Back in the day, sailing to America could be traumatic stuff—when, that is, it wasn't incredibly dull. Anything might go wrong, and frequently did. There were enemy warships, hurricanes and, not least, the delights of dysentery (or "the bloody flux," as contemporaries called it). And if you'd sailed south along the North African coast before swinging west toward America's Southeastern coast, there were pirates. Not just any pirates, but Muslim corsairs—legendary sexual enslavers who captured tens of thousands of Westerners from the 16th to the 19th Centuries.
So reaching the New World in a single piece was, to put it mildly, a sparkling achievement. But once you got there, how quickly the fabled land of milk and honey turned nightmarish—mutated into a lagoon of lost opportunities and, as the record testifies, rotting corpses. Everywhere it was the same. From the Chesapeake's malarial swamps to New England's ocean cliffs, America bred terror, homesickness and disillusionment. "I thought no head had beene able to hold so much water as hath dailie flow from mine eyes." a terrified Englishman wrote in 1623, before he vanished without a trace.
But if getting to America was no stroll in the park, escaping it when things went awry was its own special hell. Few men understood this better than Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, an elusive French artist who in 1564 settled with 300 of his Protestant compatriots on the banks of the St. Johns River in what is now Jacksonville, Fla. These courageous souls were certainly ahead of their time. In 1564, England was still colonizing Ireland. Queen Elizabeth's favorite soldier-adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh—who would name Virginia for his Virgin Queen—was about 12. And the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame wouldn't glimpse the New World for more than half a century. For better and worse, Le Moyne spent less than two years in this tragically short-lived place, which historians remember as the earliest European settlement in North America.
In his splendid and ardently written new book, "Painter in a Savage Land," Miles Harvey sets out to recover the life and times of this extraordinary witness and survivor. And no wonder: Le Moyne would seem an irresistible—and thoroughly companionable—guide to the perils and pitfalls of lighting out for uncharted territories. He was, after all, "the first European artist in North America." As his expedition's official artist, Le Moyne was charged with documenting how the New World and its denizens looked and behaved. You name it, and he was expected to draw it: flora, fauna and natives.
Within 50 years, the field would be crowded with swashbuckling adventurers claiming to be the first to do this or that. But Le Moyne was a true pioneer. Intentionally or not, he inaugurated a tradition that would shape the course of empire for 250 years.
Before National Geographic and televised war correspondents brought the wide world into living rooms everywhere, men like Le Moyne provided the Old World with enchanting (if frequently misleading) glimpses of the New. Soldiers, priests and moneymen have since absconded with the lion's share of infamy, but Le Moyne and his legion of imitators in certain respects made conquest and evangelizing possible. They not only shaped popular perceptions of the New World; they enabled dreams, spurred colonization by attracting the interest of investors and potential émigrés. And that was an uphill battle. To Le Moyne's generation, North America might as well have been Pluto.
(Recent years have seen a tremendous revival of interest in the art and cartography of Le Moyne's heirs, particularly that of his celebrated associate and copyist, Elizabethan artist John White. Harvey's book makes a timely companion to a marvelous traveling exhibition organized by the British Museum, soon to arrive at the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.)
Harvey, who formerly taught creative writing at Northwestern University, is no stranger to mysterious men. His first book, "The Island of Lost Maps" (2001), took readers on a rollicking tour of the bizarre, criminal netherworld of map collecting. In this worthy successor to his international best seller, Harvey serves up a similarly colorful blend of virtuosic storytelling, history, biography and good old-fashioned sleuthing.
Le Moyne's career unfolded against a chaotic backdrop of territorial expansion and religious conflict that drew multiple European competitors into protracted and bloody fray for New World dominance. Fueled by malicious xenophobia and unbridled greed, this clash of empires routinely pitted Roman Catholics against Protestants on battlefields thousands of miles from Europe. In the hands of a lesser writer, this struggle might be reduced to a lifeless caricature, a blur of dates and arcane meditations on military strategy. But Harvey has a keen eye for the telling and dramatic detail. As if channeling 19th Century American historian Francis Parkman, he provides a hot-blooded rendering of the contest that drove Spain, France and England out to sea in search of El Dorado.
