THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

05 October 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin

The British Library has an outstanding collection of scientific literature, and the richness of its early American scientific material is illuminated in the Eccles Centre’s Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library by Jean Petrovic. The books, journals, papers and letters of all of the leading figures are listed here. And while Benjamin Rush, ‘Father of American Psychiatry’, will be the subject of next month’s blog, this first one must surely focus upon Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin and others like him, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry; indeed, the generic term for scientists at this time was ‘natural philosophers’. That the American Declaration of Independence was based on 'natural law', rather than divine sanction, stemmed from preceding century's increasing reluctance to define natural phenomena as purely 'Acts of God'.

Volcano

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 1794. (British Library: Maps K.Top.83.61.i) 

Initially, the natural philosophers living in the American colonies worked collaboratively on a local and inter-colonial basis. Yet as the eighteenth century progressed they increasingly communicated with fellow spirits in Britain and Continental Europe. 

From the mid-century onward, Franklin was at the centre of this exchange of information. In 1753 he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal – the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for his ground-breaking work in the field of electricity. This he had communicated by letter to Peter Collinson, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who subsequently arranged for its publication as Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6))

Franklin Experiments

Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity. London: E. Cave, 1751. (Shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6.))   

The book established Franklin’s reputation in Britain and Europe, with Immanuel Kant in 1755 describing him as ‘The Prometheus of Modern Times’. Thus, when Franklin arrived in London in 1757, ostensibly as a political representative, this supposedly unfashionable colonial found immediate acceptance at the centre of Britain’s scientific community. As he expanded his own network, he increased the international acceptance of his American contemporaries. Even the American War of Independence did not totally disrupt transatlantic communication. In 1779, Franklin, as the United States Minister Plenipotentiary in France, instructed ‘All Captains and Commanders of American Armed Ships’ to grant Captain Cook a safe passage in 1779 for his voyage of exploration ‘for the Increase of Geographical Knowledge’. [1]   

Frankin portrait

Benjamin Franklin, by David Martin (1767). Wikimedia Commons, provided by The White House Historical Association. The bust on Franklin's desk is of Sir Isaac Newton.

The extraordinary number and depth of Franklin’s connections can be traced by linking the correspondence in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959- ) to the publications of his American contemporaries in Early American Science. In so doing, we see how Franklin is associated with the biologist Cotton Mather from his Boston boyhood and linked to a great number of his fellow Philadelphian scientists, including the botanist John Bartram, physician Thomas Bond, scientific patron James Logan, astronomer David Rittenhouse, physician Benjamin Rush (the subject of next month's blog) and collector Charles Willson Peale. Franklin was also a long-time correspondent of two highly distinguished academics – the Yale climatologist Ezra Stiles and John Winthrop, Professor of Mathematics and Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Harvard.

The final Franklin/British Library connection highlighted in Early American Science is the Library's holdings of almost two hundred and fifty years of the Transactions (1771 - ) of the American Philosophical Society - the organisation founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 and modeled on the Royal Society. [2] 

George Goodwin

George is a 2017 Eccles Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).

Notes

[1] The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 29 (March 1 through June 30, 1779), p. 86. Edited by Barbara B. Oberg, et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. (Shelfmark: 10924.h.1.)

[2] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, 1771 - present. (Shelfmark: Ac.1830/3) 

 

 

 

            

 

28 September 2017

George Pilkington and abolitionism in Brazil

George Pilkington’s An Address to the English Residents of the Brazilian Empire was published in 1841 at the culmination of the author’s fact-finding mission on behalf of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The pamphlet outlines the Irish abolitionist’s grave concerns about what he had witnessed during visits to the Brazilian provinces of Pernambuco, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. Not only was he horrified by the cruelties of the illegal slave-trade which continued to flourish, despite British pressure, until 1850; Pilkington was also appalled by the complicity of British residents in Brazil in promoting the contraband trade and its corollary, slavery.

