Thomas Harriot was the first English scientist to visit and write about North America. Of obscure background, Harriot graduated from Oxford in 1580. At
Oxford, he would have been exposed to the geography lectures of Richard Hakluyt, a leading promoter of British interests in America.
After graduation, Harriot made his way to London, where he became involved with a circle of men interested in exploration, navigation, and cartography.
He applied his exceptional mathematical and astronomical knowledge to navigation problems, conducting classes in applied mathematics for sea captains
and other seafarers and improving navigational techniques and instruments. He devoted some fruitless effort to the classic problem of early modern
navigators: the determination of the longitude, or east-west position, of a ship at sea, a problem not fully solved until the eighteenth century.
In 1582 or 1583, Harriot met Sir Walter Raleigh and acquired his patronage, moving into the top floor of Raleigh’s residence at Durham House in late
1583. In 1585, Harriot crossed the Atlantic to Raleigh’s first, ill-fated colony in Roanoke. (There is inconclusive evidence that he also may have sailed on
the preliminary voyage the year before.) While there, he mapped the shoreline and some of the interior, learned some of the Algonquian language, and
devised a simple phonetic alphabet for it. He made extensive notes on the natural history of the region, the society and customs of the Native Americans,
and its prospects for colonization, in hopes of writing an encyclopedic treatment of the area on his return. Unfortunately, many of Harriot’s notes, maps,
and charts were lost in the abandonment and evacuation of the colony in 1586. He returned with the rest of the colonists that July and published a much
shorter work than he had originally planned.
A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) was the first published description in English of what was to become the mid-South
colonial region, as well as a promotional piece for Raleigh’s continuing plans for a colony. Harriot was familiar with some of the previous scientific and
medical literature on the New World produced by Spanish writers, such as the physician Nicols Monardes, whose work was available in English
translation as Joyfull Newes out of the New Founde Worlde. In addition to discussion of the natural history and geography of the proposed colonial site,
Harriot discussed potentially profitable New World crops, including corn, squash, and tobacco. Like many in Raleigh’s circle, he became an avid tobacco
smoker. (He eventually died of cancer, and is often claimed to be the first recorded smoker to die of it.)
Harriot also experimented with the growing of European crops in America and claimed that oats, barley, and peas could all be grown there successfully.
His promoter’s optimism can be seen in his claim that tropical crops, such as sugar and bananas, could also be grown in the region and that viticulture
was a possibility. Harriot also discussed the mineral resources of the region, claiming that alum and saltpeter were available and that copper, silver, and
iron could be mined. Other exploitable resources included furs, silkworms, sassafras, and civet cats.
He noted the lack of metal weapons among the native peoples and surmised that the English could defeat them with little difficulty, after which the natives
could be easily brought under English sovereignty and Christianized. Claiming to have conversed with their priests, he depicted their religion as very
similar to Christianity. He also claimed that the Native Americans were overawed by the power of the English and that this led them to believe the English
God must be more powerful than their own.
A Briefe and True Report was widely circulated in England and Europe. In 1589, it was included in the first edition of Hakluyt’s An Account of the Principal
Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. It also attracted the attention of a Flemish publisher, Theodore de Bry, who was particularly interested in
publishing work on America. In 1590, Harriot’s work came out in English, German, French, and Latin editions, becoming one of the first and most
influential texts introducing America north of the Spanish possessions to European readers. De Bry’s versions included engravings based on the paintings
of John White, who had accompanied Harriot to Roanoke.
Before his death in 1621, Harriot also wrote a history of the Roanoke expedition, probably to defend Raleigh from his critics. The history was never
published and is now lost.
William E. Burns
See also: Exploration; Native American-European Relations; Roanoke Colony.
Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science. Aldershot, Hants, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.
Shirley, John W. Thomas Harriot: A Biography. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1983.
Stearns, Raymond Phineas. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.Thomas Harriot (Oxford, 1560 Londra, 2 luglio 1621) ¨ stato un … Allnewhairstyles
Harriot, Thomas 1560–1621 Photo Gallery
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