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John Smith's Fish: Mapping Natural Resources, Cultural Habits, and Food

Robert Appelbaum
University of San Diego

Sea-monsters and fishes of various kinds were a convention of mapmaking since the late Middle Ages. For the most part they were decorative. Sea-creatures filled up the otherwise blank stretches of sea on early maps; early modern aesthetics abhorred empty spaces. But they were also included to clarify the text of a map: they helped keep bodies of water distinct from land-masses. And sometimes, too, they were included as genuine attempts to illustrate the sea-fauna of an area, although this last practice was relatively rare.

Like those on most maps of the time, the sea-creature depicted in the Chesapeake Bay waters of Smith's map is vastly out of scale and apparently lacking in scientific interest. It is a somewhat generic, fanciful-looking creature, although it bears some resemblance to a fish called a "Patone," which was included in the sixteenth-century collection of drawings and watercolors produced by French explorers in the Click to See a Larger ViewCaribbean, known as the Natural History of the Indies or the "Drake Manuscript." But whatever its scientific veracity or decorative effect, the sea creature here, by virtue of its placement, clearly serves still another set of cartographical purposes. The fish is deposited in the middle of an elongated bay, which the map causes to resemble a river—indeed, a river somewhat like the Thames in configuration, though flowing left to right and south to north.

Smith's Virginia thus becomes a kind of mirror image of England, the Chesapeake a kind of mirror image of the Thames. In keeping with this conceit, the sea creature on Smith's map highlights the fact that the Chesapeake is indeed a bay, an outlet of the ocean, just as the mouth of the Thames is a bay, becoming a fresh water river only as it reaches London. (Early modern maps did not include decorative fishes in fresh water rivers, but they often put them at the entrance to bays.) Moreover, the fish on Smith's map invites the viewer to participate in Smith's project for Virginia. Then as now, the Chesapeake was a great resource of seafood, and it is as a natural resource, ripe for exploitation, that Smith wants his viewer to be most interested in the Chesapeake, as well as in Virginia as a whole. The future of the Chesapeake, in Smith's mind, is a future of fish and other resources, which are to be harvested by fisherman, hunters, miners, and loggers.

"Beares, Martins and minkes we found," Smith writes in The Click to See a Larger ViewGenerall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles of his journey of exploration up the Chesapeake, "and in divers places that abundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with: neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for smal fish, had any of us ever seene in any place so swimming in the water, but they are not to be caught with frying pans" (Smith 58). Fish were a very real part of Smith's experience of the Chesapeake, and the story of adventure and survival Smith relates is thus also a story of the discovery of natural resources and their potential exploitation. But it is a story, too, of both adaptive and maladaptive technologies. In their first journey up the bay, the English were unprepared. Equipped with frying pans but lacking nets or fishing rods, they could not take advantage of the abundance at hand.

By contrast, the native Indians, whose savagery Smith is often pained to observe, had developed an impressive system of resource management. They had developed both an efficient set of technologies and a reliable economic infrastructure for exploiting natural resources like fish. This system, though sometimes overlooked or disparaged by Smith, was often an object of fascination and admiration, as we canClick to See a Larger View see in illustrations like the de Bry engraving showing "Their Manner of Fishynge in Virginia;" an engraving based on a drawing by John White, the artist first charged Click to See a Larger Viewwith representing the land and its inhabitants and later the Governor of Virginia. If the White drawing is accurate, the Indians had developed something of a seasonal industry in fishing, employing the cooperative labor of a great many individuals, along with such techniques for preparing and preserving fish as would soon be called (after an Arawak term) "barbecuing." The Indians knew what they were doing, and were doing it well.

At home the English, of course, had their own system for harvesting and marketing fish. Fish were part of the required diet of the English because of nationally enforced Lenten laws, codified during the reign of Elizabeth I. The laws, executed more for social and political than for religious purposes, in effect institutionalized the commodification of fish. They guaranteed that fish would always be a lively article of trade, whether for fleets of fishermen sent out into the seas off Newfoundland or for the humble fishwives, who were a common sight at English markets and fairs. One of Smith's near contemporaries, the satirist Thomas Nashe, wrote a whole allegorical encomium to the fishing industry based in Yarmouth. And how-to books for anglers were among the more popular books of the seventeenth century.

