IntroductionMy name is Rachel Winchcombe and I’m a second year history PhD student at the University of Manchester. I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Sheffield, both of which were in history, specialising in the early modern period (c. 1500-1800). After leaving university I spent six months living and working in Bogotá in Colombia. It was during this time that I became interested in South American history and how the discovery of the lands of America affected Europeans. After returning to England, I decided to apply for a PhD that looked at the ways in which America was incorporated into English thought in the sixteenth century, and that is now what I’m spending three years of my life researching!
On the 12th of October 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot on the hitherto unknown shores of the land that would become known as America. For early modern Europeans who were convinced that their knowledge of the world was complete, the discovery of these new lands must have been a huge shock. Indeed, Columbus refused to acknowledge their novelty, claiming until his death that the lands he had found were part of Asia. It was not until the completion of Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to the New World that the idea of a ‘mundus novas’ (new world) became established. With the realisation that America represented a new and different land came a new problem. How was America and her inhabitants to be explained? It is this question that my PhD hopes to answer.
Explaining the existence of America and millions of Amerindians was no easy task. To begin with, when constructing an image of the New World, Englishmen and women relied on accounts of America written by continental authors and their own Old World knowledge of geography, cosmology and ethnography. For example, descriptions of America printed in England compared Americans to the monstrous races that the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder had identified whilst journeying around the world in the first century AD. Europeans also connected the people and land of America to the biblical account of the dispersal of mankind, and to Greek legends such as the lost island of Atlantis. Despite this attempt to assimilate America into the history and belief systems of the Old World, it is also clear from these early descriptions of the encounter that Europeans recognised the novelty of the new lands across the Atlantic. English representations of America were essentially a complicated mix of Old World tradition and New World experience. By looking at various aspects of Native American life, such as warfare, clothing and religion, my PhD will trace this tension between the power of the old and the pull of the new.
Visit European History Online for an introduction to the European ‘Age of Expansion’.
Visit the British Library’s image database to see the various ways that exploration has been illustrating through history.
The Hakluyt Society provides information and articles relating to all aspects of travel, exploration and cultural encounter.