Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 20 August 2019

The Atlantic World, the Senses, and the Arts

Abstract and Keywords

In 1825, the father of gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, proposed that the perfection of the senses in Western history coincided with the European encounter with America. How exactly did novel sensations of pleasure and pain change people on both sides of the Atlantic? Smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, and touching changed profoundly for those who experienced the opening of the Atlantic world. This article uses the classical ‘five senses’ organisation of Western physiology as an organising principle, doing so for convenience's sake rather than to suggest that it operated as a universal structure of sensing in every culture of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. For smelling, it concentrates on the East Indies and West Indies, for hearing on Africa and Ibero-America, for tasting Central America and the West Indies (with a side glance at Africa), and for seeing north Europe and North America.

Keywords: Atlantic world, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, sensations, pleasure, pain, Africa, five senses, physiology, Europe, Americas

In 1825, the father of gastronomy, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, proposed that the perfection of the senses in Western history coincided with the European encounter with America.1 The fortuitous discovery that the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru possessed treasures (the potato, vanilla, and chocolate) that outshone Aztec gold and Potozi's silver occasioned the refinement of taste, for the press of new sensations led to a conscious effort to organize sense and explore pleasure. While Brillat-Savarin's claim that modernity gave the West a sense of the body may seem an expression of romantic audacity rather than proper historical hypothesis, the first chapters of The Physiology of Taste spur the imagination to conceive how the transatlantic exchanges of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries moved people's sense of the world to a new consciousness, a new aesthetics.

How exactly did novel sensations of pleasure and pain change people on both sides of the Atlantic? We should not follow Brillat-Savarin by conceiving that the experience of the new led to a reorientation of human being away from spirit and towards the body, or concluding that the Old World's encounter with the New inspired a hedonism that led to a global economy predicated on the serving of appetite.2 Nevertheless, smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, and touching changed profoundly for those who experienced the opening of the Atlantic world. Here we will notice signal transformations of the sensorium by examining arts whose practices took up aesthetic innovations (p. 131) explicitly, as well as some conditions of life in which they were concretized unthinkingly.

Because novelty brings to attention the qualities of sensation, our discussion favours early—often the earliest—experiences, rather than later. While this survey uses the classical ‘five senses’ organization of Western physiology as an organizing principle, it does so for convenience's sake, not to suggest that it operated as a universal structure of sensing in every culture of Europe, Africa, and the Americas. My materials were chosen to suggest the extent and penetration of aesthetic experiences on both sides of the Atlantic. For smelling I concentrate on the East Indies and West Indies, for hearing on Africa and Ibero-America, for tasting Central America and the West Indies (with a side glance at Africa), for seeing north Europe and North America.

I take up this enquiry cognizant that somewhat before 1492 Europe had begun to reconceive the materiality of things and the nature of experience as intellectuals began exploring antiquity, and merchants the Orient.

The Nose

The primacy of the East can be seen in the art most closely associated with the sense of smell—perfumery. The Islamic Middle East placed a premium upon refined fragrances, whose value was certified in the Koran. Olfactory imagery dominates its representation of paradise. The faithful who cross the bridge Al Sirat in the Garden of Paradise gain access to the pool of Al Cawthar, where thirst is quenched forever with waters as fragrant as musk. In the Seventh Heaven the devout stroll through fields smelling of hyacinth, saffron, and musk and rest in bowers attended by perfumed Houris. The belief that perfume was food for the soul explained the energy of Islamic experiments in distilling natural odours. In the tenth century, Avicenna volatilized the oil of flowers, creating attar of roses and hyacinths, and adding liquid fragrance to the traditional gums and dried flowers. When the art of perfuming effloresced in Europe during the fifteen century, it burgeoned in Italy, first in Venice, the city-state with the most extensive trade relations with the Islamic world, then in Florence at the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Novella, and finally in Rome in the household of the noble Frangiapani family.3

Before the influx of Eastern materials and techniques from the Islamic world, Europeans sweetened the odour of their rooms, clothes, and persons by a few traditional methods. Strewing flowers (cut or dried) or herbs in chests, on church pews, among linens, and on cadavers was the commonest way of brightening the smell of one's surroundings. Public houses customarily planted boxes of flowers at the windows to freshen those spaces in temperate months. In winter, fumigating spaces by smoking (p. 132) juniper, or some other resinous wood, masked the funk of human occupation.4 Incense (frankincense and myrrh of the Scriptures, juniper, liquidamber) adorned the atmosphere of the grander of Europe's sacred spaces—visible prayer ascending to heaven. The Islamic East introduced rose waters, fragrant powders, animal musks, and gums. Inspired by Eastern examples the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella introduced cosmetic unguents and lily water. The Frangipani family in Rome created a mixture composed of spices, orris root, civet, and musk (imported from India, home of the musk deer, via Turkey at great expense) and sold in a small perforated box, a cassolette, carried on one's belt or in one's pocket. The portable musk ball developed into the sine qua non of European courtiers, the pomander. The nobility of Italy, Germany, France, and England smelled of musk and citrus from the late sixteenth century to the eighteenth century.

Perfumer and botanist Mercutio Frangipani accompanied Christopher Columbus on his first voyage across the WesternOcean. His sensitive nose may have been the first on board that detected the perfume of land at sea. The nose was the sense organ by which the European first encountered the New World, and the literature of discovery is punctuated by scenes of detecting the western continent on the breeze as (to use the words of William Strachey) ‘we smell a sweet savour’.5 Frangipani entered world history when he detected Antigua as a cloud of perfume hanging over the Caribbean, isolated the source as the Plumeria alba (commonly called the Frangipani), brought it back to Europe, fixed the scent in spirits of wine, and naturalized the flower's growth in Italy.6 A relative soaked glove leather in Frangipani spirits, lined the interiors with civet, and ignited in the Spanish court a craze for perfumed gloves among the titled classes of Europe.

