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90 posts categorized "Canada"

12 July 2018

Summer reading: Canada in the Frame

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Above: 'The Globe Kittens' (1902), E. J. Rowley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Those of you who have followed the Americas blog for a long time may remember the Library’s ‘Picturing Canada’ project, where the Library and Wikimedia Commons digitised and released into the public domain the photographs from the Canadian Colonial Copyright Collection. The keen eyed will also have spotted that this project has continued to evolve, as we worked on new ways to talk about the collection and won a BL Labs runner-up prize for our work in mapping the collection last year. I think, finally, we are coming to the end of our long work on this collection and that end is in the form of an open access monograph published with UCL Press.

Why open access? This seemed like the best fit for talking at length about a collection that now has such a wide-ranging life on the web, after all if the images are available to everyone then an analysis of the collection can be too. To mark the release of, Canada in the Frame: Copyright, Collections and the Image of Canada, 1895-1924 I have been going back through the images from the book to pull out a few that I have always found particularly interesting and that speak to the collection as a whole. The cats at the top did not quite make the cut but they tell us two interesting things; that much of the collection was produced and copyrighted to cater to a growing economy of frivolous photographic consumption in Canada and that cute cats predate the Internet by more than 60 years.

Above: 'Opening of the British Columbia Parliament buildings' (1898), J. W. Jones.

J. W. Jones’s photographs of the opening of the provincial parliament buildings in Victoria, British Columbia, are part of a common trope in the collection, where civic development and pride are celebrated through the work of the photographer. Jones is also one of the few photographers who we can see actively enforced the copyright he claimed on his images, taking a photographic competitor to court for copyright infringement in the early twentieth century.

 File:Canadian patriotic Indian Chiefs (HS85-10-30605).jpg

Above: Tom Longboat (1907), by C. Aylett and 'Patriotic Indian Chiefs' (1915), by R. R. Mumford.

The next two images highlight the complex ways in which individuals from First Peoples groups were photographed at this time. In both photographs the focus is on using First Peoples to perform different aspects of colonial nationalism, with Tom Longboat (Cogwagee, of the Onondaga Nation) posed and styled as ‘a Canadian’ after his victory in the 1907 Boston Marathon while the ‘Patriotic Indian Chiefs’ are here framed in a piece of First World War Propaganda. In both instances, complex indigenous identities are reconfigured by White photographers to communicate patriotic messages to urban consumers. That Longboat was only regarded as Canadian in victory (when losing he became ‘an Indian’ again to press commentators) also highlights the cynicism underpinning these images.

File:The wreck of the artillery train at Enterprise, Ontario, June 9, 1903 (HS85-10-14100-10).jpg

Above: The wreck of the artillery train at Enterprise, Ontario, June 9, 1903' (1903), H. A. May.

Trains were a popular subject for photographers in this period and images of train wrecks had an eager market of buyers. Notable among the photographs of wrecks found in the collection are those of Harriet Amelia May who took a series of photographs of the scenes after an artillery train derailed in the small town of Enterprise. Within a set of fairly standard photographs of the scene, capturing the derailed train, men looking industrious while trying to clear up, May also produced this image of a family with the ruin of the train invading their back garden. As a result, May left us with a unique image of how modernity could disrupt people’s lives in Canada at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Homesteaders

Above: 'Homesteaders trekking from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan' (1909), L. Rice.

Finally, the collection covers the period of ‘The Last Best West’ and Canadian photographers devoted considerable effort to documenting the settlement of Canada’s plains provinces. many, like that of Rice (above) illustrate the efforts settlers went to in order to claim land and establish a home while others focused on the many new peoples, often from eastern Europe, who were making the west their home and becoming part of Canadian society. These are just a few examples of the topics covered in the book and the over 100 images that accompany the account, if you would like to know more, you can download a copy of Canada in the Frame from UCL Press by clicking here.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies

10 July 2018

Call for Applicants: Eccles British Library Writer’s Award

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North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

