Ortelius 1570


English Encounters with the Americas, 1550-1610

NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers

July 5-29, 2011 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology



dear colleague letter

contents and approach


faculty and staff



related links



MIT Literature Section



(from Project Director Mary Fuller)

This seminar will take up methods and materials relevant to the study of English travel to the Americas within the chronological framework of the period from (roughly) 1550 to 1610: from the first voyages recorded in print to the first decade of American settlement. Beginning with a focus on early voyages and their practical and intellectual contexts, we will spend the middle two weeks of the seminar on two voyages that have been very well-documented and have attracted an extensive secondary literature spanning multiple disciplines. The final week of the seminar will focus on records associated with a particular settlement, records that will be far less familiar to most participants and are indeed still in the process of coming to light. These newer materials will provide an opportunity for us to apply some of the approaches explored in the earlier weeks.

The seminar will meet three times a week in the morning, leaving afternoons and the intervening days free for research and meetings with the director and visiting faculty. (Please see below for a brief overview of meetings and topics). We may schedule additional sessions during the final week, perhaps over meals, to allow time for presentations of participants’ work in progress. During each of the first three weeks, we’ll spend one day on printed primary texts and textual analysis and a second day on other kinds of evidence and analysis, with discussion led by a guest speaker who brings both specific expertise on our topic, and the perspective of another discipline. Fridays will be set aside for site visits and general discussion. Some of you may want or be willing to lead parts of the discussion on topics of particular interest, and that would be welcome; my experience with past NEH seminars and institutes leads me to expect (and hope) that most of our time will be spent in lively discussion.

I will meet with each of you during the first week (or very soon thereafter) to talk about the individual projects you plan to undertake during the course of the seminar: research projects, articles or short papers, or course development work; we should try to meet a second time to talk about the work before you present it to the group as a whole. During the last week of the seminar, we will discuss organizing conference panels that would further the seminar's aim of speaking and working across disciplines. Participants may also wish to have finished, essay-length versions of their projects considered for publication in a special issue of Studies in Travel Writing that will be devoted to work from this seminar.

My particular hope for this seminar is that all of us will leave knowing more than we did at the outset about how, practically, to undertake interdisciplinary work and where to look for sources, interlocutors, and audiences outside our fields. I’m convinced that this kind of work is what’s needed both to move the scholarship forward, and to reach larger, more general audiences.

Week 1

We'll begin with an introductory session aimed at giving an overview of the period, and a survey of relevant perspectives: from maritime history, bibliography, geography, and literature. We will also look at the prefaces to Richard Hakluyt's two late 16th century collections of English travel narratives, Principal Navigations 1589 and 1598-1600, to get a participant's view of the context in which these voyages were undertaken, narrated, and printed.   Early in the week, participants will have an orientation to the MIT libraries and I will also begin meeting with them individually to discuss research projects related to the topic of the seminar -- projects that they will present for feedback in later sessions. As the week continues, we'll pursue the question of precursors and contexts for Elizabethan voyages in two ways:  first, in terms of a general intellectual/scientific history; second, in terms of a local and near-term history of making, describing, and printing accounts of voyages. 

Late medieval science correlated physical geography, climate, natural and cultural phenomena to make predictions about the dispositions of particular peoples, the locations of precious metals, or the existence and location of the "monstrous races" described by classical geographers.  Nicolás Wey-Gómez, our first guest speaker, will visit the class to help us think about the scientific and unscientific ideas of physical and human geography that these accounts reveal, and their consequences for European thinking about  geographically remote places in the first century after Columbus's discovery.  English voyages to the north in the 1550s, like the Spanish voyages to the West that preceded them, aimed at discovering a shorter route to China and to the East. Contemporary geographers hypothesized that routes through or around Asia to the east of Europe might be as practical as routes through or around the Americas to the West. For this reason, English audiences in the 16th century remained interested in information about the interior regions of Asia that -- for most Western Europeans -- lay beyond the boundaries of direct contact and certain knowledge.  Accordingly, we will look at some texts by medieval travellers to central Asia that helped to form ideas of the regions travelers hoped to reach by sea, as well as shaping a more general conception of world regions and world systems:  in particular, excerpts of  Marco Polo's travels as printed by G.B. Ramusio in the 1550s (translated by Purchas), and selections from the account of William of Rubruck's mission to the Mongol Khan.

What kinds of documents existed as immediate precursors for the Elizabethan travel writers?  The editor Richard Eden's two collections of miscellaneous geographical information, appearing in 1553 and 1555, were the first manifestation of a burgeoning interest in publishing and reading travel books that, by 1625, would result in the roughly four thousand pages of Samuel Purchas's collection of travel writing, Purchas His Pilgrimes. When Eden publicized the northern voyages , and printed participant accounts of the African voyages, he became the first author to document English voyages in print. His materials formed the germ of later collections, even as later editors and authors would attempt to improve on his methods .  Eden's second collection in particular was closely linked to practical developments at the same time. In the 1550s, two sets of long-distance voyages were set in motion by groups of English merchants and gentry: one, aimed at finding a Northeast passage to China, the other, making contact with the West African trade in ivory, spices, and gold. These different enterprises shared many of the same investors, and many of the names associated with them would reappear in connection with the Northwest passage voyages of the 1570s.  Frobisher and his men carried with them a copy of John Mandeville's travels in Asia as a guide to what they might find on their travels; several also brought memories of experiences in Africa several decades earlier.

At the close of the first week, we'll visit the Houghton Library. After giving participants an opportunity to obtain readers' cards for Harvard's Widener and Houghton Library, we will have an orientation to the Houghton and spend some time looking at original copies of sources we will read in the seminar and other relevant books, from cheap pamphlets to grand, illustrated folios. Depending on the interest of participants, we may want to arrange a second rare books session at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, with its unparalleled collection of early Americana.

Week 2

From beginnings in the 1550s, and the failed Northeast Passage search that led to the creation of the Muscovy Company, we will move to the 1570s, with a series of voyages captained by Martin Frobisher and aimed at discovering at passage to China by the Northwest. These voyages to what is now the Canadian Arctic appeared at the time to be a failure. Frobisher neither found the passage, discovered gold, nor left an intended colony, and the voyages bankrupted investors in the "Cathay Company."  Yet these voyages did leave a very significant documentary and material trace. Multiple participants published accounts of the three voyages (Best 1578, Settle 1577, et. al.), while other narratives survive in manuscript; the financial woes following on the third voyage motivated contentious and detailed accounts of its administration and logistics by other interested parties. A second, unwritten dimension of the Frobisher record was unknown beyond Baffin Island until the 19th century, when the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall came upon both oral traditions about the Frobisher expeditions and (consequently) material traces left by the 16th-century voyages. Both forms of evidence will concern us.

We will begin the second week by discussing printed accounts of the Frobisher voyages by contemporaries, and some critical responses to them in recent years.  George Best's discussion of climate, which refers back to earlier experiences in Africa, will allow us to reflect on  the survival of medieval ideas about the influence of climate on culture, temperament, and geology.  The primary sources on Frobisher invite a discussion about evolving ideas of race in early modern England -- as a function (or not) of latitude, as a biological inheritance, or as a set of practices around diet, marriage, and other cultural concerns. We will also begin to observe some of the protocols of writing associated with these and other jointly funded voyages.

Among the extensive bibliography of criticism on the Frobisher sources, participants are most likely to be familiar with Stephen Greenblatt's chapter on Frobisher from Marvelous Possessions.  We'll talk about the argument and methods of this chapter, with some reference to later work on wonder and the marvellous by Daston and Campbell. A book like Marvelous Possessions galvanized the field and continues to be very widely cited: what about it is still useful, and in what respects should we challenge ourselves to move beyond it? 

Once we've looked closely at the printed sources, we'll begin to engage with other kinds of evidence about the voyages. The material record of Frobisher's voyages, and of the Inuit-English encounters to which they gave rise, has been the focus of extensive research and discussion over the last several decades, by both American and Canadian researchers. [See www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/frobisher/frsub16e.shtml.]   We will be fortunate to have a guest speaker, Réginald Auger, who directed archaeological research at the Frobisher sites in the 1990s.  Professor Auger's participation will allow us to combine attention to both material and textual evidence. We will be particularly interested in the possibilities offered by a multi-source approach to one particular event:  the kidnapping of five English sailors in 1576, to which the English responded by taking their own captives.  Captivity has been a central topic in and, increasingly, beyond American history.  We see the possibility both for deeper understanding of a particular encounter and for a comparative perspective on this larger phenomenon.

