Saturday, February 27, 2010

Beavers and the Elizabethans

Beavers caught a break from the the Elizabethans. No Englishman seemed to grasp the importance of the fur trade, even though the French shared their understanding of its potential. In 1584 an English cleric Richard Hakluyt then chaplain for the English ambassador in Paris, visited Ettiene Bellinger in Rouen. Bellinger had just returned from trying to establish a French colony on Cape Breton in Canada. In a report written for Sir Walter Raleigh, Hakluyt described what Bellinger showed him:

"He brought home a kind of mineral matter supposed to hold silver, whereof he gave me some; a kind of musk called castor; divers beastes skins, as bevers, otters, marternes, lucernes, seales, buffs, deere skinnes, all dressed, and painted on the innerside with divers excellent colors, as redd, tawnye, yellowe and vermillion, all which things I sawe; and divers other merchandise he hath which I saw not. But he told me he had CCCC. and xl. crowns for that in Roan, which in trifles bestowed upon the savages, stoode him not in forty crownes."

Granted that Hakluyt's report, A Discourse Concerning Western Planting, tended to be exhaustive in listing everything that had been seen by explorers along the North America coast, but only in this passage did Hakluyt talk dollars and cents, so to speak. Since there was no silver in Cape Breton, Bellinger didn't get 440 crowns for that. He gave Hakluyt some after all. Castor, the beavers' scenting fluid, had been a valuable medicine for which European beavers had been hunted to near extinction since the height of the Roman Empire, but its doubtful there was a ready market for it. One never developed again. The deer skins, and perhaps seal skins, dressed and painted by Indians probably were of more interest as curiosities than something someone would buy and wear. That leaves beavers, otters, martens, and lucernes as the most interesting items. All, especially lucernes of rabbits, were used by European furriers, and beavers had become quite rare.

Fortunately for beavers, Hakluyt didn't spell out the value of fur for his English readers. He gained enduring fame by collecting, editing, and publishing accounts of world travels especially to the New World. He didn't shape those accounts to promote colonization, as he did in his report of which only a few copies were made for Raleigh and his friends. For example, he had heard of a group of English gentlemen who on a kind of lark had pooled their money, outfitted a ship and sailed to Newfoundland in 1536. None of them returning wrote a word about it. Hakluyt tracked them down and cobbled together an account which described desolation, starvation, and cannibalism, English eating English. He included accounts of John Hawkins voyages, who like his father, began every trip to the New World by capturing African slaves so he would have something to trade with the Spanish.

Hakluyt recognized that the French had more experience in exploring North America, so while in France, he collected and translated the accounts of Jacques Cartier which had been ignored and quickly forgotten by the French whose colonial schemes had been put on hold by drawn out civil unrest at home.

Fortunately, for beavers and other fur bearers, that passage about them in Hakluyt's report did not register with Raleigh. In the 16th century national goals were often pursued through personal monopolies, so one man could make a big difference. In 1578 the Queen gave Sir Humphrey Gilbert a patent for six years conferring on him the exclusive right to colonize the New World for England. Mortgaging his property in England, and finding partners to join him, Gilbert organized an expedition of 5 ships and 225 men that landed in Newfoundland in the summer of 1583. By that date, European fishermen had been working the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland for over 50 years. Natives had fled the southern coastal area so the main distraction for Gilbert was keeping his colonists from hitching passage back to England as the fishing ships filled with cod headed home. He did not trade with Indians but with fishermen. However, they had been trading with Indians for years and Gilbert listed all the commodities found in Newfoundland including fur bearers, but his informants didn't really spell it out for him. He listed "beastes of sundry kindes" including beavers but the only animal that made an impression was black fox reputed be in the north of the island, "whose furre is esteemed very riche in some countries in Europe." They caught one animal which they thought was a black sable, not an inconsiderable find because black sable was the most value fur exported from Russia. But far more important to Gilbert was that the "mineral man" that he brought with him, a Saxon, found what he was sure was silver ore. After the colonist sailed on to find a warmer place to spend the winter, Gilbert and many of his men drowned in a wreck off Cape Breton. The Saxon mineral man and the ore were also lost, much to the consternation of the survivors. No one was quite sure what happened to the supposed sable.