The summer marches on and while we are all tempted to kick-back and enjoy this unusual spell of consistent sunshine the writers in our audience may, nonetheless, want to have an eye on their plans for next year. The Eccles Centre’s call for applicants to the 2019 Writer’s Award is currently open and you have until the end of August to apply. For those of you who don’t know, the Award amounts to £20,000 for a twelve month residency at the British Library. Applicants should be working on a non-fiction or fiction full-length book, written in the English Language, the research for which requires that they make substantial use of the British Library’s collections relating to any part of the Americas (North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean). We are very excited to be broadening the horizons of the Award for this year and hope authors using the wider Americas collections will apply.

Wulf ander's choice C12682-03 (lo-res)

Above: Andrea Wulf (bhoto by Ander McIntyre) and an illustration of a monkey created by Humboldt for the account of his voyage (149.h.5.(1), from BL Images Online)

Previous awardees include Benjamin Markovits, Will Atkins, Andrea Wulf and many others. Each of our Award holders has used the Americas collections of the British Library to add extra depth to their research. For example, Will Atkins used the collections to research the history of exploration of deserts in the US as well as the history of events like the Burning Man festival. Meanwhile, Andrea Wulf drew from the Library’s collections, especially our printed book and maps collections, to conduct her research into the life and travels of Alexander von Humbolt. The Americas collections are broad in scope and potentially useful items can be found in the form of printed books, manuscripts, newspapers, government documents, photographs, maps, pamphlets and many more materials types. As a result, a wide world of inspiration awaits our 2019 Award holder.

If this has inspired you to leave the sun lounger and consider putting in an application, we would love to hear from you. For more information about applying for the Award, as well as insights into the work of previous winners, please visit our website. If you have any questions or would like to talk to someone about the award you can also get in touch with us at: eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

14 June 2018

Call for Applicants: Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar Award

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Above: Klondiker's buying mining licenses in Victoria, BC. J. W. Jones, 1898 [Picturing Canada project on Wiki Commons]

Summertime is always exciting for the Eccles Centre as we announce new calls for our various awards and fellowships. Keep an eye on the Americas blog for news of our various award schemes over the coming months but today I wanted to write about our US-UK Fulbright Commission Scholarship. This is a relatively new part of our programme and is a partnership with Fulbright to bring a US-based scholar to the Library so they can work on the North American collections held here. Work can be on any area of the collections relating to Canada, the Caribbean and / or the United States and applications connected to the Centre’s research priorities are encouraged.

The Fulbright-Eccles Scholarship is a unique opportunity for a US-based scholar as it provides a significant award (£12,000) to cover a dedicated research trip of twelve months. As well as using the collections of the Library our Scholars are encouraged to take part in our events programme, including our evening lectures and Summer Scholars season, and present about their work with partner institutions outside of the Library, such as the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. This provides a rich set of opportunities to develop ideas and discuss them with a variety of audiences during the scholarship. We are also happy to facilitate a Scholar in conducting wider work with the Library and helping them get to know other parts of the Library’s operation, such as our innovative Learning Team, British Library Publishing and others.

Our 2018-19 Scholar will be Professor Andrew Hartman who will be using the British Library’s collections to conduct further research on the influence of Karl Marx on American political thought. The research will form part of Professor Hartman’s upcoming book, Karl Marx in America, which is contracted to University of Chicago Press. The Fulbright-Eccles Scholar is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach and conduct research abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program; if you would like to apply to be our Scholar in the 2019-20 academic year please do see our website for further information and get in touch with us.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

09 May 2018

Spring news from the Eccles Centre

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North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.

Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.

Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:

  • North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
  • Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • Book history and arts in North America
  • Pacific politics and geopolitics
  • Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US

Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule

We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies

26 October 2016

The private life of the Canadian beaver

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The beaver is famous as a grafter: hence his adoption as one of the symbols of that industrious people, the Canadians.

