Red Indians and how to tame them

The Elizabethans’ colonial voyages brought them into contact with a people very different level of civilisation from their own—the ‘Indians’ of the New World, as is illustrated by the account written in 1588 by Thomas Harriot  1, the eminent mathematician, astronomer and explorer.

“They are a people clothed with loose mantles made of deer skins, and aprons of the same round about their middles; all else naked. (…) [They have] no edge tools or weapons of iron or steel to offend us withall, neither know they how to make any: those weapons that they have, are only bows made of witch-hazel, and arrows of reeds, flat edged truncheons also of wood about a yard long, neither have they any thing to defend themselves but targets made of barks, and some armours made of sticks wickered together with thread.

A chief Lord of Roanoke

Their towns are but small, and near the sea coast but few, some containing but 10 or 12 houses, some 20, the greatest that we have seen have been but of 30 houses: if they be walled it is only done with barks of trees made fast to stakes, or else with poles only fixed upright and close one by another. (…)

Making the boat

(…) Their manner of wars amongst themselves is either by sudden surprising one another most commonly about the dawning of the day, or moonlight, or else by ambushes, or some subtle devices. Set battles are very rare, except it fall out where there are many trees, where either part may have some hope of defence, after the delivery of every arrow, in leaping behind some or other.

An old man in his winter clothing

If there fall out any wars between us and them, what their fight is likely to be, we having advantages against them so many manner of ways, as by our discipline, our strange weapons and devices else, especially by ordnance great and small, it may be easily imagined; by the experience we have had in some places, the turning up of their heels against us in running away was their best defence. In respect of us they are a people poor, and for want of skill and judgement in the know-ledge and use of our thine gs, do esteem our trifles before things of greater value: notwithstanding, in their proper manner, considering the want of such means as we have, they seem very ingenious; for although they have no such tools, nor any such crafts, sciences and arts as we, yet in those things they do, they show excellency of wit.

Carrying children

And by how much they upon due consideration shall find our manner of knowledges and crafts to exceed theirs in perfection, and speed for doing or execution, by so much the more is it probable that they should desire our friendship and love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us. Whereby may be hoped, it means of good government be used, that they may in short time be brought to civility, and the embracing of true religion.

Some religion they have already, which although it be far from the truth, yet being as it is, there is hope it may be the easier and sooner reformed.

Thomas Hariot, ‘A Brief And True Report’, The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-90, ed. D.B.Quinn (Hakluyt Soc., 2nd ser., civ, 1955), i, 368-72

Engravings by Theodor de Bry, 1528-1598. Based on watercolor illustrations by White, John, fl. 1585-1593.

  1. Thomas Harriot (Oxford, ca. 1560 – London, 2 July 1621) — or spelled Harriott, Hariot, or Heriot — was an English astronomer, mathematician, ethnographer, and translator. He is sometimes credited with the introduction of the potato to the British Isles. Harriot was the first person to make a drawing of the Moon through a telescope, on 26 July 1609, over four months before Galileo. After graduating from St Mary Hall, Oxford, Harriot travelled to the Americas, accompanying the 1585 expedition to Roanoke island funded by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. Harriot was a vital member of the venture, having translated and learned the Carolina Algonquian language from two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo. On his return to England he worked for the 9th Earl of Northumberland. At the Earl’s house, he became a prolific mathematician and astronomer to whom the theory of refraction is attributed.