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New Lands? Old Ideas
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries were the great age of European exploration in the New World. Spain concerned itself with South America and the Caribbean, while countries such as France and England turned northward to the great, unknown vastness of the North American continent. Men such as Verrazzano, Hariot, and Champlain arrived to explore and to record their experiences of this mysterious land. Strange new plants and animals, curious native customs, and assessments of natural resources all appear in the pages of their respective accounts. Yet their visions of this New World were colored by the expectations of the old. European dreams of hidden riches, and Spanish discoveries of gold and silver enliven their observations. These earliest of descriptions of North America are as much commentaries on contemporary European society and its aspirations, as they are catalogs of new things and new places.
The earliest of these explorers, Giovanni da Verrazzano, explored the coasts of what are now Nova Scotia and New England for the King of France. It was the land the French called Acadia, and Verrazzano found it filled with delights: friendly natives, plenty of food, a pleasant climate, and mountains packed with valuable minerals. Kindly natives helped Verrazzano and his men through many difficulties. They graciously shared the bounty of their land. They even pointed out which animals and plants were useful, and allowed Verrazzano and his Frenchmen to travel unmolested along the coast and for some distance inland. Nearly everything Verrazzano saw and noted accords with a description of some sort of Eden. Jaded Europeans accustomed to the doctrinal infighting of the Reformation, and the bloody religious wars of Europe saw in the Native Americans gentle children of nature. The natives lived close to the land and the land provided them with everything they needed...in abundance. Of course, this earthly paradise was also perfectly suited to the cultivation of practically every known - and more importantly commercially valuable - European crop. Like the mountains of Mexico and Peru, Acadia's hills and mountains held stores of valuable minerals. The climate of this northern land was compared to Illyria and Dalmatia on the Adriatic. In short, Acadia was a dream come true, a blissful land filled with happy people, and blessed with a surfeit of resources and a beautiful climate. Europeans could not only settle in this new world, they could make their fortunes as well.
The theme of economic success was carried still further by Thomas Hariot, an English astronomer and naturalist who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh to Virginia (now North Carolina) in 1587. Hariot's, "Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia," was written especially for the benefit of investors in the colonization scheme. Hariot says this in his preface, also taking time to warn the reader to be careful to ignore the negative comments of certain members of the expedition. That some of the first settlers failed to appreciate Virginia's charms is owing to the fact that either they never left the island on which the party disembarked, or that they did not find the instant riches of which they had dreamed. However, Hariot is determined to let us know that Virginia is as rich and as well endowed as any Spanish colony. Through some unexplained freak of nature, its climate - which is like every land from Persia to the Azores - enables it to support every conceivable crop. Indian corn, as well as English wheat and rye can be grown, and though they didn't try it, so can sugarcane. The Asiatic silkworm spins huge cocoons in the trees, and tropical parrots chatter in the branches. Giant tortoises meander through the forests and along the seashore. The natives are in awe of the Englishmen and think they are gods. And just in case the European's divine powers should fail him, Hariot is quick to add that the Native Americans are entirely lacking in any knowledge of metals and machinery, so the results of any battle between Englishman and native can be "easily imagined." The message of Hariot's account is clear - Virginia is a fruit ripe for the plucking; its people are easily controlled, and its land promises an abundant harvest. Climatic and physical realities notwithstanding, Virginia is a veritable treasure-trove filled with anything a greedy European could want.
And if the wealth of the New World doesn't quite add up, there is always the Sieur de Champlain. The Frenchman Samuel de Champlain made numerous expeditions into the heart of Acadia and Canada in the early years of the Seventeenth Century. He was one of the founders of New France and had extensive contacts with the native tribes. According to Champlain, New France was not merely another Peru, its wealth in furs rather than silver. Rowing and portaging across the region's innumerable lakes, rivers, and streams, the Frenchman made his way toward the great sea the Natives said lay to the west. Surely, this must be the ocean that separated the narrow Northern American Continent from the riches of the Orient.
Careful exploration would lead Champlain and his men to the fabled Northwest Passage, and France to first place in the race to the East. The fabulous treasures of China and the Indies - spices and gems, rare woods and exotic beasts, silks and porcelain - such objects had been the goal of the very earliest European travelers across the Western Ocean. In the lands of the Aztec and the Inca, Spain had found a wealth of silver and gold, and now the citizens of France and other Western European states would follow the rainbow across the Atlantic. The stark realities might be different from the dream, but it was the dream that kept them coming. The New World would be the antidote to every Old World ill, a paradise on earth where every human being would bask in riches and happiness.
Creation: The Blueprint of Society
Virtually all the peoples of the world have some sort of story that explains the creation of the world. Humankind, animals, plants, and geographical features are brought into being by some divine power. The general rhythms of life and society are set in motion by some god or gods, and a copy of the contemporary world is created. The respective roles of the various parts of creation are defined, and man finds his proper place in the universe. Such myths are therefore instructional, helping human beings not only to understand how the world came about in the first place, but why it is the way it is now.
Modern day ideas and institutions - as well as the living creatures and the objects that surround us - have their origins in the distant past. Creation is the blueprint for the present. The following four myths, each in its own way, reveals its people's worldview.
According to the Eskimo view of the world, the gods, like men, inhabit a great wilderness near the sea. They hunt and fish for a living - the Raven taking care to point out to the First Man those animals that are good to eat and those that are not. He also tells the man which kind of fish can be found where and gives him berries to satisfy his hunger. Of interest however, is not merely what the Raven tells the man, but how he tells it. The relationship between the First Man and the Raven is that between a student and teacher and reflects the Eskimo way of life in which a learned shaman would instruct a youth in the ways of the spirits. The discourse between man and god is intimate and personal - there is no distance between them. The Raven even obtains and makes use of his magical powers in a fashion similar to an earthly shaman. He puts on a mask to transform himself into a bird, and plants magical peas that almost accidentally sprout the first man. There is no elaborately conceived divine plan. The different aspects of creation each have their own natures. Man sprouted from the pea-pod because the pea-pod of itself was meant to sprout man. The mountain sheep lives in the mountains because only there can it be safe from the hunters, and its numbers guaranteed. The world of the Eskimo is one close to nature in which the human, the animal, and the divine are all in close daily contact.
In contrast, in the world of the Navajo there is a much greater separation between the human and the supernatural. Mankind must learn all matter of chants and dances in order to propitiate the host of spirits who inhabit the universe. Nor are the spirits mere manifestations of wild nature, each one acting according to its own laws and all living together in harmony. Among the Navajo there are benevolent spirits and malevolent spirits. People must learn to seek the favor of the good deities, and to fend off…[continue]
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