Between the Powhatan Indians of the Chesapeake Bay and the Europeans who had come to colonize their territory there was thus a three-fold competition. In the first place, there was a competition for resources, a contest over control of the land and the sea and what the Europeans would regard as the commodities they contained. In the second place, there was a competition of technologies. The Europeans came to America with what appeared to be superior technologies, not least of which was the technology for iron-making represented by the Europeans' potent weaponry as well as by John Smith's impotent frying pan. The Indians, however, had rival, effective technologies of their own. In the third place, then, there was a competition of culture.

To highlight this cultural competitiveness, one can compare the de Bry illustration of an Indian couple "sitting at meate," after another drawing by White, with a typically rendered scene of a European household sitting down to a formal dinner. The Indian couple Click to See a Larger Vieware sharing a dish of corn, possibly roasted hominy. The corn is itself a native American resource, grown, harvested, and prepared by native American technologies. As they sit, the couple assumes a pose which seems to betoken equality as well as a certain solemnity, engaging in what White recognizes as a quasi-ritualistic expression of somewhat exotic but possibly admirable values. There is technology in this Indian dinner—most notably in the large dish the couple is eating from—but the technology is limited, leaving the couple to dine on the floor and to partake in what by English standards would have been considered a poor but virtuous, even Lenten meal.

By contrast, the "Europeans at Table" that illustrate Georg Philipp Harsdörffer's Click to See a Larger Viewcarving manual (ca. 1640) partake in a much more ostentatiously organized dinner, which flaunts the many technological and social apparatuses of prosperous European households. The European meal requires an elaborate machinery of prosthetics: tables, chairs, drinking glasses, serving platters, and trenchers. It requires a diversity of dishes as well as a variety of strictly observed rites determining who would sit where, who would eat first, who would eat what, and indeed who would eat at all. Some Europeans only get to serve at formal meals. They never eat at them. Whatever social conditions and values were attached to the Indian meal—a subject about which we have only limited information—the European meal was a cultural institution which ratified technological complexity and social inequality even in the act of bringing members of different social levels together in a moment of leisure. The solemn European meal is all straight lines and right angles, all planes of inclusion and exclusion, all delineations of bustling, complex, stratified activity. The equally solemn Indian meal, as White and de Bry represent it, is all curves and ovals and self-containment, depicting a scene of simplicity and calm, of mutuality and inclusion.

During John Smith's visit in Virginia, food was the first and last cause of conflict, both among Europeans and between the Europeans and the Indians. "Being thus left to our fortunes," Smith writes in The Generall Historie about the first Click to See a Larger Viewseason in Virginia, after the settlers' supply ship had departed for England, "it fortuned that within ten dayes scarce ten amongst us could either goe, or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us. . . . When [the supply ship] departed, there remained neither taverne, beere-house, nor place of relief. . . .[O]ur drinke was water, our Lodgings castles in the ayre" (Smith 44). This was to be followed a few years later by the infamous "starving time," in the winter of 1609, which decimated the European population and left the survivors at the mercy of the native population's generosity. The memory of the starving time had a lasting impact on colonial policy, and the demand for food both as material sustenance and as a conduit of symbols was a major impetus to the consolidation of European hegemony over Virginia during the next few decades. Later on, when colonial culture was firmly established in the territory—the Indian population having been marginalized and a newly arrived African population having been put to labor in the fields as slaves—prosperous Virginians liked to promote an image of their territory as a land of bounty, and especially of bountiful consumption. Landholding Virginians seem to have eaten well indeed, dining on native American products as well as foodstuffs transplanted from Europe, provisioning themselves by a combination of European and Indian technologies, and establishing dining customs—including dining stratifications—of their own. The idea of "southern hospitality" stems from this ethic of consumption; and it has its origins in the period of what Ira Berlin calls the "plantation revolution," when large landowners consolidated their political and economic power in the West Indies and the Virginia territory. Hospitality entailed luxurious consumption. Luxurious consumption required a revolution in the distribution of land and command of labor. And that revolution itself has its origins, we can see, in John Smith's encounter, during a time of near starvation, with the sea creatures and other resources of the Chesapeake Bay.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia (1705). Edited by Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.

Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Bruce, Philip Alexander. Social Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century. Williamstown: Corner House, 1968.

Caton, Mary Anne, ed. Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England. District of Columbia: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1999.

"Histoire Naturelle Des Indes": the Drake Manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Trans. Ruth S. Kraemer. New York: Norton, 1996.

Hooker, Richard Lee. Food and Drink in America: A History. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985.

Nash, Thomas. Nashes Lenten Stuffe, Containing, the Description and First Procreation and Increase of the Towne of Great Yarmouth in Norffolke: with a New Play Never Played Before, of the Praise of the Red Herring (1599). Menston: Scolar Press, 1971.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.