Sir Walter Raleigh was Gilbert's younger half brother and Queen Elizabeth graciously transferred and extended the patent to colonize the New World to him. Raleigh had followed Gilbert's path to royal favor, both had left studying the law to fight with Protestants in France, went on privateering expeditions against the Spanish and then fought the Irish. While Gilbert was a loyal and enterprising royal servant, Raleigh became much more. Perhaps his good looks, stunning attire and gracious manner explain his rise,

not to mention the legend of his spreading his mantle over a puddle as the Queen approached. But there is a dark side to his rise to power. The Queen rewarded him for his service in Ireland which was notable in one respect. In 1580 after Irish forces and their Italian allies surrendered in Smerwick because they were outgunned, all, save for a handful of European officers who could be ransomed, were put to the sword. A chronicler described it dispassionately: "Captain Ralegh together with Captain Macworth, who had ward of the day, entered the castle, and made a great slaughter. Many or most of them put to the sword." In his dispatch about Smerwick, Lord Grey who gave the orders, wrote of six hundred bodies stripped and laid out in the sand.

Until certain state papers were made public in the late 19th century it was thought the Queen agreed with other contemporaries who disapproved of the slaughter. She didn't and she rewarded Raleigh with Irish estates, and until she died he was one of her principal advisers on Irish affairs. He advocated a policy of colonizing the land with Englishmen, and to make that easier he tried to starve Irish peasants and assassinate Irish leaders and sticking their heads on pikes for all to see. (That was a time honored tradition and not an innovation by Raleigh.) While he brought the potato and tobacco to Ireland, he made his killing when he secured a monopoly on Irish forests and cut every oak in sight for shipping to Britain and the continent for staves. What would become the English passion for killing Indians and cutting trees was thoroughly rehearsed in Ireland by Raleigh.

As vexing as Ireland was, Raleigh wrote that it was "that commonweal of common woe," it did not anger the English in the way Spain did. Spanish ships bearing New World gold distracted all her rivals. Not for nothing did Bellinger begin his show and tell about fur, by holding up reputed silver ore before Hakluyt. Cartier had been embarrassed when the ore he brought back proved to be worthless, but 40 years later Bellinger still hoped to strike it rich. French exploration usually got more direct royal support making it less of a speculation for the undertakers. When Raleigh began carrying out the designs of his brother-in-law, financing a series of expeditions to the New World, he made some strategic adjustments. Gilbert had taken the northern route to the New World because it was the quickest. Raleigh sent his ships by the southern route because he wanted his colony to be more convenient for launching attacks on Spanish gold ships. Yet he understood that the Queen and nation did not want a colony of pirates. Riches had to found in what lands the English claimed, preferably gold or silver to rival the Spanish hoard.

The Indians in Roanoke on what would become the North Carolina coast tried to show the English the way to a profitable arrangement, and Barlowe, the captain of the first expedition Raleigh sent, in 1584, almost seemed to get it. When Indians came to parley, Barlowe laid out his wares and the Indians laid out deer skins. Barlowe traded a copper kettle for fifty skins, which he considered worth fifty crowns. But there is no evidence that he returned to England with any furs. (While the trade in deer skins became excessive, in its early stage it was a byproduct of hunting. The Indians were making full use of an animal they killed to eat, a practice for which they are widely praised. With the exception of bear, the food value of furbearers was far less important than the value of their fur.) Barlowe did not stay long and did not return with any ore, but he was particular in describing the Indians use of copper ornaments and pearls. And he brought two Indians back with him.

Raleigh then outfitted an expedition of over 100 colonists under the command of Richard Grenville, his cousin and an experience privateer. While Raleigh didn't go personally -- being a courtier required being at court near the Queen, he sent three leading men that represented three facets of his, and, we might say, the Elizabethan personality. Grenville represented the hatred of the Spanish and he soon left the colony to capture gold ships and attack the Spanish in the Azores. He left Ralph Lane behind to govern the colony. Raleigh had recruited Lane from Ireland, which didn't bode well for the Indians in Roanoke. He proved an able exponent of Elizabethan rapacity. Barlowe had marveled at how bountiful food was in the country, and that the Indians gladly shared it. Lane befriended Indians long enough to get a bead on the source of the greatest pearls and "a marvelous and most strange mineral." Soon his men faced starvation and Indians suspicious of their vain quest.

Raleigh also sent his math tutor Thomas Hariot, a scholar who had learned the Indian language from the Indians Barlowe brought back with him and who returned to their home with Hariot. In Hariot's "briefe and true report" of his year in the Roanoke Colony we see by proxy how Raleigh's better nature approached colonization. Lane wrote the narrative of the search for pearls and minerals, and a long justification of why the head of Indian "king" had to be cut off during a massacre initiated with the cry of "Christ Our Victory". Hariot wrote a prospectus to prove that the colony could be profitable, sustainable, and unopposed by the natives. He wrote about that infinite variety which seemed the playthings of the Elizabethan mind. Yet here was variety with no bottom line. Like many Elizabethan thinkers, Hariot had a weakness for analogy and the magical.

