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Powhatan as Emperor

Pompa Banerjee
 University of Colorado, Denver
 John Wood Sweet
Catholic University 

The image 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 Found Click to See a Larger ViewLand 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.

The image 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 image—in the upper left-hand corner, where a Western reader would normally begin reading a text—suggests 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.

Early modern 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 Click to See a Larger ViewEnglish 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.

While Smith's 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 analogous—not the things themselves, but crude copies or anticipations.

The crude, 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 Click to See a Larger Viewportraits of monarchs in royal majesty. Click to See a Larger View 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 openness.

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, 1985.

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.

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

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, 1971.