By Natalie Bennett

Early in the exhibition of “England’s First View of America” now in its final days at the British Museum, is a spectacular vellum map of the world, more than 2m long, made about 1550 by Pierre Deceliers of Dieppe. Maps like this would have been hung on the walls of the Elizabethan court. It features not just geography, but exotic wild beasts, wealthy foreign kings, lush strange landscapes – this was the cyber world of its day: new, threatening, strange, unknown in its impact on the comfortable, known Europe.

So Amerigo Vespucci wrote in 1505:

The people are thus naked, handsome, brown, well_formed in body…they also fight with each other. They also eat each other even those who are slain. And have no government.

It is clearly the last sentence that is the most threatening.

Yet when the painter and adventurer John White went on the English 1585 expedition to the Americas his mission was different – it was to record the plants and animals and people encountered, to try to make them known, safe, familiar.

That these images have survived today is a small miracle – many show the damage from a Victorian warehouse fire – and they can only be rarely shown due to their fragility, so this is a genuine one-off chance to see these works. Yet they are more than mere curiousities – they give real tie to a society trying to come to terms with, to accept, the strange and foreign.

(Albeit so that they could invade and take it over – and you didn’t want to get in their road. The exhibition records the fate of some Inuit who did: Arnaq, a young woman who was found hiding with an old woman and the child, Nutaaq, aged about 12 months. She died shortly after arriving in Bristol and the child died before he could be shown to Elizabeth.)

White’s work was very much a propaganda effort to encourage settlement of the new world. One curious side effect of this was that he created some dramatic images of prehistoric Britons; one Pict chieftain is shown with a fantastically painted body, with a huge sword, carrying a severed head. Thus was he trying to show how savage was Britain’s past compared to the people of America. (Oddly White influenced the way the people of Britain saw their past well into 1800s – these woad-stained, heavily muscled savages were reproduced for centuries.)

Yet the Elizabethans were as yet only very new to the business of encountering “foreigners”. The exhibition notes that in the court of the Virgin Queen costumes were read as elaborate signifiers, every detail a sign of rank, status and aspiration. So when they looked at people of new world they tried to “read” their costumes in the same way.

But less needed to be done to aquire knowledge of the natural world, a level of detail in White’s work that still hold up pretty well today. So there’s “a flye which in the night senneth a flame of fyer” – what we still call a firefly, and a gadfly “a dangerous byting flye”. White managed to bring back a specimen for this for the Rev Thomas Penny, who recorded it in his insect encyclopedia.

Knowledge could of course for the settlers be a matter of life and death, in a strange land. So it was that White carefully recorded: “wylauke”, now called milkweed, noting the native use: “theie cure their wounds which they receave by the poysoned arroes of theire enemyes”.

One curious aspect of the exhibition is that while so much detail of White’s work survives, and some aspects of his life, other elements are heavily opaque. It is known that he was born a gentleman. There was a parcel gilder of that name in the Office of Revels in 1579 and a member of the Painter Stainers so called in 1580, but it hasn’t been proven to be the same White who in a letter of 1593 said he made five voyages to Virginia, and who painted these wonderful works. (Being a gentleman and a painter was not as surprising as it looks at first thought – George Gower also fell into both groups.)

Our White is known to have married Thomasine Cooper in 1566 and they had a daughter Elinor. She and her husband Ananias Dare have one claim to fame: their daughter was the first English child born in America, in the settlement of Roanoke, where White was governor.

There’s a poignant irony in their, and the colony’s fate. White had done so much to make America seem safe, but it wasn’t off course. As governor he returned to England for reinforcements, was caught up in the events around the Armada, and by the time he returned the colony, and all of its inhabitants, had vanished, among them that little grandchild. This was a foreign, strange land, that could not be tamed with brush and pen.

The exhibition finishes on Sunday (June 17), so you haven’t got long. Late opening Thursday and Friday (to 8.30). Tickets £7, with concessions. (Other views: Guardian, Telegraph and Time Out.