A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“They in respect of troubling our inhabiting and planting, are not to be feared; but that they shall have cause both to fear and love us, that shall inhabite with them.

Whereby may bee hoped, if means of good government be used, that they may in short time be brought to civilitie, and the embracing of true religion.”

Summary Overview

A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) was written by Thomas Hariot, a scientist and explorer. It was the first work on North America written from firsthand experience by an English person for an English audience. Hariot accompanied a 1585 expedition sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh to the area of what is now North Carolina (the term Virginia refers to a large territory in eastern North America claimed by England, not the modern state of Virginia.) A Brief and True Report dealt with the crops of the region, both those that could be sold at a profit and those that could sustain English colonists. The excerpted passage comes from the third section, which also deals with building materials and other miscellaneous topics along with the American Indians who lived in the area. The book attracted interest in Continental Europe as well as in England, and was the most important book on North America written in English until the seventeenth century.

Defining Moment

A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was published at the beginning of the English experience with coastal North America, and was the first extensive work on the subject written for an English audience. Like many works produced at the early stages of colonization, it concentrates on establishing what the author considers basic facts about the territory. Hariot made use of some of the earlier Continental literature on American natural history, including Nicolas Monardes’s Joyful News out of the New Found World (1577). However, A Brief and True Report also appeared at a time when settling the New World was a controversial topic in England, with some believing that it was a waste of the nation’s resources. Sir Walter Raleigh, Hariot’s patron and one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorites at court at the time, was one of the leading supporters of an English effort at American colonization, a project in which Hariot had a long-term involvement as a teacher of navigation. Hariot’s book was an intervention in the debate over colonization, explicitly addressed to the supporters and well-wishers of the English colonization effort. It resembled other early English and Continental writings on the New World, including Monardes’s, in its promotional purposes. Hariot attempted to make settlement of the New World seem an attractive prospect for English people and a way of strengthening the English state.

The earlier sections of A Brief and True Report are devoted to the economic viability of a colony, both in terms of raising crops and exploiting other natural resources for export both and for the colony to sustain itself. The excerpted passage occurs near the end of the book. One thing that may have made the English reluctant to immigrate to the new lands or to think that colonies were economically viable was the presence of American Indians. In this passage, Hariot informs an English population with little direct knowledge of native populations that their presence is not a threat, and could even be an asset for the colony.

A Brief and True Report also appealed outside England as other Europeans were equally uninformed about Atlantic North America, and curious to learn more. An edition in four languages was published in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1590. More editions followed in the years after its first publication.

Author Biography

Thomas Hariot was one of the leading scientists of Elizabethan England. Of obscure background, he was born in 1560 and graduated from Oxford with a BA in 1580. Afterward, he moved to London, the center of English research in navigation. Hariot was part of a group working to advance English knowledge of Atlantic navigation in the hopes of establishing an English presence in the Americas, then dominated by Spain. Hariot’s outstanding skills in mathematics and astronomy were a valuable asset in this project. He taught navigation to sea captains employed by his patron Sir Walter Raleigh. There is some evidence that in 1584 Hariot accompanied a voyage to North America sponsored by Raleigh to search out a possible location for an English colony north of Spanish Florida. He learned the Algonquian language from Wanteo and Manchese, two members of that tribe who came to England in that voyage. In 1585 Hariot joined an expedition sponsored by Raleigh and led by Captain Richard Grenville to establish the first English colony in North America on the island of Croatoan (now Hatteras Island, North Carolina). Unlike many of the voyagers who returned to England with Grenville in late summer, Hariot remained a full year, returning with the rest of the colonists when the colony was abandoned in 1586. In 1588 he published the first printed description of Virginia, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), which included discussion of the indigenous inhabitants, natural history, and geography of the colony. The 1588 edition was followed by a much more elaborate edition published in 1590, which included a set of engravings by illustrator John White.

The topics covered in A Brief and True Report were not central to Hariot’s scientific interests, which centered on navigation, mathematics, and astronomy, and there is no indication that he did significant further work on them after returning to England.

In 1598, Hariot left Raleigh’s employ to work for the Earl of Northumberland, who gave him a pension and a place to live on his estate. In 1605, along with the earl, Hariot was caught up in the Gunpowder Plot to kill King James I. However, he was released soon afterward, while the earl was not.

Hariot’s religious views were those of a mainstream Elizabethan Protestant. Like many English people with American connections, Hariot developed the habit of snuffing tobacco, whose many virtues he had promoted in A Brief and True Report. He died of a cancerous ulcer in his nose.

Document Analysis

Thomas Hariot’s discussion of Algonquian culture in A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is aimed at English readers interested in American Indians and English colonization. Hariot emphasizes the similarities between the native people of North America and the English, and argues that American Indian societies did not present a significant barrier to English colonization.