John Stowe, the antiquarian, observed that perfume was not widely known in England before Edward de Vere's gift of perfumed gloves to Queen Elizabeth I in the fifteenth year of her reign. (The Annales—year 1585). Brought from Italy, the queen's gloves smelled of civet and Frangiapani … what came to be known as the earl of Oxford's perfume. Out of the ranks of England's alchemists Ralph Rabbards emerged to service the new courtly fashion for scent, concocting floral waters and sachet powders.7 Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed west in 1583 equipped with Rabbard's lotions and six pomanders when seeking the North-West Passage in the Arctic north. To the south Sir Walter Raleigh trekked with perfumes to scent his leather buskins. Neither would contribute anything to the olfactory enrichment of humankind, for Gilbert sought China beyond the expanse of ice, and Raleigh's eyes were so besotted with gold that his nose did not register the glories of Guiana. Their Spanish and Portuguese predecessors, however, were not so insensitive. Spaniards in the sixteenth century brought tobacco, sassafras, allspice, vanilla, West Indian Bay, Peruvian Balsam, Heliotrope, the Balsam of Talu, gum storax out of the West to join the traditional musks, (p. 133) florals, and fragrant barks in the ingredients chest of Europe's perfumers. These new ingredients did not transform the art of perfumery, only enriched the range of scent. Yet because alchemy promoted a therapeutic value to fumigants and perfumes, the expansion of active elements in perfumers' mixtures inspired great hope in their medical efficacy.8 The curative power ascribed to sassafras by natural historian Nicolas Monardes contributed to its incorporation in a wide variety of sachet powders.

Of all the aromatic substances that crossed the Atlantic during the sixteenth century, tobacco would have the greatest consequence. If the indigenous peoples of the Americas did not promote the pharmaceutical powers of sassafras greatly, they celebrated tobacco as a sacred substance vested with immense power to do good to body and spirit. In the earliest of all native medical codices, the Badianus manuscript,9 the Aztec physician Martin de la Cruz described two kinds of tobacco, supplied their therapeutic applications, provided illustrations of their natural configurations, and indicated uses as an ingested medicine and an inhaled incense. The inhalation of fumes of henbane as a cure for pulmonary disorders had been a customary medicinal practice in Europe and the Middle East since antiquity. Consequently smoking a burning vegetable was not so great a novelty to prevent Europeans from embracing an America habit, particularly given the pronounced narcotic calm that smoking produced. Cortés brought the first sample to Spain in 1518. Europeans were cultivating tobacco crops in the West Indies for local consumption by 1531. Importation of seeds of Nicotiana tobacum by Franciscan friar André Thevet in 1555 and Nicotiana rustica by Jean Nicot in 1560 into France led to the production of both snuff and smoking tobacco as panaceas, curing headaches and clearing the ‘superfluous humors of the brain’. By 1571, Monardes had discovered thirty-one maladies that tobacco cured, documenting them in De hierba panacea and inspiring an intense European demand for the plant. When he turned to the effects of the smoke, Monardes likened it to the oriental spice bague whose sweet smell and taste produced trances. ‘In like sort the rest of the Indians for their pastime, do take the smoke of the Tobacco, for to make them selves drunk withal, and to see the visions, and things that do represent to them, wherein they do delight.’10 The intoxicating effect of tobacco smoke explains the favoured characterization in English of ‘drinking smoke’ when describing inhalation of the fumigant. For those habituated to smoke, the scent of tobacco provoked as much pleasure as a floral scent.

Attention to native pharmacopoeia and ritual plant uses led to an expansion of the odoriferous materials imported from the New World. The fragrant sap of the Casarilla (Croton eleutheria) from the Bahamas found its way into soaps and unguents. The French in Martinique saw the natives adorn themselves with the aromatic blossoms of (p. 134) the Talauma and exported it. The Spaniards did the same with the Rondeletia of Cuba and Mexico.11 By 1700, the classical stock of ingredients employed by Italian perfumers of 1500 had increased 100 per cent by additions from America.

If perfumery was a Western art, the indigenous peoples of America possessed an aesthetic appreciation of odour commensurate with those of the conquistadores. José de Acosta observed, ‘The Indians are great lovers of flowers, and in new Spaine more then in any other part of the world, and therefore they are accustomed to make many kindes of Nosegaies, which there they call Suchilles, with such prettie varietie and art, as nothing can be more pleasing … at this day they use the principall flowers of Castile, to that end, for that they grow better there than here, as Gilli-flowers, Roses, Jasmins, Violets, Orange flowers, and other sorts which they have transported out of Spaine.’12 Like Europeans, the natives incorporated the best foreign scents into an established way of presenting odours, a customary method of floral arrangements.

