Corpus Christi College Oxford

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Images of the New World: Theodore de Bry's Descriptiones Americae

by Jonathan Bengtson

"[It is] a universal condition of men to want to know..." Title page from Descriptiones Americae
(Hernan Cortes, Cartas y Documentos (Porr'ua, Mexico, 1963), p.478.)

Theodore de Bry was born in Liege in 1528 to well-to-do Protestant parents. He lived in Liege until the 1560s, when he fled to Strasbourg to avoid the Alvan persecution. In Strasbourg, de Bry opened a goldsmith shop and also worked as an engraver, particularly of heraldic emblems. His skill as an engraver served him well, as de Bry himself indicated in the foreword to Icones quinquaginta virorum illustrium (1597):

"I was the offspring of parents born to an honourable station and in the first rank among the more honoured citizens of Liege. But stripped of all these belongings by accidents, cheats, and ill luck and by the depredations of robbers, I had to contend against adverse fortune so that only by my art could I fend for myself. Art alone remained to me of the ample patrimony left me by my parents. On that neither robbers nor the rapacious bands of thieves could lay hands. Art restored my former wealth and reputation, and has never failed me, its tireless devotee."
(As quoted in M. Alexander (ed.), Discovering the New World (London, 1976), p. 8.)

De Bry's personal motto was "nul sanssouci" ("nothing without hard work"), and this strong work ethic brought him early success and prosperity. In 1588, de Bry applied for citizenship in Frankfort, where he settled and worked until his death in 1598. It was only late in his life that de Bry turned his attention and considerable skill as an engraver toward illustrating and reprinting works concerning the New World. The initial inspiration came from Richard Hakluyt, author of The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English nation, friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and Elizabethan nationalist who was always eager to celebrate English navigation and promote British expansion overseas. On his first journey to England in 1586/7, de Bry met Hakluyt, whose long-time interest had been to make available the works of New World explorers to the English public. For instance, in 1587, Hakluyt published a translation of Rene de Laudonniere's expedition of French Huguenots to Florida, which would become the second work that de Bry published with engravings. Hakluyt also introduced de Bry to the artist and governor of Virginia, John White, who had made his own drawings, now in the British Museum, of the English colony at Roanoke, which de Bry subsequently embellished in the first part of the Descriptiones Americae, sometimes known as the Collectiones Peregrinationum in Indiam, Orientalemet Occidentalem. De Bry, again encouraged by Hakluyt, was also to publish Raleigh's exploits in later volumes.

De Bry had already produced work for an English audience before beginning the Descriptiones Americae. Forinstance, he engraved thirty plates of the funeral procession of Sir Philip Sidney in 1587 (now in the Picture Gallery at Christ Church College, Oxford). Political reasons lay behind the publication of Hariot's Virginia as the first part of the Descriptiones Americae, instead of the accounts of the French Huguenots in Florida, which described earlier events. Raleigh and Hakluyt insisted that the Virginia voyage be published first because of the immediate need of White to vindicate and promote the troubled English colony at Roanoke at a time when he was desperate for additional funds to help establish the community. This was to set the tone of all de Bry's publications, as chronology was of less concern than the content of the works - particularly as they related to issues of national pride and the promotion of commerce.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus from the Descriptiones AmericaeThat it took nearly a hundred years before there was a concerted effort to bring a body of high-quality visual and written depictions of the New World to England is at first sight rather surprising. However, America was something quite outside the experience of the totality of European history. (See, for instance, Howard Mumford Jones, Ostrange new world (New York, 1964) and J.H. Elliott, The Old World and the New, 1462-1650 (Cambridge, 1970) for discussions of the protracted process of assimilating the New World with the Old.) Even the first Spanish epic poem about the New World, Ercilla's Araucana, was not published until 1569. In England, there was a lack of widespread interest in the New World among the reading public before the 1550s, at which time the monarchies of Spain and England established closer ties. (G. Atkinson found that, between 1480 and 1609, four times as many books were published about Turkey and Asia than America, Les nouveaux horizons de la renaissance francaise (Paris, 1935), pp.10-12.)

