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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 55-68
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An English Pícaro in New Spain:
Miles Philips and the Framing of National Identity
University of Washington
The rich variety of recent work on Anglo-spanish connections suggests that early modern English studies may have reached a watershed point. As the potent effects of the Black Legend fade somewhat, and the study of Hispanic cultures takes on a more important role within the American academy, it has become possible to transcend early modern prejudices about Spanish culture—its supposed backwardness, fanaticism, rigidity—in order to consider the ways in which, whether by analogy or contradistinction, Spain profoundly changed what it meant to be England. As scholars of early modern culture move beyond national boundaries into an international perspective that better reflects the multiple intersections among emerging European states, we are slowly recognizing just how tentative and conflicted was the vital process of nation formation in the sixteenth century. 1 The resulting genealogy of the nation-state rewrites received accounts of seamless unification, overseas expansion, and national glory, to examine the role of marginalized subjects and of counternationalisms, of imperial competition and mimetic rivalries. Most importantly, it reminds us that the construction of national identity occurred in an international and global [End Page 55] context that constantly challenged early modern states' attempts at individuation and self-distinction.
What are the textual traces of the conflicted, and conflictive, construction of the nation? Richard Helgerson's groundbreaking work on England's "forms of nationhood" in the late sixteenth century has alerted us to the deliberate "writing of the nation," primarily in a series of canonical, metropolitan texts. 2 Yet some of the clearest signs of this process occur in "border texts" that chronicle contact-zone encounters not only between the English and native peoples around the globe, but also among European competitors in imperial enterprises. 3 Border texts evince the difficulty of sustaining national difference in locales far removed from metropolitan certainties, where the distinctions among colonizers from different parts of Europe, or even between would-be colonizers and native peoples, threaten to collapse. I will examine here the dissolution and recuperation of English identity in the Spanish West Indies, where an English subject negotiates his own relationship to the two imperial competitors.
The autobiographical account of "one Miles Philips, Englishman, one of the company put on shoare Northward of Panuco, in the West Indies by Mr. John Hawkins," narrates events occurring from 1567 to 1582. Despite its inclusion in Richard Hakluyt's explicitly nationalist Principal Navigations of the English Nation (1589, 1598-1600), the first-person narrative exhibits the fragility of national identity forged amid the pressures of imperial competition. 4 It thus joins the many accounts of failures and hesitations, bewilderment and botched expeditions that make the Principal Navigations such a fascinating compendium. Miles Philips's narrative follows a series of descriptive accounts of New Spain by English travelers—what the section heading calls "sundry pleasant relations of the manners and customes of the natural inhabitants, and of the manifold rich commodities & strange rarities found in those parts of the continent." 5 But whereas those accounts focus on description, with relatively attenuated voices and very little in the way of authorial presence or plot, Miles Philips's "discourse" is a highly self-conscious and crafted narration, in which the development of the narrator's subjectivity and the recounting of his adventures are paramount. The narrator underscores the retrospective and deliberate nature of the account, [End Page 56] reminding the reader of his omniscience and agency with a series of authorial interventions: "as the sequel showed . . . ," "but before I go any further . . ." (405). The only other text in this section that shares both the narrative thrust and the full-fledged authorial voice is "The Travailes of Job Hortop," in which Miles's shipmate of that name recounts how his hardships and
captivity in the New World and the Old make him worthy of his biblical name.
Although Miles Philips's narrative asserts...