This section of A Brief and True Report occurs near the end of the work, after the first two sections discuss the crops and other economic resources of the area. Its placement indicates that the people of the area are of secondary importance to the economic resources of a potential colony for Hariot and his English readers. Hariot was writing what would now be called an ethnography, a discussion of a particular people, their customs, and ways of life. The emergence of ethnographic writing in the European tradition is heavily associated with European expansion and particularly the encounter with Algonquians. Writing about the people of North America posed particular challenges for Europeans as they were not discussed in either the classical Greco-Roman tradition or Biblical literature, nor were they discussed in medieval travel literature such as The Travels of Marco Polo. Most of the existing literature on American Indians had been produced by Spanish explorers, addressed to a Spanish audience. Their literature dealt with the native societies of the areas Spain had conquered or contacted, who were very different from the North American peoples of the Virginia colony. Although some of this literature had been translated, most of Hariot’s English readers would have little background knowledge of American Indians.

The use of the term brief both describes the work itself and distinguishes it from a definitive study, which would probably have been published in Latin for all Europeans who could read. (A project for a larger, encyclopedic, work was abandoned when Hariot lost most of his papers in a boating accident.) A work published in English during the sixteenth century would not have found an audience on the Continent in untranslated form, as very few Europeans outside of England knew the language. However, such was the demand for information about America that the work was translated into French, German, and Latin shortly after its initial publication.

Colonial ethnographic writing had a purpose. Hariot was not collecting and disseminating information about American Indians for its own sake, but for the specific purpose of promoting colonial expansion, a controversial project with which Hariot and his patron, Sir Walter Raleigh, were deeply involved. The first paragraph identifies his thesis as demonstrating that those who live in North America do not pose a threat to potential colonization. This was part of the overall project of A Brief and True Report of making colonization as attractive as possible to the English. The fact that the proposed area was inhabited by indigenous people who might defend their territory effectively was one argument against establishing a colony, and Hariot’s evidence is marshaled with the primary purpose of showing that this argument was unjustified.

Since Hariot had only a small textual tradition to draw on, explaining Algonquian society to English readers was a particularly difficult challenge. Hariot overcame this challenge by discussing the life and society of Algonquians in Virginia in terms of their differences from and similarities to the English. Hariot used this strategy of emphasizing contrasts and similarities between American phenomena and things the English were familiar with elsewhere in A Brief and True Report, likening unfamiliar American plants to English plants.

Being among the very small number of English people familiar with the Algonquian language , Hariot spoke with authority on Algonquian society. He also had a leading role in interacting with the tribes during his stay with the English colonists at Roanoke, visiting Algonquian communities and conversing with the people. His own attitude toward American Indians was ambivalent, although he consistently emphasized their inferiority to the English. Hariot portrayed the English as wealthier, technologically superior, and, above all, as possessors of the true religion. The loose and scanty clothing worn by the Algonquians was generally regarded as a mark of primitiveness by early modern Europeans. Their towns were smaller and fewer. Native houses were made with poles, bark, rushes, and other organic material rather than brick or stone in the manner of the best houses in England. The Algonquians also lacked a system of writing, which means that they did not have a historical memory in the sense that the English did. They were forced to rely on oral tradition, which Hariot suggests is less useful than writing, as they were unaware of how much time had passed from the creation of the world.

This superiority would, in Hariot’s view, eventually be expressed in terms of English political domination. Hariot’s anticipation of a future English “government” of the Algonquians, which includes their conversion to Christianity, shows that he saw the relationship between the two peoples as one of English dominance and Native subordination, or the genocide or expulsion of all native peoples from the land.

However, Hariot also saw things in their culture to admire and did not portray the them as uncivilized “savages” or “barbarians” as did some other European writers on American Indian society. (He also did not employ the idea of the “noble savage” that put so-called civilized society to shame, a trope that would emerge in later European writing about American Indians.) Hariot was not promoting a discourse of racial essentialism such as would later become identified with European imperialism. He described Algonquian culture as inferior, but not the people themselves, who he described mostly in positive terms, emphasizing their skills and the way in which their civilization was similar, although inferior, to that of the English. Algonquian society is not shown as a radical alternative to English society, but as another society of the same mold as the English, simply an inferior version of the same thing, indicating that the native people might be assimilated relatively easily.

Although the Algonquians, like all non-Christians, lacked the true religion, Hariot saw them as potential converts rather than as satanically inspired enemies of the true faith. Admitting their polytheism, Hariot ascribes to them the belief in a single supreme God who created the world, along with the other gods. He also describes the Algonquians as believing in the immortality of the soul and its existence separate from the body. Like the Christian English, the Algonquians also believed that the good are rewarded in the afterlife while the bad are punished.. The issue of rewards and punishments after death was particularly important, as many believed that it was necessary for social order. Hariot suggested that Algonquian belief in the punishment of the bad after death contributed to the orderliness of their society. Since this process is ascribed specifically to the “simpler sort of people” it also helped uphold the hierarchy of Algonquian society.

