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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies
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America is a Woman: A Preface

The novelty of America was always perceived in overtly sexual terms.

Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters

To understand the troping of Pocahontas as a paradigmatic ‘new world’ woman and a female ‘noble savage’ we need to first contextualize her in a discourse that at the time of the first English settlements depicted the Americas as an allegorically feminized space. These representations were part of “a full allegorical tradition in which continents - Europe, Asia, Africa and now America - were portrayed as women surrounded by the representative attributes of their respective parts of the world” (Hulme, “Polytropic Man” 17). Hugh Honour has examined this tradition with regard to the Americas, showing how North America as the “land of allegory” is visually embodied as woman in ambiguous illustrations by European artists such as Philip Galle, Jan Sadeler, Simon van de Passe, Theodor Galle and Jan van der Straat (cf. Honour, New Golden Land). In North America, the practice of imagining the continent or its regions as female is also evident in Walter Raleigh’s naming of ‘Virginia’ at the end of the 16th century; Raleigh had been exploring the American coast in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a permanent settlement and colony at Roanoke, the coastal region of what today is North Carolina, between 1584 and 1590 - an attempt that obviously did not engender a foundational myth of American origins and that has been commonly referred to as the “lost” or the “abandoned colony” of Roanoke (cf. Kupperman, Roanoke). Raleigh had named the entire territory Virginia, in honor of Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), the ‘virgin queen,’ who, for a time, supported his venture. This territory, Raleigh’s choice of name insinuates, was waiting in supposedly feminine passivity for the European traveler to arrive and colonize it. The gender-specific attribution of America as ‘Virginia’ presupposes a male traveler who encounters the (virginal, i.e. empty) feminized space and takes possession of it; it is thus highly suggestive of a sexualized relationship between both, which is constructed as a libidinal bond between traveler and territory (cf. Schulting, Wilde Frauen 49). Therefore, in 1607 Virginia already figured as a mysterious feminine/feminized space to be penetrated, conquered, and domesticated by the English settlers.

The ambivalence that such gendered representations may entail is paradig- matically encoded already in a late 15th-century engraving of “America” by the Dutch artist Jan van der Straat on a 1619-copperplate by Theodor Galle. It depicts Amerigo Vespucci’s encounter with an allegorical female figure that represents the continent named after him. Vespucci is equipped with all the insignia of a European explorer (flag, cross, and astrolabe), while a voluptuous America lies naked on a hammock, stretching out her hand and beckoning the visitor to come closer. She is part of a pastoral scene, tempting, seductive, and enticing. A closer look, however, reveals disturbing details: in the background of the picture, Natives are roasting something over a fireplace that looks suspiciously like a human leg, and another leg can be seen next to the fireplace. Eroticism and cannibalism here appear side by side, and the dangers of intercultural contact are envisioned; for all the claimed superiority of the European traveler in terms of religion and technology, the alterity of the Native is perceived as tempting and threatening at the same time and thus seems to be beyond the Europeans’ control. Could this ‘new world’ beauty’s invitation to the traveler have a hidden agenda? At the same time, this scene of seduction conceals European colonial aggression toward the indigenous ‘new world’ population behind a myth of erotic encounter, perhaps even love, correlating the relationship between Europeans and Natives with the allegedly ‘natural’ order of the sexes: the distinguished European male is to the ‘new world’ native as man is to woman: i.e., superior (cf. Schulting, Wilde Frauen 14).

Illustration 1: Amerigo Vespucci ‘Discovers’ America

Theodor Galle, America (1619).

Not only has the ‘new world’ often been allegorically depicted as a woman, but more specifically, “[i]n English prints and engravings, [it] was often shown as an unclothed Indian princess” (Bushman, America 50). E. McClung Fleming has detailed the historical phases in which America appeared first as “Indian Queen,” then as an “Indian Princess presented as the daughter of Britannia,” and finally by representations of “an Indian Princess whose attributes were the symbols of United States sovereignty” (“American Image” 65). In fact, the Indian princess was the “oldest and most durable representation of the United States” before representations increasingly turned to classicism in the 19th century (Fleming, “From Indian” 39). The allegory of America as the ‘Indian princess’ thus paves the way for the troping of Pocahontas in first-contact scenarios against a backdrop of the foundational mythology of the ‘new world.’

In an already symbolically feminized space, she appears as the first flesh-and- blood Native female we encounter in European narratives of North America. In fact, as Werner Sollors points out, “[a]llegories of America as an Indian princess have often been combined with Captain John Smith’s Pocahontas story” (Beyond Ethnicity 79). The label “Indian princess” refers to her status as the daughter of chief Powhatan and describes Native tribal relations using the European classificatory system of aristocratic distinction which obviously is itself an act of symbolic domination. Therefore, the first English narrative about the first permanent English settlement in the ‘new world’ centers on the story of a woman native to the American continent who is discursively appropriated and put to use in various guises for the purpose of legitimizing European conquest: as an allegorical representative of the ‘new world’ in accordance with the connotations of exotic femininity, as a cultural mediator and supporter of European colonialism, and as a model for assimilation and conversion.

 
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