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Pieces of Eight

Left to right, Dr. Alan White, dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Larry Boyer, director of Joyner Library, formally present Chancellor Steve Ballard with ECU’s copy of Harriot’s 16th century report on his voyage to Virginia. (Photo courtesy of University Publications)

Harriot Volume Added to Joyner Library Collection

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

It is only fitting that a college named for a famous 16th century mathematician and astronomer should have in its possession a volume of his work. Such is the case with the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University, which, along with Joyner Library, has acquired a 16th century edition of Harriot’s report on his voyage to Virginia.

The purchase of a copy of Theodore de Bry’s “Admiranda nartio, fida tamen, de commodes et incolarlrvm ritibvs Virginiae …Anglico scripta sermone a Thoma Hariot,” printed in 1590, was the result of a joint effort by the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and Joyner Library. The book uses as its text Harriot’s “A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.”

Engravings in the newly acquired Harriot volume come from drawings made by John White when he explored what is now eastern North Carolina with Harriot in 1585. (Contributed image)

ECU acquired the volume for $50,000, using private funds for the purchase. The volume once belonged to Foster Sondley of Asheville, a noted book collector of the early 20th century.

ECU’s volume is in Latin and is in excellent condition, according to Dr. Alan White, dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences. The work appears to have been rebound, but the pages were not cut down or trimmed. Often as books were rebound, the pages would be trimmed and then retrimmed with the next rebinding. The ECU version still has the rough, original edges for the pages.

The copperplate engravings for the work come from famous watercolor drawings that John White made while in the “New World.” White and Harriot parti-cipated in the 1585 colony led by Ralph Lane, which returned to England in 1586 after leaving a few men behind to hold the area for England. According to historian David Quinn, Harriot remained during the entire tenure of the 11-month colony, but it is not known whether White returned early with Richard Grenville.

White returned to what is now North Carolina as governor of the colony that tried to settle Roanoke Island in 1587. After traveling to England for supplies and being delayed for three years by attacks on the British fleet by the Spanish armada, White finally returned in 1590 and found the settlement abandoned. It is now known as “The Lost Colony.”

“This work is a really important acquisition for ECU and for North Carolina. With our close proximity to Roanoke Island, it is important to the library and the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences,” White said.

White explained that de Bry printed hundreds of copies of the Harriot work in four languages: Latin, German, French and English.

The colonies had not done well for the English yet, so Harriot’s description of the land in Virginia was meant to attract people by detailing what the new world was like, White said. It was that day’s “prospectus” for investing in the new world. “All the nations of Europe were looking to the new world as a site for a colony and a source of revenue,” White said.

“This (volume) became one of the standard books to have in your library, if you were a European nobleman,” White said.

“Hundreds of versions of this book were printed and they were kept in these libraries for generations. That’s how so many copies have survived.”

Several copies of the de Bry’s work can be found in North Carolina, including at the state library, Wake Forest University library and the University of North Carolina library. According to Joyner Library, 28 libraries in the world are listed as owning the work.

Later this year, the North Carolina Museum of History plans to display ECU’s copy of the de Bry volume along with the original John White watercolor paintings from his journey to Virginia used to illustrate the volume. The watercolor paintings are owned by the British Museum.

This page originally appeared in the April 27, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at