These two sessions on the Frobisher voyages have an implicit focus on indigenous history and non-documentary sources. It isn't possible to take participants to Baffin Island, much less on a trip that would combine a visit to the original site with another to the archives and museums that now display and contextualize its artifacts. Instead, we will visit a comparable site in Massachusetts at the end of week 2. Plimoth Plantation is a site of early contact that now incorporates a multi-faceted public presentation of its history.  Over recent decades, what visitors see at Plimoth has been transformed as the site has evolved to present the lives and perspectives of native people alongside those of settlers. Without a doubt, the status of Plimoth as a tourist destination brings this presentation to a larger audience than will ever read any document about early modern travel to North America. The story told by this site, through reconstructions, dramatization, and other means, ultimately relies on the same combination of material, oral, and documentary sources that we will have worked with earlier in the week. What kind of story does this site tells the visitors now, and by what means? What relationship does the public presentation of history at this site bear to the work of archaeologists and other scholars? Participants with special interest in such questions may also want to visit ongoing excavations of the 17th century "Indian School" in Harvard Yard.

Week 3

From the Frobisher voyages of the 1570s, we will next turn to Walter Raleigh's voyage to Guiana in 1595.   Raleigh's expedition followed on a series of exploring and colonizing voyages to North Carolina that he planned and funded, but in which he did not participate personally either as a traveler or as a writer. In this instance, for reasons political and personal, Raleigh both traveled and wrote.  His Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana became the subject of focused attention in a series of highly visible and widely read studies by literary critics in the early 90s. Some of this work became a focus for critical reactions from the domains of anthropology and history.  One result was the appearance of an edition prepared by the anthropologist Neil Whitehead.  Whitehead's edition included an important introductory monograph laying out information about indigenous culture and indigenous sources that had largely been missing from that earlier work. We will read some of the important points in this exchange, including Whitehead's essay, along with Raleigh's text. 

Raleigh's accounts of headless men and Amazons, this time drawn from indigenous testimony, will return us again to the subject of marvels and "monstrous races." While Raleigh himself never claimed to have seen an Amazon or a headless man, the demands of the print marketplace ensured that both would be represented in illustrations accompanying contemporary editions of his work on the continent. Practically speaking, the narrative Raleigh produced did not persuade Queen Elizabeth to invest in the conquest or further exploration of Guiana, as he had proposed. Nor did his expeditions succeed in locating the gold mines of which Spanish and indigenous informants seemed to give evidence. However, Raleigh's book did persuade some of his countrymen to follow him to the Orinoco. Historian Joyce Lorimer has done more than any other single scholar to uncover and publish accounts of early English contact with Guiana, both before and after Raleigh's 1596 voyage. Her recent edition of the Discoverie Of Guiana adds to these an intriguing new narrative from manuscript, as well as more well-sourced testimony about Amazons and men without heads; it also makes available for the first time Raleigh's working draft, as annotated by multiple hands. Lorimer's edition makes it possible for us to think about this text in a new way, as shaped by a collaborative writing practice and pressured by the interests of multiple stakeholders. We are, again, fortunate to have her as a guest speaker for the second session on Raleigh, to lead a discussion on what this text looks like in this new context and in the surroundings of other, roughly contemporaneous and geographically adjacent undertakings. 

At the end of the week, we'll devote part of one day to general discussion, and begin discussion of pre-circulated work in draft by participants.

Week 4

The last set of materials we will examine, on early colonies in Newfoundland, will be far less well known to most participants, and certainly less studied by American academics in any discipline. This concluding section of the seminar will provide us with some practice in navigating diverse materials that are not accompanied by the considerable bibliographies of secondary literature attached to the voyages of Frobisher and Raleigh.

We'll begin by looking at a few archival and printed documents about English contacts with Newfoundland from 1497 through the beginning of the 17th century, to map out the historical background for English settlement.  Then we will look more closely at a set of print, manuscript, and archaeological materials from the English colony at Cupids Cove (1610)  in Conception Bay, Newfoundland.  Celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Cupids in 2010 have  been accompanied by significant investments in public history, and we will also look at the narratives produced during the commemoration year. [See www.cupids400.com/english/dig/history.php.] As we look at these less familiar materials from early modern Newfoundland,  we will think about the kinds of issues we can  identify either in the materials themselves, or in the project of shaping a historical narrative about them.   How else might we shape the story, and why? 

We will also spend as much time as needed during the final week continuing our discussions of participants' work in progress, and conclude by trying to sum up what we have learned and what remains to be done.