The ways in which the Algonquian honor their gods are similar to the religious practices of the English. They “worship, praie and sing” in houses specifically set aside for religious purposes. This suggests that Hariot considered the American Indians ripe for conversion, since a parallel could be drawn between their beliefs and practices and those of the English. However, there is no evidence that Hariot or the expedition made any permanent converts to Christianity; Hariot portrays the American Indians he encountered as impressed with the power of the Bible, he Christian God, and his followers.

Hariot believed in this readiness to convert for two reasons. First, Hariot suggested that the “priests,” who he viewed as an intellectual class similar to the English clergy, were amenable to conversion through learning of Christianity and acknowledging the flaws in their own religion—a basically intellectual process. Second, the common people were impressed by the miracle-working power of the English God. Hariot depicts the Algonquians begging for the English to intercede with their God when they faced trouble, whether affecting an individual, such as sickness, or an entire community, such as drought. However, he does not claim that the prayers of the English were effective. The Bible was also viewed as an object possessing innate power, partly because of its nature as a written text. The first encounters the American Indians had with the written word did sometimes result in them viewing the ability of the English to communicate over time and space through marks on paper as supernatural.

Portraying Algonquians as potential Christian converts helped Hariot to promote colonization, as religiously motivated colonists might join the effort in hopes of converting the Algonquians, and converting them to Christianity would also diminish the potential threat they posed to the English. However, despite Hariot’s depiction of his own evangelical efforts and those of his fellow voyagers religion is only a minor theme compared to the economic issues addressed in A Brief and True Discourse, suggesting that Hariot viewed economic motives as primary in any attempt to establish a colony in North America.

Polytheism was not the only way Algonquian religion fell short of Christianity. Hariot claimed that it was idolatrous, representing gods in human form and worshipping them in the form of statues. Hariot suggests class stratification in describing the “common sort” as thinking that the statues are the gods themselves. The issue of idolatry was particularly important given the fact that England in the Elizabethan period was officially Protestant, but with a large Catholic minority. The religious conflicts of the Protestant Reformation were very much alive in Hariot’s time and English Protestants commonly attacked the Roman Catholic Church as being idolatrous. Calling the Algonquians idolatrous put them in a religious framework that English people could understand, and also implied that as the religious tenets of the Catholic Church had been reformed during the creation of the Protestant Church of England. So, too, could American Indian religion. Native beliefs also contrasted with Christianity in that the Algonquians believed that the first person created was a woman, while Christians believed the first person created was a man, Adam.

At this point, Hariot leaves the subject of religion to address the military capacity of the Algonquian. He emphasizes their technological inferiority to the English and the ease with which English people could colonize North America. In technology as well as religion, Hariot distinguishes between the aptitudes of other native cultures, which he viewed as inferior, and of the Algonquians themselves, which he described as “very ingenious.” Their perceived technological ignorance is illustrated in their inability to put a proper value on manufactured products, “they doe esteeme our trifles before things of greater value.” This statement implies that the English will have the advantage in bargaining, being able to exchange manufactured trifles for things of real value. The superiority of English technology was such that Hariot believed that the Algonquians might well “have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us” out of admiration for their abilities.” Using a very common trope among Europeans coming into contact with cultures at a lower technological level, Hariot suggests that the Algonquians viewed the works of the English as those of the gods. The submission of the Algonquians would lead to the improvement of their “civilitie and true religion” but only if the English practiced “good government.”

However, Hariot was willing to contemplate the possibility of violent conflict in colonizing Virginia. (In fact, the abandonment of the colony in 1586 was in part caused by American Indian hostility). Hariot is quite explicit in his anticipation of future conflicts, declaring that the Algonquians would “fear” the English. However, he does not exclude the possibility of coexistence or even “love” between the two peoples. Both fear and love, however, preclude the possibility of successful war against the English. (Machiavelli’s The Prince was widely read in Elizabethan England, and some of Hariot’s readers may have recalled the Italian’s famous argument that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved.)

The reason why English colonists would have little to fear from Algonquian warriors was not their lack of courage, but their technological and organizational inferiority. Hariot portrays Algonquian weapons as ineffective, at least in contrast to the iron and steel weapons common among the English. Their armor, made of bark rather than metal, is also inadequate for protection. Their towns are only weakly fortified, with wooden sticks and poles rather than the brick and stone walls used in European fortifications. War is based on skirmishing rather than pitched battle, and the Algonquians lacked the “discipline” of the English—the very disciplined European style of military organization. The best defense the Algonquians have when confronted by a hostile party of armed English, Hariot suggests, is running away. This particular passage hints at armed confrontations between Hariot’s English and the Algonquians, one of the few references to such. Hariot wished to downplay violent confrontation in favor of a picture of peaceable relations between the Algonquians and the English expedition, a model on which a potential permanent English colony could draw.

