How does a text change from one iteration to the next? Different editions of a printed work – even under the same title – often conceal significant differences between them. Authors, in the early modern period as today, changed their work as they were invited to produce different editions; translators, in turn, frequently did far more than just translate, often arrogating to themselves an authorial role that accommodated their own personal views. The lack of intellectual copyright in this period allowed editors and publishers to adapt texts in order to sell their wares. In search of the perfect way to take a book to market, they changed formats, illustrations and intended audiences. 

Drawing on Randall McLeod’s notion of “transformission” – which implies that texts were transformed from the moment they were transmitted – this exhibition follows several of the most celebrated texts related to the early modern Americas as they made their way from inaugural to subsequent editions. New Worlds were transformed and transmitted to new audiences sometimes beyond recognition. Ultimately, these cases of radical ​transformission raise the question: when does a text stop being the “original” text and start to become something else?

The genre fluidity of Mundus novus

The Florentine banker Amerigo Vespucci (1451- 1512) participated in two or three early Atlantic voyages for the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. After returning from an expedition to the coast of Brazil (1501-1502), he sent a letter from Lisbon to his friend and former employer Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503). In this letter, now lost, Vespucci identified the newly found territories as a New World, rather than the outer limits of the Old World (Asia).

Vespucci’s vivid style and the focus on scenes of sexual liberty and cannibalism made the Medici letter an immediate international bestseller. Through dozens of editions in various languages that appeared in a few years’ time, the letter was transformed in different directions. On one extreme, Vespucci’s report was quickly elevated in status by the addition of a new title highlighting the discovery, Mundus novus. On the other extreme, the letter was decontextualized and fictionalized as an episode of the medieval “wonders of the East” tradition.

The many readings of the Brevísima relación

The Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias is an account written by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), who condemned the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Spanish Americas. Originally a slaveowner himself, Las Casas had been speaking out against the use of enslaved Native Americans – called Indians in his account – since 1515. The Brevísima relación was written in 1542 in order to convince the crown that conversion and colonization were best achieved by peaceful means. The text was only published ten years later, when Las Casas was well into his seventies.

Far from a bestseller, the Brevísima relación found a new life more than two decades after its original publication, when Protestant factions in the Spanish Netherlands used the text as a way to connect the atrocities of the Spanish armies in the Low Countries to Spanish atrocities in the Americas. From that moment on, the Brevísima relación became the go-to text for political enemies of Spain, identifying the Spanish throughout the centuries as the cruel oppressors and likening Spain’s enemies to the abused Natives.

Marketing and Formatting The History of the Americas

A humanist priest with close ties to the conquistador Hernán Cortés, Francisco López de Gómara (1511–1564) was one of the first historians of the Americas who described the “discovery” of the New World as the greatest event in world history since the birth of Christ. He constructed his chronicle as a heroic tale, culminating in the the achievements of Cortés, whom he glorified as a contemporary Alexander the Great. This bias explains the clear division of the text: La (h)istoria de las Indias and Conquista de Mexico (1552).

In 1553, the Council of the Indies banned the text from being published. Nevertheless, the ban was not immediately effective in Spain, since later editions appeared in in Zaragoza and Medina del Campo in 1553, 1554 and 1555. Also in Antwerp, the thriving port city at the Northern end of the Spanish empire, an emerging group of printers aiming to break into Iberian markets took an interest in López de Gómara’s work (1553 and 1554). Driven by commercial rather than political interests, the Antwerp printers immediately launched the text as a pocket edition. In trying to convince the buyer of the quality of their edition, printers played an “edition game” that held the middle between imitation and emulation.

Lost in Translation: Exquemelin’s pirates

A small 1678 volume in Dutch became an international bestseller by 1700, going through more than a dozen editions in five languages. The reason: the book offered an eyewitness account of the lives and adventures of some of the most notorious buccaneers. Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (born in Honfleur in 1645) entered the service of the French West India Company and went to Tortuga as a servant, where he remained for three years before becoming a buccaneer. For the rest of his life, Exquemelin alternated short stays in Europe with travels to the West Indies, often serving (again) as a buccaneer. He continued to add new adventures to his original work, but the genre that he created soon took on a life of its own. His original critical tone was muffled in the English translation, and the addition of stories of other buccaneers – and buccaneering traditions – spurred the birth of pirate fiction.

Gender and the Politics of Authorship: The Case of the Peruvian Letters

Françoise de Graffigny (1695–1758) began her career as a writer late in life, and her work was not published until she was 50. Her first novel Lettres d’une Péruvienne appeared anonymously in 1747 and became one of the absolute bestsellers of the 18th century, with more than 130 editions. An epistolary novel with letters from the Inca princess Zilia to her lover Aza in Peru, it recounts how Zilia was abducted by the Spanish during the Conquest and eventually ended up at the court of Louis XV.

Through the eyes of an outsider, Graffigny presents a satirical view of French life, particularly the conditions of French women (with more than an echo of Montesquieu’s Les lettres persanes, published in 1721). At the same time, she introduces a double love story that turns on whether Zilia will be reunited with Aza or whether she will consent to marry Déterville, the French captain that saved her from captivity. The original ending, where Zilia chooses celibacy over marriage in the name of happiness and independence, frustrated many readers.

Raynal's work(s)-in-progress

Guillaume-Thomas-François Raynal (1713–1796), also known as Abbé Raynal, was a well-connected journalist and writer in Paris Enlightenment circles. His major work, the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (1770) is considered one of the first global histories of the commercial age. It represents an often critical history of European colonial trade and settlements, including topics such as slavery, religion, customs and indigeneity. The ban of the work and consequent exile of Raynal only added to its popularity.

The Histoire des deux Indes has an extremely complicated publication history. First, every official re-edition (1774 and 1780) expanded the narrative in an attempt to keep up with recent events. Second, Raynal’s role was that of an editor rather than an author. The Histoire des deux Indes was written by a changing group of anonymous authors and editors, including Baron d’Holbach and Denis Diderot. Lastly, many later editors reworked and extracted those passages that suited their purposes. Because of these eccentricities, it is not easy to define where one Histoire des deux Indes ends and another edition begins.

Stedman's visions of Surinam

John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) is a complicated text. Published more than 20 years after the events it recounts, it tells the story of Stedman’s deployment to the Dutch-controlled colony of Surinam to suppress an armed Black revolt in 1772. Against the backdrop of these military exploits, Stedman describes a wide spectrum of colonial society as well as aspects of Surinam’s natural environment, in the tone of a picaresque novel. Stedman often takes on the role of observer and describes many scenes of cruelty related to slavery and military authority. The romanticized relationship with his concubine Joanna, an enslaved mixed race woman and mother of their child Johnny, is one of the principal themes.

Stedman was also a gifted illustrator, and he made numerous drawings that together with his annotations formed the basis of the first edition. The work was reprinted upwards of twenty-five times in six languages across Europe and North America. The original 80 engravings were seldom fully reproduced in later works; instead, they were selected, transformed or even completely omitted depending on how Stedman’s text was interpreted and marketed.


Exhibition prepared by Stijn van Rossem.