Indeed, it is important o remember that, as late as 1580, England did not yet have an overseas empire. Other factors affecting the relatively late publication of works on the New World included both the political and technical. Particularly in the first half of the sixteenth century, governments were rather obsessed with keeping their discoveries secret and discouraged works which included engravings or woodcuts. When publishers did include illustrations, they were sometimes reduced to using pictures of Turkish life, since they had no first-hand experience or depictions of the New World. Furthermore, techniques of woodcutting were not advanced enough to precisely reproduce original drawings until the second half of the century, at which time copper-plate engraving began to supercede woodcuts.

The Corpus Christi College volumes of de Bry's work were the personal copies of John Rainolds, President of the College from 1598 until his death in 1607. The series ran to fourteen parts, but, when Rainolds died in 1607, no attempt was made to complete the set, the last volume of which was published in 1634, and so the College only has the first nine parts. The majority of Rainolds' property seems to have consisted of books, particularly concerning theology and classics. Rainolds' will reads:

"I give for the use of the librariean hundred books of such as are not there already or not of same editions to be chosen by the Vicepresident with the advice of the Deanes and the publike librarie of our University I give fourty bookes first of all to be chosen by Syr Thomas Bodley."
(Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Ms. 303, fol. 220.)

The remainder of the collection was to be distributed among Queen's, Merton, New, University, Oriel, Exeter, Trinity and Brasenose colleges, as well as a handful of Rainolds' friends and students. Rainolds' books comprised a substantial proportion of the seventeenth century library collection at Corpus and over 130 volumes remain in the library today.

Authorised version of the bible, 1611The copies of de Bry's works owned by Rainolds are of particular note, since the great majority of his collection consisted of theological works, with the only other exceptions being Aldrovandus' Ornithologia (Bologna, 1599-1603) and De insectis (Bologna, 1602) and Dalecampius' Historia plantarum (Lyon, 1586-1587). However, unlike the Descriptiones Americae , these works were probably used by Rainolds when he was translating parts of the Bible for the Authorized Version. The reasons why Rainolds owned copies of de Bry's works may have had something to do with his staunch puritanistic and Calvinistic beliefs, as many of the texts in the Descriptiones Americae were stridently anti-Catholic (see below). Rainolds was one of the best-known theologians of his day, and rose to particular prominence as a "foreman" of the puritan party at the Hampton Court Conference in 1603/4. He had a reputation as a dedicated and hardworking scholar, and his death at fifty-eight years of age was considered by many to be the result of exhaustion from overwork on the Authorized Version. Bishop Hall wrote of Rainolds:

"He alone was a well-furnished library, full of all faculties, of all studies, of all learning; the memory, the reading of that man were near to a miracle."
(Quoted in T. Fowler, University of Oxford: College histories: Corpus Christi (London, 1898), p. 100.)

The encyclopaedic nature of de Bry's collection of New World discoveries must have appealed to a man who moved in the highest political and ecclesiastical circles and was involved in promoting the Protestant cause within the larger European political stage.

detail showing native plants and animalsDe Bry's works, which are in Latin, are bound together in two folio volumes in blind-stamped calf bindings in the sixteenth century Oxford style, with evidence that they were once chained. (This indicates that the volumes were considered important enough to be kept in the library instead of lent to members of the College. From its foundation, the College maintained both a permanent book collection and a lending collection.)

native plantsThere are a great number of engraved maps and plates that are well-known to historians and art historians of the period. These engravings not only depict some of the political history of the conquests and settlements, but also show native plants and animals.


The Black Legend

Many authors who wrote about the New World were more interested in

"the extra-European world and its description than in the political and cultural divisions of Europe itself."
(Richard Helgerson, Forms of nationhood (Chicago, 1992), p. 152.)

