Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World

Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World

Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World

Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World


Envisioning an English Empire brings together leading historians and literary scholars to reframe our understanding of the history of Jamestown and the literature of empire that emerged from it.

The founding of an English colony at Jamestown in 1607 was no isolated incident. It was one event among many in the long development of the North Atlantic world. Ireland, Spain, Morocco, West Africa, Turkey, and the Native federations of North America all played a role alongside the Virginia Company in London and English settlers on the ground. English proponents of empire responded as much to fears of Spanish ambitions, fantasies about discovering gold, and dreams of easily dominating the region's Natives as they did to the grim lessons of earlier, failed outposts in North America. Developments in trade and technology, in diplomatic relations and ideology, in agricultural practices and property relations were as crucial as the self-consciously combative adventurers who initially set sail for the Chesapeake.

The collection begins by exploring the initial encounters between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians and the relations of both these groups with London. It goes on to examine the international context that defined English colonialism in this period--relations with Spain, the Turks, North Africa, and Ireland. Finally, it turns to the ways both settlers and Natives were transformed over the course of the seventeenth century, considering conflicts and exchanges over food, property, slavery, and colonial identity.

What results is a multifaceted view of the history of Jamestown up to the time of Bacon's Rebellion and its aftermath. The writings of Captain John Smith, the experience of Powhatans in London, the letters home of a disappointed indentured servant, the Moroccans, Turks, and Indians of the English stage, the ethnographic texts of early explorers, and many other phenomena all come into focus as examples of the envisioning of a nascent empire and the Atlantic world in which it found a hold.


Karen Ordahl Kupperman

In recent decades, study of Jamestown became stuck in a narrow focus on the events of the early colony. Conflict between its larger-than-life leaders and the fate of its less-than-worthy rank and file took center stage and the questions of which leader was right or whether anyone was telling the truth loomed large. But a larger context is needed now. the history of Jamestown and the beginnings of English settlement in America is better served when we view it in an Atlantic frame. It is better served, too, when we take advantage of the renewed focus on the early colonial period current among many disciplines, and bring together literary specialists, historians, and archaeologists to pool knowledge and perspectives.

Rather than isolating Jamestown’s founding as the beginning of American history, the Atlantic perspective provides a more realistic context for English thinking about overseas ventures. It aims to understand the place of colonies as contemporaries did. the first question then becomes “Why 1607?” American enterprises must be set first within European history, and for the English they began within the great opposition to Roman Catholic Spain as the ultimate other. Pacification of Roman Catholic Ireland through colonization was an old theme, and England’s safety was the principal concern there. Richard Hakluyt, the great Elizabethan promoter of American ventures, spread the Black Legend of Spanish rapaciousness supported and excused by Rome. Ralegh’s failed colony of Roanoke, first conceptualized as part of that resistance to Spain, preceded Jamestown, as did the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida, whose settlement in the 1560s was the true beginning of permanent European settlement within the future United States.

The Old Atlantic World contained many others, and many English in America had had previous experience in Europe and the Mediterranean. the earliest plantations in all regions were led and to a great extent populated by men who had served in the armies of the religious wars in Europe; Virginia colony secretary John Pory praised “that university of warre, the low Countries.” Others, like the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth colony, had lived in exile there.

In the wake of the founding of the Levant Company and the entrance of . . .

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