The first "merchantable commodity" he described was "Silke of grasse or grasse Silke." "...It groweth two foote and a halfe high or better: the blades are about two foot in length, and half inch broad. The like groweth in Persia, which is in the selfe same climate as Virginia, of which very many of the silke workes that come from thence into Europe are made. Here of if it be planted and ordered as in Persia, it cannot in reason be otherwise, but that there will rise in shorte time great profite to the dealers therein."

In 19th century the beaver hats for which millions of beavers died were supplanted in the world of fashion by silk hat. None of that silk came from Carolina silk grass.

Fur is well down on Hariot's list of merchantable commodities, after worm silke, flaxe, hemp, allum, pitch, tarre, rozen and turpentine, sassafras, cedar, wine, and oyle. And he is only sure of otter pelts: "All along the Sea coast there are great store of Otters, which beeyng taken by weares and other engines made for the purpose, will yeelde good profite. Wee hope also of Marterne furres, and make no doubt by the relation of the people but that in some places of the countrey there are store: although there were but two skinnes that came to our handes. Luzarnes also we have vnderstanding of although for the time we saw none." Despite this encouragement to kill otters along the North Carolina coast, it appears they survived well enough. John James Audubon once counted 42 swimming in Ablemarle Sound. Trading for fur did not excite these early colonists.

He did not mention tobacco as an exportable commodity, though he extolled its pleasures and medicinal properties in another section of his tract. Hariot did not go on at length about the virtues of sassafrass but that's the commodity that soon filled the ships leaving the Virginia coast. He noted its medicinal properties and referred readers to Monardus's "Joyful Newes from the West Indies," for "the description, the manner of vsing and the manifolde vertues thereof." Monardus claimed that sassafrass could cure many diseases including syphillis, and since there was an epidemic of same, sassafrass became the magical New World import almost as valuable as gold. Raleigh asked for and received the sassafrass monopoly from the Queen.

Hariot's sense of magic informed his proof that a colony could feed itself: "with lesse then foure and twentie houres labour," one man may "prepare and husbane so much grounde... as shall yeelde him victuall in a large proportion" for a year. Despite that assurance, the men and women who tried to establish a permanent colony failed, though what happened to the "Lost Colony" at Roanoke remains a mystery.

Hariot ends his report with a magical description of the Indians, who, he assured investors, were no threat: "They are a people clothed with loose mantles made of Deere skins, & aprons of the same rounde about their middles; all els naked; of such a difference of statures only as wee in England; having no edge tooles or weapons of yron or steele to offend vs withall, neither know they how to make any: those weapons that they have are onlie bowes made of Witch hazle, & arrowes of reeds; flat edged truncheons also of wood about a yard long, neither have they any thing to
defend themselves but targets made of barcks; and some armours made of stickes wickered together with thread."

John White, who was also on the voyage, made drawings of the Indians and their world. The drawings should have been revelatory but unfortunately he was as mannered in his drawing as Hariot was in his writing. He left us with a collection of curious nudes and no real men.

His drawings of the Indians towns and fields are probably too orderly. However, his drawing of how the Indians made their dugouts with fire, despite rather exuberant flames, probably does capture the excitement and skillful use of fire by the Indians.

After extolling the magical medicinal properties of sassafrass and tobacco, Hariot described how after the English visited the disparate Indian villages, a disease, that the Indians did not recognize and could not cure, killed off most of the villagers. But this happened only in those Indian villages that did not welcome the English suffered: "There was no towne where we had any subtile devise practised against vs, we leaving it unpunished or not revenged (because wee sought by all meanes possible to win them by gentlenesse) but that within a few dayes after our departure from everie such towne, the people began to die very fast...."

Both the Indians and the English attributed this to the power of the English god. Indeed some Indians thought the English in their midst must be gods. The Indian medicine men said the English had come back from the dead -- they had no women and didn't care for Indian women, and they killed with invisible bullets. Hariot didn't want to dispel that notion, and assured investors that through "discreet dealing and governement" the Indians could be taught to "honour, obey, feare and love us." He did know of the Indians Lane's soldiers killed and faulted Lane for being "too fierce." That said, all the colonists were easily persuaded to return to England.

