Museums: England and America, Special Friends

When Englishman John White set forth, armed with a sketchbook, to help found the colony of Virginia in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh implored him, "Drawe to liefe all strange birds beastes fishes plantes hearbes ... the figures and shapes of men and women in their apparel." And so he did. White's impressively detailed watercolor images became the first anthropological depictions of Native Americans, singularly shaping European views of the New World for centuries to come. They include in-depth scenes of Algonquin Indians hunting, fishing, praying and dancing, as well as portraits of individuals. In one, a jovial chief, adorned with beads, elaborate tattoos and a woven wrap, holds a tall bow; in another, a man with feather earrings sits on a mat across from a woman preparing meat. White even portrayed what has become one of the foremost traditions of American life: a barbecue grill.

White's works have rarely been seen in recent times. They are exceedingly fragile, and were almost lost in a 19th-century fire. But they are currently making a rare and enthralling appearance at the British Museum, which owns them, in "A New World: England's First View of America" (through June 17, then traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina). Though exhibition curator Kim Sloan calls it "serendipity" that the exhibition coincides with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown—England's first successful settlement in the New World—"A New World" helps to explore the history of the "special relationship" between the two nations. Indeed, the show is just one of a handful on view in London—or coming soon—that demonstrate how inextricably the two are linked, not only through such positive or benign events as the voyages of exploration but also through their mutual embrace of slavery.

The British Museum show is easily the most far-reaching. It provides a vivid history of England's exploration of the Americas under Elizabeth I, as well as of White's personal tale. Before Jamestown, the artist had been the governor of the Roanoke Colony, which was plundered and abandoned during one of his trips back to England for supplies. The exhibit surmises what happened to the colonists: presumably they were killed by the Native Americans White had depicted so affectionately years before. Visitors can also see how other artists constantly reinterpreted White's drawings of Native Americans, so that they morphed over the years from gentle souls to savage warriors. "I am sure White knew the significance of his works for the people of England," says Sloan. "For Elizabethan times their trips to the New World was akin to a voyage to the moon."

Other shows are more narrowly focused. "Journey to the New World," at London's Museum in Docklands (through May 13), looks at how London bankers and merchants raised the money, ships and people to supply America. The exhibition features pieces from the Docklands' collections and recent Jamestown excavations as well, including coins and pottery. Also on show: items brought from the Old World, from lace gloves and jewelry boxes to several striking pairs of children's shoes. Because a constant supply of labor was needed to develop the colony, indentured servitude was introduced. Along with orphans and street children, poor families often sent their children on the ships for a chance at better life in a new land. The system worked for a time but eventually the colonists were unable to meet the demands for labor in the cotton and tobacco fields. So they began to look to Africa.

Indeed, this shameful aspect of the special relationship is also on display throughout London, in time to mark the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago. Originally started by the Portuguese, the slave trade came to be dominated by England in the early 18th century, owing to its superior naval power. The English would sail to West Africa, buy slaves and then travel to the Caribbean and America, where they would trade them for rum, sugar and coffee. Privileged Londoners would then enjoy this booty at their tables, completely detached from its origins. This autumn the Museum in Docklands—housed in an old rum-and-tobacco warehouse built with money made from the slave trade—will open London's only permanent gallery devoted to the capital's involvement in the slave trade. "London, Sugar and Slavery" addresses the myth that London's role was a minor one, arguing instead that the capital owed much of its financial and industrial wealth directly to slave labor in the sugar trade. The exhibition will also explore the history of English politicians like William Wilberforce, who led the call for Abolition (and whose life is being recounted in Michael Apted's film "Amazing Grace," released later this month). Another new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery features portraits of Wilberforce and parliamentarians debating the slavery abolition bill.

Two intriguing exhibitions at the Victoria & Albert Museum (through June 17) also tackle the issue of Britain's culpability in the slave trade. "Traces of the Trade" highlights items from the V&A's permanent collection, like snuffboxes and gold paperweights, that had a direct correlation to slavery. "It is important to look at how Britain benefited from the slave trade and to help people make these links to [innocuous] things like sugar dishes and chocolate pots," says Zoe Whitely, one of the curators of the exhibitions. "We are trying to show the coming to grips with the slaving past and looking at the international links in a meaningful way."

The other V&A exhibit, "The Shadow of Slave Trading on Contemporary Art and Design," looks at modern interpretations of slavery. The entryway is dominated by a newly commissioned work, "The Gates of Return" by Julien Sinzogan, a lavish mural that shows shackled slaves, painted in gray and outlined in black, walking through the water toward a ship. The ship itself is bursting with colors; the sails are depicted as a flurry of bright fabrics, the same vibrant West African prints worn today from Accra to Atlanta. There are also various wood cutouts by Tanzanian painter Lubaina Himid; "Naming the Money" is a collection of life-size replications of Africans with their brief histories written on blank checks carried on their backs. Taken together, these London exhibits demonstrate what a fruitful but often messy relationship the two countries have shared. White may have been the first to capture it, but centuries on we are still trying to make sense of it.

Join the Discussion