Contesting Empire: John Ogilby and the Historical Narrative of America

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Sheraton Ballroom III (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Ian Aebel, University of New Hampshire
As a young man in the early seventeenth century, John Ogilby saved his father from debtor’s prison with the winnings from a Virginia Company lottery.  More than half a century later, having successfully negotiated the political minefield of seventeenth century England, Ogilby found himself Charles II’s Royal Cosmographer.  A curious post for a dancer and dramatist, Ogilby set out in his duties to produce a comprehensive geographical and historical survey of much of the known world.  Between 1670 and 1675, he published four enormously successful folio volumes: Africa, Asia, Britannia, and America.  Each proved to be enormously successful, with America’s subscriptions alone funding five separate editions, as well as Dutch and German editions, within a few years. In the decades that followed, Ogilby’s reputation as a scholar was savaged by London literati such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and twentieth century historians viewed Ogilby as a Grub Street hack and plagiarist.  However, an examination of America and the visual and textual elements of all its editions reveals both an Anglo-Dutch partnership in constructing the text and a sophisticated historical narrative that aimed to supplant the dominant seventeenth century Iberian-American historical narrative.  Visually and textually, America presented a decidedly English perspective of American history in a hemispheric context, reading sources through the lens of a rapidly developing English American empire.  Countering critics of Anglo-American expansion, Ogilby saw America as the key to supremacy in a European dominated Atlantic world.
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