[Click on image to enlarge] English men and women of the sixteenth century experienced an unprecedented increase in knowledge of the world beyond their island. Religious persecution at home compelled a substantial number of both Catholics and Protestants to live abroad; wealthy gentlemen (and, in at least a few cases, ladies) traveled in France and Italy to view the famous cultural monuments; merchants published accounts of distant lands like Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, and Russia; and military and trading ventures took English ships to still more distant shores.

[Click on image to enlarge] In 1496, a Venetian tradesman living in Bristol, John Cabot, was granted a license by Henry VII to sail on a voyage of exploration, and with his son Sebastian discovered Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; in 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert returned to Newfoundland to try to establish a colony there. The Elizabethan age saw remarkable feats of seamanship and reconnaissance. On his ship the Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1579 and laid claim to California on behalf of the queen; a few years later a ship commanded by Thomas Cavendish also accomplished a circumnavigation. Sir Martin Frobisher explored bleak Baffin Island in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient; Sir John Davis explored the west coast of Greenland and discovered the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina; Sir John Hawkins turned handsome profits for himself and his investors (including the queen) in the vicious business of privateering and slave trading; Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe led an expedition, financed by Sir Walter Ralegh, to Virginia; Ralegh himself ventured up the Orinoco Delta, in what is now Venezuela, in search of the mythical land of El Dorado. Accounts of these and other exploits were collected by a clergyman and promoter of empire, Richard Hakluyt, and published as The Principal Navigations (1589; expanded edition 1599).

[Click on image to enlarge] "To seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory," as Ralegh characterized such enterprises, was not for the faint of heart: Gilbert, Drake, Cavendish, Frobisher, and Hawkins all died at sea, as did large numbers of those who sailed under their command. Elizabethans who were sensible enough to stay at home could do more than read written accounts of their fellow countrymen's far-reaching voyages. From India and the Far East, merchants returned with coveted spices and fabrics; from Egypt, they imported ancient mummies, thought to have medicinal value; from the New World, explorers brought back native plants (including, most famously, tobacco), animals, cultural artifacts, and, on occasion, samples of the native peoples themselves, most often seized against their will. There were exhibitions in London of a kidnapped Eskimo with his kayak and of Algonkians from Virginia with their canoes. Most of these miserable captives, violently uprooted and vulnerable to European diseases, quickly perished, but even in death they were evidently valuable property: when the English will not give one small coin "to relieve a lame beggar," one of the characters in Shakespeare's Tempest wryly remarks, "they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian" (2.2.32–33).

[Click on image to enlarge] Perhaps most nations define what they are by defining what they are not. This negative self-definition is, in any case, what Elizabethans seem constantly to be doing, in travel books, sermons, political speeches, civic pageants, public exhibitions, and theatrical spectacles of otherness. The extraordinary variety of these exercises (which include public executions and urban riots, as well as more benign activities) suggests that the boundaries of national identity were by no means clear and unequivocal. Inspired by Amerigo Vespucci's accounts of the New World discoveries, Thomas More fashioned in Utopia (NAEL 8, 1.521) a searching critique of English society. Descriptions of the lands and peoples of America often invoke Ovid's vision of the Golden Age, invariably with an implied contrast to the state of affairs at home. Even peoples whom English writers routinely, viciously stigmatised as irreducibly alien — Italians, Indians, Turks, and Jews — have a surprising instability in the Elizabethan imagination and may appear for brief, intense moments as powerful models to be admired and emulated before they resume their place as emblems of despised otherness. In the course of urging his countrymen to seize the land, rob the graves, and take the treasures of Guiana, Sir Walter Ralegh finds much to praise in the customs of the native peoples (NAEL 8, 1.923-26); Thomas Hariot thinks that the inhabitants of Virginia, though poor in comparison with the English, are "ingenious" and show much "excellency of wit" (NAEL 8, 1.939); "Let the cannons roar," writes Michael Drayton in his Ode. To the Virginia Voyage, even as he praises Virginia as "Earth's only paradise" (NAEL 8, 1.1000). Perhaps the most profound exploration of this instability was written not by an Englishman but by the French nobleman Montaigne, whose brilliant essay Of Cannibals, translated by the gifted Elizabethan John Florio, directly influenced Shakespeare's Tempest and no doubt worked its subversive magic on many other readers as well.


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