WCSU historian researches early European images of Americas
Fellowship provides Davies with invaluable material for new book
DANBURY, CONN. — Within years of Europeans’ first contacts with the Americas, mapmakers were creating drawings that sought to portray a strange, wondrous and sometimes frightening New World. These extraordinary images have provided the foundation for Western Connecticut State University historian Dr. Surekha Davies’ new book exploring how European mapmakers portrayed the peoples of the Americas.
Davies has received the prestigious Jeannette D. Black Memorial Fellowship to pursue research during June and July at the John Carter Brown Library, which offers one of the world’s largest and most valuable scholarly collections of rare original maps, manuscripts, books and other printed materials documenting the peoples and lands of the Americas during the first three centuries after Christopher Columbus’ arrival. She is studying materials in the library, located on the Brown University campus in Providence, R.I., for images and descriptions of the Americas found in maps and travel accounts published in Europe from 1492 to 1650.
Davies, assistant professor of European history at WCSU, observed that direct access to the wealth of 16th and 17th century materials in the John Carter Brown collection will make a major contribution to her book in progress, “Mapping the Peoples of the New World: Ethnography, Imagery and Knowledge in Renaissance Europe,” which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Maps drawn by craftsmen at the leading workshops of the period — especially in Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the German-speaking lands — provided not only new perspectives on the geography of the New World, but also richly detailed images of the indigenous peoples encountered in the Americas by early European explorers, she noted.
“We need to ask what it would be like to be a mapmaker in a workshop in Europe in, say, 1530,” Davies said. “If you look carefully at the details of these images on the maps from the 16th and early 17th centuries, and compare them with the travel accounts of explorers who circumnavigated the globe during this period, you realize these mapmakers were often looking for the most recent information they could find and doing their best to provide a complete and accurate vision of distant places.”
That knowledge relied on incomplete, sometimes inaccurate and subjective accounts written by early European travelers to the Americas. The accounts reflected their societies’ beliefs and expectations as well as their trading and imperial ambitions, Davies said. “These maps offered European viewers an opportunity to compare the customs and the appearances of various peoples in the Americas,” she observed. “Mapmakers selected certain information, which they used to represent the inhabitants.”
A common theme in many early maps of the Americas is the practice of cannibalism in Brazil, she noted. An example is found in the oldest surviving map image of life in the Americas, drawn in 1505 in Portugal, which shows a victim being roasted on a spit. “In other cases,” she said, “the mapmaker illustrated the most impressive aspects of native peoples, such as the large cities of Peru and Mexico, in order to show that these peoples had what European readers considered to be well-organized and civilized societies.”
During her research at the John Carter Brown Library, Davies will be studying early European travel accounts in the 150 years after Columbus’ arrival. Her research seeks to answer questions such as why the peoples of Mexico and Peru received relatively civilized portrayals in maps of the period, in contrast to the seemingly fantastical map imagery portraying a tribe of giants as inhabitants of the vast plains of Patagonia in present-day Argentina.
While she has previously viewed some of this material online, the opportunity to study the actual maps and make direct comparisons to Renaissance-era books, illustrations and manuscripts will provide a significant opportunity to gain fresh research insights, she said. The largest, wall-sized maps of the period need to be viewed first-hand “in order to get a true sense of how such a map worked as a visual encyclopedia of the Americas or of the world,” she added. “If you had a map of the world like this, you could place it on your wall and reflect upon the diversity of humanity.”
Images of the peoples of the New World portrayed on these maps “had far-reaching political and social consequences,” Davies observed. “They could provide justification for conquest by suggesting that some of these peoples were uncivilized and that European colonists and missionaries needed to educate them.” At the same time, mapmakers produced portrayals of more peaceful and civilized societies in Mexico and Peru that appeared to reflect European perceptions of opportunities to build trading relations in the New World and to convert native peoples to Christianity, she said.
Davies anticipates that her research fellowship will enable her to access rare materials in the John Carter Brown Library collection that have never been fully catalogued or recorded in digital format, and to consult a comprehensive sweep of early maps and travel accounts that reveal a range of European perspectives on the New World. This breadth of access to rare materials will allow her to compare the impact of different cultural and political contexts on mapmaking, she said. Workshops in Spain and Portugal operated under state sponsorship and their works often reflected Spanish and Portuguese empire-building ambitions in the Americas, she noted, while privately managed mapmaking workshops in the Normandy region of France tended to emphasize opportunities for trade and wealth. “We need to consider the motivations of the parties paying for these maps,” she remarked.
Another important benefit will be the opportunity for Davies to exchange research insights and findings with academic colleagues in the residential fellowship program at the John Carter Brown Library who specialize in related fields of historical inquiry. Participants in the program often reside in a fellowship house on the Brown campus during their stay and gather for weekly brown-bag lunch presentations, evening talks and informal conversation about research topics of mutual interest. “These fellowships bring us together for a brief time so that we can work on solving problems together that we may not have been able to solve on our own,” she said.
For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486. A 1612 representation of Virginia by English mapmaker William Hole may be viewed by accessing this link to the map image in the online archive of the John Carter Brown Library.
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