Encountering early America traces the history of England’s first century of encounters with America. As this book argues, the sixteenth century represents a discreet and influential period in the history of English encounters with the Americas that is characterised by a multiplicity of approaches. The book provides a crucial chapter in the larger history of the development of the British Empire. It reminds us that the march of British imperialism was by no means inevitable, or exceptional. The emergence of English overseas colonies in the Americas was the result of a century-long engagement with the imperial practices of other European nations and was the consequence of a dynamic and adaptive approach to exploration and settlement that was often born from previous failure. To illuminate these complex processes, the book uncovers the various cultural associations that shaped English perceptions of the New World, and in turn English approaches to exploration and colonisation. It assesses how English colonisers and explorers constructed theories of empire using Old World frameworks of understanding, examines how explorative failures and an oscillating English religious, economic, and cultural landscape affected English New World ventures, and explores how the practicalities of English trade and settlement in the Americas manifested themselves in descriptions of Indigenous appearance and behaviour and in accounts of American environments. The book will be of particular interest to scholars and students working on early English colonialism in North America and European cultural encounters with the New World.
The introduction sets out the main objectives of the book and its central themes and arguments. It introduces the source material and the methodological approaches employed. It delineates the new approaches taken to the topic and how they fit with current scholarship, including the internationalisation of early English colonialism, the societal and cultural influences that impacted English projects in the New World, and the embodied nature of early English explorative projects. The introduction finishes by giving a brief outline of the book’s structure and a summary of why the arguments presented are critical for reshaping our understanding of English colonialism in the New World.
This chapter challenges the pervasive notion in the current historiography that the European inability to recognise the uniqueness and difference of the Americas in the sixteenth century was the product of an inflexible and monolithic early modern mind. In contrast, this chapter contends that Old World frameworks of knowledge were concsiously employed by English writers to justify their explorative and colonial approaches to the New World, rather than an unconcious reflection of their own incapability to recognise American difference. In doing so, this chapter argues that English explorers and writers viewed the new American lands selectively, seeing not what was really there, but what was most advantageous to the political, economic, cultural, and colonial aims of the viewer. This type of ‘selective appopriation’ shaped early English understandings of the New World and helped to define and validate sixteenth-century English colonial decisions.
Religion, trade, and the challenges of English colonialism
This chapter traces changing English approaches towards exploration, settlement, and colonisation across the sixteenth century. It explores the tension in English travel and colonial literature between the desire to seek wealth and riches in the New World and the need to advance the glory of God, identifying the roots of this tension in the 1550s, its abandonment in the 1570s, and its re-emergence in the 1580s. By analysing this process and identifying what precipitated it, this chapter argues that by the end of the sixteenth century a unique brand of English colonialism had emerged that placed both religious evangelisation and commercialisation at its centre. This mixed approach to colonisation projects would continue to be a hallmark of English activity in the New World well into the seventeenth century.
The conclusion synthesises the main arguments of the book and what this means for the historiography of early America. It concludes by suggesting that the English approach to settlement and colonialism in the New World at the turn of the seventeenth century was the result of decades of translating and transforming images of America that first came from continental Europe, of utilising and adapting intellectual and cultural frameworks of understanding to explain the existence of this new and shockingly different world, of experiencing and responding to both English colonial failure and success, and of incorporating the peoples and environments of America into the mental world of early modern England in an attempt to persuade English men and women to make the difficult decision to cross the Atlantic in search of a new life. It was in the sixteenth century that the English first grappled with what the discovery of 1492 meant for them, both in terms of how they came to understand and define the new lands across the Atlantic and how they came to craft their own colonial approach that would challenge their rivals and restore the English realm to economic and political health. The sixteenth-century English involvement with America, although at times sporadic and limited to a small group of interested parties, was foundational, establishing and defining the ways in which English colonialism would proceed in the New World.
Clothing, nakedness, and the foundations of civility
This chapter examines the multi-faceted English understandings of both Indigenous clothing and nakedness, analysing the various ways that English explorers, writers, and translators described the appearances of the diverse groups of Indigenous people that they encountered. In doing so this chapter argues that descriptions of Indigenous clothing and nakedness in English print varied throughout the sixteenth century and performed a variety of functions, from shaping English approaches to trade and colonisation in the New World, to informing and framing moral and religious debates taking place back home, through reflecting shared European cultural values. Everyday practices of dressing, and English perceptions of Indigenous bodies, were thus central to the articulation of English colonialism in the sixteenth century.
Bodily discourse in the early English colonial imagination
Through an investigation into the role played by diet in English overseas projects, chapter four argues that corporeality was vital to the formation and dissemination of English representations of America. Eating and the effect of food on the body became, when placed in an American context, indicative of successful and profitable ventures or unsuccessful and troublesome ones. English ideas about the human body and how it functioned in different environments were integral to the encounter between England and America. This bodily discourse allowed for the defence of failed attempts at settlement, the celebration of English explorative and colonial projects as providential, and for the establishment of a set of beliefs about the American environment that had ideas about food and the body at its centre.