- Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World ed. by Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet
Brace yourself for an explosion of scholarship about the colony of Virginia: 2007 marks the 400th anniversary of Jamestown ‘s settlement and presses are gearing up. But in fact, the deluge has already begun, and a new Virginia is coming into view. Virginia used to be full of American “firsts”: the first colony, the first representative body, the first colony to employ enslaved labor, and even, if you believe some modern-day Virginians, the first Thanksgiving. In the past few years, however, historians have begun to depict a different colony altogether, one deeply enmeshed in the indigenous world the English invaded, one linked to other Europeans, one shaped by prior English activities in Ireland, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and elsewhere, one molded by prior and on-going Spanish examples. The weight of this scholarship has made it impossible to see Virginia as the first in any respect. Two recent books have already offered harbingers of new directions in the colony’s history. April Lee Hatfield’s Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) privileges English, Dutch, and indigenous economic and cultural interactions and in so doing, depicts a Virginia vastly different from the one that has emerged over the past three decades from an historiography addicted to tobacco. In Humanism and America: An Intellectual History of English Colonisation, 1500–1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Andrew Fitzmaurice embeds plans for Virginia in an English and continental context. He argues, for example, that English schemes for America were shaped by their reading of the Salamanca school, those authors such as Bartolomé de las Casas or José de Acosta who were preoccupied by the legality of Spanish claims to America. Both Fitzmaurice and Hatfield, through vastly different approaches and geographic frameworks, have compelled historians of early America and of British global expansion to attend to these complex types of interactions (intellectual, material, economic, social, or cultural) which shaped any single settlement, in either its conception or its execution.
In Envisioning an English Empire, then, John Wood Sweet and Robert Appelbaum join this fundamental reassessment of early Virginia. They have gathered together twelve essays by specialists in the history and literature of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their collection is an outgrowth of an NEH Summer Institute on “Texts of Imagination and Empire: The Founding of Jamestown in its Atlantic Context,” sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library and directed by Karen Ordahl Kupperman in 2000. The contributors to this volume together reconceptualize this small settlement effort in a broad imperial context.
Sweet and Appelbaum divide their collection into three sections, “Reading Encounters,” “The World Stage,” and “American Metamorphosis.” The essays illustrate several important themes. They remind us that we should never take even the most overused historical sources for granted. Emily Rose, in “The Politics of Pathos: Richard Frethorne’s Letters Home,” provides a persuasive new reading of a hoary source. Frethorne’s letter is a staple in the classroom: in it, a young indentured servant, in the wake of the 1622 attack on the colony which left one-third of the colonists dead, wrote a pleading letter to his parents, deploring his plight, lamenting the paucity of food and supplies, and imploring his redemption from his servitude. Rose tackles the question of who, exactly, Frethorne was (obviously with his language skills not characteristic of most of Virginia’s indentured laborers) and argues that he had well-placed connections: his plaintive letter, in fact, may never have reached his parents but was used instead in on-going struggles about the future of the Virginia Company, the private joint-stock venture responsible for the colony’s existence. Lisa Blansett provides a similarly careful analysis of the different versions of John Smith’s map of Virginia in “John Smith Maps Virginia.”
If Rose and Blansett insist that we investigate our most familiar sources with...