Yet literary representations did not make agreeable fragrance the primary olfactory engagement between settlers and indigenous peoples. The tendency of various native peoples to use animal fat as an insulation applied to bare skin and the propensity of that fat to grow rancid led to ample comment throughout the colonial period on the malodorousness of Indians. The paradox was that the same accounts often ascribed extraordinary sensitivity to natives' olfactory sense—a capacity to smell game on the wind or distinguish between the various ethnicities of Europeans by the scent of their hands.13 By the end of the sixteenth century, the rank odour of the native became so commonplace a judgement that it could be deployed in witty critiques of European excess. Pedro Oroz rebukes Spanish settlers in 1585: ‘You are the ones who smell bad to me and cause my illness, for you live as though you were not Christians, and bear yourselves so foppishly that the Indians smell to me of heaven and console me and impart health to me.’14

The Tongue

Brillat-Savarin's maxim that human appetite rules the world finds confirmation in the history of early modern exploration. Indeed the idea that the hunger for spice drove world exploration became dogma over the twentieth century; so much so that (p. 135) revisionists now feel obliged to insist that copper and other metals had equal influence.15 Yet Charles Corn in The Scents of Eden and Wolfgang Schivelbusch in Tastes of Paradise have kept the story of the construction of the first world drug culture across the Indian and Atlantic oceans current and popular.16 Corn and Schivelbusch suggest that the effect of spice, sugar, tobacco, caffeine, and capsicum on the human body was so pronounced and pleasurable that these items were embraced immediately as a kind of biological response with a minimum of cultural mediation. This was not the case. Only sugar inspired this immediate universal desire. As with scents, new tastes had to be framed as remedies or combined in a familiar form of experience to become widely accepted.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate all became popular beverages in Europe within a short span of time during the first half of the seventeenth century. They did so by being consumed in a manner at odds with the original way they were prepared and ingested in the Islamic Middle East, China, and Central America. Coffee was brewed hot and straight in Turkey and Yemen. Tea was brewed for three minutes after a brief rinse of the leaves with hot water—no additives—in China. Chocolate was mixed with corn flour, hot chilli, vanilla, and spices and frothed in hot water in Mexico. In other parts of the Indies it was served cold. In northern Europe all would eventually be consumed with the addition of milk and sugar. Ignorance of the Chinese language can explain why Tom Garroway, the coffee purveyor who introduced tea into England in 1656, boiled his Hyson leaves several hours, then put leaves and liquor in a cask to steep several weeks, then drew off mugs of cold ‘tea’ to patrons to heat before the fire like cider. Given the tannic kick of the beverage there is little wonder why consumers wished to cut the bitterness with a sweetener and cream.

The English would not know how to prepare tea properly until Queen Catherine of Braganza taught the ladies of the court during the Restoration. Portugal's China traders had schooled the queen in the art of brewing and sipping.

Seventeenth-century Europeans knew about native ways of preparing coffee and chocolate. The cultivation, processing, and preparation of coffee became generally known with publication in 1583 of Bavarian Leonhard Rauwolf's account of ‘Chaube’.17 The special qualities of chocolate were announced to Europe in Hernán Cortés' second letter: ‘una taza de este precioso brevaje promete un hombre de andaar un dia sin tomar alimento’—‘a cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk a day without eating’ (Cartas de relacíon de la conquesta de la Nueva España). It remained an exclusive imported pleasure of the Spanish until 1606 when the Italian merchant Antonio Carletti secured some and spread its use to his native country. Consumption spread (p. 136) after courtiers sweetened the drink in the seventeenth century.18 Thomas Gage's The English American detailed the drink in 1643 and again in 1648 in A Survey of the West Indies. When the first English chocolate house opened in Bishopsgate in 1658, it sold chocolate Spanish court style with sugar, not Aztec style.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate all tasted bitter to Europeans when first encountered. Yet Europeans registered the stimulation that caffeine and theobromine in the beverages produced, and ascribed great medical value to it. Early modern herbals regularly recommended that bitter decoctions be rendered palatable by dulcifying them with a sweetener (honey or sugar) and cream. The medicalization of the new placed new sensations into a familiar framework, and provided a warrant for revelling in novel tastes and somatic effects by connecting them with tried and true ingredients and recipes. Thus the English cup of Assam with milk and sugar, the latte, and the mug of sweet cocoa.

New things lodged themselves in other people's mouths and desires at different velocities. The chilli pepper sped around the equator before 1550, its heat being appreciated by a multitude of peoples in the tropic zone, yet incapable of supplanting pepper or ginger north of Hungary until the twentieth century. The acidity of tomatoes found favour in the Mediterranean, but the first ‘pomo de oro’ brought to England in the 1590s tasted ‘rank’ (i.e. rancid) to herbalist John Gerard. The embrace or rejection of novel tastes depended in great measure on the eating practices in place among a people—fish eaters chew a new variety of fish more readily than grain eaters. While sugar, particularly after the Brazilian plantations began mass shipments across the Atlantic, found immediate broad favour, transmuting from a royal delicacy to a common treat, other staple foods spread because of reasons beside their capacity to inspire human pleasure. Maize to European cultures raised on wheat and spelt seemed granular and crude. Its consumption in northern Italy as polenta tended to be restricted to the lower classes, despite the models of faro or buckwheat porridges. Yet livestock loved it, and the nutritional yield of maize was such that cattle could be sustained over winter on a harvest. This led to the revival of rural estates and contributed to the creation of the Palladian villa as a form.19 Rice's blandness enables it to be eaten repeatedly without cloying and to serve as a backdrop for more pronounced flavours. West African peoples grew glaborina rice, those of Madagascar grew savita rices brought from Indonesia, and Italians, from the fifteenth century onward, japonica rice from India and South Asia. Rice crossed the Atlantic to Brazil and British America in the seventeenth century, becoming a trade commodity and a foundation of cuisine. West Africans in the New World worked with the non-glaborina varieties, installing them in their one-pot stews. When physician James Grainger in 1764 sketched the ideal diet for West Indian slaves, he sketched a transatlantic supply in which traditional (p. 137) West African staples were supplemented by wheat and beef: Carolina rice, English beans, Newfoundland cod, Pennsylvania flour, Scottish herrings, and beef. When Grainger's attention shifted to the garden plots of St Kitts' African labourers, he found a cosmopolitan range of plants:

  • yams, and there cassada's root:
  • From a good daemon's staff cassada sprang,
  • Tradition says, and Caribbees believe;
  • Which into three the white-rob'd genius broke,
  • And bade them plant, their hunger to repel.
  • There let angola's bloomy bush supply,
  • For many a year, with wholesome pulse their board.
  • There let the bonavist, his fringed pods
  • Throw liberal o'er the prop; while ochra bears
  • Aloft his slimy pulp, and help disdains.
  • There let potatos mantle o'er the ground;
  • Sweet as the cane-juice is the root they bear.
  • There too let eddas spring in order meet,
  • With Indian cale, and foodful calaloo
  • While mint, thyme, balm, and Europe's coyer herbs,
  • Shoot gladsome forth, nor reprobate the clime.
  • (The Sugar Cane (London, 1674), book IV)
The slave garden contained an international assortment of root vegetables, beans, and greens. From Africa came yams, okra, Angola bean (a field pea), and bonavist (Egyptian bean). The greens—West Indian Kale (Xanthosoma atrovirens) and Calaloo (Amaranthus spinosus)—grew native on the islands. Three root vegetables—sweet potatoes, cassava root (manioc), and edda (taro root)—hailed from the Central and South American mainland. The cuisine generated by this garden would have been syncretic, yet its enduring appeal to the taste of the gardeners is attested by the retention of these ingredients in West Indian foodways.20 When we turn to those items that Grainger would add to the diet from the storehouse of empire, only Carolina rice would become a staple of West Indian cookery. Indeed arroz Carolina spread from the Indies to South America, where it remains the favourite long-grained white rice to this day. As to his other supplementations: fresh local fish would prove more convenient and palatable than Scottish herrings or salt cod. Pork, not beef, would become the favourite meat of the islands, thanks in part to the Spanish habit of releasing hogs on various islands throughout the Caribbean to supply sailors marooned by the periodic hurricanes. Goat would later join pork as a West Indian staple. Wheat flour would always hold a secondary popularity to maize and various ‘bread roots’.

Though the slaves of St Kitts supped on the provender of five continents, desire cannot be said to have impelled this world of goods to the garden plot. Rice was introduced to the island diet, as Grainger suggests, by planters and officials as cheap nutrition for the bound workforce. The spread of coffee and cocoa, citron and cotton, (p. 138) served planter desires to naturalize those staples in the West Indies. Okra, Angola bean, and bonavist had been carried out of Africa by the slaves, a portable legacy. The local greens substituted for those of West Africa. Hunting feral hogs and fishing the local waters supplied animal protein. What Grainger did not see was the extent to which the roots and beans, grains and greens mixed into the cookpot in traditional ways, suiting the taste for stews, rice and bean mixtures, and roasts of West Africa. Nor did he notice that chilli had been added to the pot as well. Even in places where coercive power had greatest force, the tongue savoured the new primarily within the ambit of a familiar and traditional meals or food-sharing occasions.

The Ear

European adventurers believed that music had special power to convey their being—their potency, their majesty, their spirituality, their gentility, and their violence. On coastal and transoceanic vessels instruments and instrumentalists sailed, conspicuous among them drummers and trumpeters, who awed strangers and enemies with noise. Recruited from the ranks of military musicians, these raucous bandsmen performed multiple functions. In obscure landscapes such as forests or smoke-choked battlefields, they alerted one's fellows of the whereabouts of the leader. Marc Lescarbout in Histoire de la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1609) related the unsuccessful attempt to recover a lost priest by fanfares and cannon fire. His narrative detailed the other uses of martial noises: mustering troops, sounding alarms alerting natives to one's proximity, punctuating the important moments in public life (the arrival of supply ships, the procession of officials, etc.).21 The resonance of trumpets permitted them to be heard at distance, making them valuable heralds in travels upon land or sea. Instrumental proclamation of one's presence or incitement of one's company were not the only tasks music performed in the Atlantic world. It also enchanted the alien.

Europeans undertook a concerted effort to charm persons they encountered with music in the wake of a 1455 encounter by the Portuguese captain Alvise de Cadamosto with the Senegalese. A sailor began playing a bagpipe, inspiring a sensation among the auditors. ‘They concluded that it was a living animal that sung thus in different voices, and were much pleased with it. Perceiving that they were misled, I told them that it was an instrument, and placed it, deflated, in their hands. Whereupon, recognizing that it was made by hand, they said that it was a divine instrument, made by God with his own hands, for it sounded so sweetly with so many different voices. They said they had never heard anything sweeter.’22 Vasco da Gama in his voyage to India recorded the first musical conversation between Africans and Europeans near the Cape of Good (p. 139) Hope. The natives played on flutes; da Gama ordered the trumpets and drums to sound; a spontaneous dance among the sailors and the residents broke out.23 The dance meeting became a fixture of Portuguese encounters. Pedro Alveres Cabral during his 1500 trip to Brazil has a piper on the expedition provoke a dance. When the Spanish attempted to provoke harmony between visitors and natives, following the Portuguese method, the outcome proved less successful. On Columbus' third voyage, the Spanish encountered a restive group of inhabitants. Columbus ordered his musicians break out shawms (a double-reed woodwind predecessor to the oboe) to quell their turbulent spirits, but the sound proved so odd that the hearers drew their weapons instead of breaking into dance. The magic exercised by European music had limits. Even when the magic worked to best effect, drawing natives near to hear the ‘sweete harmony’ of flutes, shawms, and drums, the listeners were never so wonderfully astonished that they declared themselves subject to its spell and the spell's makers, nor so enchanted that the power of their own songs diminished in their ears.