Hariot’s discussion of American Indian political organization presents them as a hierarchical society in the English—and European—mold, ruled by Wiroans, a word Hariot translates as the English word Lords, used to refer to the dominant landholding class in English society. Although many modern writers have praised American Indian societies for their egalitarianism, this would not have been viewed by Hariot or most early modern English people as praiseworthy. In their eyes, hierarchical organization was necessary for a people to be truly civilized and the fact that the Algonquians were organized in such a way was more evidence of their potential for civility. The model of social hierarchy, which Hariot presents Algonquian society as following, is fundamentally European, dominated by the Wiroans as lords, with priests as a separate religious and intellectual class, and with common people making up the lower classes, mirroring three estates of nobles, clergy, and workers characteristic of medieval European social theory. Hariot shows little awareness or acquaintance with Algonquian women, indicating that the vast majority of the contact between the English and the Algonquians took place between men of each group, and suggesting that his picture of Algonquian society underrates the significance of women. The Wiroans and priests exacted obedience from the common people in part by manipulating their religious feelings, which the priests are portrayed as understanding in a different way than their followers. However, the Algonquian hierarchy was not as fully developed or as elaborate as that of the English and their European contemporaries. Hariot also describes the existence of a system of laws, with punishments ordained for stealing, (indicating that they possess a notion of property, an important qualification for civilization), and whoremongering, indicating that they do not live in a state of sexual anarchy.

The decentralization of Algonquian society, with many of the Wiroans rulers of only one or a few towns, is also presented as a weakness. The Algonquians had, as Hariot described it, lords but no king standing above them, as in the English or European model. They were unable to muster the large armies characteristic of European warfare, although an army of eight hundred, the number Hariot specifies for the largest armies he encountered, could be quite effective against an English colony, if properly armed.

Essential Themes

Hariot envisioned a possible future of peaceful coexistence between English settlers and American Indians. The English would occupy the dominant position due to their technological and military superiority and their possession of religious truth. Any American Indians they encountered could learn both European technology and religion from English teachers, and eventually attain the English state of civility.

Subsequent English colonization in North America developed in a way very different from Hariot’s vision, however. In the short run, colonization in the Roanoke area where the research for Hariot’s book took place proved a disaster, with the disappearance of the famous Lost Colony of English settlers in 1586, the year Thomas Hariot left the colony. When serious English colonization efforts in continental North America resumed, after the year after the Roanoke disaster the most common pattern among English settlers was to forcibly displace any American Indians from their land rather than try to engage in cultural uplift. African slavery, which Hariot did not even mention (the first African slaves would arrive in Virginia about three decades after Hariot’s expedition) would further complicate the ethnic pattern from Hariot’s depiction of two peoples peacefully coexisting.

Although religious conversion efforts sporadically continued, the Protestant English were actually less interested in or successful at converting American Indians than were the Catholic French, partly because the French displayed a greater willingness to allow those they encountered to retain some of their customs while becoming Christians.

Some of the specific technological capabilities Hariot mentioned as being English played an important role in colonization, such as the use of “mathematicall instruments” for navigation, but his picture of an overall English technical and military superiority was oversimplified. English people proved dependent on native technologies associated with the growing of American crops such as corn. Hariot’s vision of American Indians accepting English leadership also proved unrealistic, as they did not view English technology as proving the overall superiority of English civilization, and vigorously and effectively challenged English domination for many decades. The American Indians also proved to be far more formidable as military opponents than Hariot envisaged, with the surprise attack and guerilla warfare proving effective in some encounters. However, English numbers and brutal tactics—coupled with diseases brought to the New World from England—eventually enabled the defeat of vast populations of American Indians. With the increased English perception of American Indians as enemies, polytheism was increasingly interpreted not as the proto-Christianity that Hariot saw, but as devil worship.)

  • Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. Print.
  • Harriot, Thomas. A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. Ann Arbor: Edwards Bros., 1931. Print.
  • Reeds, Karen. “Don’t Eat, Don’t Touch: Roanoke Colonists, Natural Knowledge, and Dangerous Plants of North America” European Visions: American Voices. Trustees of the British Museum, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
  • Shirley, John W. Thomas Harriot: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot and His World: Mathematics, Exploration, and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012. Print.
  • Moran, Michael G. Inventing Virginia: Sir Walter Raleigh and the Rhetoric of Colonization, 1584–1590. New York: Lang, 2007. Print.
  • Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Print.
  • Rukeyser, Muriel. Traces of Thomas Harriot. New York: Random, 1971. Print.
  • Stearns, Raymond Phineas. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1970. Print.

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