Read The Middle Grounds section in Chapter 2 of your textbook and then analyze the engraving with your newfound knowledge. The image below is entitled “Vespucci Awakens a Sleeping America.” Johanes Stradanus engraved it in 1600. What does the image tell us about how the Europeans viewed the Native Americans? What does it tell us about how the Europeans saw themselves in the context of new world exploration? (The image is an engraving of a European’s first encounter with the New World)
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Vespucci Awakens a Sleeping America: A Visual Representation of European Perspectives in Early Colonial Encounters
The 1600 engraving “Vespucci Awakens a Sleeping America” by Johannes Stradanus provides insights into how Europeans viewed Native Americans and their role in the New World during the early colonial period.
The image depicts explorer Amerigo Vespucci arriving at the shoreline and awakening the sleeping female figure of America from her slumber. This visual representation symbolizes how Europeans viewed themselves as bringing civilization, knowledge and Christianity to the “uncivilized” lands they were “discovering” (Cronon, 2003)1.
America is portrayed as a naked, idle female – suggesting Europeans viewed Native Americans as primitive, innocent and in need of European guidance and governance. Her sleeping posture implies Native Americans were unaware and untouched by wider world developments prior to European contact.
Meanwhile, Vespucci is dressed in elaborate European clothing, holding a cross and book – signifying how Europeans saw themselves as emissaries delivering religion and learning. His active role in awakening the passive America reinforces the notion that Europeans were the dominant actors propelling historical change and progress through colonial expansion (Said, 1978)2.
Overall, the engraving provides insights into prevailing European attitudes during early colonialism. It depicts Native Americans as uncivilized peoples in need of enlightenment from European explorers, who are portrayed as advancing history by introducing Native populations to Christianity, knowledge and civilization through colonial initiatives (Cronon, 2003)1. The image thus serves as a visual manifestation of how Europeans legitimized colonialism through perceived cultural and racial superiority.
In text citations:
Cronon, W. (2003). Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Macmillan.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage.
Deloria, P. J. (1998). Playing Indian. Yale University Press.
Berkhofer, R. F. (2008). The white man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present. Vintage.