Indeed the songs of certain of the African and American peoples rivalled those of Spain and Lisbon in complexity and communicative piquancy, and the purposes to which music played resembled those of Europe. Gabriel de Rojas in 1581 noted that in the Mexican city of Cholula, home of the Quetzalcóatl cult, trumpeters and drummers sounded the hours, and a professional cadre of instrumentalists serviced the temple with ceremonial music.24 (Certain of the distinctive drum patterns have been preserved in the manuscript Cantares en idioma mexicano.) The trumpets and drums performed the task of terrorizing would-be invaders, mirroring their use by Europeans. Their effectiveness was attested by Bernal Diaz del Castillo in Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España: ‘Again there was sounded the dismal drum of Huichji-lobos and many other shells and horns and things like trumpets and the sound of them all was terrifying.’25 The native instrumentalists could also perform lively and mellifluous tunes in their six-, seven-, and eight-note scales. When Emperor Charles V of Spain witnessed a native troupe assembled by Cortés at Vallodolid, he marvelled at the rhythmic perfection of the performances, the unison of the singing, and the ensemble of the dancers26 These attributes inspired comment in other witnesses at other times during the contact period: ‘Illa verò tripudia sun inprimix memorabilia, nam cum tantus esset populi confluxus omne tamen ad eosdem numerous & sonos partier cantabant & saltabant nec obstabat varia soni mutation.’27 Because this music existed within a ritual world of religion, because it was communal in expression, because it invoked a language of emotion intelligible to European as well as native listeners, because compositions were tied to occasions, because a professional caste of performers (p. 140) created and performed the music, the Roman Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquest enlisted the entire caste into the service of the Christian religion. In 1532 the Royal Audiencia at Mexico City exempted native singers from tribute payments because they had, for the most part, attached themselves to the service of the Church. Since Spanish conquest resulted in one theopolity replacing another, the bureaucracy that served the old order could be fitted to the purposes of the latter, provided the leadership came from Spain. In both mission churches and cathedrals throughout New Spain, New Grenada, Peru, and Brazil, natives formed the bulk of the choir and instrumentalists, while musical priests from the peninsula served as choirmasters, organists, and instructors in the various musical schools in the New World. The music employed in the services was formally European, either Gregorian chant or cano de órgano (polyphony). Over the course of the sixteenth century, the growing influence of the polyphonic style in European church music was registered in Ibero-America, with Cristobal Morales' 1544 Book of Masses spreading from Rome throughout the colonies in two years.28 Indeed, a healthy tradition of composition emerged through Spanish America in the polyphonic style, with composers such as Hernando Franco, Juan de Lienas, López Caillas, and Antonio de Salazar contributing to a New World tradition of liturgical music. String instruments, foreign to the indigenous musical cultures, were employed in the orchestras. Even chapels in pueblos had an ample contingent of instrumentalists—trumpeters, harpists, string players, bassoonists, and oboists in addition to the organist. While texts might be in native languages, (a Quechua text ‘Hanacpachap’ was the first work of American polyphony published in the New World in Peru in 1631) the music was decidedly new and European, and by all report a powerful force in attracting the native performers and auditors to Christian worship. In 1648, Thomas Gage, an English Catholic priest stationed in New Spain during the early seventeenth century, observed that ‘the people are drawn to their churches more for the delight of the music than for any delight in the service of God’ (The English American).

While the music of formal services may have maintained a rigorously European orientation, the blending of native and European qualities may be found in the spiritual songs (‘alabanzas’) employed outside of the iglesia, particularly in those areas of South America evangelized by the Jesuit order. In the missions of Brazil, particularly, musical and religious syncretism was allowed to occur side by side. While native motifs might insinuate themselves into the work of a European mission composer, such as the Italian Jesuit Dominico Zipoli in Argentina, more common was the communal creation of a body of folk performance popularized through informal gatherings. Musical mestizaje, the blending of sounds, had a peculiar capacity to influence traditional practices, whether European or indigenous, because the new blended with the familiar.

When African rhythmic sensibilities combined with already mixed forms, a singularly potent mixture came into existence. From the port cities of Spanish America, the (p. 141) fandango, the habanera, the congo, the tango, and the calinda spread around the world, inciting feet to dance. From the southern region of North America, in the territory of Spanish Louisiana and the slave colonies, similar hybrid forms would emerge: gospel, ragtime, jazz, r & b. What is noteworthy about these mixed musics is that they never addressed the ear alone. Performance enlisted the body in dance and the eye in spectacle. The ear recruited one to communal action and installed one in a social gestalt. Historically, what compels attention is that the initial ambitions of Europeans carting their musicians with them when voyaging to communicate with others finds fulfilment repeatedly in the New World developments of both religious music and folk music. The ear was the organ than enabled newer and stranger forms of ‘we’.