Discursos de John Scoble
Extractos Dos Discursos de John Scoble, shelfmark 8180.b.34.(1.)

Pilkington vehemently believed that given Britain’s global stand against the slave-trade since 1807 and slavery since 1833, the interests of British slaveholders in Brazil were ‘in direct opposition to English principle.’ The Address, then, was an impassioned plea to all British residents who had ‘breathed the miasma of slavery’ to act promptly to extricate themselves from the precarious moral and, as he saw it, legal position in which they found themselves.[1]

This pamphlet and a series of related letters authored by Pilkington in the same period are important sources for my own research exploring the entanglement of British commercial interests with slavery in Brazil until its abolition in 1888.[2] While there have been some excellent studies concerning the gold mines of Minas Gerais, other areas of British investment in Brazil’s slave economy remain relatively unexplored.[3] Pilkington’s own estimations from 1841 that half of all British-held slaves were employed in non-mining contexts encouraged me to investigate further.[4]

Through archival research across Brazil and the UK, I have been able to quantify the extent and map the diversity of slaveholding in the small but affluent British communities from Pará in the north to Rio Grande do Sul in the south.

Arquivo%20Nacional%2c%20RJ%2c%20Brasil
Arquivo Nacional, Brasil

The picture that emerges - at the mid-century at least - is one of slave-ownership across all levels of the community, from bakers and stable-keepers to the well-to-do merchant class and even a significant minority of large-scale plantation owners, including Britain’s own Vice-Consul in the province of São Paulo. The ‘English principle’ which Pilkington stressed, or Victorian Britain’s anti-slavery identity, was seemingly not the primary concern of those British subjects faced with the both the realities of living in a slave-society and the opportunities for profit-making in a slave-economy.

These traditional forms of slaveholding are only part of the story. Other chapters of my research project focus on the kind of entanglement which appeared less readily in abolitionist critiques of British complicity in Brazilian slavery. Using overlooked sources of the British in Brazil, such as legal and notary records, my research has traced the flows of British credit to slave-owners in the form of mortgages guaranteed by human collateral. Whilst not challenging the predominance of native capital in the expansion of Brazilian slavery, British actors were important sources of international credit and it has been possible to trace flows which had until now remained largely invisible. For example, one of my chapters studies the establishment of the London and Brazilian Bank and its mortgage portfolio containing many hundreds of enslaved people and the São Paulo coffee plantations they worked.

Britain’s relationship with slavery did not end with abolition in its own colonies. Recent scholarship such as UCL’s Legacy of British Slave-Ownership project has shown that to be the case. British entanglement with Brazilian slavery is part of the same conversation and I hope that my research can contribute to helping us understand more about this complex and challenging legacy.

 

Joe Mulhern is a current PhD candidate on a CDP at the University of Durham and the British Library, where he is supervised by Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

 

[1]G. Pilkington, An Address to English Residents in the Brazilian Empire, (Rio de Janeiro: Laemmert, 1841) p.17

[2] see British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter nos. 2.15 (Jul 1841); 2.16 (Aug 1841); 2.17 (Aug 1841); 2.18 (Sep 1841); 2.18 (Sep 1841); 2.21 (Oct 1841); 2.22 (Nov 1841).

[3] Examples of important works held in the British Library include M.Eakin, British enterprise in Brazil: The St. John Del Rey Mining Company and the Morro Velho Gold Mine,1830-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989); D.C. Libby, Trabalho escravo e capital estrangeiro no Brasil: o caso de Morro Velho (Belo Horizonte: Ed. Itatiaia, 1984); F.C.da Silva, Barões de ouro e aventureiros britânicos no Brasil (São Paulo: EDUSP, 2012).

[4] G. Pilkington, An Address p.13

25 September 2017

Following Sarah Royce

In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.

HannahRoycebook 4jpg

 Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) 

I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.

The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.

Hannahprairie

The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.

Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.

Hannahsunkenriver

A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.

The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”

Hannah Kohler

Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at www.bl.uk/eccles-centre 

Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).