As with any number of New World colonial ventures, Le Moyne's Florida was supposed to be a haven from religious persecution. It's hard now to imagine the hatred Protestants and Catholics once reserved for each other. Harvey captures the depth and extent of the Florida colonists' desperation.
When they got to Florida, the settlers built a sizable fort of sod and wood. They named it Ft. Caroline. For 18 months they muddled along, enduring the usual litany of trials immortalized in Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel, "Robinson Crusoe." For his part, Le Moyne drew and drew. He looked on as the Timucua Indians fought off alligators; he portrayed the natives at work and play. He gave them bodies they didn't have, depicted them as Greek sculptures. He created a pictorial representation of a famous and flawed idea: the Noble Savage.
Like the others, Le Moyne also worried about the Spanish. And with good reason. Within 18 months, the fledgling colony had been discovered by that fearsome scourge, the 16th Century's answer to a dominant global power. Of course it ended badly. Harvey's evocation of the ensuing carnage will take readers' breath away:
"It had taken mere minutes for the French empire in La Florida to come crashing down. When the last anguished moan had faded . . . 132 of Le Moyne's colleagues lay dead, their corpses—some, if not all, of which had been beheaded—piled in heaps."
Miraculously, Le Moyne lived. In 1566, he returned to France. His drawings, though, did not; they burned along with Ft. Caroline. So he sat down and began drawing from memory. Predictably, this second batch was marred by fanciful embellishments and outright inaccuracies. But no matter. Le Moyne's efforts would elicit the attention of France's Protestant nemesis across the channel. A relative latecomer to the New World, England had been galvanized by France's boldness in Florida. For once, Le Moyne's Protestantism would open doors. In 1581, he emigrated to England, again seeking refuge from religious persecution. Le Moyne's seven years in England—he died in 1588—placed him squarely at the center of its expanding empire. He discovered an influential patron in Raleigh. And he met watercolorist White, whose exquisite copies of Le Moyne's work guaranteed White's fame.
Harvey covers a lot of ground in his book. He does so with enviable efficiency, without sacrificing substance for style. By and large, Harvey has done his homework, and he has the bibliography to prove it. He wears his learning lightly and forgoes the ham-fisted moralizing now de rigueur among scholars of colonial and imperial history.
Document hunters hoping to learn the whereabouts of previously undiscovered archives or a cache of revelatory letters will be disappointed. "Painter in a Savage Land" is richly imagined and a delightful read, but it's not original or groundbreaking scholarship. Harvey doesn't pretend otherwise. The book's virtues lie in its telling. As an introduction to the pleasures of colonial American history, "Painter in a Savage Land" succeeds wonderfully. Then, too, Harvey's irrepressible affection for Le Moyne offers a refreshing antidote to books stalked by pasteboard "colonizers" bent on genocide and destruction.
To reveal the book's dénouement would spoil the story. But suffice to say that Harvey follows Le Moyne into our own time, and with surprising results. Then as now, visual artists ranked among the world's most sensitive barometers. But like Vincent van Gogh, Le Moyne may have been born too soon to enjoy the celebrity he richly deserved. If his imitators secured a respectable measure of renown, it was Le Moyne's unlucky fate to anticipate the zeitgeist, not to personify it. By the mid-18th Century, navigational advances would conspire with the Enlightenment to ignite a craze for plants and objects gathered from the Earth's far-flung corners. That craze would rouse the founders of the British Museum and make national heroes of artists who traveled to the Pacific with Capt. James Cook.
There is, then, a mournful aspect to Le Moyne's fugitive existence. Perhaps inevitably, an aura of disappointment and mild exasperation inflects Harvey's otherwise energetic narrative.
"This book was the most difficult professional undertaking of my life," he confesses. And I don't doubt it. Venturing into the labyrinthine cave of early modern European history isn't for the impatient, or the naïve. "Painter in a Savage Land" raises timely and searching questions about how history should be written—and for whom. Like Le Moyne, Harvey invites us to explore the outermost reaches of our empathic powers. Getting acquainted with the dead isn't easy, but it's not impossible. Miles Harvey reminds us that we have a moral obligation to try.
Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First Artist in North AmericaBy Miles HarveyRandom House, 339 pages, $27Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times