The Eye

‘I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold (Mexico), a sun of all gold a whole fathom broad, a moon of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of the armour of the people there, and all manner of wonderous weapons of theirs, harness and darts, very strange clothing, beds and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use much better worth seeing than prodigies. These things are all so precious that they are valued at 100,000 florins. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I saw among them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle ingenia of people in distant lands.’29 Here the great German artist Albrecht Dürer marvelled over the store of Mexican objects from King Charles V's collection on display in Brussels in 1520.Dürer's eye did not rejoice in prodigy—the demonstrations of nature's power to express itself in striking diversity—but in ingenuity, the creative mastery evinced in ‘objects of human use’ of ‘people in distant lands’ .Dürer's remark spoke a number of truths: when strange new things appeared as a plethora of difference, human imagination glutted and novelty's power to inspire wonder waned. By prodigies, Durer meant natural prodigies, such as the huge square-headed fish he also examined in Brussels. The significance of a prodigy did not lie in its brute capacity to elicit sensation, but in its power of reference as a sign, portent, or omen. The novel plants, minerals, animals, and insects of distant lands demonstrated God's creative potency, and so they affirmed a truth already well known to believers in Christianity of the incomprehensible variety of providential expression in nature. For experienced eyes such as Dürer's this lesson was too familiar to need repeated emphasis, but witnessing the power of human genius… that commanded attention, for people in distant lands were fallen, pagan, and strange, yet possessed subtlety and skill so telling that the greatest engraver in Germany stood before the Mexican artefacts astonished at their artistry. The wonder revealed to Dürer's eyes shone from the artistry of human genius. They revealed the ingenuity of humanity.

(p. 142) Dürer did not sketch the marvels he saw in Brussels. Five years earlier, however, he drew a Tupinamba warrior as an illustration to the great providential Psalm 24, ‘The earth is the lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein,’ in the margin of a book of hours prepared for Maximilian I. This portrait and those contained in Hans Burgkmair's 1516 woodcut illustrations for the triumph commissioned by Maximilian, suggest that the clothes, headdresses, weapons, and ceremonial objects of these Brazilian peoples were available for inspection in Maximilian's court in 1515–16.30 The figures, while bare-chested and bare-legged, departed from Brazilian appearance, males sporting beards in Burgkmair's case, and a north European visage and hair in Durer's image. These images demonstrate what Durer's 1520 attestation would expect: a focus on the artefacts of human manufacture more than the humans themselves. Attention to the ethnographic characteristics of physiognomy and facial adornment can be seen in very few representations of American peoples in European depictions of the sixteenth century. Aside from Christoph Weiditz's eleven depictions made in 1529 of Aztecs brought to Spain by Cortés, the great body of accurate ethnographic portrayal was that made by John White of two bands of Algonquians living near the Roanoke settlement in 1585 Virginia.

Perhaps it is anachronistic to characterize White's portraits as ethnographic. They would better be termed anthropographic, representing the figures' human commonality as much as their distinctiveness. White's famous watercolours from Virginia represented two sorts of things—natural creatures (a terrapin, a swallowtail butterfly, a fish, a flower) and the Algonquian inhabitants of the territories he visited.31 The former appeared as objects in themselves, isolated in a pictorial field, divorced from any environment or depicted context—the way a picture of a specimen would appear in a herbal. None of these would be engraved by Theodore de Bry for the illustrated version of Thomas Harriot's history of the colony, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590). Only the portraits of the Algonquians were published. White's originals combined careful observation of significant figures in the native community with facial expression and details of dress clearly detailed in full-figure portraits, showing individuals with minimal background. As Karen Kupperman and others have suggested, the gestural language drew heavily upon European pictorial traditions, with attitudes conveying status, authority, and office.32 One can detect classical precedents for some images, the shaman prefigured in the dance of the muses, and the circle dancers resembling Greek nymphs. The de Bry images removed the particularity of facial features and rendered the gesture language more emphatic, making the figures even more anthropographic, while fixing images in elaborated backgrounds meant to (p. 143) typify the natives' built environment. Theodore de Bry included White's supplement to the native portraits, five images of Picts and other inhabitants of the early British Isles, included ‘to show how that the inhabitants of the Great Bretannie have been in times past as savage as those of Virginia’. In sum, the artist deployed a visual aid to recall the common humanity of Native Americans and Europeans, if readers could not recognize the resemblance themselves. The anthropographic visualization of Native Americans as beings tantamount to the viewers' European ancestors suggested difference among cultures inhered not in racial characteristics so much as different states of civil development. Humanist thought proposed acculturation into Christian civility as the means to bring peoples into common condition, a matter of education. Hariot and de Bry shared this assumption.

Theodore de Bry, a Protestant Walloon, established an engraving studio and publishing gallery in Frankfort that specialized in travels and voyages. He would become the single most influential image broker of the Atlantic world during the 1580s, publishing a series of illustrated relations that would remain the authoritative visualization of America and Native Americans for almost two hundred years. A friend and business partner of Richard Hakluyt, an avid collector of New World artefacts and images, he was a zealous enemy of the Spanish Catholic conquest of the western hemisphere as well as a humanist. De Bry visually played with the question, who is the savage?, by giving natives vaguely Mediterranean features, and showing them the victims of Spanish tortures, particularly in various illustrated versions of the Black Legend such as the popular picture book Brief Explanation of the Horrible Deeds done by Spaniards in Various Parts of the New World 1599. These images stand counterposed to the depictions of cannibalism of the Tupinambas in de Bry's Americae tertia pars.33 In de Bry's engravings the New World oscillates between being a theatre of depraved violence and a pastoral world of Edenic naturals. Protestant humanism would not permit humankind, whether European or Native American, to escape from its fallen condition; nevertheless, it revelled in the creativity, ingenuity, and variety of the human condition. Any particular native also represented a number of general categories as well—priest, mother, warrior, child, king, physician, labourer. His desire to designate tribal identities within the native population appears to have been limited to illustrating distinctive features of the various material cultures.


