Captain Smith’s Maps of Virginia and New England or the Shift from a Collaborative to a Colonizing Endeavor in Imperial England

‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ – James Baldwin


In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the worldwide uprising prompting urgent conversations to end systemic racism, the need to decolonize our knowledge has become clear. It can therefore help to understand how the discourse is initially colonised. In visual terms, representation of the colonised and of the coloniser is evidently at play in shaping perception but I would like to show how obliteration can be as effective. It is the process at work in two maps commissioned by Captain John Smith: the Map of Virginia in 1612 and the Map of New England in 1614.

In The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles published in 1624, Captain Smith gives his account of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. The interest in Smith over centuries owes to his ‘historical imagination’[1] and a certain ‘spirit of knight-errantry’.[2] The tale of Pocahontas throwing herself on his body to save his life must have been as cinematographic to Queen Anne as it is to thos who watched Terrence Malick’s 2005 romantic drama The New World.[3] I would like to focus on another aspect of Smith’s historical contribution.

In the 1588 Armada Portrait, Elizabeth I has her finger on North America, a misleading gesture since at the time Sir Walter Raleigh who had failed twice to establish a colony, once in 1585 and again in 1587. The Virginia Colony was to become the first enduring English settlement in America.

Unknown artist, The Armada Portrait, c.1588, oil on panel, 133.5 x 105.5 cm, Royal Museums at Greenwich, London 

On April 10th, 1606, King James I granted a proprietary charter to the Virginia Company which comprised the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, both aiming at implanting settlements in the Americas. The companies were not permitted to establish themselves within 100 miles of each other. The first settlers arrived in 1607, and Captain John Smith was amongst them. 

It is as a leader of the Virginia Colony and tireless campaigner for the implementation of a settlement that Smith instigated the production of two maps at the beginning of the seventeenth century: the Map of Virginia in 1612 and the Map of New England in 1614. Within two years, there is a radical shift in the representation of the same area. I will consider what Smith chose to depict but I will also underline his deliberate omissions. The silences of the vocal Captain Smith are indeed incredibly revealing of the role of imagery in the construction of power.  

Map of Virginia, published in 1612 by Joseph Barnes, 31,5 x 40 cm, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island

A Map of Virginia was published as part of a tract meant to encourage would-be settlers to come to the new plantation.[4]  Around the same time, other maps of the area were drawn: the ‘Tindall survey’, drawn by another Jamestown colonist, and the Zuñiga map.[5] It is thought that Smith’s map was seen and copied by Dom Pedro Zuñiga, who sent it to King Philip III of Spain, the map becoming a strategical and military tool, in line with the history of cartographic secrecy, the Spanish and Portuguese policy of siglio.[6]

However, to confine the comparison of the Map of Virginia to those produced in 1608 would bring the focus on questions of cartographic accuracy. A map is commonly defined as ‘a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.’[7] As underlined by J.B. Harley, this commonly accepted definition does not encompass the implied notions of knowledge and power imbued in this form of representation during the colonial era.

There is a deeper connection with earlier maps. John White and Thomas Harriot created a map of the region around 1585. The bay is represented yet not named. Theodore de Bry’s engraved the map in 1590 for Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the new-found land of Virginia. Smith has retained a number of elements such as the orientation; the west is placed at the top, underlining the routes and points of entry for the English settlers. He also kept the name, ‘Chesapeake Bay’.

John White, Americae pars, Nunc Virginia dicta, primum ab Anglis inuenta sumtibus Dn. Walteri Raleigh, engraved by Theodore de Bry, published by J. Wechel for Theodore de Bry in 1590, 30.4 x 41.7 cm

The chief lady and great warrior of the Powhatan tribes engraved by de Bry in the pages of Harriot’s Brief and True Report are also placed on Smith’s map itself. The large figure on the top right of the Map of Virginia seems to owe a lot to these early depictions of Native Americans. 


The Map of Virginia was to become widely used. Reprinted, it was to know ten states, the last one dating from 1632 and showing minimal changes. It will find its place in Mercator’s atlas in 1628 as the ‘Nova Virginiae tabvla’.[8]  

John Smith, Nova Virginiae tabula, printed by Blaeu in Amsterdam in 1635 in Latin

Is it because of its precision? Comparisons with today’s cartography would support such a claim.[9] 

https://www.nps.gov/cajo/smith-map-vs-modern-map.htm

Yet, this accuracy is not incompatible with a symbolic representation of power. In the course of the seventeenth century, ‘[a]ccuracy became a new talisman of authority’.[10] Stepping away from this scientific and factual approach allows a closer examination of the chosen visual elements. The Map of Virginia does indeed make a stance on what and who it represents. 