In the medieval Bestiary he was associated with castration, on the grounds of a false etymology: Latin castor looks like it should be connected to castrare, and the tradition was that the beaver’s testicles were much sought after as medicine. When threatened with death at the hands of the huntsman, the beaver bit off his own genitals and escaped.

When the Baron de Lahontan published the account of his travels in New France in 1703, he has happier tales to tell of the hard-working rodent.

He describes the dams which they make ‘much more artistically than men’.  The Indians (‘sauvages’) are convinced that their ‘esprit’, ‘capacite’ and ‘jugement’ show that they must have immortal souls.  (Various unflattering comparisons with Tartars,  Muscovites and Norwegians follow.) 

The beavers hold their assemblies, communicating in ‘certains tons plaintifs non articulez’. 

They work through the night, using their tails as rudders, their teeth as axes, their paws as hands, and their feet as oars.

He also has a long section describing how the Indians hunt them.

Beavers 2

Nouveaux Voyages de Mr. le Baron de Lahontan, dans l’Amérique septentrionale, qui contiennent une rélation des différens peuples qui y habitent; la nature de leur gouvernement; leur commerce, leurs coutumes, leur religion, & leur manière de faire la guerre.(The Hague, 1703)  [1052.a.27.]

But the glory is this plate, where we see (anti-clockwise from top): savage hunting beaver with rifle, savage hunting beaver with bow and arrow,  beaver dragging a tree on water, the beaver’s dray, beaver caught in nets, beaver’s lake, holes in the ice, savages harpooning a beaver, dog choking a beaver,  another dog choking a beaver, beavers going to work, beavers’ dyke, beavers dragging a tree on water, beaver in a trap, beaver cutting down a tree.

Let the ingenious and dexterous beaver be an example to us all.

By Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Collections

 

Further reading:

Rachel Poliquin, Beaver (London, 2015).  YK.2016.a.3542.

 

24 October 2016

Canada and slavery in literature

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Ahead of her talk for the British Library’s Feed the Mind lunchtime lecture series (31 October, 12.30-13.30), Collaborative PhD student Ellie Bird delves into the Americas collections to discuss her research into the complicated relationship between Canada and slavery. Tickets for Ellie’s talk can be purchased online, or at the box office.

As a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Sheffield, with a collaborative doctoral award with the British Library, I get to work closely with the Library’s collections in my research.

My PhD research looks at Canada and its relationship to slavery. There is a dominant national narrative for Canadians today that Canada was an anti-slavery haven for American slaves in the mid nineteenth century. This reflects a part of Canada’s history in that thousands of former American slaves escaped to Canada in the nineteenth century. However, the privileging of this history is also problematic as Canada has an earlier history of enslavement of individuals from Indian nations and of African origin slaves until at least the early nineteenth century. What literary works can we examine to find out more about Canada’s history of slavery and slaveholding? What collection items does the British Library have for exploring Canada’s relationship to American slavery?

Looking at Solomon Northup’s slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave [10881.b.38.] we get one version of Canada’s relationship to American slavery. The Canadian carpenter Bass engages in a verbal spar with plantation owner Epps about American slavery in which Bass argues that American slavery is ‘an iniquity and ought to be abolished’ (268). By Solomon’s own admission the Canadian plays a key role in helping him secure his liberty ‘Only for him, in all probability I should have ended my days in slavery.’

Canada plays an important role in the first conversation between Solomon and the Canadian carpenter Bass. This dialogue is significant because it is a turning point in the plot that ultimately results in Solomon securing his freedom. By the end of this conversation Solomon has revealed his true identity as a free man to Bass, and Bass has agreed to help him send letters to Saratoga to ask for his free papers. Solomon begins by questioning Bass about the country of his birth, and what follows is a dialogue through which Solomon demonstrates his knowledge of Canadian places, which makes Bass start to ask questions about how Solomon came to be at Epps’ plantation. When Solomon claims he has been to Canada Bass laughs ‘incredulously’ (270), and he anticipates that Solomon would not know of Canada: 'You wouldn't know if I should tell you', but Solomon lists the places he has been in Canada:

I have been there. I have been in Montreal and Kingston, and Queenston, and a great many places in Canada, and I have been in York State, too—in Buffalo, and Rochester, and Albany, and can tell you the names of the villages on the Erie canal and the Champlain canal.

Bass’s response to this, related by Solomon in the narrative, reflects that Solomon’s knowledge of Canada has ignited his interest in Solomon’s story:

 Bass turned round and gazed at me a long time without uttering a syllable.

"How came you here?" he inquired, at length,

[…]

"Well, how's this?" said he. "Who are you? You have been in Canada sure enough; I know all the places you mention. How did you happen to get here? Come, tell me all about it."

In this exchange, Solomon, who has already heard the Canadian Bass making arguments that American slavery is morally wrong, brings up the topic of Canada and this provides him a way to develop a rapport and trusting relationship with Bass as he asks him to help him to secure his liberty. The exchange functions as a way for Solomon to lead Bass to enquire after his story and to question his status as an enslaved man on the plantation. Following this opening, Bass believes Solomon’s account that he is a free man and offers to help him secure his freedom. Earlier in the narrative Solomon underscores the role that his time spent in Canada has had in helping him secure his freedom: noting that it has given him ‘a knowledge of localities which was also of service to me afterwards’ (23).

Is it surprising that Canada plays an important role in this pivotal exchange between Solomon and Bass? I would answer no; as even a quick scout at the US slave narratives in the Library’s collections attests, the geography of Canada is very much part of the African American slave narrative. Its use in the passage I examined above as a short hand for freedom (it encourages Bass to question Solomon’s history and how he has arrived at the plantation as a slave because of the strong association of Canada in this period with anti-slavery) reflects how Canada is presented in many slave narratives in this period:

Canada was so associated with freedom for American slaves within literature in this period that it was described as having no ‘footprint of a slave’ (51) in former slave Henry Bibb’s slave narrative first published in New York in 1849 [YC.2002.a.13700].

Slave narratives by American slaves were also written and circulated in Canada, although this has been overlooked in Canadian anthologies of its literature (Clarke, 2006, 14 and 7-9). In slave narratives in the 1850s Canada is often a part of the story as many former slaves reflect on their experiences of slavery and as free black men and women living in Canada. The British Library holds rare copies of several of these narratives, and examples are: The Life of Josiah Henson [10882.a.21.3.], A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood (Mic.F.232 [no. 64728], and Samuel Ringgold Ward’s Autobiography [10881.b.40.] These narratives all contain accounts of former slaves living as free men in Canada.

Other items in the Library collections present an earlier history of enslavement in Canada which problematises Bibb’s suggestion that Canada has no ‘footprint’ of a slave: The Quebec newspapers published in the eighteenth century contain many runaway slave notices. Two such newspapers are the Quebec Gazette and the Montreal Gazette [MFM.MC271B] and [MFM.MC270]. Slavery in Quebec existed under French colonial rule and later, after 1760, under the British. Indeed, the 47th article of the 1763 Treaty in which the French ceded Canada to the British stated that French Canadians could maintain their property rights in their black and indigenous slaves.

QUEBEC GAZETTE-001

The Quebec Gazette, 26 June, 1788, p.2

The runaway slave notices in the bilingual Quebec newspapers often appear in both English and French, and this makes them quite distinctive compared to those elsewhere in the Americas. During this period there was at least one enslaved man working at the Quebec Gazette, a man called Joe who was owned by the newspaper editor William Brown.

By Eleanor Lucy Bird

Notes

Clarke, George Elliott, ‘This is no hearsay: Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 43.1 (2005)

Cooper, Afua, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2007

Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012

Winks, Robin W., The Blacks in Canada: A History, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997

12 October 2016

Dorothy Livesay: Canada, the Spanish Civil War and the 1930s

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My dear, it’s years between; we’ve grown up fast

Each differently, each striving by itself.

