Food and authority in the English Atlantic world, 1570-1640

Michael LaCombe
Dept. of History, New York University
July, 2006


This dissertation examines the political culture of England's first settlements through the lens of food. It argues that the production, distribution, and consumption of food was intricately linked to social and gender inequality and political authority. These connections were most clear in times of scarcity, when control of food stores was often the single most important aspect of a leader's office. But this dissertation argues that connections between food and the exercise of political authority were manifested in countless everyday encounters as well. Borrowing from recent scholarship on English political culture, the dissertation describes the performances of authority that dramatized and legitimated political relationships. When they played their assigned roles, audiences and participants enacted unequal social relationships and by doing so conferred a form of legitimacy on those relationships. When they did not, even subtle contests---spurning an offer of hospitality, for example-could constitute a profound challenge. The central argument of 'Food and Authority' is that native Americans-Algonkian and Iroquoian speakers-played a vital role in the performances that constituted the political life of the early English Atlantic world. Since neither the English nor the Indians was able wholly to impose its views on the other, the two groups contested and negotiated political relationships throughout the early period in a performative vocabulary shaped by English political culture but conducted in accordance with Algonkian norms. The dissertation explores these interactions through the writings of William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Thomas Morton, William Wood, Roger Williams, John Winthrop, Captain John Smith, Gabriel Archer, Edward Maria Wingfield, John Guy, Humphrey Gilbert, George Percy, and others, and accounts of Indian leaders including Miantonomi, Massasoit, Powhatan, Opechancanough, and Uncas. Several other important aspects of early modern political culture are visible through the lens of food: the importance of women and gendered labor to both Algonkian and English visions of society, the importance of everyday settings and material culture to politics in the formal sense, and the broadly Atlantic character of these connections, which informed social relationships in Bermuda, Barbados, the Chesapeake, New England, Newfoundland, and the many Arctic voyages of the sixteenth century.