‘Indian’, when referring to the Indian subcontinent and its inhabitants, derived from the thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman indien. The indigenous peoples of the Atlantic, while living on the continents now known as North and South America for thousands of years, came to be labelled ‘Indians’ by Europeans only after 1492. As Jonathan Gil Harris has suggested, Columbus’ voyages to America turned ‘Indian’ into ‘the capacious, portable, and problematic term for diverse peoples around the globe’, so that Europeans, in many ways, ‘invented “Indians”’ as a result of global expansion'. Examining Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595), John Fletcher’s The Island Princess (1621), and John Dryden’s Amboyna (1673), Shankar Raman concluded that ‘India’ throughout the early modern period was a fluid ‘final frontier’ representing ‘the exotic and the unknowable’. Because ‘Indian’ referred to the untapped potential of global commodities as well as to the inhabitants of those regions the English wished to colonize or trade in, the term could encompass both wealth and savagery, sumptuousness and a perceived lack of sophistication. Imtiaz Habib notes that the ‘predatory impulse’ of the English in the early modern era meant ‘Indian’ could refer to a range of non-European peoples, and indeed usages often reveal more about the identity and behaviour of the English than of other ethnographic societies.
‘India’ and ‘Indians’ became discursive spaces for fantastical imaginings in early modern England. The term referred to continents, to commodities like spices or tobacco, or to the people encountered in cross-cultural exchange. ‘Indian’ originated from the Greek name for the river Indus, which flows through modern-day Pakistan, and which specifically related India to the geographies of the East until the late fifteenth century. ‘India is properly called that great province of Asia, in whiche great Alexander kepte his warres’, the Protestant cosmographer Richard Eden wrote in 1577. As Eden acknowledged, however, European exploration into the Atlantic divided ‘India’ into two ‘Indies’. Columbus could be credited with arriving ‘fyrst to the knowledge of the [West] Indies’, though Eden faulted him for erroneously believing that he had found a route to Cathay and India in the Caribbean. The influence of Columbus’ writings about the Carib ‘Indians’ he encountered continued to associate the West Indies specifically with the Caribbean islands and to some extent the South American coastline, rather than North America. ‘[I]t must be considered … although it is disputeable, whether Virginia be part of the Indias though it be scituate upon the same continent of the West Indies’. When the adventurer William King prepared an expedition to ‘West India’, he referred to Puerto Rico, St Domingo, and Honduras. Edmund Spenser, in The Faerie Queene (1590), referred to ‘th’Indian Peru’.
Whether referring to the Atlantic or the Mughal empire, the ‘Indian’ realms remained shorthand for wealth and abundance. As physical spaces, these territories were always closely related to commodities and their exploitative potential. Writing to Robert Cecil in 1607, the diplomat Hugh Lee reported that ‘the late fleet aryved in Spayne fro[m] the West Indyes’, the ships laden with ‘4 Millions of Treasure’. In ‘The Sunne Rising’, the poet John Donne used ‘both th’Indias of spice and mine’ to evoke separate places, the spice-rich East and the gold and silver mines of the Spanish Atlantic, but both sites were reconciled in his mistress. While ‘Indian’ wares could refer to products like tobacco and pearls from America, or spices and silks from the east, these goods were ultimately desirable because they would enrichen the domestic realm. This also meant discourses of political economy made ‘Indian’ goods the crux for anxieties over luxury and moral corruption. Luxury, wrote the satirist George Wither, in his exploration of ‘Vanity’, will impoverish the soul and the body, depriving the realm of native trade. ‘Our home-made Cloth, is now too course a ware,/ For Chyna, and for Indian stuffs we are’. To wear ‘Indian stuff’ risked altering individual and national character.