     The Virginia Company derived its proprietary rights from the royal charter granted by King James I, hence an acknowledgement of the royal presence through the royal coat of arms located just below the name of the region. The capes, Henry and Charles, are named after the king’s sons and the settlement, Jamestown, after the king himself.

     If the map was meant to be a tool to attract would-be settlers, Smith also used it to promote himself. His coat of arms – received from the Prince of Transylvania and representing his beheading of three Turks in combat – is at the bottom right of the map.


His signature is in the cartouche alongside the one of the engraver William Hole. The prominent vignette at the top left narrates Smith’s capture by the Powhatan and his amicable release. At this stage, Pocahontas is not part of the narrative. Captain Smith goes beyond informing viewers of the lay of the land; he attaches himself to it and by dating it 1606 – the year of the royal charter but not of the settlers’ arrival -he implies that it was found as depicted. 

     However, overall, the overwhelming presence is that of the Powhatans. The name of the confederacy is across the top half of the map. The vignette gives central stage to the paramount chief Wahunnsenacawh who is said to have hold the map, a gesture from which it seemingly derives an even greater authority. Over two hundred native settlements are depicted, and a hierarchy is being established between the slightly bigger ‘Kings Houses’, the ‘Ordinary houses’, and the chief Powhatan’s settlement. The named figures are prominent ones. Visually owing to de Bry is the Susquehanna chief who is one of the ‘Gyant like people’. 

     By comparison, the English presence on the land is quite restrained consisting in a limited number of dispersed crosses. However, the natives’ canoes found in John White’s map and later engraved by de Bry, have deserted the waters in the Map of Virginia and the English now have a visual monopoly in this respect. 

     This echo a reality on the ground. English settlers were dependent on local Powhatans for their food supply between periodical arrivals of ships from England. A dry rain season and a late supply led to the Starving Times when Smith proved being the most capable to trade food with the Natives. By emphasizing the presence and role of the native population, the map refers to an idea of negotiation and collaboration which was at this stage the approach of explorers in search of profits in this new-found land. 

     Wounded, Smith had to return to England and was back by 1609.  He was eager to go back but because of his mixed results in the colony, he could no longer count on the support of the Virginia Company. Therefore, he needed to convince investors of the need to settle in the Americas. This self-promotion is thoroughly found in his Map of New England published in 1614. 

     Smith’s authorship of the Map of Virginia is doubtful. His drawing of the same coast sent to Lord Bacon in 1618 reveals poor abilities.

John Smith, A Description of the land of Virginia, 1618

For the Map of New England he chose to work with Simon Van de Passe who executed a portrait of Smith for the top left corner vignette.

New England The most remarquable parts thus named by the high and mighty Prince Charles, Prince of great Britaine, printed by T.Cotes for Michael Sparke and Samuel Cartwright, published in 1635 by James Reeves, 30 x 35 cm 

The considerable resources that might have been engaged by Smith to commission the acclaimed portraitist of royalty and nobility, shows his dedication to collaborate with an artist appreciated by his targeted audience..[11] In this ‘Portraictuer of Captain John Smith’ he is described as ‘Admiral of New England’, a title he was negotiating at the time with the West Country merchants of the Plymouth Company, but asserted in print.[12]Like in the Map of Virginia, he is named in the cartouche and represented by his coat of arms. His presence could also be guessed in the singled-out ship, leading knowingly the way for the group coming from England[13].

     Visually, the Map of New England is strikingly different from the Map of Virginia. White’s and de Bry’s canoes had disappeared in the Map of Virginia. In the Map of New England, it is the native population that has vanished all together. 

     First and foremost, the names of the settlements have been changed. ‘[Smith] petitioned the prince to rename these “barbarous places” with English names, so “posterity may say, Prince Charles was their godfather.”’[14] Tales of freezing temperatures from the settlers returning from the Sagadhoc plantation founded at the same time as Jamestown, were discouraging potential investors.[15] Fittingly, the land on the map has become ‘New England’, a concept fashioned by Smith whereby which ‘English people would live and prosper without dread of an alien climate damaging their health.’[16] At the other end of the world, one could now travel from Dartmouth to Oxford via London. 

     A big cat at the top of the map is the only element left of exoticism and its loneliness and known location make him more intriguing than menacing. The landscape is English and tamed like the ‘Overthrowes of Salvages’ that have been civilized according to the vignette. In a later edition, in 1635, it was chosen to add huts and cows at the bottom left of the map to represent the labor and cattle, reinforcing the idea of a tamed nature. 


