Happy Thanksgiving, or, When worlds collide …

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Theodor de Bry’s wonderfully illustrated Grand Voyages

Being an American living abroad, one of the holidays from home that I miss the most is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a holiday that isn’t tethered to any religious celebration or really to any kind of national remembrance. Instead, boiled down to its most basic form, it’s a day when you get together with those who mean something to you in your life and you give thanks for that, usually around a large, stuffed bird and many bottles of wine.

In elementary school (or primary school, for you British readers) you are taught all about the story of “The first Thanksgiving”, which is the story of the Pilgrims coming over from England and having to be taught to survive by Squanto and his Wampanoag bunch; you get to make hand-turkeys, sing songs and get to eat loads of rubbish.

What’s not as obvious as a kid is that this “First Thanksgiving” was actually just one in a long running series of feasts that were shared between many wildly different cultures. Ever since European explorers began landing on the shores of the Americas they had come into contact, and often had to rely on the goodwill of the native people.

The title page of the first volume of de Bry's Grand Voyages, printed in 1590.

Today’s item is a collection of some of the earliest recordings of these meetings of two worlds: Parts 1-8 of Theodor de Bry’s Grand Voyages, printed between 1590 and 1599 in Frankfurt and illustrated with some of the earliest realistic depictions life in the Americas.

de Bry's map of the Roanoke colony (the first detailed printed map of the colony), based on John White's works.

TypGF.B90WH is a large folio volume of these first eight parts of de Bry’s landmark work, the first of which is a Latin translation of Thomas Harriot’s A brief and true report of the new found land of Virginia, printed in London, 1588. This first part is heavily illustrated with precise engravings based on colonist John White’s famous watercolours.

de Bry's Princes of Virginia, based on John White's watercolours.

This volume was successful enough that de Bry published another volume in the following year chronicling the French exploration of Florida. In this volume, de Bry seems to be just as amazed by the fauna as he is by the natives.

Natives of Florida and their daily struggles.

The series became a popular hit, mainly because each part was accompanied by realistic illustrations of the events described by these famous explorers, many of the illustrations made from engravings of first hand observations.  The series was continued after de Bry’s death by his sons, and would eventually be expanded to over thirty volumes. St Andrews copy was owned by no less than three famous and well-to-do Scottish bibliophiles: Francis Hay, Earl of Errol, Sir Thomas Henryson, Lord Chesters, and William Guild.

Sometimes the meeting of worlds was not a peaceful affair.

These prints are very rare and are some of the earliest authentic images of the Americas (previous accounts were either crude or, more often, imaginary). The illustrations focus on the customs, habits, battles, diet and culture of the natives, and also record the early meetings between the Europeans and the Native Americans.

A more traditional kind of feast.

Growing up, you care less and less about the vague idea of the “First Thanksgiving”, but the warmth of the holiday still remains, because, in the end, the day is all about spending time and sharing a meal with those folks you care about. This series provides an important contemporary view of the history of the early days of European exploration and settlement in America and helps put the true concept of “Thanksgiving” into perspective. Leafing through this amazing collection, you realize that behind each of these illustrations is a story of some brave and scared colonist or explorer who came to see a New World inhabited by strange and wonderful people, and, in some cases, someone who was thankful to have survived the whole ordeal and gained a wider understanding of their quickly expanding world.


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1 thoughts on "Happy Thanksgiving, or, When worlds collide …"

  • 400 years of metamorphosis: Theodor de Bry and Natalie Taylor on Jaques le Moyne De Morgues | Echoes from the Vault
    Friday 16 August 2013, 12.56pm

    […] November 2011 a post on this blog highlighted Theodor de Bry’s Grand Voyages. This is a hefty and multi-faceted tome, and, as a […]


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