In the early modern world, how did printed texts convey to European audiences ideas about race and indigeneity in the Americas? What methods, tropes and devices did they employ to introduce, transmit, and perpetuate ideologies? These are just some of the questions prompted by the exhibition Controlling Colonial Impressions: Representations of Race and Indigeneity in the Early Americas. Launched in conjunction with Brown University’s Sawyer Seminar on Race and Indigeneity in the Americas, this exhibition explores these topics through the medium of books, which became a primary vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge about the Americas to audiences in early modern Europe.

Curated collectively by undergraduate students in the History 1954J: History of the Book in the Americas course, it is organized thematically into four sections: Imagining and Imaging Colonial Subjects, an exploration of depictions of race and identity within the realm of the visual; ‘Objective’ Texts: Race and Indigeneity in Scientific Books, which examines the appropriation of science in the service of empire-building; The Iconography of Race in the British Atlantic, which treats race as a way of seeing; and Means of Control, a study of text as an instrument to assert power and dominance. Each section bears witness to conceptions of race in flux, tensions between the exotic and the recognizable, nearness and distance, as well as economic expediency and the erasure of identities.

Iconography of Race in the British Atlantic

Race can be a way of seeing, and racial imagery can both construct exploitative worldviews and free us from them. These books, written about the Americas for European audiences, deal with the shifting iconography of race in the Atlantic world. They demonstrate how writers and publishers deployed a balance of the familiar and the exotic befitting their interests in their depictions of race.

Rather than choose books with the most obvious racial caricatures that abound during this period, we have chosen to highlight slightly more nuanced, if no less insidious depictions of race. These three books demonstrate just as many ways of dealing with race in the context of colonialism. A briefe and true report disparages the culture of Indigenous peoples while elevating their bodies according to European standards. The Indian nectar deals with race and indigeneity through its conspicuous omission of the slave labor behind chocolate production. An Historical account of the black empire of Hayti inverts European norms by depicting formerly enslaved people as refined and French colonizers as barbaric and depraved, employing racist iconography of the savage in the process. These books demonstrate how European writers could draw upon familiarity and exoticism to shift the narrative of race and indigeneity according to their interests, thus shifting cultural interpretations of race itself.

How do we display these texts without recreating the racist tropes within? Do these texts leave room for “Indigenous survivance” or do they only reflect a European perspective? Who “owns” these texts?

"Objective" Texts: Race and Indigeneity in Scientific Books

In the JCB there are many texts which claim scientific objectivity. For many Europeans, The New World was viewed as a place of experimentation, innovation, and technological advancement. Through books such as the ones presented here, doctors and naturalists disseminated medical and scientific knowledge, often for the express purposes of the Crown. These books observe a wide range of geographic focus and topical material, from the Caribbean to Brazil, medicine to farming.

It is irresponsible, however, to talk about these “objective” texts without contextualizing them with issues of race and indigeneity. This is perhaps most evident in texts like Practical rules for the management and medical treatment of Negro slaves, in the sugar colonies, where slavery and medical advancement come hand in hand. In others such as O fazendeiro do Brazil or Tratado sobre la fiebre biliosa y otras enfermedades, links to colonialism are less explicit but no less present.

The urgency of this topic is therefore not anchored in the past; rather, in engaging explicitly with their material and contextual histories, the books presented here carry critically into the current moment, exposing the exploitative mechanisms inherent in otherwise ostensibly impartial subjects.

Imagining and Imaging Colonial Subjects

In this section of the exhibition, we turn to illustrations of Indigenous peoples conceived and created by European colonists and illustrators, examining them as signifiers of popular conceptualizations of, and attitudes towards, indigeneity. These images ask us to reflect upon racial and cultural transformations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Was race an immutable category, or one that could be changed and transgressed through various aesthetic shifts?

A special illustrated 1864 copy of an Increase Mather work reflects the heroization of two notable Indigenous leaders in American society. A Primer for teaching literacy in Mohawk and English, as well as promoting Christian beliefs, shows a schoolhouse where both Indigenous and European imagery is employed. Peter Williamson’s captivity narrative, French and Indian Cruelty, contains an illustration of Williamson in “Indian” garb. A somewhat faithful indicator of the costumed performances he staged as a curiosity in taverns and coffeehouses, this frontispiece asks of us profound questions of identity: what bearing does this assumed persona have on his identity? All three books invite us to grapple with complex questions of identity, reception, and remembrance, questions remaining with us today.

Means of Control

Under imperial bureaucracies, written records preserve debates about the legal and moral practice of colonial rule, as well as the structures through which colonial rule was imposed and colonial regulations implemented. These practices ranged from religious evangelization to legal proceedings, impacting the daily lives of Indigenous, enslaved, immigrant, and Creole populations across the Americas during the period of European colonization. The three volumes shown here record different aspects of colonial regulatory systems, aimed at different populations in different parts of the Americas and during different time periods. Together, they illustrate the broad reach of regulatory systems in the American colonies.

The earliest book in this collection, the Advertencias para los confessores (Notices for Confessors) is a handbook for Spanish missionaries. Written in Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl, the volume seeks to navigate the shifting theology of Catholicism across cultures and languages. Bridging the gap between religion and the law, De justitia & contractibus […] libri septem (Seven Books on Justice and Contracts), contains a theological discussion of – and moral justification for – the slave trade. The final document, a set of letters written by the Bishop of Tucumán (Argentina) upon news of the rebellion of Tupac Amaru in Peru, demonstrates not only how Indigenous groups rebelled against colonial rule, but how factions within Spanish America sought to use this information for their own political purposes. Together, these documents show how religious and legal discourses regulated the lives of Black and Indigenous subjects on which the colonies depended.


This exhibition was collectively curated by students in the Spring 2019 course "History 1954J: History of the Book in the Americas": Nathan Allen, Tobias Berggruen, Sean Briody, William Evans, Mark Liang, Caroline Mulligan, Jamie Solomon, Harold Triedman, Zoe Zimmermann.