Africa — The Second Voyage to Guinea Set out by Sir George Barne, Sir Iohn Yorke, Thomas Lok, Anthonie Hickman and Edward Castelin, in the yere 1554. The Captaine whereof was M. Iohn Lok.

This passage, The Second Voyage to Guinea Set out by Sir George Barne, Sir Iohn Yorke, Thomas Lok, Anthonie Hickman and Edward Castelin, in the yere 1554. The Captaine whereof was M. Iohn Lok, recounts the travels of English sailors on a ship called the ‘Iohn Euangelist.’ It follows their journey from the Thames River to Guinea with meticulous quasi-ethnographic description. Despite the precision of its report though, one central matter is left ambiguous: its authorship. [1]

Throughout this volume and in this passage in particular, “Haklyut produc[es] an Africa which is at once familiar and unfamiliar, civil and savage, full of promise and full of threat.”[2] These chapters touching Africa oscillate between admiration for this unfamiliar land and culture, and the western compulsion to disavow all that is foreign. This conflict—at least within the Principal Navigations—is never truly resolved. As modern-day readers, we know which perspective of Africa ultimately took hold in England, but in the 16th century, the English/African relationship was still evolving, still undetermined. Disrespectful language of ‘othering’ is irrefutably present in these texts, but it plays a less defining role. This alienation is not yet England’s sole method for interpreting Africa–a phenomena that would ensue with the slave trade. For example, the second paragraph recites an account of English fraudulence, in which the African people are painted as the virtuous, yet firm enforcers, and the narrator openly notes the strength of their resolve in trading practices. The following passage represents a moment before this relationship was set in absolutist stone–a moment in which England still had the capacity to appreciate, even admire African culture and civilization.

And albeit they [3] goe in maner all naked, yet are many of them, and especially their women, in maner laden with collars, bracelets, hoopes, and chaines, either of gold, copper, or iuory. I [1] my selfe haue one of their brassets [4] of Iuory, weighing two pound and sixe ounces of Troy weight [5], which make eight and thirtie ounces: this one of their women did weare vpon her arme. It is made of one whole piece of the biggest part of the tooth [6], turned and somewhat carued, with a hole in the midst, wherein they put their handes to wear it on their arme [7]. Some haue on euery arme one, and as many on their legges, wherewith some of them are so galled, that although they are in maner made lame thereby, yet will they by no meanes leaue them off. Some weare also on their legges great shackles of bright copper, which they thinke to bee no lesse comely. They weare also collars, bracelets, garlands, and girdles, of certain blew stones like beads. Likewise some of their women weare on their bare armes certaine foresleeues made of the plates of beaten golde. On their fingers also they weare rings, made of golden wires, with a knot or wreath, like vnto that which children make in a ring of a rush[8]. Among other things of golde that our men bought of them for exchange of their wares, were certaine dog-chaines and collers.

They are very wary people in their bargaining, and will not lose one sparke [9]. of golde of any value. They vse weights and measures [10], and are very circumspect in occupying the same [11].. They that shall haue to doe with them, must vse them gently: for they will not trafique [12]. or bring in any wares if they be euill vsed. At the first voyage that our men had into these parties, it so chanced, that at their departure from the first place where they did trafick, one of them either stole a muske Cat [13]., or tooke her away by force, not mistrusting that that should haue hindered their bargaining in another place whither they intended to goe. But for all the haste they coulde make with full sailes, the fame of their misusage so preuented them, that the people of that place also, offended thereby, would bring in no wares: insomuch that they were inforced either to restore the Cat, or pay for her at their price before they could trafique there.

[1] According to A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, Volume VII (1824),  Haklyut “published [this text] in his second edition, under the name of Captain Jon Lok, instead of Robert Gainsh to whom it was ascribed in his first edition.” (Kerr, A General History) But how Kerr determined this authorship remains a mystery–nowhere in this chapter is its narrative voice identified. Curiously, this passage also appears, almost word for word, in an article called “The Adornment of West Africans” in Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr’s Decades of the New World (1555). 

[2] they] Guineans.

6 – brassard 

[3] brassets] archaic variant of brassard: armor for protecting the arm.
French brassard, from Middle French brassal, from Old French bras arm, from Old Italian bracciale, from braccio arm, from Latin bracchium. (Merriam Webster, “brasset”)

[4] Troy weight] A system of mass measurement, which has been used since the Middle Ages to weigh precious stones and metals. 1 troy ounce = 1.0971 avoirdupois ounce. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, “troy weight”)

[5] teeth] tusk. (Martyr, Decades)

[6]

Ivory Arm Cuff. 16th/18th Century. 1 1/4 x 4 5/16 in. diam. Detroit Institute of Arts.

[7] rush] Juncaceae. “A family of flowering plants commonly known as the rush family…that resemble grasses or sedges.” (Wikipedia, “Juncaceae”) Rush rings are rings made from these plants, typically used in unofficial marriages. (Oxford Dictionaries, “rush ring”)

sparke] spark; trace. Contemporary “spark” comes from Middle English sparke, from Old English spearca. (Merriam Webster, “spark”)

[8] very circumspect in occupying the same] very exact in their measurements. (Martyr, Decades)

[9] For example, Askia Muhammad, ruler of the Songhai Empire from 1493-1528  “was an enlightened emperor who carefully supervised the administration of the empire in an effort to root out corruption; he introduced an accurate system of weights and measurements, increased market inspectors and encouraged faire trade that brought great wealth to the empire.” (Encyclopedia of African American History, p. 106)

[10]  traffique] trade. (Martyr, Decades)

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 4.01.26 PM
Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts, 585.

[11] muske cat] Civet. A small, cat-like mammal found primarily in Tropical Asia and Africa. A strong “musky” scent can be extracted from a civet’s perineal glands—this is widely used as a fragrance and base for perfume even today. (Wikipedia, “Civet.”) “…the European Merchants buy of the young ones and…convey them into Europe out of Africk…[their musk] is said to be very excellent against the strangulations of the wombe ; and it is good against the Colick : It hath also vertue to purge the wombes of women, to purge the brain, and is applyed to many other diseases and infirmities.” (Topsell, The History of Four-footed Beasts, 586.) Uncertain as to whether this passage is referring to a live cat or “her” pelt.

 

Hans Burgkmair. Der Kunig von Gutzin. 1509. Woodcut on Paper. 267 mm. x 767 mm. The British Museum, London.
Hans Burgkmair. Natives of Africa and India. 1509. Woodcut on Paper. 267 mm. x 767 mm. The British Museum, London.

This woodcut is an impression after Hans Burgkmair’s 1508 frieze, also called Natives of Africa and India. The full print is more than 3 times as long as this segment, and is known as the “first multi-block woodcut frieze of ‘exotic peoples’ ever made in northern Europe.” [13] This work was commissioned to accompany Balthasar Springer’s account of his voyage to Africa, and–since Burgkmair never traveled to Africa–it is assumed that Springer provided the artist with first-hand drawings and visual evidence from his journey which became the basis for this frieze (ibid.). Earlier (and later) images of foreign peoples were based on exoticism and false conflation. And though Burgkmair’s figures are depicted with distinctly non-European characteristics, they diverge from earlier models of indigenous portrayals in that they are not represented as “unruly bands of crude, cartoonish, and bloodthirsty wild men [as was] the standard iconography for rendering newly discovered peoples, regardless of where they were found.” [14] Instead, Burgkmair seems committed to empiricism. This scene–in its creation by a European man, addressing a European audience–is inevitably imparted with novelty, but Burgkmair refrains from primitivising its figures to enhance this. The spear-bearing man turns deftly away from the viewer to refrain from exposing his nudity, the women intimately nurse their children, and the figures seem to be grouped as families–each of which were respected European tropes. And these figures also reflect familiar European customs of visual art. To return to the spear-bearer, he stands contrapposto–a stance used widely in western art to convey outward power, and to “suggest a calm and relaxed state of mind, an evenness of temperament” [15] internally. Further, “their bodies are proportionately constructed and are modeled to rotate in space using an artistic vocabulary developed in the Italian Renaissance.” [14]

Thus the representative style through which Burgkmair illustrates these African figures turns away from stereotypical reductionist exotica. As in the above Haklyut passage, Burkmair’s frieze represents a moment in which these indigenous people were novel in the eyes of Europe, but no less human as such. 

 

[13]: Mark P. McDonald.  ‘Burgkmair’s Woodcut Frieze of the Natives of Africa and India.Print Quarterly. Vol. 20, No. 3 (September 2003): 227.

[14]: Stephanie Leitch. ‘Burgkmair’s Peoples of Africa and India (1508) and the Origins of Ethnography in Print.’ The Art Bulletin, Vol. 91, No. 2 (June 2009): 134.

[15]:
Wikipedia, “Contrapposto,” last modified 23 December 2016,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrapposto

 

Bibliography

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *