As they explored and struggled to establish settlements in what they called ‘new found lands’, the encounter with the peoples of those lands deeply affected how the British saw themselves. From the onset of colonisation, exotic visitors appeared in London. We recognise their names: Pocahontas, Manteo, Squanto. If you look carefully, they are a constant presence: in the decorative cartouches of 17th and 18th century maps; in the illustrated title pages of texts promoting colonisation; and present, though heavily filtered through the assumptions of British culture, in many other texts – poems, plays, treatises on political theory and philosophy, and in novels – a form that was new, which confronted a world that was ancient.
The intensity of this cultural encounter, which is all too familiar to those who work on the history of colonial and federal America, has been overlooked in some circles of British studies. The multi-volume Oxford History of the British Empire
, for example, devoted just 2 of 47 essays to the topic of Native Americans, while treatments of British imperial culture do not place enough emphasis on how diplomatic, military, commercial relationships with the Algonquian, Cherokee and Haudenosaunee peoples shaped broader views of the nature and purposes of the imperial project.
is Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Kent. In The Savage and Modern Self: North American Indians in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture
(University of Toronto Press, 2018), he examines the cultural presence of Indians in the novels, poetry, plays and material culture of the eighteenth-century. This presence was used as a kind of reflection to grapple with the emergence of consumer culture, the meaning of colonialism, ‘Britishness’ and – one of the preoccupations of eighteenth-century social theorists – the nature of the ‘modern self’.
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull.