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

22 March 2017

In various light: a farewell to Derek Walcott

 

 

As a teenager I had the following stanzas from Derek Walcott’s poem In a Green Light on my bedroom door:

The orange tree, in various light,

Proclaims perfected fables now

That her last season’s summer height

Bends from each overburdened bough.

 

She has her winters and her spring,

Her moult of leaves, which in their fall

Reveal, as with each living thing,

Zones truer than the tropical.

 

And it is a strange feeling now to be writing this blog as Curator of Latin America and the Caribbean at the British Library in the sad wake of Walcott’s death on March 17th. Born in 1930 on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Walcott attended University in Jamaica and then moved to Trinidad where he founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1950. Walcott received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. Walcott’s poetry, prose, and plays reckon with the colonial and post-colonial socio-historical forces of the Caribbean.  In his Nobel lecture The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, Derek Walcott stated:

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. […] It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. […]Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.”

The British Library has a significant collection of Walcott’s works including a first edition of his very first play: Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950) (BL Shelfmark 11785.ee.23), that focuses on politics and power in post-Revolutionary Haiti. The play was first produced in London in 1952.  

  Walcott blog

Walcott's epic poem Omeros (BL Shelfmark YC.1991.a.590), published in in 1990 , is a ground breaking work that weaves across time and space touching upon (among other things) classical Greece, the trans-atlantic slave trade, colonialism, cultural syncretism, love and death. The sound archive here at the British Library holds recordings of Walcott reading Omeros, as well as other works. And you will also find uncorrected proofs of Derek Walcott’s poetry such as In a Green Night (Add MS 88984/5/37/4) and many of Walcott’s plays such as The Odyssey (MPS 5344) in our manuscripts collections. A master at conveying the power of history and memory, Derek Walcott’s voice lives on shedding light on our human condition.

10 March 2017

Pocahontas and After in the Library's Catalogues

Next Saturday 18 March 2017, the British Library will be hosting a full day of events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas.  The cultural day will be a reflection on the historical and cultural legacies of this notable Powhatan/Pamunkey Indian woman, and forms part of the wider activities of the ‘Pocahontas and After: historical culture and transatlantic encounters’ academic conference co-hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

Of course, Pocahontas has been extensively written about and studied over the course of the four centuries since her death and burial in Gravesend, Kent.  She also has a very strong visual presence in the archives, starting with the infamous 1616 Simon Van De Passe engraving made during her visit to England which was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London.  Her association with Virginia and Jamestown is a theme that reappears and was particularly prominent in 1907, the tri-centennial of the English settlement which was commemorated at the Jamestown Exposition. 

Jamestown Exposition Stamps

The Library holds several items related to the Exposition that are of interest, and reveal how Pocahontas’ image, and that of Native Americans more widely, was appropriated at a time of resurgent nationalism that followed in the wake of the Spanish-American War.  While the Exposition was privately financed, it received support from the Federal Government, and included a very large naval and military display for which President Theodore Roosevelt delivered the opening address.  He also intervened directly with the Post Office Department, requesting that they produce the above specially commissioned stamps which you can see in the Library's Philatelic Collections.  The 2¢ stamp depicts the landing of the Virginia Company’s three ships, and is flanked by a tobacco plant and a stalk of corn (the former becoming a major commodity for the colony).  Both the 1¢ which shows Captain John Smith with smaller portraits of Pocahontas and her father Chief Powhatan on either side, and the 5¢ stamp of Pocahontas were based on Van De Passe engravings.  The latter was intended for visitors sending postcards internationally from the exposition, and shows how Pocahontas was continuing to be used as a global ambassador for the United States.

Glory of Jamestown
h.4120.i.(12.)

The cover of the score for Glory of Jamestown, the Exposition’s official march, depicts a generic Native American chief and woman, presumably a loose reference to Powhatan and Pocahontas, alongside an aerial view of the Exposition.  It is typical of images from the event, in that Native Americans are literally used as a framing device for the main image.[1]  It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to identify the echoes of English colonial naval power  in the prominent display of imperial American power. 

This collection also includes the scores for ‘Sing Me A Song of Dixie Land’, ‘Virginia, the Pride of My Heart’, and ‘Sing Me A Song of the South’, which point to another theme of the exposition: the South’s role in the national story.  Indeed, this opportunity to prominently parade the South's economic and business prowess on an international platform was one of the main drivers behind the Exposition as can be seen in The Old South and the New: a complete illustrated history of the Southern states from the earliest times to the Jamestown Exposition.  A richly illustrated book, it balances nostalgic reminicences of the 'Old South' with forward-looking anecdotes of the 'New South'.

The Old South and the New
9615.df.18.

Last but by no means least, The London Company of Virginia: a brief account of its transactions in colonizing Virginia is a limited commemorative book published by the London Company for the Exposition.  It consists of a brief history and numerous portraits of individuals who were important in the founding of Jamestown.  These portraits were displayed at the Exposition and were reproduced here in photogravure.  Again, the importance of Van De Passe’s engraving in the imagining of Pocahontas is evident.  Her features are somewhat softened in this rendition, and she is given the contentious titular ‘Princess’.  The text accompanying the image clearly outlines the benefits the company reaped from Pocahontas, and the narrative that was created around her: “The sensation which was created by the visit of Pocahontas to London was not without its effect upon the Virginia colony.  New interest was awakened in this land beyond the seas which seemed to be personified in the graceful simplicity of the Indian maiden Pocahontas.” 

London Company

K.T.C.26.b.25.

Perhaps the most poignant image in the book is that of Pocahontas’ burial site at St George’s Church, alongside the note that “Some Americans proposed that a memorial be erected at Gravesend, but, for some cause or other, the plan was never carried through.  Of late years, however, a rector of the church placed a marble there to the ‘Virginia lady born’ with a brief account of her services in saving the first Virginia colony.”  The 400th anniversary of her death thus provides a fitting moment to reflect on the multiple historic and continuing contemporary cultural appropriations of Pocahontas, her meaning for Native Americans today, but most of all to celebrate this notable woman.

Tickets for the cultural day are available on the British Library What's On page.

Registration for the academic conference is through the Institute of Historical Research website.

- F.D. Fuentes Rettig with thanks to Richard Morel

 

[1] Frederich W. Gleach, “Pocahontas at the Fair: Crafting Identities at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition”, Ethnohistory, Vol.50, N. 3, Summer 2003, p.430.

08 March 2017

Marking International Women’s Day: The Lowell Offering

To celebrate International Women’s Day we’re showcasing The Lowell Offering (1840-45), an extraordinary periodical that students from Royal Holloway asked to see when they attended a research training session here last week: and with good reason! In its short life this monthly periodical provided female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts – where women comprised 75% of the workforce – with a unique opportunity to see their poetry, ballads, songs, historical and religious essays or works of fiction in print.

Lowell first 12 

The Lowell Offering, Vol. 1, 1840; shelfmark P.P.6242

Perhaps surprisingly – given the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Victorian Britain – many women in New England initially regarded factory work as a well-paid alternative to teaching. The literacy rate amongst the operatives was high, and the creation of self-improvement societies was widespread; indeed, the Offering sprang from one such group. Writing about its origins, Harriet Farley – the Offering’s second editor – recalled that her group met fortnightly to read and listen to the written contributions of its members. Gradually the membership declined, yet the quality of the contributions kept improving and someone suggested compiling the contributions into ‘a little book’. This idea ‘was talked about in whispers’ but was soon supplanted by something even more audacious: a plan to publish a monthly periodical. Farley recalls:

We shall never forget our throb of pleasure when first we saw The Lowell Offering in a tangible form, with its bright yellow cover; nor our flutterings of delight as we perused its pages. True – we had seen or heard the articles before; but they seemed so much better in print. They appeared, to us, as good as any body’s writings. They sounded as if by people who never worked at all. The din and clatter of the mills had not confused the brains of the writers, and no cotton fuzz had obscured the brightness of their ideas… (The Lowell Offering, November 1842: shelfmark P.P.6242)

The Lowell Offering was funded through subscription and undoubtedly proved more successful than its contributors could ever have anticipated. In time, however, it was criticised both by mill-owners, who resented the way in which the women reflected (both directly and indirectly) upon life in the mills, as well as by reformers who believed it should take a far tougher stand against factory conditions. In 1845 it was discontinued, but two years later, Farley started The New England Offering – ‘Written by Females Who Are or Have Been Factory Operatives’ – which ran until 1850.

New england offering 12

The New England Offering, 1849; shelfmark P.P.6242

For nearly a decade, the Lowell and New England Offerings gave these women a singular creative outlet; for readers today, they provide a unique insight into the women’s inner and professional lives during a period of rapid industrialisation and social change.

References: The Lowell Offering, Lowell. Mass., 1840-45. Shelfmark: P.P.6242; The New England Offering. Lowell, Mass., 1847-1850. Shelfmark: P.P.6242