- Historic Sites
The "Delicious" Land
America acted deeply on the Elizabethan English imagination, working its magic in the minds of poets and men of science
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
With a New World being discovered, there was not only an immense extension of geographical knowledge, but a comparable impetus to improve its quality and techniques. England was backward in this art, as in so much else; but now her geographers profited from their contacts with these leaders of thought, while they made use of the information gathered by the English voyagers in constructing their maps—Ortelius, of Anthony Jcnkinson, for Russia and Persia; Mercator, of Drake, for America and the Pacific. Though English map makers in this field were not yet comparable, they were beginning. Frobisher’s and Gilbert’s voyages to North America led to a considerable increase of information about the northern areas, reflected in the maps of Michael Lok and Thomas Best. A number of John Dec’s maps of these regions remain, and illustrate, as everything about him does, his curious mixture of shrewd criticism and cra/y credulity. His map of North America based on Gilbert’s explorations, for example, has a proper realization of the width of the continent across Canada; but theorist that he was, he hail no compunction in tracing a waterway right across, to debouch with the Colorado into Southern California. Iiy the end of the century, much more exact and useful contributions were being made to navigation and cosmography by such men as John Davis and Edward Wright.
Hariot appears as the most complete, all-round scientist of that time, with his interest alike in mathematics and astronomy, anthropology and navigation. He set forth a model of first-class scientific method with his Brief and True Report of the new found land of Virginia . It is the work of a superior mind; no Elizabethan quaintness in this; no fancy, let alone fantasy; all is in due order based on close observation, accurately brought into correlation with existing categories, ft gives an account of the flora and fauna: the commodities of the country with their qualities and uses; methods of agriculture anil properties of the soil, plants arid fruits and roots; the beasts, fowl, and fish; ending with the nature anil manners of the people, for Hariot had learned enough of their language to communicate with them about their notions and heliels.
This concise little work, important as it is, is only a fragment of the materials collected by Hariot and John White at Roanoke. White was similarly engaged in mapping the coasts and sounds and rendering the life of the place in his water colors of the plants and fishes, the characters and ways of the natives. But after the hurricane that decided the colony to leave, many of their maps and papers were lost in the sea in the hurried transfer of their goods to Drake’s ships. Others of White’s papers left on Roanoke were spoiled by the Indians. But what remains is considerable.
The impact of America upon natural history in general, and botany in particular, was no less exciting. A wide range of new plants and animals provided continuing stimulus to the scientific curiosity, as well as the fancy, of naturalists in England as elsewhere. And this is reflected in their books. From the New World came the giant sunflower, nasturtium, Michaelmas daisy, lobelia, evening primrose, and so on. But by far the most important introductions were tobacco and the potato: these affected history.
The medicinal properties of tobacco were considered valuable. Hariot reported that it “purgeth superfluous phlegm and other gross humours, and openeth all the pores and passages of the body: by which means the use thereof not only preserved! the body from obstructions, but also (if any be, so that they have not been of too long continuance) breaketh them.”
The habit of smoking spread rapidly among the courtiers and the upper class, popularized by Raleigh and those in touch with the colonies. It was noted as a piece of arrogance on Raleigh’s part that “he took a pipe of tobacco before he went to the scaffold”; it is more likely to have been to steady his nerves, or as a last pleasure on earth. Even before the end of the Queen’s reign, the habit was spreading to the lower orders. All this was good for Virginia: it put the colony on its feet and enabled it to survive.
The potato has had even more effect in history. In The History and Social Influence of the Potato , Redcliffe N. Salaman writes: “The introduction of the potato has proved to be one of the major events in man’s recent history, but, at the time, it was a matter of relatively little moment and called forth no immediate public comment.” To the Elizabethans the innocuous potato was not only sustaining, but stimulating to lust. Wc remember that when Falstali, with the worst intentions, gets Mistress Ford and Mistress Page to come in to him, he calls on the sky to rain potatoes. Amid so much that is earthy, not to say murky, about this root, Dr. Salaman thinks it quite probable that Raleigh did introduce the growing of potatoes into Ireland—one more of the many tiling’s he has to answer Tor. This certainly had remote and far-reaching consequences, setting in motion the cycle that ultimately led to the mass migration of the Irish, during and alter the Famine, to America.