“A Just Punishment,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time,1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Theodore de Bry

Theodore de Bry was born in Liege (in modern day Belgium) in 1528 to seemingly upper middle class parents. Little is known of his early life or education, but it is known that he fled to the German city of Strasbourg around 1570 when the Spanish invaded the Low Countries. Here, young De Bry set up shop as a goldsmith, but also did some engraving, a common side job for goldsmiths.

In 1587, De Bry traveled to London to meet with a Frenchman named Jacques le Moyne. Le Moyne was one of the few survivors of the French attempt to settle Florida in 1564. He had recently gained notoriety for creating a series of paintings depicting the life of the French settlers at Fort Caroline (as the colony was called) before its destruction by the Spanish. Having been a victim of Spanish aggression himself, De Bry hoped to use Le Moyne's paintings as guides to base a series of engravings on. Unfortunately for De Bry, Le Moyne refused to part with his paintings.

A year later in 1588, De Bry again arrived in London, ready to purchase the paintings of life at Fort Caroline. Le Moyne had recently died, and his widow was more than willing to part with the artwork, along with Le Moyne's explanations of each painting. De Bry theorized that the Frenchman, who had been employed by famed English courtier Walter Raleigh, had been working towards publishing the paintings himself. He was thrilled that he now had the opportunity to create a series of engravings detailing another European power's attempts to infiltrate Spain's claim on the New World; De Bry was certain the book would sell.

But before he produced a book from the Le Moyne material, he spoke to his friend Richard Hakluyt, an Englishman with an interest in voyages of discovery and exploration. Hakluyt suggested that a book based on the more recent English attempt to settle a colony in Virginia (actually in modern day North Carolina; "Virginia" was the vague name the English gave to the eastern seaboard of North America) would be more interesting to the book-buying public than the faint memories of a failed French colony twenty years previous.

Hakluyt showed De Bry a series of paintings done by John White, governor of the English colony at Roanoke. They depicted Native American dress, habits and religious activities; sure to cause a sensation among European scholars. De Bry, though aching to produce a book on French Florida, decided to take Hakluyt's advice and created a series of engravings based on White's Virginia drawings. Working with his sons Jan-Theodore and Jan-Israel, and an assistant named Gysbert van Veen, De Bry produced Collectiones Peregrinationum in Indiam Occidentalem et Orientalem in 1590. The book was a collection of De Bry's engravings (based on John White's paintings) with text lifted from Thomas Hariot's 1588 book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. Hariot had been a member of the English colony at Roanoke.

The book proved popular with European intellectuals, so De Bry was inspired to proceed with his plan to create a book based on Le Moyne's Fort Caroline paintings. Brevis Narratio Eorvm Qvæ in Florida Americæ Provicia Gallis Acciderunt... was published in 1591 and gave curious European readers a glimpse at the French colony and their interactions with the local natives. The Native Americans, though foreign and exotic to European eyes, are depicted as humans; not as the godless savages so common in period writings. Both Le Moyne's paintings (only one is known to still exist) and De Bry's engravings, however, show the natives with decidedly European faces and features.

With two popular books to his credit, De Bry was ready to begin on his most ambitious undertaking yet. He planned a series of books, complete with engravings done with the aid of his sons and his assistant Van Veen, that would explain to European audiences all the various attempts to colonize the New World. De Bry was only able to complete six or seven of his series Grands et Petits Voyages by the time he died in 1598. His sons Jan-Theodore and Jan-Israel worked on them together, publishing eight more parts of the series until Jan-Israel's death in 1611. His brother undertook the publication of several more volumes until his own death in 1623. It was then up to Mathieu Merian, Jan-Theodore's son-in-law to finally publish the last of De Bry's planned books in 1634.

The natives are not viewed as faceless heathens who know only slaughter and cannibalism, a common interpretation in earlier works on the New World. De Bry gave them some spark of humanity, showing them to be capable of everything Europeans were: kindness and cruelty, ingenuity and ignorance. The Spanish, however, were not afforded so balanced a view. Catholic Spain's treatment of Protestants (which De Bry and his family were) colored his view of them, and he actively criticized their treatment of Native Americans, other Europeans and even one another.

De Bry's work would continue to be reprinted for several centuries after his death. They provide a valuable insight into how Europeans viewed the new lands they had "discovered." It is quite an impressive legacy for a man who never traveled further from mainland Europe than London, England.