The Elizabethan adventurers Thomas Eliot, Sir Walter Ralegh and Edmund Spenser travelled overseas to meet cultures different from themselves. The acknowledgement of these cultures that are ‘other’ to the dominant Elizabethan civilization are what John Gillies terms the exotic, wondrous, strange and barbaric (Gillies 25). However, I am arguing that the Elizabethan notion of individuality is challenged, because they identify an exotic or a more pleasing variation of themselves in the people they label as their inferiors.
These exotic identities are illustrated by Hariot” /> in his description of the indigenous Virginians:
In respect of vs they are a people poore, and for want of skill and iudgement in the knowledge vse of our things, doe esteeme our trifles before thinges of greater value: Notwithstanding in their proper manner considering the want of such meanes as we haue, they seeme very ingenious. For although they haue no such tooles, nor any such craftes, sciences and artes as wee; yet in those things they doe, they shewe excellencie of wit. And by howe much they vpon due consideration shall finde our manner of knowledges and craftes to exceede theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much the more is it probable that they shoulde desire our friendships & love, and haue the greater respect for pleasing and obeying vs. Whereby may bee hoped if meanes of good gouernment bee vsed, that they may in short time be brought to ciuilitie, and the imbracing of true religion. (Hariot 25)
Hariot’s alliteration of ‘people poore’ suggests that the natives lack the judgement to distinguish European ‘trifles’ from ‘thinges of greater value’. The Virginians are poor in terms of wealth because they are deficient in European greed that, in Hariot’s terminology, is a metonym for civility. In this context, Hariot’s identification of the ‘people poore’ indicates his own desire for ‘thinges of greater value’, the appreciation of which implies Hariot’s superiority over the Virginians. Hariot compares his desire for wealth and social advancement in the Elizabethan court to what he thinks should be the Virginian’s desire for greater things, which are represented by European civility ‘and the imbracing of [the] true religion’. What Hariot already has should equate to satisfying the Virginians by transforming European ‘trifles’ into ‘thinges of greater value’. Yet what Hariot articulates as the native’s desire for items that represent European civility increases his own greed in order to accentuate his superiority.
Hariot also constructs his narrative to imply that he is not advocating the civilising of the natives, but that the natives are demanding to be civilised because they are ‘ingenious’. Their ingenuity inspires Hariot to create a fantasy of the natives desiring ‘our friendships & loue’, which will enrich their intellect in a similar manner to how wealth will improve Hariot’s life. Hariot therefore desires monetary recognition from the Elizabethan government in exchange for offering the Virginians European civility and religion. Even so his phrase ‘may bee hoped’ denotes the futility of pursuing his desire. According to Hariot, the Virginians desire the same recognition from the ‘meanes of good [Elizabethan] gouernment’ as he does.
Understanding how Hariot’s greed becomes the Virginian’s can be clarified by examining a segment of Ralegh’s narrative recording his travels in Guiana (1596):
That Cassique that was a stranger had his wife staying at the port where we ankored, and in all my life I have seldome seene a better favored woman: She was of good stature, with blacke eies, fat of body, of an excellent countenance, hir haire almost as long as hir selfe, tied up againe in pretie knots, and it seemed she stood not in that aw of hir husband, as the rest, for she spake and discourst, and dranke among the gentlemen and captaines, and was very pleasant, knowing hir owne comelines, and taking great pride therein. I have seen a Lady in England so like hir, as but for the difference of colour I would have sworne might have beene the same. (Ralegh 168)
The dissection of the woman into the parts of ‘blacke eies’, ‘fat of body’, ‘excellent countenance’ and ‘hir [long] haire’ is not in order to appreciate her beauty, but indicates the woman’s sexual excess. She is not to be admired but enjoyed because the body parts do not belong to her. They belong to the ‘Lady in England’. The body parts are a repetition of an sexual encounter that Ralegh has missed. What is ‘transferred’ from the ‘Lady in England’ to the Cassiquean woman is basically nothing. Both women are mysterious and, therefore, unknowable. Like Hariot, Ralegh’s attempts to identify the sexually alluring Cassiquean woman through the eyes of her strange husband leads him back to England.
What is striking is that a similar identification attempted by Hariot and Ralegh in Virginia and Guiana is advocated between the English and the Irish in Spenser’s prose dialogue A View of the State of Ireland (1633). The dialogue’s aim is to transform the Irish ‘from their delight of licentious barbarisme’ to ‘the love of goodness and civilite’ (Spenser 20-1). One of the speakers called Eudoxus argues that the best way to achieve this transformation is by enforcing ‘the discipline of the lawes of England: for the English were, at first, as stoute and warlike a people as ever the Irish, and yet you see are now brought unto that civility’ (Spenser 21). The Irish are effectively described as the primitive English. However, with the Irish following the English’s path towards civility, a missed opportunity for a violent encounter between the two people is acknowledged. Eudoxus’s attempt to identify with the barbaric Irish returns him to England, because the English represent the ideal barbaric and civilised identity.
Hariot, Ralegh and Spenser demonstrate that the Elizabethan adventurer is always striving for a ‘beyond’. They become alienated in a world where their identification with exotic cultures remains a frustrating illusion.
Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Hariot, Thomas. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia of the Commodities and of the Nature and Manners of the Naturall Inhabitants. 1588. Ed. Rylands, W. Harry. Manchester: A. Brothers, 1888.
Ralegh, Sir Walter. The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. 1596. Transcribed Neil L. Whitehead. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Spenser, Edmund. A View of the State of Ireland. 1633. Eds. Andrew Hadfield & Willy Maley. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Map of Guiana drawn after Sir Walter Ralegh’s 1596 expedition, most likely by Ralegh himself, in D. K. Smith, The Cartographic Imagination in Early modern England: Re-writing the World in Marlowe, Spenser, Raleigh and Marvell. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008, 144.
Seventeenth Century Map of Ireland. http://indigo.ie/~donances/17_c_map.html, date accessed 31/08/11.