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  • Economy, Ecology, and Utopia in Early Colonial Promotional Literature
  • Timothy Sweet

We owe the first recorded moment of ecological insight in British North America to Stephen Parmenius, intended chronicler of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s ill-fated second voyage of 1583.1 Gilbert, originally hoping to establish a colony in what is now New England, stopped off for provisions at St. John’s harbor, Newfoundland, where an international fishing fleet had made its base. According to the terms of his patent, Gilbert took possession of the territory on which the fisherman had established drying stations and let these lands back to them as his tenants. Anxious to search for ores and other resources that could support a colony there, Gilbert and company found it difficult to get inland. Parmenius reported, in a letter to the younger Richard Hakluyt, that the thick woods “so hynder the sighte of the Lande, and stoppe the way of those that seeke to travell, that they can goe no whither.”2 To gain an unobstructed view and entry into the interior, Parmenius urged Gilbert to burn the woods, but Gilbert refused,

for feare of great inconvenience that might thereof insue: for it was reported and confirmed by verie credible persons, that when the like happened by chance in another Port, the fish never came to the place about it, for the space of 7. whole yeere after, by reason of the waters made bytter by the turpentyne, and rosen of the trees, which ranne into the ryvers upon the fyring of them.3

We can now infer that it was not pine sap but soil erosion from the burned-off shore that polluted the estuary for seven years, until new growth stabilized the banks.4 Gilbert and his crew, however, interpret [End Page 399] this “verie credible” story of environmental interaction in a different way, seeing therein a relationship among the commodities of the New World. They imagine so much sap being released in a fire that it cannot burn off but instead renders enormous amounts of its primary distillate, “turpentyne,” and a by-product of distillation, “rosen.”5 The superfluity of these commodities courses down the banks, turning the water “bytter” and obstructing the harvest of another commodity, fish. Reading Parmenius’s letter from Newfoundland, we imagine what Gilbert imagined—a narrative of environmental interaction—but we understand its causal mechanism differently. This difference alerts us to Gilbert’s interest in the economic dimension of environmental representation. Economy enters Gilbert’s environmental understanding under the category of commodity, which to him means both a specific good or resource and, more generally, due measure, fitness, or convenience. As the younger Hakluyt would argue in the “Discourse of Western Planting” (1584), the “manifolde comodyties that are like to growe to this Realme of Englande by the Westerne discoveries lately attempted” included economic recovery, full employment, trade with indigenous Americans, discovery of a Northwest passage, geopolitical advantage relative to Spain and other European nations, the extension of Christendom, the glory of the Crown, and so on—as well as particular goods (O, 2:211). Promising new possibilities for commodity in the most general sense, the American environment invited the English to develop a new mode of political economy, one that theorized economics in terms of environmental capacity in a way that the then-dominant mode, agrarianism, had not yet done. This economic theorizing was a primary concern of the promotional literature of the late sixteenth century (and beyond), significantly shaping its generic conventions and motivating its cultural work.6 Promotional literature’s fundamental linkage of economics and the environment invites us to read the genre in terms of steady-state or sustainable economic theory. While recent years have seen the rise of both the “new economic criticism” and ecocriticism, literary critics have been slow to investigate in detail the interrelation of economy and ecology.7 In the social and biological sciences, however, the interdisciplinary field of steady-state or sustainable economics has emerged precisely to theorize this interrelation.8 Early promotional literature provides an occasion to bring to bear this field’s [End Page 400] insights and to open literary studies onto the nexus of economy and ecology...

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pp. 399-427
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Archived 2005
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