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About the Theodore De Bry Engravings of North Carolina

In 1585, the first British colony in North America was established on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colony was not a success, lasting only about a year before the colonists returned to England. However, the information that these colonists brought back was helpful in the planning of future expeditions, and was also of great interest to people throughout Europe who were anxious to learn more about the "new world." Two of the colonists were particularly effective in describing their experiences. Thomas Hariot published a description of the area and its inhabitants, and John White painted vivid watercolors of the plants, animals, and people of North America.

Stories about North America, in particular the native inhabitants of the large area then named Virginia, excited popular interest in Europe. Thomas Hariot's engaging description of Virginia and the Native Americans who lived there was published in 1588 as A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (available online through Documenting the American South). Shortly after this was published, Theodore De Bry, a Belgian goldsmith and engraver, began work on an illustrated edition. Working directly from John White's watercolors, De Bry made a series of engravings, primarily of Native Americans. Twenty-seven of these were included in the illustrated edition of the Briefe and True Report, published in Frankfort in 1590. This book was published in English, French, German, and Latin editions, giving people throughout Europe their first look at images of North America, and of Native Americans.

While the De Bry engravings shown on this site represent the earliest published images of Native Americans, viewers should be careful not to interpret these as accurate depictions of the inhabitants of North Carolina in the late sixteenth century. The images shown here are twice removed from John White's original watercolors. In the engravings created by Theodore De Bry, there are many subtle but significant changes from White's originals: the facial structure of most of the people has been altered, resulting in portraits that look more like Europeans; the musculature on most of the people is much more defined in the De Bry engravings; and the poses of many of the subjects seem to reflect classical statuary. The colorist for this volume has contributed to the distortion of the original images by adding a pale skin tone and blonde hair to some of the people and decorating much of the vegetation in colors that are unlike anything that occurs naturally in this part of the world.

These are striking images, and they are important primary sources, if only because of their age. However, they are also significant cultural documents. By making the changes that they did, De Bry and the colorist for this volume demonstrated either an unwillingness or inability to understand the differences between European and Native American culture and physiognomy. This lack of understanding and appreciation for Native American culture, combined with a stubborn tendency to view the world and its inhabitants through a narrowly European perspective, were likely key factors in the widespread destruction of many of the indigenous peoples and cultures of North America.

The Ancient Britons and the Picts

Six of the images on this site do not depict Native Americans or North American scenes. One is a Biblical illustration, showing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, while the other five are imagined illustrations of ancient European peoples. The Picts were inhabitants of the area that is now central and north Scotland and were known to have established a kingdom there by the Seventh Century, C.E. In addition to the three elaborately decorated Picts, this volume includes illustrations of two ancient Britons, labeled by Thomas Hariot as being from a "nation neigbour vnto the Picte."

The illustrations of the five ancient persons are based on watercolors by John White. In placing them in this volume, De Bry seems to be encouraging his readers to compare Native American people and culture with those of ancient Europe.

About This Volume

The De Bry edition of Thomas Hariot's Briefe and True Report was published in Frankfort in 1590. There were editions printed at roughly the same time in four different languages: English, Latin, French, and German. Many copies of this first edition have survived and are now housed in libraries around the world. Among these are a handful of copies in color. The technology did not exist at the time to mass-produce color illustrations, thus these copies would have been colored by hand. The artists who applied color to the printed engravings clearly did not have access to John White's original watercolors. The hand-coloring on the engravings differs from White's originals, often dramatically so. Nowhere is that more evident than in the depictions of many of the Native Americans in the illustrations shown on this website. While the native inhabitants of North Carolina are shown in White's watercolors to have brown skin and black hair, they appear in the hand-colored engravings with pale skin and blonde hair. One explanation for this is that they were colored by a German artist who simply assumed that people around the world looked like the ones that he or she encountered every day.

About Theodore De Bry

Theodore De Bry (1528-1598) was trained as a goldsmith and engraver in the Flemish town of Liege. When the first accounts of Spanish and British explorers to South and North America began to be published in the 1580s, De Bry became interested in producing illustrated editions of these early reports of the Americas. In the late 1580s he traveled to London, where he made a series of engravings based on the watercolors of John White. De Bry and his family settled in Frankfort, Germany, where in 1590 he produced an illustrated edition of Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. De Bry worked with another engraver, Gijsbert van Veen (1558-1630), whose signature appears on four of the plates. A Briefe and True Report would be the first volume of De Bry's ten volume "America" series, which included illustrated editions of other accounts of exploration in the Americas. While De Bry's engravings of native North and South Americans were based either on paintings, written descriptions, or both, his images reflect his decidedly European bias. Nonetheless, these were the first images that many people were to see of North and South America and helped to encourage European interest in the "new world."

Sources:

Paul Hulton. America, 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press and the British Museum, 1984.

"Theodor de Bry." Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed 26 October 2006. http://www.groveart.com/

Thomas Harriot. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: The Complete 1590 Theodor De Bry Edition. Introduction by Paul Hulton. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.

Jacques Busbee. "Art as a Handmaiden of History." In The North Carolina Booklet vol. 10, no. 1 (July 1910), pp. 4-11.

Davidson, James West and Mark Hamilton Lytle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York: Knopf, 1982. See chapter five, "The 'Noble Savage' and the Artist's Canvas: Interpreting Pictorial Evidence."


Related Sites

Several libraries and museums have digitized versions of the Theodore De Bry engravings.

Virtual Jamestown, developed in anticipation of the celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Jamestown colony in 2007, includes a page with many of the De Bry engravings shown next to images of the John White watercolors on which they were based. This is an excellent opportunity for viewers to compare the different images and to study the changes made by De Bry.
http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/jamestown.html

The British Library has digitized a hand-colored English edition of Thomas Hariot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. These are especially interesting images because the colors differ so dramatically from the plates in the University of North Carolina volume. To view these images go to the link below and search for "white and de bry"
http://imagesonline.bl.uk/?service=page&action=show_home_page&language=en


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