While ‘Indian’ related to other geographic spaces and their commodities, the word also described local inhabitants in these areas. It is at times unclear whether ‘Indian’ refers to Native Americans or Asian peoples in early modern English texts. When Trinculo, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), surmised that Caliban is a descendant of ‘men of Ind’, the distinction is not clear-cut. ‘The undifferentiated Indian’, in the words of Rebecca Ann Bach, highlights the ambiguity of European views towards Asian/American geographies and people. Nonetheless, while the lens of colonial expansion certainly made ‘Indian’ adaptable and at times indistinct, there were differences in how the English viewed American and eastern Indians, and these differences indicate much about English imperial aspirations. The early colonial experiences of the English in the Amazon, Virginia, Newfoundland, and New England led to the belief that Native Americans were ‘savages’: there were ‘rude & naked Indians in the Westerns parts of the world’. ‘A very fair Iland’, George Percy wrote of his first view of the Chesapeake in 1606, ‘the Trees full of sweet and good smels, [but] inhabited by many Savage Indians’. A ‘Mahumetan, or an Heathen in India’ on the other hand, wrote the East India Company (EIC) chaplain Edward Terry, was often ‘excellent in many moralities, and a Christian not so’. Concerned with the behaviour of the English abroad, Terry complained that ‘tis sad to behold there [in India], a drunken Christian and a sober Indian … [for] It is all one to be a bramble in the wildernesse and a barren tree in Gods Orchard’. Diverging descriptions of ‘Indians’ as a result of expansion and colonization reveals fundamentally different attitudes towards different ethnographic peoples despite some crossover. To Terry, the English presence in the east hinged on their successful negotiation with local peoples. Conversely, ‘Indians’ in America were consistently tagged with words like ‘naked’ and ‘savage’, reinforcing their need for civility and subjugation.
The Black Legend provided one exception to the emphasis on the western ‘Indian’ as savage. The English translated the Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) in 1583 and in 1656, and Theodore de Bry’s popular engravings in his America series (1590s) depicted the Spanish committing brutal atrocities that devastated and destroyed indigenous populations. ‘Nowe after sundry other forces, violences, and tormentes, which [the Spanish] wrought against them: the Indians beganne to perceive, that those were not men descended from heaven’. In 1626, preaching at Paul’s Cross in London, William Hampton reversed the notion of Native American cannibalism by depicting the Spanish as man-eaters: ‘whole Armies of them living sometime like Cannibals, eating nothing but the flesh of Indians’. While these accounts identified with the plight of Native Americans, they were used more to engender anti-Spanish sentiment than to promote the rights of indigenous peoples themselves. Such discourses circulated alongside far harsher opinions that deliberately advocated Spanish methods of conquest in America. Following the Algonquian attack in Virginia in 1622, where an alliance of local groups killed 347 English men and women, Edward Waterhouse promoted the strategies of conquistadors, who had ‘made great use … of the quarrels and enmities that were amongst the Indians’ to subjugate these ‘naked, tanned, deformed Savages’. Having used ‘Indians’ at the start of his discourse, Waterhouse adopted the far more negative ‘savage’ when discussing the massacre.
In other contexts, Indians were viewed less disparagingly to promote English activity overseas. In 1614, the EIC chaplain Patrick Copland brought an east Indian boy to England and taught him Latin and English. Baptised in London in 1616 as Peter Pope, this ‘Indian youth, borne in the bay of Bengala’ was praised by Copland for his aptitude in learning other languages. Pope became an example of how conversion might help effect English overseas expansion.
The ‘global turn’ in scholarship has revealed some of the shared ideologies and interrelated economic systems of English imperialism in America and the east. Columbus’ ‘West Indies’ was a reaction to seeking the Orient; and much of the rapid increase in trade in the east was fuelled by the rising consumer culture not just of Britain but of English colonies in America. ‘Indian’, as a concept, in many ways embody these conflicted, complicated associations, standing at the crux of English imperial fantasy and related fears of savagery and ethnic difference that sprang from facing the unknown or the foreign. In his invective against English fashions, William Prynne denounced the ‘Chinians, or Indian Japonites’ who treasured their long hair, and reproved his readers for surpassing ‘the Persians, Tartars, Turkes, and all the Pagan Nations of the world’ in their ostentatious styles. Poets, Wither wrote, tended to exaggerate the beauty of their mistresses, who in reality were ‘not far before,/ The swart West-Indian, or the tawny Moore’. ‘We have Indians at home’, wrote Roger Williams, puritan founder of Rhode Island, during his sojourn back in England in 1652. ‘Indians in Cornewall, Indians in Wales, Indians in Ireland’. Williams’ concern with converting nations to Protestantism included attention to those who lived unconverted at home as well as abroad. ‘Indians’ thus served as points of comparison, as targets for compassion, as impediments to expansion and as valued local agents. Today, questions over identity and the historic use of the word ‘Indian’ continues to be a point of contention in America, where the term is deemed offensive by some, though not all, of the 567 federally-recognised Native American tribes, who point to its continued association with European colonization.