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Envisioning an English Empire

Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World

Edited by Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet

Publication Year: 2005

Envisioning an English Empire brings together leading historians and literary scholars to reframe our understanding of the history of Jamestown and the literature of empire that emerged from it.

The founding of an English colony at Jamestown in 1607 was no isolated incident. It was one event among many in the long development of the North Atlantic world. Ireland, Spain, Morocco, West Africa, Turkey, and the Native federations of North America all played a role alongside the Virginia Company in London and English settlers on the ground. English proponents of empire responded as much to fears of Spanish ambitions, fantasies about discovering gold, and dreams of easily dominating the region's Natives as they did to the grim lessons of earlier, failed outposts in North America. Developments in trade and technology, in diplomatic relations and ideology, in agricultural practices and property relations were as crucial as the self-consciously combative adventurers who initially set sail for the Chesapeake.

The collection begins by exploring the initial encounters between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians and the relations of both these groups with London. It goes on to examine the international context that defined English colonialism in this period—relations with Spain, the Turks, North Africa, and Ireland. Finally, it turns to the ways both settlers and Natives were transformed over the course of the seventeenth century, considering conflicts and exchanges over food, property, slavery, and colonial identity.

What results is a multifaceted view of the history of Jamestown up to the time of Bacon's Rebellion and its aftermath. The writings of Captain John Smith, the experience of Powhatans in London, the letters home of a disappointed indentured servant, the Moroccans, Turks, and Indians of the English stage, the ethnographic texts of early explorers, and many other phenomena all come into focus as examples of the envisioning of a nascent empire and the Atlantic world in which it found a hold.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. v-vi

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pp. xi-xv

In recent decades, study of Jamestown became stuck in a narrow focus on the events of the early colony. Conflict between its larger-than-life leaders and the fate of its less-than-worthy rank and file took center stage and the questions of which leader was right or whether anyone was telling the truth loomed large. But a larger context is needed now. The history of Jamestown and the beginnings of English settlement in America is better served...

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Introduction: Sea Changes

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pp. 1-21

One of the stranger exports of early Virginia was a new English translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published in London in 1626.1 It was the work of the colony’s erstwhile treasurer, George Sandys, who insisted in his preface that he did it in his spare time, presumably by candlelight.2 Sandys had come to Virginia with an ambitious vision of the colony’s future: he was to...

Part I. Reading Encounters

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1. The Conquest of Eden: Possession and Dominion in Early Virginia

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pp. 25-48

By the early 1580s, few promoters of colonization—whether statesmen, merchants, or scholars—seriously doubted England’s right to take possession of those parts of the Americas uninhabited by Christians. Sir George Peckham invoked the ‘‘Law of Nations,’’ which sanctioned trade between Christians and ‘‘Infidels or Savages,’’ the ‘‘Law of Armes’’ which allowed...

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2. Powhatans Abroad: Virginia Indians in England

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pp. 49-67

In the summer of 1603, an English expedition brought two or three natives of Powhatan’s domain to London, where in September the captive ‘‘Virginians’’ paddled a canoe on the Thames before a rapt audience. That event inaugurated—several years before Captain John Smith and his companions secured a foothold in Virginia—the human exchange between...

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3. John Smith Maps Virginia: Knowledge, Rhetoric, and Politics

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pp. 68-91

Having completed a veritable Odyssean itinerary from Turkey to Virginia, John Smith returned to England and began work publishing his many travels, shaping an oeuvre that in his own mind established him as an epic hero.1 The nightmare of Jamestown was a recent trauma for Smith, who had been effectively stripped of his commission and expelled by Captain...

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4. The Politics of Pathos: Richard Frethorne’s Letters Home

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pp. 92-108

In April 1623, young Richard Frethorne wrote a letter to his parents that has become one of the most famous and widely reproduced documents from colonial North America.1 At the time he wrote, Frethorne was an indentured servant who had recently arrived in the struggling colony of Virginia, and his letter tells of tough times. A year earlier, a devastating...