On his return to England, Hariot's report was published on its own and in some editions illustrated with White's drawings. White returned to Roanoke again, as the new governor, this time leaving colonists who would stay, only to become the stuff of legend, the Lost Colony.

Raleigh's reputation was not sullied by the failure of his colonial schemes. He played a major role in the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588. However his secret marriage to one of the Queens ladies-in-waiting in 1592 led to his wings being clipped at court. He decided to regain favor by personally making an expedition to the New World. But he did not take Hariot's report as a guide, nor look for the Lost Colony, nor resume Lane's search for that unusual mineral. He went in search of El Dorado on a hunch that the stories that put it at the head of the Orinoco River were true.

There are no beavers along the Orinoco. Some still think El Dorado will be found there. Raleigh returned with some ore of disputed value, but he was sure there was gold there, which in cavalier Elizabeth fashion he thought sufficient to prompt the English to take control of the river. "Where there is store of gold it is in effect needless to remember other commodities for trade."

To be sure, as if by rote, Raleigh adds a list of other inducements: brazil-wood, cotton, silk, balsum, gums, pepper, all better than can be found in Europe, and "divers berries that dye a most perfect crimson and carnation; and for painting, all France, Italy, or the East Indies yield none such. For the more the skin is washed, the fairer the colour appeareth, and with which even those brown and tawny women spot themselves and colour their cheeks."

Raleigh's account of his travels impressed Henry David Thoreau, who thought it, along with his poetry and "History of the World," raised him to the highest rank of Elizabethan writers, the epitome of the Elizabethan gentleman, as good with the pen as he was with the sword. Thoreau even forgave Raleigh's insistence that along the Orinoco there was a race of headless men:

"Next unto Arui there are two rivers Atoica and Caura, and on that branch which is called Caura are a nation of people whose heads appear not above their shoulders; which though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part I am resolved it is true, because every child in the provinces of Aromaia and Canuri affirm the same. They are called Ewaipanoma; they are reported to have their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders. The son of Topiawari, which I brought with me into England, told me that they were the most mighty men of all the land, and use bows, arrows, and clubs thrice as big as any of Guiana, or of the Orenoqueponi; and that one of the Iwarawaqueri took a prisoner of them the year before our arrival there, and brought him into the borders of Aromaia, his father's country. And farther, when I seemed to doubt of it, he told me that it was no wonder among them; but that they were as great a nation and as common as any other in all the provinces, and had of late years slain many hundreds of his father's people, and of other nations their neighbours."

Of course, a race of headless warriors is also found in the pages of Herodotus. And after Raleigh made them au courrant, they found their way into Shakespeare's Othello. To the doge and other Venetians Othello explains how Desdemona came to love him:

And portance in my travels' history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,--such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:

Thoreau wrote a biography of Raleigh which was unpublished in his lifetime only because the magazine for which it was intended, the Dial, folded. Like Thoreau, Raleigh had a direct, manly way with words. The New World connection cinched Thoreau's love of the man. He writes in the biography: "None of the worthies of that age can be duly appreciated if we neglect to consider them in relation to the New World." This is a theme that Elizabethans were inspired by the New World is frequently sounded by British and American scholars, but I see little evidence for it. First it is important to recognize the New World relations of Raleigh that excited contemporaries was not the equivocal attempt at a colony in North America, but the quest for gold in South America.

When Queen Elizabeth's favorite character, Sir John Falstaff, unfolds his plot to seduce Mistresses Page and Ford to his cronies, Sir John describes, not beavers nor silk grass, but gold from the Orinoco:

O, she did so course o'er my exteriors with such a
greedy intention, that the appetite of her eye did
seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass! Here's
another letter to her: she bears the purse too; she
is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will
be cheater to them both, and they shall be
exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West
Indies, and I will trade to them both. Go bear thou
this letter to Mistress Page; and thou this to
Mistress Ford: we will thrive, lads, we will thrive.