Title pageHowever, many of the works that de Bry decided to publish were anything but politically neutral. The discovery of America, and the riches, colonies and trade that it promised, helped to formulate the growing nationalism and imperialism of sixteenth century governments, especially when connected with ideas of providential destiny. With the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the spectre of Spanish rule once again became an issue in the 1580s. England faced the same problem as Holland and Portugal - namely that Spanish dominance threatened national self-realization. Tales of atrocities provided fuel to fire national and religious hatreds. The Spanish in particular were criticised in many works, including Girolamo Benzoni's Historia nuovo, first published in Venice in 1565. At the age of twenty-two, Benzoni left his native Milan to seek adventure in the New World. He travelled widely for fifteen years in territories throughout the parts of South and Central America conquered by the Spanish.

It is unclear what his role was as an Italian in Spanish territory, and the few thousand ducats which he did manage to save were lost in a shipwreck on his return journey to Europe. Nevertheless, he was informed about military, economic and political issues, all of which find their way into his work. Though Benzoni returned to Europe in 1556, his work was not published until 1565. The work quickly gained a wide readership, and was translated into Latin and published in Geneva in 1578 (about the time that the conflict between Rome and Geneva was reaching its culmination), and further editions followed the next year in German and French translations. By the mid-sixteenth century, jealous of the riches being acquired by the Spanish monarchy, the countries of Europe were joining forces against Spanish influence in the New World. Benzoni was an opponent of Spanish imperialism largely as a result of his eye-witness experiences of Spanish cruelty towards the indigenous populations of the New World. Some crude woodcuts accompanied the Venice edition, but it took de Bry's reprint (1594 & 1596) to bring home the truly horrific atrocities that Benzoni witnessed against the Native Americans, whom he seems to have admired and pitied. To take just one short example from his narrative, Benzoni writes:

Native Americans committ suicide rather than be subjected to Spainish rule"The natives, finding themselves intolerably oppressed and overworked, with no chance of regaining their liberty, with sighs and tears longed for death. Many went into the woods and having killed their children, hanged themselves, saying it was far better to die than to live so miserably serving such ferocious tyrants and villainous thieves... finally, out of two million inhabitants, through suicides and other deaths occasioned by the excessive labour and cruelties imposed by the Spanish, there are not a hundred and fifty now to be found."

De Bry included a graphic engraving with this text, illustrating the various methods of suicide, from hanging to clubbing children to death to self-mutilation. Such images, along with other evidence such as Las Casa's Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) and William of Orange's Apology (1581), helped to imprint the notion of Spanish cruelty upon the European consciousness of the seventeenth century. (See Sverker Arnoldsson, La leyenda negra (Gotenborg,1960) for the European origins of the Black Legend. See also Romulo D. Carbia, Historiade la leyenda negra hispanoamericana (Madrid, 1944) and Pierre Chaunu, "La legende noire antihispanique", in Revue depsychologie des peuples (Universitede Caen, 1964), pp. 88-223.)

With typical bravado, Adam Smith proclaimed that

"the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind."
(The wealth of nations (1776), ed. Edwin Cannan (reprinted University Paperbacks, London, 1961), p. 141.)

A depiction of a native AmericanOr, in the words of the sixteenth century writer Francisco Lopez de Gomara:

"the greatest event since the creation of the world (excluding the incarnation and death of Him who created it) is the discovery of the Indies."
(As quoted in J.H. Elliot, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge, 1970), p. 10.)

The scholar Louis Le Roy wrote:

"Do not believe that there exists anything more honourable to our or the preceding age than the invention of the printing press and the discovery of the new world; two things which always thought could be compared, not only to Antiquity, but to immortality."

Theodore de Bry's work is of central importance for the study of European, and particularly of English, conceptions of the New World in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman points out, America was not discovered by sixteenth century Europeans but rather it was invented by them (The invention of America (Bloomington, IL, 1961)). Europeans attempted to impose their own images, aspirations and values on the New World, which explains why readers of de Bry might be forgiven for believing that the New World was peopled by Native Americans who sometimes bore a striking resemblance to heroic Greco-Roman nudes. Indeed, the problems of the artist were like those of the chronicler of the Americas. The artists' European background and training determined the nature of their depictions and were often inadequate to represent the exotic new scenes that they were asked to portray. For de Bry, this must have been doubly difficult, since he never saw the subjects of his engravings first-hand.

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