Primary Source: De Bry's “The browyllinge of their fishe over the flame”

Fire dominates the center of this engraving. Logs fan out in a sunburst pattern around flames and smoke billows above. Four poles positioned around the fire support a rack. Two fish lay on the rack. Two more fish are leaned with sticks against one of the poles. On the left, an Indigenous man with a short mohawk and feather in his hair holds a long pole with two prongs, facing toward the fish. On the right, another Indigenous man with a short mohawk carries a reed basket on his back filled with fish as he walks toward the fire.

Primary Source

Image Citation
“The browyllinge of their fishe over the flame,” engraving by Theodor de Bry after a watercolor of John White, 1577-1590. From A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JS84.01.09.

Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.2d, VS.2e, VS.2f, US1.3c, US1.5a
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies

Summary and Significance

This image depicts how mid-Atlantic coastal Indians would have cooked fish over a flame. While the image might seem straight forward, this particular image and its accompanying description portray inaccuracies about mid-Atlantic coastal Indian life. Primarily, there is no evidence that the basket carried by the man on the right would have been the type of basket made by mid-Atlantic coastal Indians. Additionally, the written text accompanying the image asserts that fish were cooked and eaten straight away, not smoked to store for later. Historians believe this might have been a mistaken conclusion.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background
John White was an English gentleman and artist. While exploring what would become Roanoke in 1585-1586, John White created portraits of the Indigenous people he encountered and their towns. Meanwhile, fellow colonist Thomas Harriot wrote about the native inhabitants he encountered in an account titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In 1587, White was made the governor of what became the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, along the coast of today’s North Carolina.

The people and places John White painted were in and near the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina. While the Roanoke colony was in modern-day North Carolina, the colony was part of the land Queen Elizabeth I granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, land she called “Virginia.” As mid-Atlantic coastal Indians, the Indigenous people John White painted shared many aspects of culture and language with the Powhatan paramount chiefdom to their north. Therefore, historians use these watercolors to learn about Powhatan culture, even though the watercolors do not specifically depict members of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.

John White returned to England before the members of the Roanoke colony infamously disappeared. By the time he went back to Roanoke in 1590, he found a deserted colony and was forced to return to England once more.

Theodor de Bry was a goldsmith, engraver and printer. He was born in Belgium, but throughout his life he also lived in France and England until settling in Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, he set up a publishing house. While in England, de Bry had acquired the text of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report and John White’s watercolors. In Frankfurt, he created engravings of White’s watercolors. These engravings did not copy White’s paintings exactly. While de Bry had never been to America, he inserted his own preconceived notions about the people and places of the Americas. In 1590, de Bry published Thomas Harriot’s account alongside his engravings of John White’s paintings in a volume together. The images and text were primarily anthropological in nature: they included portraits of Indigenous people, depictions of their culture and way of life and images of their towns. Europeans and their interactions with Indigenous people were absent from the volume.

A Brief and True Report was wildly successful and gave Europeans hungry for information about the Americas a glimpse into a place they would likely never see. However, Europeans did not gain an objective or fully truthful view of Algonquian Indian life. Rather, their view of the Americas was filtered first through John White’s and then through de Bry’s motives and biases.

Image Analysis
Fish were a staple of the mid-Atlantic coastal Indian diet. During the spring and summer months, Indigenous men would fish using a variety of methods (click here to learn more about Powhatan fishing). In the winter months, most of the town would move to their winter camp and men would hunt deer.

The original version of this image painted by John White did not include men or a background scene. Rather, the original image included just a fire with the grill and fish. When Theodor de Bry engraved the image, he added background details and the two men. He copied details from other John White paintings to create the men. He also included some incorrect details. For example, the types of fish in the basket show a variety that would not have been in the area. The most significant error is the basket held by the man on the right. There is no evidence that Indigenous people in the Outer Banks/Tidewater Virginia area made baskets of that style.

In this image, two men smoke fish. Smoking was an important step in preserving fish to eat later. According to Thomas Harriot, the Indigenous people he encountered would “reseruinge nothinge for store, thei do broie, and spend away all att once,” meaning they ate fish right away. Historians believe he was probably mistaken and simply did not witness fish being smoked to eat later.

The text that accompanied this image read:

“After they haue taken store of fishe, they gett them vnto a place fitt to dress yt. Ther they sticke vpp in the grownde 4. stakes in a square roome, and lay 4 potes vppon them, and others ouer thwart the same like vnto an hurdle, of sufficient heighte. and layinge their fishe vppon this hurdle, they make a fyre vnderneathe to broile the same, not after the manner of the people of Florida, which doe but schorte, and harden their meate in the smoke onlye to Reserue the same duringe all the winter. For this people reseruinge nothinge for store, thei do broile, and spend away all att once and when they haue further neede, they roste or seethe fresh, as wee shall see heraffter. And when as the hurdle can not holde all the fishes, they hange the Rest by the fyrres on sticks sett vpp in the grounde against the fyre, and than they finishe the rest of their cookerye. They take good heede that they bee not burntt. When the first are broyled they lay others on, that weare newlye broughte, continuinge the dressinge of their meate in this sorte, vntill they thincke they haue sufficient.”

Classroom Inquiry

1. Have students think about Thomas Harriot’s claim that the Indigenous people he encountered at the Outer Banks did not smoke their fish to preserve it but cooked and ate what they caught right away.

2. Why might historians think Harriot was wrong? What are the benefits and drawbacks of eating food right away versus preserving it for later?

Related Classroom Resources

Additional Reading