     Woodward asserts that the name ‘New England’ is part of Smith’s campaigning concept. When Smith’s draws his map, there is a longstanding precedent in the use of a name creating a bridge over the Atlantic. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano an emissary of the French King referred to the land he explored as ‘Nouvelle France’. In 1612, Samuel de Champlain who had founded Quebec in 1608, drew the map of ‘Nouvelle France’. Smith might not have known the Champlain’s map but the region encompassing Louisiana, Canada and Acadia, was contested as it was preventing the English to push further west. Smith therefore probably knew the newly given name of the region and decided to put aside Francis Drake’s Latin Nova Albion and transformed the land he coveted into an attainable New England. 

Samuel de Champlain, Carte geographiqve de la Novvelle Franse / faictte par le sievr de Champlain, Saint Tongois cappitaine ordinaire pour le roy en la marine, published in Paris 1612 by an unknown publisher, 45 x 78 cm 

     The map also shows as visually more radical than de Champlain. De Champlain has not removed the presence of the indigenous population and the local fauna and flora is depicted in great details. It visually echoes the Map of Virginia or De Bry’s map in the Brief and True Report.

      Smith’s map seems to draw from new visual sources. In 1611-12, a few years before the Map of New England, an atlas of John Speed’s maps printed in Amsterdam was published in England. The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, celebrated and widely read[17]The soft hills of Smith’s map are reminiscent of Speed’s map, making possible a visual parallel between the Americas and English regions. The new world is connected to the old one, becomes an extension of it not just by name.[18]

https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-ATLAS-00002-00061-00001/1

    Both the Map of Virginia and the Map of New England were campaigning tools to attract investors and settlers in North America, but within a few years they indicate a radical shift in representation. What is most striking is what is left silent, what has disappeared. From settler, Smith has become colonizer. He has silenced the presence of local populations with whom collaboration is no longer sought. With low literacy rates, cheaply and readily available maps were a powerful tool of persuasion and as they were being spread, they established and legitimized a colonizing project on the ground of their assumed scientific veracity. 


[1] Rozwenc, ‘Captain John Smith’s Image of America’, The William and Mary Quarterly 16, No.1 (1959), p.35

[2] Rozwenc, Edwin C. ‘Captain John Smith’s Image of America’, The William and Mary Quarterly 16, No.1 (1959), p.35

[3] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England: A Study in Early Modern Identity and Promotion’, The New England Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2008), p.103, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20474605 (accessed 12/02/2019)

[4] Worthington Chauncey Ford, ‘Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612’ in Geographical Review 14, no. 3 (1924), p. 437, DOI: 10.2307/208424 (accessed 12/03/2019) 

[5] Ford, ‘Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612’, p. 437

[6] J. B. Harley, ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments (Cambridge, 1988), p. 284

[7] Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, 7th edition, edited by Maurice Waite (Oxford, 2012)

[8] Ford, ‘Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612’, p. 438

[9] The National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior have created a tool of direct comparison between Smith’s Map of Virgina and a modern map of the Chesapeake Bay made by a mapping software, an attempt that, beyond its factual interest reveals the still current interest for accuracy: https://www.nps.gov/cajo/smith-map-vs-modern-map.htm 

[10] J.B. Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography, ed. Paul Haxton (John Hopskins University Press, 2001), p. 14. 

[11] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.103

[12] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.102

[13] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.100

[14] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.99

[15] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.97

[16] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England, p.98

[17] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.100

[18] Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England’, p.100


BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States volume 1 (Boston, 1890), URL:https://archive.org/details/genesisofuniteds01brow/page/n8 (accessed 12/03/2019) 

Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States volume 2 (Boston, 1890), URL: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Brown%2C+Alexander%22 (accessed 12/03/2019) quoted in Ford, Worthington Chauncey. ‘Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612’, Geographical Review 14, no. 3 (1924), pp.433-443, DOI: 10.2307/208424 (accessed 12/03/2019)

Ford, Worthington Chauncey. ‘Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612’, Geographical Review 14, no. 3 (1924), pp.433-443, DOI: 10.2307/208424 (accessed 12/03/2019)

Harley, J. B. ‘Maps, Knowledge, and Power’, in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments (Cambridge, 1988), p.277-312

Rozwenc, Edwin C. ‘Captain John Smith’s Image of America’, The William and Mary Quarterly 16, No.1 (1959)

Woodward Walter W. ‘Captain John Smith and the Campaign for New England: A Study in Early Modern Identity and Promotion’, The New England Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2008), pp.98-125, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20474605 (accessed 12/02/2019)Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, 7th edition, edited by Maurice Waite (Oxford, 2012)

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