I see you now a grey man without dreams

Without a living, or an overcoat:

But sealed in struggle now, we are more close

Than if our bodies still were sealed in love.

                              Dorothy Livesay, “Comrade”

 

Dorothy Livesay’s 1977 book Right Hand Left Hand is best described as a collage of Canada during the 1930s. It is at once a memoir, a scrapbook, and an anthology that includes personal letters, visual art, poetry, short stories, articles and photographs—all framed by Livesay’s reminiscences. As co-editor of the new scholarly edition of Right Hand Left Hand, I’ve been working closely with the book for more than four years, but still I can hardly grasp it. It is ambitious and scattered, compelling and confusing. Its flawed form attempts to do justice to the chaos, excitement, and adversity of Canada during the Great Depression.

 
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Dorothy Livesay. Right Hand Left Hand (Erin, Ont. : Press Porcepic, 1977) [X.950/20211]

Right Hand Left Hand offers countless paths into Canada’s social, political, and cultural history. The Spanish Civil War claims its own chapter, disrupting the pattern of chapters themed around Livesay’s own travels (Montreal, New Jersey, the West). This chapter does not provide a historical account of the war. Instead, it offers a series of voices, representing the Canadians involved in the Republican Front during the conflict. Volunteers, medical staff, poets, fundraisers, and journalists all speak to the urgency of the Spanish conflict and why it resonated across the ocean: famous Dr. Norman Bethune describes the innovative process of blood transfusion; La Pasionaria cries out Spain’s needs to eager Canadian advocates; poets speak of Spain as a metaphor for Canada’s depressed and oppressed. For those new to the subject matter, Canadians’ engagement with the war raises questions. Faced with the economic crisis and the impending Second World War, what would compel Canadians to commit themselves to Spain? Livesay argues for the Spanish Civil War’s significance in Canadian history, first through the textual space of the chapter, and then through the polyvocality of its contents.

Cary Nelson uses the term “poetry chorus” to emphasize “community and continuity in the collective enterprise of progressive poetry” (3). In Right Hand Left Hand, Livesay curates a similar chorus—a collection of fiercely political voices, real or fictional, who bring their energy and passion to their communities. Livesay offers many versions of what resistance and community building look like. Livesay catalogues hundreds of political gestures that interfere in the status quo and that work towards a better world: a woman reaches across class divides to comfort a neighbour; labourers contribute their meagre income to support striking comrades; artists craft narratives that expose state violence. People resist locally and internationally, with their money, their time, their imaginations, and sometimes their lives. Solidarity is made visible, is questioned, doubted, and ultimately, affirmed. The end result is that the war in Spain doesn’t seem so remote or futile. Is there a difference between supporting your neighbour down the street, across the mountains, or across the sea? Is it worthwhile to make these distinctions?

Right Hand Left Hand ends with a photograph of Jean Watts, one of Livesay’s closest friends. The photo, captioned “Jean Watts Lawson marching off to war,” shows Watts in uniform—she enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War. It wasn’t her first war; Watts participated in the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, radio broadcaster, censor, ambulance driver, and with Norman Bethune’s blood transfusion unit. Before the war, she was an active member of Canada’s Workers’ Theatre, and funded New Frontier, the leftist magazine where much of the poetry of the Spanish Civil War first appeared. Her image sums up this ambitious book: she was central in Livesay’s personal life, in Canada’s cultural scene, in leftist politics, and in the Canadian war effort. She fought fascism on so many fronts. She built communities and cultural infrastructure.

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Her determined figure provides a hopeful counterpoint to Livesay’s text, which ends on a heart-wrenching reminiscence of the bombing of Hiroshima. In recovering Right Hand Left Hand, I strive to recover the Canada that cared so deeply about the people of Spain, and the Canada that worked and wrote and fought towards alternatives to capitalism and fascism. I strive to recover Livesay and Watts together—two fierce women who contributed to their communities in very different but equally necessary ways.

--Kaarina Mikalson

Kaarina Mikalson is Project Manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War and a PhD student in English in Dalhousie University

 

NOTES:

Livesay, Dorothy. Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977.

