Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

OI-JR Fellow Lauren Working looks at stories in artifacts

· June 8th, 2016 · No Comments

Anthony Chute, Tabacco (London, 1595; STC 5262.5).

Gentlemen in Jacobean London were fascinated by Virginia and its inhabitants. They pranced before King James dressed like “Virginians” with feathers entwined in their hair. They wrote poems that compared the rapture of discovering their mistress’ body to the glory of exploring the “New-found-land”. They invested in the Virginia Company, and when it went bankrupt, they brawled about it in the streets.

My research seeks to connect these two worlds by thinking about how the early English experience in Virginia impacted cultural and political change in early Stuart London. When writing my PhD, I was struck by the frequent references to indigenous peoples appearing in political discourse beyond the expected colonial propaganda, and I became intrigued by how the state-endorsed policy of “civilizing” the Algonquian shaped English conceptions of their own civility and sociability in the earliest stages of colonization. During my fellowship with the Omohundro Institute and Jamestown Rediscovery, I’ve explored how English concepts of civility were imposed, or modified, during the various phases of early development in Jamestown. Exploring the objects so painstakingly uncovered by archaeologists at the Jamestown site, I wanted to think about what the material culture of gentlemen colonists might tell us about the enactment of civility as a political strategy, but also how English encounters with the Algonquian influenced English social practices and political discourse through practices like tobacco smoking.

Ring with hidden compartment

Ring with secret compartment

The Jacobean “empire” so glorified in London was, in 1607, little more than swampland, yet gentlemen arrived with drinking vessels, gold and silver jewelry, and, rather fantastically, Roman objects for their cabinets of curiosities. Interspersed with these items are poignant symbols of conflict, too – crystal arrowheads, for example, or the bone fragments pertaining to those things the English were forced to eat during the ‘Starving Time’ of 1609/10, which included pieces of snake, horse, and even the remains of a teenage girl’s skull.  When reflecting on his archaeological excavations at Flowerdew Hundred in the 1990s, James Deetz insisted that “artifacts, house foundations, [and] abandoned wells…permit us to make statements that would have been impossible in the absence of archaeology”.  With this in mind, I have been thinking about how objects informed the experiences of the humanistically-educated gentlemen who arrived with the aim of creating “a new Britain in another world”, especially in the absence of cities and estates. The gentlemanly concern with civility at this time was inherently performative. Conduct manuals outlined the norms of behavior expected for political access, but objects at Jamestown offer clues as to how civility was actually enacted within the fort. From silver dolphin-shaped ear pickers to book stamps, sashes to rings with secret compartments – rings more often seen in Tudor and Stuart portraiture than sites in North America – I am intrigued by how these objects can help historians reconstruct modes of sociability, consumption, and the articulation of politics in the earliest phases of colonization. Did objects, and the spaces in which they were used, inform displays of authority and power in different ways than they did in England? How did indigenous practices influence modes of civility? What can objects tell us about the private lives and personal beliefs of individuals, and how did the experience of colonization influence those who returned to England?

Jamestowne swampland

Swampland at Jamestown

The microcosm of the fort, where men wrote distressed letters to friends in parliament, boy-translators were publicly reprimanded for showing too much sympathy towards the Algonquian, and hunger cannibalism seemingly ushered the nightmarish breakdown of the vita civile, provides a case study whereby questions may be asked about the large-scale processes of colonization and state formation without diminishing interpersonal relationships and the particular experiences of individuals. As I develop my research, I hope to better connect the colonial experience in Virginia to how early Stuart writers conceived of their own political responsibilities in relation to expansion. The snarling taunts made to opposing factions of the Virginia Company, the earl of Lincoln’s rather fanciful suggestion of sending horses to Virginia for a race track, and the libel complaining that “Virginia…made the toombe for us”, need to be integrated into the story of those who were living, and dying, on the banks of the James. What can be found in graves and trash heaps may help tell a more compelling and humane story about the tensions between authority and private selves, and the effects of these tensions and anxieties on political ideas and political practice in the early Stuart period more widely. The opportunity presented through my fellowship to meet with, and work alongside, curators, historians, and archaeologists at the Omohundro Institute and Jamestown Rediscovery, has enabled me to posit questions of early colonization that wouldn’t have been possible through texts alone.

Note: both photographs by Lauren Working; woodcut detail from Anthony Chute, Tabacco (London, 1595; STC 5262.5). 

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