Racial Encounters in Colonial America

June 24, 2015

This resource reprints European engravings of "Amerindians" in colonial New Spain and New Portugal. The goal is to explain how ideas about race contributed to European justifications of conquest and colonization.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
V. US HISTORY B. Three Worlds Converge, 1450 - 1763: The student will understand how European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected peoples.


European overseas exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries brought different peoples of the world into contact with one another. Contemporary conceptions of race strongly influenced the spirit of these encounters. Europeans justified their conquests and subsequent colonization in Africa, Asia, and the Americas partly based on notions of racial superiority. These understandings were derived from Christian conceptions of the world and pointed to the importance of differences in cultural background during the Age of Exploration. In the Americas, for example, early Spanish writers depicted Amerindians as irrational beings with supposedly "barbaric" behaviors, such as cannibalism. The perceived inferiority of American Indians made them comparable not with rational Europeans but with wild beasts. Racial encounters between European explorers and native peoples also demonstrated how race, as a social construction, was continually changing in meaning. While early Spanish travelers explained Amerindians' perceived inferiority as evidence of inherent racial characteristics, later ideas attributed the peculiarities of American Indian behavior to differences in rates of historical growth: The American Indian was not biologically inferior but culturally primitive. Because this view granted that Amerindians could improve their civility, Europeans justified colonization on the basis that they had a responsibility to uplift the American Indian through proper instruction.


The following copper plate engravings offer one example of the racialization of colonized peoples. At the turn of the 17th century, most Europeans' visual conceptions of the Americas came from the engravings of the workshop of Flemish printmaker Theodore de Bry. Although de Bry himself never traveled to the Americas, he based his work on the texts of travel narratives and images purchased from expedition staff artists. Between 1590 and 1634, de Bry's workshop published two main volumes: Grands Voyages, detailing explorations mainly to the Americas, and Petits Voyages, describing expeditions to Africa and the East Indies. The following images come from Grands Voyages and depict de Bry's impressions of both Amerindians and Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the Americas.

  1. German traveler Hans Staden's 1557 account of his adventures in Brazil formed the source material for the first image.
    Hans Staden
  2. The following two images were derived from Italian explorer Girolamo Benzoni's 1565 account of his travels in the Spanish colonies.
Girolamo Benzoni 1565 (1)

Girolamo Benzoni 1565 (2)

Discussion Questions

  1. How are Amerindians depicted? How are Europeans depicted? Consider characteristics such as race, gender, and age.
  2. What are the main activities depicted in the engravings? What do these activities suggest about the nature of interactions between Amerindians and Europeans?
  3. What do the engravings reveal about European racial understandings of Amerindians? How did de Bry's workshop participate in the processes of racialization in Europe? (Keep in mind that de Bry never traveled to the Americas and that his engravings are secondhand accounts.)

Suggested Readings

(High School) Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States - Chapter 1.

Fernández-Armesto, Felip. Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Moffitt, John F., and Santiago Sebastián. O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Pagden, Anthony. European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Van Groesen, Michiel. The Representations of the Overseas World in the De Bry Collection of Voyages (1590-1634). Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008.