of Powhatan's address to his people is adapted from John White's drawing
of a carved wooden idol that stood sentinel over the remains of dead
village leaders. White's image, drawn at the time of the Roanoke settlement,
had been adapted and engraved by de Bry to illustrate Thomas Hariot's
A Briefe and True Report of the New
of Virginia (published in 1590). Thirty five years later, White's
drawings remain the most influential sources of visual images of
Indians from the region. One may locate White's influence in Robert
Vaughan's engraving of events John Smith describes in his Generall
Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles , and
in William Hole's engraving of the map of Virginia.
of Powhatan seated above a group of his apparent subjects in a domed
structure visually emphasizes Smith's description of Powhatan as an
emperor of sorts and is interesting because it suggests a political
rationalization for the English presence on the territory they labeled
Virginia. The graphically prominent place of this imagein the
upper left-hand corner, where a Western reader would normally begin
reading a textsuggests the importance of this analogy. Imagining
Powhatan as an emperor helped Smith justify his claim that Powhatan
owned large tracts of territory that the English might acquire through
purchase or other means. Smith describes him as controlling not only
the territory his own people occupied but also the territory of peoples
Smith describes as conquered subjects or subordinate allies.
English legal culture disposed imperialists to find individuals in possession
of territory they wished to claim. Explaining Native American governance
and land tenure in terms of English analogies was often a convenient
way to make them intelligible to other English-speakers and to downplay
inconvenient cultural and political difference. For English
men of war like Smith, the honorable occupation for soldiers was to
earn kingdoms in legitimate warfare. Thus, the image of Powhatan as
an emperor would seem to have helped make English fantasies of domination
and possession in the region legitimate and honorable. This analogy
was further emphasized in the text surrounding the portrait of Pocahontas
produced in London in 1616. The Latin text identifies her as the daughter
of "Emperor" Powhatan.
map emphasizes that Powhatan is like an emperor, it also implies that
he isn't actually an emperor. Indeed, much of the power of the image
comes from the imprecision and incompletion of the analogy between Indian
leader and English monarch. Powhatan's royal status is emphasized through
specific visual analogues to English royal regalia, such as the feathered
bonnet as crown, the platform as throne, the pipe evoking a scepter,
the assemblage of people as courtiers, and so on. These features draw
on the traditional iconography of Western royal portraiture. Yet, in
contrast to European portraits of monarchs, which represent these icons
with great consistency and majesty, Powhatan's signs of royal privilege
are represented as both primitive and merely analogousnot the
things themselves, but crude copies or anticipations.
imitative regalia suggest a corresponding feebleness in his governance
and leaves his imperial legitimacy open to question. Powhatan's regal
entourage heightens this impression. None display the grandeur and wealth
conventional among European portraits
of monarchs in royal majesty.
A close look at Powhatan's portrait suggests that Powhatan is closely
allied to eastern royalty such as Turkish sultans. The attendants, either
women or androgynous figures, underscore the sexual license and effeminacy
of Powhatan's court and Powhatan's elevated seat suggests his tyrannical
sway over his subjects. Early seventeenth-century Englishmen would associate
these regal characteristics with recognizable Ottoman models of tyranny,
absolutism, and effeminacy. In light of the Turkish court culture, the
pointedly foregrounded women also suggest the harem. The Turkish sultan's
seraglio became for many Englishmen a fascinating and enduring trope
of imperial English chastity as well as the colonial others' sexual
Suggestions For Further Reading
Fitzhugh, William W., ed. Cultures
in Contact: The Impact of European Contacts on Native American Cultural
Institutions. District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press,
Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's
World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Haberlein, Mark. Contesting
the 'Middle Ground': Indian-White Relations in the Early Republic.
Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1999.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Settling
with Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America.
Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.
and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell University
Richter, Daniel and Alden Vaughan. Crossing
the Cultural Divide: Indians and New Englanders, 1605-1763. Worcester:
Published by the Society, 1980.
Rountree, Helen C. The
Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Williams, Roger. A
Key Into the Language of America (1643). Menston: Scolar Press,