Part II. The World Stage

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5. The Specter of Spain in John Smith’s Colonial Writing

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pp. 111-134

By the autumn of 1607 internal divisions were about to bring the Jamestown colony to an abortive end. With the company’s stores on the verge of depletion and his superiors debating an early return to England, Captain John Smith was compelled to lead a relief expedition up the Chickahominy, ‘‘where hundreds of savages in diverse places stood with their baskets...

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6. The White Othello: Turkey and Virginia in John Smith’s True Travels

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pp. 135-151

The Virginia Company was drawing up plans for a new colony in America when John Smith returned to England from his travels in the Ottoman Empire. It was 1605. Smith signed up, became a member of the council, and eventually went to Jamestown. The narrative of his Turkish adventures waited decades before it saw the light of print. Smith’s account of his travels...

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7. England, Morocco, and Global Geopolitical Upheaval

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pp. 152-171

Diplomatic relations between Christian and Islamic states in the sixteenth century were shaped by a network of official and covert policies covering the spectrum from open warfare and imperial engulfment to trade and alliance. Whether amities and conflicts arose from religious belief, familial relationships, dynastic instability, trade competition, or territorial acquisitiveness...

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8. Irish Colonies and the Americas

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pp. 172-191

Epimenides’s enthusiastic endorsement of colonies as a means of establishing order and government in Ireland in Richard Beacon’s dialogue Solon His Follie (1594) neatly illustrates the varied and complex nature of the early modern colony. As the first of the three propositions illustrates, following the Roman model colonies are seen in terms of...

Part III. American Metamorphosis

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9. Hunger in Early Virginia: Indians and English Facing Off over Excess, Want, and Need

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pp. 195-216

About 15 percent of Thomas Hariot’s Brief and True Report, whether in its 1588 or in its expanded and illustrated 1590 edition, is concerned with food and drink. That seems about right. In the first volume, Hariot is concerned with the ‘‘Marchantable Commodities’’ of Virginia (Part One) and ‘‘Such Commodities as Virginia is known to yield for victual and sustenance...

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10. Between ‘‘Plain Wilderness’’ and ‘‘Goodly Corn Fields’’: Representing Land Use in Early Virginia

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pp. 217-235

In 1612 John Smith published A Map of Virginia, a text that juxtaposes a cartographic map with a narrative ‘‘description’’ of the region incorporating the infant English colony of Jamestown. It is often remarked of colonial maps that they desocialize the terrain they represent, privileging the abstract rationale of mathematical measurement over details of past and...

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11. Settling with Slavery: Human Bondage in the Early Anglo-Atlantic World

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pp. 236-253

Did the arrival of ‘‘20. and Odd Negroes’’ in the fledgling English colony of Virginia in 1619 mark the beginning of slavery in America? United States historians have long thought so, but in recent years this assumption has been challenged on both factual and conceptual grounds. For one thing, it now appears that there may have been as many as thirty-three African...

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12. ‘‘We All Smoke Here’’: Behn’s The Widdow Ranter and the Invention of American Identity

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pp. 254-274

When does a colony become a country? When does an inherited culture develop into a new one? In particular, when did the inhabitants of Jamestown stop considering themselves as English, but as natives of Virginia? And when did the English realize that their colony had metamorphosed into something unprecedented and new? In her neglected last play,...

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Conclusion: Jamestown and Its North Atlantic World

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pp. 275-288

Landfall: April 26th, 1607. After eighteen weeks at sea, the captain of the Susan Constant, Sir Christopher Newport, saw the land that he and his crew had been commissioned to settle in behalf of the investors of the Virginia Company in London. The task to which they and those on their sister ships, the Godspeed and the...


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pp. 289-323


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pp. 325-356

List of Contributors

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pp. 357-358


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pp. 359-368

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pp. 369

We should especially like to thank Kathleen Lynch, Carol Brobeck, and Richard Kuhta of the Folger, Pompa Banerjee (the seminar participant who first came up with the idea for this volume), Alden and Virginia Vaughan, and Karen Ordahl Kupperman. Funds and other institutional support for the editors have been provided by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the John...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812204421
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219036

Page Count: 392
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Early American Studies

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Jamestown (Va.) -- History.
  • Smith, John, 1580-1631.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- America -- History -- 17th century.
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