Wednesday, 11 March 2009


Just before moving on from talk of early colonial America, I would just like to say a little something about the work John White. He was a mapmaker and part of Raleigh's inner circle who worked on the top secret plan to establish an English settlement in North America before Catholic France and Spain grabbed the lot. We don't know very much about his life but what we do have is his work - his astonishing paintings from the Roanoke project of 1585. His careful objective drawings of plants and animals are years - centuries maybe - ahead of their time. This is a catalogue of a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum a couple of years ago.

The paintings of the Algonquian people - the local Secotan - who initially welcomed the English, are stylised and there is definitely a noble savage agenda going on here. The sponsors of this venture included the Queen herself and these drawings are marketing tools. They are selling this place as a land of plenty - a new Eden. They will eventually be copied as engravings and illustrate Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

But if you look past that, the drawings show real individuals and a culture that was about to be snuffed out. White struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. It is hard to see at first that these natives have a crest with hair shaved at the sides (quite an achievement in a place that had no metal except for copper jewellery). They painted their bodies and seemed to tattoo themselves with dotted lines. They had fields of corn, pumpkin patches, they barbecued their fish and ate a kind of chowder. All this they gave to the English. We gave them smallpox and took their land.

Oh and they also gave the settlers a special medicinal herb called Uppowoc. Harriot says that it purgeth superfluous phlegm & other gross humours, openeth all the pores & passages of the body and he seemed convinced it was why the natives were so damned healthy compared to the sickly English.

We ourselves during the time we were there used to suck it after their manner as also since our return. . .

Harriot died of cancer of the nose in 1621, possibly the first recorded smoking-related death. Maybe the Secotan got their own back after all. Uppowoc was of course tobacco.

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