulster that established the brutal plantation system in Ireland.
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Such language was also used because of the shared Celtic origins of the Britons and the Irish, and perceived similarities between both to the Algonquin Indians of the Chesapeake and Potomac region. A rhetoric of anxiety supplied self-satisfied justifications for colonization. The English nervously considered their own origins in plays like Cymbeline, asking what the importance was of appearance and culture in the constitution of a people. Clothes are not incidental in Cymbeline, nor were they in the consolidating racial discourses that justified English incursions into Virginia (and Ireland). In Shakespeare’s play, a character switches allegiance from the Romans to the Britons with the declaration that “I’ll disrobe me / of these Italian weeds and suit myself / as does a Briton peasant.” More than perceived phenotypical difference, it was Algonquin clothes (or, as the English saw it, the lack thereof) that reminded them of the Irish, who were the first victims of English imperialism. It also reminded them of their own ancestors, supposedly civilized and Christianized by the Romans. The propagandistic import of the rhetoric that described the Indians as being similar to the ancient Britons was clear: as we once were, so are you now. And as the Romans made us, so shall we make you.
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“There have been diverse and variable reports,” Harriot writes, “with some slanderous and shameful speeches bruited abroad by many that returned.” A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is both Harriot’s attempt to correct that record as he sees it, but also to provide incentive for investors to keep funding Roanoke. Not only was Harriot a cagey marketer, he was also a stolid observer of the natural world, having distinguished himself in navigation, astronomy, and mathematics. In its fascination with objective data, his treatise has remained invaluable even today for anthropologists studying the Algonquin at the moment of contact.
Most evocative of all in this respect are the illustrations that accompany Harriot’s text. While White’s original watercolors (an unusual medium for an illustrator to work in at the time) were only first exhibited in the twentieth-century, readers would have learned about the Algonquin from de Bry’s engravings. The Flemish lithographer had never actually been to America himself. Charlotte Ickes argues in American Art that, as a result, “De Bry’s engravings… [were] informed by certain European aesthetic conventions as well as the taxonomic logic of nascent ethnographic inquiry.” Consider an image of an Algonquin brave made by de Bry:
Ickes writes that de Bry’s “figures often stand in a generic no-place, and several of their stances derive from earlier sources.” Despite Harriot’s meticulous observations concerning North Carolina’s terrain, de Bry has opted to place his figure in an idealized and recognizably European landscape. The rolling hills and pines evoke the Scottish midlands as much as the Carolina Piedmont. Even more stylized is the brave himself, who in his affected position and with his seemingly winged helmet, bears far more similarity to the pagan god Mercury than he does to an Algonquin youth. If not for the fringed loincloth, a viewer might assume that they were looking at an image of Hermes.
Or examine both an original by White and de Bry’s version of that same image, both of which depict an Algonquin religious ritual:
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However, Harriot shouldn’t be thought of as advocating any kind of modern multicultural tolerance. Writing in The North Carolina Historical Review, Michael Leroy Oberg explains that Raleigh’s reason for sending Harriot and White to Roanoke was not knowledge for its own sake, but rather to “accumulate enough information about Algonquian culture and society to incorporate the natives into the Anglo-American, Christian New World empire that he hoped to plant in Virginia.” Harriot’s purposes, in other words, were imperialistic, and his study was to aid in colonization, writing that whereby “it may be hoped, if means of good government be used, that… [the Indians] may in short time be brought to civility and the embracing of true religion.” (In this respect, as Karen Ordahl Kupperman notes in The Historical Journal, some advocates for English imperial expansion “felt the Indians would be easier to civilize than the Irish.”)
Early relations with the Algonquin were relatively peaceful at Roanoke and Jamestown, yet as English aggression toward the natives increased, the language used to describe them became increasingly similar to that used against the Irish.
Link to the rest at JSTOR