To the British Museum, to the New World exhibition, which focuses on John White's drawings and paintings of the Algonquians encountered in Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh's adventurers in the late sixteenth century. White travelled with Thomas Harriot, producing a book titled A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virgina, perhaps the first work of anthropology, tying the discipline for centuries with the prospect of colonialism.
A few paintings (of Elizabeth I and her dashing navigators) borrowed from the National Portrait gallery set the scene, showing the detailed extravagant symbolism of cloth which is reminiscent of owambe culture. I had not realised before that John Dee was as much a military man as he was a geomancer and mystic, being one of the brains behind the colonial expansion.
Elizabethan England was a sumptuary world, where only ladies could take red cloth and certain noble men wear gold-leaf tights. The Elizabethans viewed the world from this sartorially graduated perspective, helping to direct the way in which the Algonquians were studied and painted.
Of the paintings of the tribesmen, a couple stood out. One is of a shaman, with a pouch for herbs his only cloth. He has his hands raised in the air. There is an outraged contemporary Protestant description of his behaviour in the caption underneath. This was the first encounter with tobacco in modernity. The other image is that of a ritual (see the image above), with men and women dancing in a circle around three women clutched together at the centre, with totem-pole like posts marking the circumference. Of the meaning behind this pre-colonial ritual, we can have no clue. All that remains of a culture that has gone are these astonishing paintings in Harriot's book. Everything may disappear and become dust, including cultures that were once vibrant with meaning, and the people who animated them.
White persuaded 100 men, women and children to set up a colony in Virginia, to be called the City of Raleigh. White became its Governor. Facing increasing hostility from the host population, White sailed back to England for back-up. His return was delayed by the Spanish Armada - all available ships were to be used to fight the Spanish. When he eventually returned to what became known as Roanoke in 1590 the colonists had disappeared. Carved into a tree were the words 'Gone to Croatoan' - reference to a nearby island. The colonists were never found. A few years later, Jamestown was permanently settled, and history tells us the rest..
In the final room of the exhibition is a sixteenth century globe from the Elizabethan Court. I bent down to look at how what became known as Nigeria was mapped. Across the whole region, and reaching far into Cameroon, were the letters Biafar. Borno was also clearly marked, as were the mountains in the far East of Nigeria and into Cameroon, as was Lake Volta to the West.