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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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One of the more endearing woodland creatures of the Appalachian hardwoods where I grew up is the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans).  My uncle was always fighting with one that was storing its winter nuts in the roof of the ramshackle log cabin owned by my great-great grandfather.  The nocturnal creatures have huge anime eyes which glisten in their small anxious faces.  They are extremely social and clever at stocking their winter larder.  Although we think of them as subsisting on nuts, this is really their winter provender: during the clement months they eat a wide diet of berries, buds, mushrooms, and flowers…as well as invertebrates, small animals, eggs, and even nestlings (I always imagine the original ancestors of the primates were not unlike the clever and versatile squirrels).  Coincidentally, flying squirrels do not fly, but can glide from tree to tree by stretching out their special sheetlike membrane (which is called a patagium).

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One would think that we would know all there is to know about flying squirrels–perhaps not the species in remote forests of Vietnam, but at least the three American species (there are also two closely related northern species: Glaucomys sabrinus & Glaucomys oregonensis).  Yet this turns out to be wrong.  This year (2019), Jonathan Martin, a professor of forestry in Wisconsin, was exploring the forest at night with a black light when he made a shocking discovery.  He heard some squirrels rustling in his bird feeder and turned the light on them and discovered that, under ultraviolet light they fluoresce hot pink!  The North American genus (Glaucomys) of flying squirrels have a rave-tastic secret color. Sadly most of the photos I could find of this phenomena, were pictures of sad little moth eaten flying squirrel pelts in natural history museums, but here is a black light picture which shows that it is the pale bottom half of the squirrel which glows pink under UV light.

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Hidden UV patterns are common among flowers and invertebrates (spiders and scorpions are particular masters).  Even parrots and amphibians are known to utilize splotches of fluorescent color for secret in-species communications.  Yet fluorescent coloration was unknown in mammals until present.  The discovery is so new that we don’t yet know what it is for…or even whether it is a trait shared by some off the numerous old-world flying squirrels.  More research is necessary, and Ferrebeekeeper will try to keep up with the theories (I suspect that, as with parrots and spiders, it is a way for squirrels to keep track of each other in the three dimensional maze of dark forest canopies).  Still it is good to see that this mainstay of childhood joy from 1980s skateboards and puffy stickers has a natural home in the great forests of North America.  The producers of Miami Vice would be proud…although perhaps they would be dismayed to see that the squirrels’ white light colors are normal earth tones.

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The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492.  Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed.  People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened.  Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.

The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty.  Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people.  The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling.  Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world.  It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus.  Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves.  Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%.   Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe).  The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease.  The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.

In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease.  During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved.   When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization.  Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them.  But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination.  A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”

Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either.  It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?).  In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic.  The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary.  In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China.  Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.

Smallpox among the Aztecs

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