In the historiography of the Atlantic world, touch has been the sense most fraught with consequence. The sensation of touching, the tactile moment of contact, has been entirely eclipsed by ‘contact’ as a metaphor communicating the irreversible (p. 144) convergence of cultures that led to the destruction of various indigenous traditions around the Atlantic, and the horrendous mortalities occasioned by the exchange of diseases in native and settler populations. Thus, when scenes of exploratory touching appear—such as the Caddoan-speaking people of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico feeling the face and body of Cabeza de Vaca in 1536—the voice of historical wisdom interposes to observe that ‘invisible pathogens… carried off the populations of entire native villages’. An effort is made to forestall any recall of the pleasure, curiosity, doubt that may have attended episodes of contact between peoples. Historians grant priority to our present knowledge of the imperceptible agents of touch at work then over the palpable experience that filled their senses. Besides our historiographical reluctance to permit touch any ‘innocence’ in stories of the contact, there is a phenomenological problem surrounding touch as a means of adducing the new and strange; it is the sense least able to distinguish novelty, that quality so frequently announced as the distinguishing mark of perceptions of strange places, things, and persons around the Atlantic. Tactile sensations tend to be qualitatively of a piece. One can speak intelligibly about new intensities of feeling, for instance of the Arctic cold that the voyagers seeking the North-West Passage felt in the sixteenth century, or the discomforts of tropical disease and insect infestation that residents of temperate regions experienced when approaching the equator. Yet hot and cold, pain and pleasure, slick and abrasive, wet and dry, soft and hard, greasy and scratchy, springy and resistant—all of the discriminations of tactile sensation have always been available in experience without travel. So, curiously, touch, the most portentous of the sensations experienced in the Atlantic world, proves the least distinctive in sensation.

Touch, as the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued in The Phenomenology of Perception, most often participates in a complex of feeling, a gestalt in which tactile sensation joins with input from other senses.34 When Captain John Smith showed Opepechanconough his compass, the werrowance grew puzzled when he could not touch the moving needle because of the glass covering. Thomas Hariot, speaking of the Algonquian response to hearing the Bible in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), indicated that they wish to absorb its power tactilely: ‘yet would many be glad to touch it, to embrace it, to kisse it, to hold it to their brests and heades, and stroke over all their bodie with into shewe their hungrie desire of that knowledge which was spoken of’ (p. 27). Yet the most emphatic whole-body sense of being registered in early European texts was that of space. The close confines shipboard in the Atlantic, the vast, sparsely populated overgrown terrains, the safe enclosure of the stockade, the uncertainty of the primeval forests were felt by hands, torso, legs, and feet, and registered with eyes, and measured acoustically with the ears. This sense of a new spatial dynamic is far more ubiquitous than the much more frequently studied attestations of pain, fatigue, hunger, and discomfort found in testimonies. Indeed, if anything can be said to be new in the feel of the New World (p. 145) to Europeans, it was the spatial vacancy, the desertedness of the wild. We have few reliable testimonies of what the several Native American visitors to Europe felt upon experiencing the cities and countrysides there. If we can trust the testimony of Samuel Purchas, Powhatan's spy, Tomocomo, was forced to abandon his tally sticks registering the grain fields, forests, and population of England. He reportedly observed to Powhatan, ‘Count the Stars in the Skys, the Leaves on the Trees, and the Sand upon the Sea Shore; for such is the Number of People in England.’ This, however, may represent as much an English self-perception of population density as a native observation of profusion and density.

A historical dilemma emerges. Did the experience of the Atlantic world suggest the reality of a human sensus communis, the shared experience of the senses that had been asserted about persons of different cultures by philosophers since Archestratus of Gela accompanied Alexander the Great and Phyrro the Sceptic on the Greek world conquest, or did it introduce the possibility of some other way of feeling, seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing than the one ‘I’ experienced? While advantages accrue for imperial powers in proposing a universal sensus communis experienced by humankind, not every imperialist bought into this view. Consider Captain John Smith's admiration of the hypersensitive sight, smell, and touch of the Susquehanna Indians. In his representation we encounter vision of a sensorium more vitally engaged with the world than that available to European bodies. What enabled this amplification of sense? Training? Environment? Disparities in the providential design of human types? Perhaps the cultural relativism brought to view in exploring these questions accomplished something approximating what Brillat-Savarin believed, making aesthetics—the particularities and communal inflections of feeling, sense, and taste—philosophically important in Europe. Perhaps it is the precondition for the emergence of ‘taste’—with all the emphasis upon ‘discrimination’—as a regnant category of judgement in Europe. Concern with the cultural and communal particulars of sense and taste has dominated enquiry into the aesthetics of the Atlantic world since the rise of romanticism—visible in Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste and the writings of the brothers Von Humboldt. Yet only in the work of the current generation of anthropologically influenced historians has enquiry truly taken up the unresolved issue: how did the possibility of experiencing the world differently influence the self-understandings of the myriad non-Western peoples of that Atlantic world? Just as the experience of the Americas may have inspired in Western observers a growing modal distinctness of sense, a greater attention to smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing, and touching as categories of sensing, the opening of the Atlantic world may have also brought to the attention of many peoples the possibility that the complex way the senses worked and the sensorium held together might be different for different peoples. Perhaps there was no unitary sensus communis, but rather multiple communities of sense that did not map neatly upon each other, yet coincided sufficiently to permit trade and the sharing of pleasure and pain.


