James Ellison. George Sandys: Travel, Colonialism and Tolerance in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002. pp. ix+286. ISBN 0 85991 750 9.

Bernadette Andrea
University of Texas at San Antonio

Andrea, Bernadette."Review of James Ellison, George Sandys: Travel, Colonialism and Tolerance in the Seventeenth Century." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 8.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/revandr.htm>.
  1. Travel, Colonialism and Tolerance, from the subtitle of this monograph, presents a compelling cluster of concerns centered on the personally enigmatic and generally marginalized George Sandys (1578- 1644). Author of the frequently, albeit selectively cited A Relation of a Journey through much of the Ottoman Empire; colonial administrator of the tenuous Virginia settlement; equivocal courtier during the unravelling reign of Charles I; and translator of Virgil, Ovid, the Psalms, the Book of Job, and Hugo Grotius, Sandys has warranted two previous published monographs: Richard Beale Davis's biography (1955) and Jonathan Haynes's more focused study of Sandys's Relation (1986). However, Ellison's is the first to move beyond the limits of "the life of a man" mode to analyze the full range of Sandys's writings within a nexus of cultural, literary, and politics influences leading to the beginnings of the English colonial project and towards the English-cum-British civil wars. Not just a thorough cultural history and focused biography, Ellison's study emphasizes the neglected literary merit of Sandys's oeuvre, particularly his often overlooked translations, by pursuing careful explications of their rhetorical and intertextual relations. The following summary of the fundamental concerns of this monograph thus underlines its indispensability for scholars of early modern England and the Ottoman Empire, England's imperial project in North America, religious controversy in pre-Civil War England, debates over monarchical absolutism, the relative merits of Caroline poetry between the era of Donne and Herbert and that of the mature Milton, and much more.

  2. Importantly, Ellison grounds his discussion of "the politics of religion" by defining "toleration" and "tolerance" in a seventeenth-century sense: the former meaning that various churches are permitted in one state; the latter, that various views are permitted within one state church (2). Sandys, in this historical specific sense, represents the "liberal outlook" of many Englishmen of his class -- primarily landed gentry, aligned with disaffected aristocrats -- in promoting Christian ecumenism and monarchy modified by the institution of parliament. Sandys is nonetheless "unique" in Ellison's estimation for the breadth of his experience and understanding. He was the only English poet of his era, whether Protestant or Catholic, to travel to Jerusalem; he was the first English poet to write from North America; and he was the foremost literary voice representing the Great Tew Circle's latitudinarian alternative to Laudian or Puritan absolutism. Sustaining a parallel between the better known George Sandys and his unjustly neglected brother, Edwin, Ellison establishes that Sandys's representation of the Ottoman Empire, in contradistinction to Richard Knolles's, derives from his brother's widely circulated proposition that the pressure of the Ottoman Empire on the southwestern flank of the extensive Catholic Hapsburg territories enabled fledgling Protestantism to establish it roots. Without the Ottomans, understood both Sandys brothers, England might remain neither an autonomous nor a Protestant nation, but become a satellite of the Hapsburg Empire dominated by Spain. "Toleration" in the seventeenth-century sense, however, did not extend to the Ottomans as Muslims. Yet, as Ellison convincingly argues, to label George Sandys's attitude to the region as colonialist or orientalist remains anachronistic and simplistic.

  3. By contrast, Sandys was an unabashed imperialist in the Americas, though Ellison specifies the early English imperial project in Virginia as "Christian imperialism," subtended by the classical model of the "virtuous imperialist" (82, 84). Hence, Sandys's propensity for "tolerance" -- in the seventeenth-century sense of allowing multiple views under a single hegemony -- similarly characterizes his stance as a colonial administrator. Still, it was under Sandys's administration that the 1622 "great massacre" of most of the Virginia settlers by resisting natives occurred, thus shifting the project of English imperialism in North America from accommodation of the native peoples to anglocentric civility to their elimination from the lands the English were invading. Sandys's liberalism, that is, sought to expropriate native lands and assimilate native peoples on the basis of "tolerance" without acknowledging its hegemonic construction. Colonialism, however, necessarily involves violence, and to efface that fact in the fantasy of "friendly" relations inevitably leads to the sort of disillusionment that resulted in calls for genocide from formerly "tolerant" men such as Sandys. Yet, although Ellison's careful analysis of the nuanced attitudes of the early English colonists in Virginia presents a valuable corrective to the ahistorical condemnation of the English as "blinkered" imperialists, it does not foreground the related contradictions structuring Sandys's adherence to "virtuous imperialism." For instance, Ellison reiterates the colonial cliché that the English "had been duped" by the Indians, when the English were actually deluded by their own colonial desires for an "easy" conquest. Still, the lineaments of such conclusions may be gleaned from Ellison's precise delineation of Powhatan's counter-empire as a response to previous encounters with European, albeit Spanish, imperialists, as well as from his thorough genealogy of the classical roots of the Renaissance discourse of empire at the core of Sandys's American writings.

  4. Sandys returned to England after this colonial debacle to an increasingly absolutist court under the tenure of Archbishop Laud. The balance of Ellison's study examines the hitherto marginalized interventions of Sandys into these political debates: perhaps a "minor" poet, Sandys was nevertheless the literary voice for a significant circle of disaffected gentry and noblemen centered at Lucius Cary's estate, Great Tew. As Ellison demonstrates through a method combining "inference and close readings" of Sandys's later translations (47), including the commendatory poems by founding members of the Great Tew circle, neither consensus nor containment accurately describes the divided social landscape of Charles I's reign. Sandys's translations, in particular, serve to critique the absolutist tendencies in the Caroline church and state without rejecting either the state church or the monarchy. When Ellison concludes, therefore, that "George Sandys's literary contribution deserves to be finally recognized" (246), the reader of his wide ranging study of this ultimately self-effacing, rather than self-fashioning, Renaissance man is persuaded to answer resoundingly in the affirmative. Ellison's several appendices finally sketch links between Sandys and Milton, Grotius, and Jonson to offer productive directions for further research.
Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).