Secondly, in the battle for royal and public favor, a man who had been to the New World was not a hero like a modern astronaut. He had opened himself to ridicule. The New World was a hard sell. Not for nothing did Raleigh begin his reports on his exploration with many paragraphs excoriating the malicious falsehoods of his opponents who spread rumors that the ore he brought back from the Orinoco was worthless or that he didn't go to the New World at all and simply hid in Cornwall.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare knew Raleigh. He started the Mermaid Club, where wits gathered every Friday, and Shakespeare was a member and doubtless there he snagged lines referring to the New World, but there is no evidence that he shared Raleigh's enthusiasm. The Tempest is a rather equivocal embrace of the New World. True, the phrase "Brave New World" comes from it, but Miranda says it when she realizes that the world is filled with other men like Fernando. Caliban may symbolize the enslaved Indians of the New World but Shakespeare uses him as a butt to ridicule the sporadic fascination of things from the New World in the London of his day. On seeing Caliban trying to hide, Stephano observes:

A strange fish! Were I in England now,
as once I was, and had but this fish painted,
not a holiday fool there but would give a piece
of silver: there would this monster make a
man; any strange beast there makes a man:
when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame
beggar, they will lazy out ten to see a dead

King James I was in the audience for the first production of The Tempest and if Shakespeare read James's diatribe against tobacco, that may have informed Shakespeare's play more than Raleigh. James argued that if men wanted to smoke tobacco like Indians, "... shall we, I say, without blushing, abase our selves so farre, as to imitate these beastly Indians, slaves to the Spaniards, refuse to the world, and as yet aliens from the holy Covenant of God? Why doe we not as well imitate them in walking naked as they doe? in preferring glasses, feathers, and such toyes, to golde and precious stones, as they do? yea why do we not denie God and adore the Devill, as they doe?"

James faulted the Indians for giving away their gold so cheaply. In attacking the Spanish New World trade, the king engaged in same envious spitting and made tobacco the symbol of the sorry situation that the English best avoid. The best that can be said for the Tempest as an argument for the New World is that mindful that he was the leader of the King's Players, Shakespeare at once played to James's prejudices, mocking Caliban and making clear that everybody else was eager to get back home to Italy. But the play certainly raises the issue of new worlds to conquer. Thoughts of both the newly found colony at Jamestown and Raleigh might have crossed James's mind. James had imprisoned Raleigh in the Tower, sentenced to the death for involvement in an early plot to depose the king. Raleigh had freedom enough to write, conduct chemical experiments and petitioned the king promising him all the gold the kingdom needed if he was allowed to return to the Orinoco. It's plausible that Shakespeare wrote the Tempest to subliminally remind the King of how useful a Prospero Raleigh might be.

After his trip to the Orinoco didn't put him back in the Queen's favor, Raleigh no longer patronized attempts to colonize the New World. In 1602, the Earl of Southampton, less interested in a perch from which to attack the Spanish, encouraged a voyage to scout northern areas, and soon was treated with a glowing report about an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Once there, the expedition led by Gosnold and chronicled by Brereton, had the fur trade thrust upon them by the Indians. A group approached them and after sitting on the ground motioned for the English to do the same. They did, then Gosnold sent Brereton over to them. He recognized an Indian with whom he had given a knife two days before. They smiled and then the chief of the Indians stood "and took a large Beaver skin from one that stood about him, and gave it unto me, which I requited for that time the best I could: but I pointing toward captaine Gosnold made signs unto him, that he was our captaine...."

Then they all sealed their friendship over a meal, the English getting meat from their ship, one of the rare instances of the English feeding the Indians. And then they got down to trading "So the rest of the day we spent trading with them trading for Furres, which are Beaver, Luzernes, Martens, Otters, Wilde Cat skins very large and deepe Furre, blacke Foxes, conie skinnes, of the colour of our Hares but somewhat less, Deere skinnes very large, Seale skinnes, other beasts skinnes to us unknown." However there is no accounting: the value of the furs less the value of what was traded for them. Then Brereton's report discussed at length what really interested the English, the copper trinkets the Indians wore and the prospects that there were other mines of more valuable ores. For sure Indians were dazzled by European trinkets, but, in these early days, the trinkets of the Indians dazzled the Europeans. Copper looked too much like gold. It was almost as if they traded for furs primarily to humor the Indians in hopes of learning about things of real value. They did bring the furs back to England, but also filled their ship with cedar and sassafrass.

It was that last import that got them in trouble with Sir Walter Raleigh who still had the sassafrass monopoly from the Queen. In recognition of that a deal was struck. The account of the voyage was dedicated to Raleigh, if not the proceeds from the sale of sassafrass.

As I mentioned before, Raleigh opposed the succession of James IV of Scotland to the English crown in 1603. However, in 1617 James granted Raleigh his wish, and let him sail to the Orinoco to find gold for the king on a promise that he would not attack the Spanish. However, he became ill in Trinidad and most of the men he sent on up the Orinoco, including his son, were killed in skirmishes with the Spanish. Raleigh returned to London, and on James's order his head was cut off in 1618. The beavers lost an unwitting friend. In a few years the English fur trade would begin in earnest.