Braving the new world

    The 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act has triggered a fascinating clutch of exhibitions and television programmes. And they haven’t all reached the conclusions you might have expected. On Channel 4, I watched a black Londoner, descended from one of the last slaves to be taken to Jamaica, follow his ancestor back to Africa and across to Jamaica again, while regularly pausing to admit that he wasn’t encountering what he’d expected to encounter. In Nigeria, he learnt that black Africans had also traded in other black Africans. In Jamaica, he found out that his ancestor may have been an “overseer”, charged with controlling the other slaves. None of it diminished the crime of slavery or made it in any way more forgivable. But it did broadcast the point that, in the relationship between blacks and whites, nothing is ever as black and white as it can sometimes seem.

    I’ve been impressed, too, by the inventiveness of the art shows that have arrived in the slipstream of the discombobulating anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Uncomfortable Truths, at the V&A, is a feisty selection of contemporary art scattered around the museum where you don’t expect to find it. In the garden, for instance, someone seems illegally to have dumped a gigantic tyre. It is actually a sculpture by Romuald Hazoumé, from Benin, about the industrial despoliation of Africa by our charming multinationals. He has called it Dan-Ayido-Houedo, or rainbow, a sarcastic title if ever there were one.

    Uncomfortable Truths asks good questions, and tracking down the exhibits is an adventure. But, taking my cue from the black Londoner who didn’t find what he expected in the places he looked, I’ll focus on a couple of shows that approach the topic from the side and can easily be assumed not to be approaching the topic at all.

    The better of these, A New World, at the British Museum, is an attempt to understand the mindset of the first Englishman to picture America. In 1585, Walter Raleigh sent a shipload of patriots to found a new colony in what is now North Carolina. Raleigh had been given the patent to explore the new lands by Elizabeth I, in whose honour he proposed to name the colony Virginia. Among the Englishmen on this first ship was a talented amateur artist, John White, who was charged with producing “pictures of sondry things collected and counterfeited according to the truth in the voyage made by Sr Walter Raleigh”.

    In those days, “counterfeiting” didn’t mean making fakes, but producing a record of a living thing. Thus, fortune conspired to put an artist on the first English boat to arrive in Virginia, then conspired further by making White a very able watercolourist indeed. His record of what he encountered has had a tough time – burnt in fires, drowned, battered and squashed through the ages – but 75 of his precious watercolours remain, and the best are still vivid.

    Although it is impossible to be sure today what was really going on in White’s mind, the pictures themselves, on show for the first time in 40 years, appear to reveal a fascinated, sympathetic observer. He was the first artist to paint an American butterfly and a jellyfish; he painted scorpions and turtles, alligators and gadflies, pineapples and hermit crabs; but, above all, he painted the people who were already there. Because the chief paradox of the new world, of course, was that it was a new world only to conquering outsiders. To the natives White portrayed so carefully, fishing in their low tidal waters or grilling dorado on a 16th-century barbecue, nursing their young, burying their dead, Virginia was an ancient homeland.

    The best known of White’s American images, a tattooed full-length of an Algonquian chief holding his war bow, quickly became the iconic image of the native American. Since no other artist of White’s stature was to arrive here for a couple of centuries, his native chief had the image bank to himself, and was endlessly recycled in prints and adaptations. The show examines the background to these journeys, the reasons for Raleigh’s plans, the voyages of earlier navigators. But that’s just the amuse-bouche . It’s the watercolours that astonish.

    Among the many surprises, I was struck by two views of a native village, carefully encircled and thoroughly planned, with paths, fields, grain stores, worship sites. It’s a picture of a well-ordered society that is delightful in itself, but that also asks loudly: who in this situation was actually civilised, and who was not?

    It’s clear to me, too, that underlying White’s gorgeous views of nature and the unspoilt human condition are various lingering fantasies about paradise. The Spaniards who arrived in the new world long before the English were in no doubt that they had discovered the Garden of Eden. And, although the gentlemen sailors on Raleigh’s boat were never going to make a popish song and dance about finding Eden, underlying White’s beautiful appreciation of a pink flamingo’s plumage or the comic, spiky grimace of a burrfish was surely the superstitious suspicion that the Bible had already described this place, and that the half-naked natives were really us back then. Theodor de Bry, the Flemish engraver who distributed White’s vision of America in the first book of these voyages, makes that explicit by including a picture of Adam and Eve on his title page.

    Over at the National Portrait Gallery, another well-meaning show looks at exotic visitors from across the British empire who arrived in London, at various times, to be patronised and mocked by our natives. They range from Omai, the famous Tahitian brought back from the South Seas by Captain Cook, to poor Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, who was rechristened the Hottentot Venus and shoved into freak shows, where her large bottom caused much cruel merriment.

    All these exotic visitors, whose stories are perhaps too briefly told here, were the subject of obscene civilisational value judgments. They were giggled at in cartoons, paraded in the streets and fantasised about frantically. But may I nervously suggest that some small good did come of their arrival, because they did at least prompt some intriguing art. When as lousy a hack as Sir Godfrey Kneller, a mass-producer of interchangeable 17th-century women in wigs, is forced outside his comfort zone by having to paint a Chinese visitor to London, when he cannot rely on any of his usual tricks and has to come up with something fresh and new, and when the results are the best thing Kneller ever did, then we can at least claim the situation had a tiny payoff.