The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Drawing a New World

As early European explorers and colonists fanned out across North and South America, those who stayed in Europe grew more and more curious. What – and who – were these early explorers encountering?

Cannibalism, Brazil. Engraving by Theodor de Bry for Hans Staden's account of his 1557 captivity. Wikimedia Commons.

Cannibalism, Brazil. Engraving by Theodor de Bry for Hans Staden’s account of his 1557 captivity. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the earliest illustrations depicted the people they encountered as savages and cannibals. In some, Indians were painted in front of a backdrop of butchered human corpses. Historian Joyce Chaplin says these illustrations had a lasting legacy.

“The idea that American Indians were cannibals, all of them indiscriminately, remains a very powerful and lasting prejudice based on those early images.”

The work of an English artist named John White was very different. White was a member of the expedition that explored Roanoke Island, the site of the first British colony in North America, in 1585. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was bankrolling the expedition, commissioned him to document the lives of local tribes who lived there.

His watercolors were often intimate, portraying scenes from everyday life in Indian villages: mothers with their babies, men fishing, and tribes gathered together to eat and celebrate. He seems to have made an effort to depict individuals. Instead of aiming to shock his audience, White’s paintings emphasized the bounty of the land and the pleasant rhythms of village life. And there was a reason for that, says Chaplin.

John White. "Indians sitting around a fire." Courtesy of the British Museum.

John White. “Indians sitting around a fire.” Courtesy of the British Museum.

“What always strikes me about the images is how White organizes and displays Indians as if they’re performing to an audience. And so immediately in the pitch that he gives in presenting these images, you have room for suspicion. Could it really have been this nice? Why are all the native people being depicted smiling, and looking welcoming, and holding food?”

Of course, White wasn’t painting simply for his own pleasure, but to please his patron. The success of the settlement at Roanoke depended on more settlers and investors signing on, and what better to convince them than images of plenty? Whatever the reality was like, White’s New World was full of food, copper, hospitable natives, and land that was free for the taking, says Chaplin.

“Obviously, this is a set of images intended to look appealing, that this is a place where the English will be welcome and will find plenty to eat, a very helpful population. Also because this is colonization done on a small scale, done on the cheap and not a lot of money is put into this, so really the organizers of the Roanoke colony need to recruit settlers. They need to recruit investors. They have to make the colony look good, look inviting.”

John White, "Indians fishing."Courtesy of the British Museum.

John White, “Indians fishing.”  Courtesy of the British Museum.

Plenty of people were convinced by these images, and came to America assuming, as White had, that they were coming to a bountiful place, with plenty of room and resources to support them. And that’s the dark side to these outwardly gentle images, says Chaplin. While they may not have promoted the sort of violent conceptions of all indigenous people as savage cannibals like early Spanish illustrations, the implicit offer in White’s work – that Europeans were welcome to come and settle the land – created its own problems.

“Really, that whole idea that there was plenty of space for Europeans means that this is a fantasy about removing native populations from that landscape, as if there isn’t a real connection between them and the land.”


Joyce Chaplin is editor of A New World: England’s First View of AmericaThis story is part of our episode on depictions of Native Americans throughout U.S. history. Hear the whole episode, or read stories on a proposed monument to a “vanishing” race, the difference between the field and the sports pages for successful Indian athletes, and the reason so many Americans ‘play Indian’ at summer camp.

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