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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot, an Oxford-trained scientist, naturalist, and mathematician, wrote one of the most influential and best known sixteenth-century English colonial texts. First published in 1588, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, was based on Harriot’s voyage to the New World in 1585 on the second Roanoke expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Walter Raleigh’s brother-in-law. Two years later, Theodor DeBry published Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report again, this time with copperplate engravings based on the watercolor drawings of John White, who had accompanied Harriot on the 1585 expedition. Not only did A Briefe and True Report offer readers a wealth of information on the flora and fauna of Virginia, it is widely recognized as one of the most detailed early English ethnographies of the native populations of North America. Indeed, its stature as an ethnography would not be surpassed until well into the seventeenth century with the writings of John Smith, William Wood, Roger Williams, and others.

Reflecting the highly decentralized nature of English colonialism, Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report served as a model for almost all subsequent English colonial promotional pamphlets. Rather than being funded and controlled centrally by the monarchy, as was usually the case with the colonies of Spain and Portugal, England’s colonies were the product of joint-stock companies, whereby a number of individual investors pooled their resources to purchase the supplies and equipment necessary for colonial exploration. The promotional pamphlet, therefore, emerged as one of the most effective vehicles for convincing wary investors of the significant financial potential of England’s fledgling colonial enterprises. Although the particular advantages of colonial investment changed over the next century, the central structural fact of English colonialism did not: England’s colonies would remain dependent on periodic infusions of capital from England well into the seventeenth century. And as long as that was the case, the promotional pamphlet, of which A Briefe and True Report is the prototype, remained a staple of the English publishing and bookselling trades.

While Harriot devotes most of his text to the considerable number of “merchantable commodities” to be found in Virginia—commodities ranging from luxury items, such as furs and pearls, to strategically significant materials, such as timber and iron—he also spends a considerable amount of time describing the ease with which the land in the New World could be farmed. In these parts of his text, Harriot reminds us that the colonial enterprise was not exclusively an investment opportunity for the very rich, who would reap profits from the importation of valuable raw materials. In addition to serving as sources for these materials, the colonies, in Harriot’s vision, would also be places where the younger sons of the gentry might live and prosper and where idle English laborers, displaced by enclosures, might make themselves productive members of a new society. For this other group of people, who were interested in investing not their capital but rather their labor in the colonial enterprise, the agricultural potential of the land was of primary interest. Moreover, Harriot’s depiction of the colonial geography as conducive to the family-oriented enterprise of farming might have been intended to allay widespread English fears that colonies might become sites of licentious and criminal behavior.

One need not be a cynic to observe that financial gain was probably the single largest incentive for colonial undertaking. In colonial promotional pamphlets like Harriot’s, however, readers are almost always reassured that the handsome material gains will not come at the expense of the salvation of the soul. For the English, the easiest way to care for their own souls was to look after the souls of the native inhabitants. It is with this fact in mind that we should read Harriot’s account of “the nature and maners of the people.” In this part of his text, Harriot shows himself acutely aware of the antipathy of the English toward the whole notion of colonial enterprise—an antipathy born largely out of a fear that English colonizers might commit the same sorts of atrocities as the Spanish. Harriot, accordingly, attempts to reassure potential investors that the English settlers will be able to convince the Virginia natives to submit to their rule. In phrasing that is at once ominous and upbeat, Harriot opines, they shall “have cause both to feare and love us, that shall inhabite with them.” The reality, of course, was that the leader of Harriot’s expedition, Sir Richard Grenville, and his successor, Ralph Lane, relied much more heavily on fear and coercion than on love and cooperation. It was, in all likelihood, the harsh treatment of the natives by the English that led to the mysterious disappearance of the English settlers on Roanoke Island not long after the initial publication of Harriot’s text. Hence, although Harriot’s pamphlet may have exerted an enduring influence on colonial writing, its influence was probably undermined by the immediate perception of colonialism as a risky activity.

Thomas Scanlan
Ohio University

In the Heath Anthology
A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588)

Other Works

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A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: An Archive Edition
Several editions of The Report available in both facsimile and transcription format.

Thomas Harriot
A biography with a particular interest in his mathematical accomplishments.

Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)
A brief biography with two primary document scans (his scientific drawings of the moon and sunspots).

Trumpter of Roanoke
A historical essay on Harriot's colonial and scientific undertakings.

Secondary Sources

Mary B. Campbell, "The Illustrated Travel Book and the Birth of Ethnography: Part I of De Bry's America," in The Work of Dissimilitude: Essays from the sixth Citadel Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. David G. Allen and Robert A. White, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992

Everett Emerson, "Thomas Harriot, John White and Ould Virginia," in Essays in Early Virginia Literature Honoring Richard Beale Davis, ed. J.A. Leo Lemay, New York: Franklin, 1977

Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V," in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985

William M. Hamlin, "Imagined Apotheoses: Drake, Harriot, and Raleigh in the Americas," Journal of the History of Ideas, 57 (1996): 405-28. John William Shirley, Thomas Harriot; Renaissance Scientist, 1974

B. J. Sokol, "The Problem of Assessing Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and true report of his Discoveries in North America," Annals of Science 51 (1994): 1-16