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1607 Cycle Three

Image of the Other: England and North Africa in 1607

African woman, Wenceslaus Holler, 1645.

African woman, Wenceslaus Holler, 1645. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

The arrival of English settlers at Jamestown in 1607 was just part of a process that exposed Britons to the peoples of the Far East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, North America and the Caribbean. The discoveries of the early modern period were not only of new lands and peoples but also of the national self.  No peoples transformed British writing and imagination and inspired drama and adventure more than the Moors and the Turks of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.  Before there was Jamestown, there was the Islamic Mediterranean. As the first stones of Britain¹s permanent settlement in North America were being laid in 1607, the British self was still being defined by the Islamic “other.”

Edo and Paris: Architecture, Culture, and Power in Two Cities

In 1607, when Jamestown was founded, the powerful Japanese warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was erecting an elaborate castle complex at Edo, the place that would become the city of Tokyo. By 1699, when Jamestown was all but abandoned, Edo had become the world’s largest city, with a population of more than one million. At that same time, the French city of Paris reached a population of a half million. In a time of remarkable political and social change, striking similarities appear in the urban cultural developments of Edo and Paris. The two cities reflected the growth and consolidation of state power as well as the power of local elites, merchants, guilds, and even ordinary people to influence events.

A Question of Scale: Measuring the Microcosm and the Macrocosm

The great intellectual driver of the huge philosophical and technological changes that occurred in Europe around 1607 was the quest to measure.  New and refined devices of precise measurement  ranged from devices elegantly contrived in brass for astronomy to the workaday kit taken into the field by civil and military surveyors and gunners and onto ships by navigators.  The telescope, which made its first appearance in 1608, enhanced the power of human sight. The compound microscope, the other lens-based instrument that radically extended the powers of sight, appeared a decade or more before the telescope. What the years on either side of 1607 witness is the birth of a style of investigating nature at every available scale to reveal an order of design that transcends these scales.

A Cabinet of Wonder

By the turn of the 17th century, growing numbers of Europeans had begun to gain experience of the world through the medium of installations recognizable to us as museums. In truth, these institutions, termed cabinets of curiosities in England and Wunderkammern or Kunstkammern throughout the Germanic world, operated on a very different theoretical impulse.  Their contents were invariably diverse rather than specialized and regularly included natural as well as man-made objects.  Many aspects of early scientific endeavor were represented.  Exhibits were prized not for their intrinsic value or documentary interest but as tokens or signifiers, standing metaphorically for entire concepts, geographical regions, or realms of nature.

All the World’s a Stage

Theater became an emblem of Elizabethan England at the end of the 16th century.  Life was considered a dramatic embodiment of the divine plan, with theater as its most genuine and expressive reflection.  Human existence was felt to be part of the “theater of life” for which the whole world with its ever-broadening frontiers was the stage.  English infatuation with acting had a character of its own.  Its most dazzling avatar was the unique genius of  William Shakespeare, who emerged as the key figure molding a particular national consciousness and devising a theatrical model from which future national drama developed.

Transmitting Knowledge

In the Americas, the Spanish encountered indigenous peoples who had their own means of recording and transmitting knowledge. The quipus of the Inca and the brightly painted codices of the Maya and Aztec stored formidable amounts of dynastic and religious information. Some of these texts were destroyed the Spanish conquistadors, but others were avidly translated into European languages.  Indigenous peoples selectively incorporated those aspects of European knowledge they found useful. The European alphabetical system, for example, proved extraordinarily attractive for the Amerindian communities of central Mexico that already had well-established literary traditions.  By the mid-16th century, printing presses in Mexico were producing religious plays and catechisms in indigenous languages.

American Colonization Tracts and Other Promotional Literature

A distinguishing feature of the founding of the Virginia colony was the barrage of promotional tracts extolling the virtues of colonizing that accompanied the effort.  Whereas Spanish colonial projects were state-sponsored and financed, English colonizers received little help from the crown. The first English colonial projects were financed and peopled by private interests and, in the case of Jamestown, by a joint-stock company.  The literature supporting colonization was a great success, unparalleled in its magnitude and ability to attract and inspire some of the best writers of the English Renaissance. It was only by these authors’ feats of literary alchemy that support for Virginia was maintained for the almost 20 years the Jamestown colony needed to establish itself.