Baker, Geoffrey, Imposing Harmony; Music & Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham, NC, 2008)Find this resource:


    Corn, Charles, The Scents of Eden (New York, 1998).Find this resource:

      Genders, Roy, History of Scent (London, 1972).Find this resource:

        Hoffer, Peter Charles, Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore, MD, 2003).Find this resource:

          Houston, Lynn Marie, Food Culture in the Caribbean (New York, 2005).Find this resource:

            Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca, NY, 2000).Find this resource:

              Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, Tastes of Paradise (New York, 1992).Find this resource:

                Sturtevant, William C., ‘First Visual Images of Native America’, in Fredi Chiappelli (ed.), First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1976).Find this resource:

                  Woodfield, Ian, English Musicians in the Age of Exploration (London, 1995).Find this resource:

                    Yobenj, Aucardo Chicangana, ‘El festin antropofágico de los indios tupinambá en los grabados de Theodoro De Bry, 1592’, Fronteras de la historia, 10 (2005), 19–71.Find this resource:


                      (1) M. F. K. Fisher (trans.), The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (New York, 1978).

                      (2) David S. Shields, ‘The World I Ate: The Prophets of Global Consumption Culture’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 25 (Spring 2001), 214–24.

                      (3) Aytoun Ellis, The Essence of Beauty: A History of Scent (New York, 1962), 70–3.

                      (4) Roy Genders, ‘The Scents and Smells of Early England’, in A History of Scent (London, 1972), 136–57.

                      (5) William Strachey, The Historie ofTravaile into Virginia Britainia (London, 1849), 43.

                      (6) Georg Schwedt, Betörende Düfte, sinnliche Aromen (Weinheim, 2008), 49–50.

                      (7) C. J. S. Thompson, Mystery and the Lure of Perfume (Whitefish, MT, 2003), 111–13.

                      (8) Richard Palmer, ‘In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century’, in William F. Bynam and Roy Porter, Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1999), 61–9.

                      (9) Codex Barberini, 1552, Latin 241, Vatican Library.

                      (10) John Frampton, Joyfull Newes out of the Newe Founde Worlde (New York, 1925). 1577 English translation of Monardes.

                      (11) John Charles Sawyer, Odorographia: A Natural History of Raw Materials and Drugs Used in the Perfume Industry (London, 1894), 459.

                      (12) Joseph de Acosta, ‘Observations’, in Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, or, Purchas his Pigrimes, 2nd part, 5th book (London, 1615), 116. The standard current edition: José de Acosta, Natural and Moral History of the Indies, ed. Jane E. Mangan, trans. Frances López-Morillas (Durham, NC, 2002).

                      (13) Peter Charles Hoffer, Sensory Worlds in Early America (Baltimore, MD, 2003), 33.

                      (14) Pedro Oroz and Angélico Chávez, ‘Relación de la descripción de la Provincia del Santo Evangelio que es en las Indias Occidentales que llaman la Nueva España hecha el año de 1585’, The Oroz Codex: The Oroz Relación, Or Relation of the Description of the Holy Gospel Province in New Spain, and the Lives of the Founders and Other Noteworthy Men of Said Province (Washington, DC, 1972), 72.

                      (15) Lisa Jardine, The New History of the Renaissance (New York, 1998), 286–7.

                      (16) Charles Corn, The Scents of Eden (New York, 1998); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise (New York, 1992).

                      (17) Dr Edward Pocoke's translation, The Nature of the Drink Kaubi, or Coffee, and the Berry of Which it is Made (Oxford, 1659), made Rauwolf's account the focus of medical debate upon the beverage. For Rauwolf and Pocoke, see Bennett A. Weinberg, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug (London, 2001), 99–100.

                      (18) Yolanda Gamboa, ‘Consuming the Other, Creating the Self: The Cultural Implications of Aztecs' Chocolate from Tirso de Molina to Agustin Moreto and Pedro Lanini y Sagredo’, in Mindy Badia and Bonnie L. Gasior (eds.), Crosscurrents: Transatlantic Perspectives on Early Modern Hispanic Drama (Lewisburg, PA, 2006), 28–31.

                      (19) Giovanni Gioconi, The Villas of Palladio (Princeton, NJ, 2003), 17–19.

                      (20) See Lynn Marie Houston, Food Culture in the Caribbean (New York, 2005), 31–80.

                      (21) Purchas his Pigrimes, 18. 32.

                      (22) Quoted in Ian Woodfield, English Musicians in the Age of Exploration (London, 1995), 95–6. This account epitomizes Woodfield's research.

                      (23) Diário de viagem de Vasco da Gama, ed. D. Peres, A Baiāo, and A de Magaháes Basto (Oporto, n.d.), 8.

                      (24) Gabriel de Rojas, ‘Descripcion de Cholula’, Revista mexicana de estudios historicos, 1/6 (November–December 1927), 162.

                      (25) The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (London, 1912), iv. 149.

                      (26) Robert Stevenson, Music in Aztec & Inca Territory (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1976), 89.

                      (27) Diego Valades, Rhetoric Christiana (Perusia, 1579), 169.

                      (28) Gerard Béhague, Music in Latin America: An Introduction (New York, 1979), 6.

                      (29) W. M. Conway (trans.), The Writings of Albrecht Dürer (London, 1911), 101–2.

                      (30) William C. Sturtevant, ‘First Visual Images of Native America’, in Fredi Chiappelli (ed.), First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1976), i. 421–3.

                      (31) Housed in the British Museum, the watercolours were exhibited at Jamestown, VA, July–October 2008: ‘A New World: England's First View of America.’

                      (32) Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca, NY, 2000), 64–6.

                      (33) Aucardo Chicangana Yobenj, ‘El festin antropofágico de los indios tupinambá en los grabados de Theodoro De Bry, 1592’, Fronteras de la historia, 10 (2005), 19–71.

                      (34) Maurice Merlau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London, 2002), 81–102, 122–56.