A guest post by Lauren Working
Thomas Wood’s 1576 letter to Richard Bagot begins conventionally enough. Wood was sending some artichoke “slips” with his letter, and he begins by describing the optimal way to plant the specimens to guarantee their growth. He accompanies this description with a simple sketch in the margin before turning to news from the Continent, including the story of a Polish duke who had “turned Turk,” or converted to Islam. But the letter ends as it began, on a domestic note. The explorer Martin Frobisher had returned to England after his voyage in search of the North West passage to China, Wood writes, stopping on Baffin Island on the way. The crew had brought “a man of the Country w[i]th them,” taken “[by] force.”
This letter offers valuable insight into the convergence between domestic planting and global intervention. As the historian David Quinn pointed out, the 1570s were the moment in which the distinct language of “planting” began to surpass other tactics and models for English colonization.1 As Richard Hakluyt the younger wrote in his “Discourse on Western Planting” (1584), in language similar to crown charters authorizing the colonization of Newfoundland, Virginia, Bermuda, and other Atlantic spaces, planting and trafficking were related to the stated aim of “civilizing” indigenous peoples and cultivating raw nature into productive industries.
The only detail Wood provided about the captured Inuit was that he “eateth rawe flesh,” a commonplace European assumption that associated the man’s habits around consuming food to his perceived lack of sophistication. From Frobisher’s competition with the Iberian empire to the bearing of plants and fruit as gifts, Wood’s letter sheds light on how expansionist interests intermingled with the quotidian. As if to draw these connections even more explicitly together, Wood closed his letter with a reference to other gifts he was sending Bagot—“a little card of all the world” and half a dozen lemons.
The circulation of fruits and other commodities, like the reports of explorers returning home, did not just operate as amusing novelties or anecdotes: they could inspire action. In 1628, the Newfoundland colonist Robert Hayman recalled that his desire to pursue plantation was impressed upon him at a formative age by a chance encounter with Francis Drake, after Drake bestowed him with a kiss and an orange. The “faire red Orange” and Drake’s extravagant demeanor inspired Hayman “to doe/Many brave things I have a heart unto.” The interpersonal nature of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics means that table-talk could serve political interests. A desperate letter penned by a “W.S.,” possibly the one-time Jamestown secretary William Strachey, conveyed the urgent need to borrow money in order to “meet w[i]th some Frendes at dinner returned from Virginia” (Folger V.a.321, f. 60r). It was through sociability and table-talk that newly-arrived travelers often first shared news, where the presence of tangible goods like tobacco and other flora and fauna offered evidence of their voyages to other parts of the world.
Household management and matters of taste bring women into this colonial-inflected sociability and knowledge-transmission. Hayman’s tract included an encouragement for women, not just men, to move to Newfoundland and enjoy its bountiful soil. For those women who did not travel, their interest in global commodities implicated them in colonial pursuits, as research from the Folger’s Before ‘Farm to Table’ project has demonstrated (see this (very) brief history of ketchup, for a recent example).
“Slips” could refer to the stem cuttings used to plant various fruits and vegetables, like Wood’s artichokes, but also to the embroidered motifs that women stitched and applied onto other fabrics, covering pillows, bedspreads, tapestries, and clothes with imagery often taken directly from botanical books or humanist moral literature. From the later sixteenth century, embroideries of English strawberries and carnations began to share space with tulips and sea monsters inspired by travel literature.
Elite women could be privy to travel news through their own reading habits, as well as through access to their husbands’ or family members’ colonial papers. A list of books included in Lady Anne Southwell’s miscellany held at the Folger includes John Gerard’s Herball and the geographer Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his Pilgrimage, a large compendia of travel literature first printed in 1613. While we cannot be certain that Lady Southwell read these books, Southwell’s extensive writings demonstrated a broad grasp of humanist knowledge, and the list appears shortly after an inventory of Southwell’s own household goods, which includes two cases of books.
The inclusion of botanical literature and travel reports within Southwell’s miscellany may suggest that, like the circulation of news in letters, women thought about travel and expansion in ways that related to their own interests in civil refinement and household management. John Parkinson dedicated his celebrated gardening manual, Paradisi in sole (1629) to Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria. “The Courteous Reader,” Parkinson wrote, would quickly see what “civil respects” were “to be learned” from the properties of herbs and plants, from native plants to “Indian” cactuses. Parkinson specifically related the desire for a more varied garden to English intervention abroad, placing plants within discussions about behavior—the cultivation not just of landscapes, but of the self. Many of the plants in his book, Parkinson wrote, had been kept by “dull, unnurtured, rustick, and savage people, led onely by Natures instinct,” whereas civil bodies would be better placed to nurture the plants to their full potential as both useful and beautiful things.
The ability to differentiate between flowers that were “wilde and unfit” from those of “delight and pleasure” not only distinguished between the “savage” and refined individual, but created a distinct model for the aesthetics of civility in English households and social settings. Women were agents in advancing ideas of refinement that encouraged trade and territorial intervention, from a taste for sugar and silks to the individuals they brought into their households. The Countess of Arundel corresponded with the traveler and ambassador Thomas Roe about corals and antique statues on behalf of her husband in the late 1610s. She refurbished her private London residence at Tart Hall with a kaleidoscopic array of global objects, from Dutch still life paintings of fruits and vegetables to Chinese porcelains. Her connections to Italian merchants and aristocracy likely inspired her decision to incorporate an African servant into her entourage. When she returned to London from Venice in 1623, the London news writer John Chamberlain reported that she came with “a blackamoor, and a gondola.” Chamberlain gave no details about the servant, but he did take a moment to speculate how efficient the gondola would be on the windy Thames.2
In the end, it is the ordinariness of Wood’s tone that is so striking. We expect letters and reports from the early colonies to offer detailed discussions of colonial affairs to investors and colonial council members. But the appearance of the captured Inuit in a letter about artichokes, lemons, and European princes suggests an awareness of the forced movement of humans that accompanied the search for new goods and the fashion for travel news in networks that stretched beyond the metropolitan center. The letter also indicates some of the ways in which people became implicated in colonial promotion on a small scale, from recording news of voyages to what they sent with their letters. From an Inuit taken in the English search for Chinese silks, to the Countess of Arundel’s “gondola, and blackamoor,” the fashion for sharing news and novelty goods collapses the divide between planting and plantation, possession and dispossession.
Lauren Working visited the Folger as a fellow in May 2019. She is a postdoc on the TIDE project (Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 –1700) at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on Jacobean sociability, politics, and empire; the Anglo-Algonquian Chesapeake; wit and political friendships at the Inns of Court; and material and visual approaches to civility. Lauren’s next project will explore female colonial interests and transcultural objects.
- David Quinn, “Renaissance Influences in English Colonization,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 26 (1976), pp. 73-93, at p. 81.
- John Chamberlain to Dudley Carleton, 12 July 1623, in The Court and Times of James the First, Vol. II, ed. Thomas Birch (London: Henry Colburn, 1848), p. 410; Juliet Claxton, “The Countess of Arundel’s Dutch Pranketing Room,” Journal of the History of Collections, 22 (2010), pp. 187-96.