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  • Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World
  • Susan Dwyer Amussen
Robert Applebaum and John Wood Sweet, eds. Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. xv + 369 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $59.95 (cl), $24.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0–8122–3853-2 (cl), 0-8122-1903-1 (pbk).

The focus on the Atlantic world in recent scholarship has provided us with welcome reminders of the ways in which events that are part of separate narratives are in fact deeply connected. This welcome collection of essays does an excellent job of this, insisting that the founding of Jamestown cannot be understood either as the beginning of American history, or even as the beginning of English colonial settlement. A foreword by Karen Ordahl Kupperman sets the tone, providing an overview of all that is happening in the early seventeenth century — from the founding of the Levant Company taking the English into the Mediterranean to the almost simultaneous founding of Quebec and Santa Fe. As Kupperman notes, the increasing attention to interdisciplinarity, and especially to the ways in which literary scholars have provided more subtle approaches to reading, has helped us deal with the evidence of early settlement in more nuanced ways.

The essays that follow illustrate the richness of this wider frame of analysis. While the volume takes Jamestown as its pivot, the essays move out in time and space to make sense of what happened in early Virginia. After an introduc-tion by James Wood Sweet, which makes an effective argument for the approach that follows, the essays are organized into three sections. The first, "Reading Encounters," focuses both on the ways in which settlers and indigenous people read each other, and how we can read the texts of their encounters. Thus, Alden Vaughan reminds us that Indians sought to learn about the English in a fascinating account of the Virginia Indians who traveled to England, and the kinds of information they brought back regarding English society. These visitors were surprised to discover that the English, so clueless in Virginia, came from a densely settled and rich country. The second section, "The World Stage," places Jamestown in a global context. Two of the essays here, by Eric Griffin and Pompa Banerjee, focus on the international elements of John Smith's writing — for Griffin, the threat of Spain, for Banerjee, the relationship between Turkey (where Smith spent some time as a captive) and Virginia, and how the first experiences shaped his approach to the second. Banerjee convincingly shows how Smith applied his experience of enslavement, of the Portuguese Empire, and of the "savage" Turks to the settlement of Virginia. The final section, "American Metamorphosis," attends to the ways the English, Indians, and Africans of early Virginia were transformed by their interactions. Michael Guasco argues that the English did not initially link Africans to [End Page 619] slavery: slavery was understood by the English in relation to the classical past; it was a legal and penal category, and it was the experience of a large group of English captives in the Mediterranean. The model of plantation slavery ultimately overwhelmed these older concepts of slavery, helped in part by the developing racial consciousness that stressed the differences between the English and both Indians and Africans. Guasco's treatment of apprenticeship and indenture as forms of forced labor exaggerates the coercive element of these relationships, but it is useful to remember that many people in early modern England had experiences — temporary and age-related, perhaps — of being unfree laborers. It is, like the other articles in this section, a reminder that the English did not just change things in the New World, but were themselves changed by their experience.

The overall coherence of this collection is one of its greatest strengths: good essays have greater resonance in conversation with their fellows. The stimulating essays in this collection demonstrate the usefulness of reaching out, not just in spatial and temporal terms, but also in disciplinary ones. By placing Jamestown in a wider frame, we have a better understanding of Jamestown and of the...


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pp. 619-620
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Archived 2009
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