 ---. “Comrade.” Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977. 262.

Nelson, Cary. Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. New York: Routledge, 2003.

 

20 October 2015

Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off Newfoundland

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[This year the British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online are publishing a series of posts as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series. The articles are based on talks given by a range of writers and scholars conducting research at the British Library thanks to generous research fellowships and grants awarded by the Eccles Centre. Several of these have a scientific flavour, and in this post the Canadian artist and writer JR Carpenter discusses the phenomenon of ‘Phantom Islands’ in early exploration of the American coastland, taken from her talk which took place on 7th August.]

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

On the twentieth of April 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed from St. Malo, France, with two ships and sixty-one men aboard each. On the tenth of May they came to Newfoundland at Cape Bonavista. On the twenty-first of May they sailed Northeast until they came upon an island encompassed by a jumble of broken ice which Cartier named l’Isle des Ouaisseaulx (Isle of Birds), as its surface was covered with nesting sea birds and the cries of thousands more filled the air overhead.

Many sixteenth-century maps show some variation of an Isle of Birds off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. In a map of 1555, the French privateer, explorer, and navigator Guillaume le Testu calls an island in this region I. Puanto (Stinking Island), in reference to the evil odour of the guano of the millions of large sea birds accumulated over centuries. Until the 1800s, English maps commonly showed an Isle of Penguin. The narrator of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage for the colonisation of Newfoundland for England remarks: “We had sight of an island named Penguin, of a fowl there breeding in abundance, almost incredible, which cannot fly, their wings not able to carry their body, being very large… and exceedingly fat” (Hakluyt). The narrator is not confusing the Great Auk with the large flightless bird of the southern hemisphere. Quite the contrary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘penguin’ is of Welsh origin, from pen gwyn meaning ‘white head,’ and refers to the Great Auk, which once nested in the thousands on the islands off Newfoundland. It would be another 250 years before humans of any nationality would set foot on Antarctica. By the time they arrived, the Great Auk had been hunted out of existence. The southern bird we now know as Penguin is haunted by the ghost of its northern namesake.

Modern maps show an island called Funk off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. A scrap of a place, this small, barren island is home to an ecological reserve and remains populated exclusively by birds. The name Funk is redolent of the evil odour of guano.

Would Funk Island by any other name smell as fowl?

Since the first European voyages to the rich cod-fishing grounds off Newfoundland there have been also been reports of an Island of Demons in the region, reputedly inhabited by a curious mixture of wild animals, mythological creatures, evil spirits, devils, and demons. An inscription on the second oldest known printed map depicting the new world, published by Johannes Ruysch in Rome in 1507, notes: “Demons assaulted ships near these islands, which were avoided, but not without peril.” On the first printed map devoted exclusively to New England and New France, published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in Venice in 1556 (pictured above), an Isola de Demoni is populated by curious combination of seabirds, hunters, natives, and winged devils of whom Ramusio makes no direct textual mention, observing only: “Between Ras Cape and Brettoni Cape lives severe and cruel people with whom it is impossible to speak.” An island of demons appears on the famous Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s world map of 1569. An isle des oyse aus (Island of Birds) and an isle dos demonios (Island of Demons) appear in the equally famous Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ 1569 map of the new world (pictured below).

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

In Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (1558) an account of a voyage along the coast of the Americas undertaken in 1555, the French Royal Cosmographer, explorer, scholar, and Franciscan Friar André Thevet notes passing “the islands they call the Isles of the Devils.” Thevet is unlikely to have sailed as far north at Newfoundland. He makes no mention of hearing or seeing devils or demons, observing only that the region is “merueilleusemêt froide”, unfortunately cold, which, he reasons, is why those who discovered didn’t stay long. By the time of the publication of his Cosmographie Universelle in 1575, Thevet has completely rewritten this coastline:

I have been told so by not just one but by numberless pilots and mariners with whom I have long travelled; that when they passed by this coast, when they were plagued by a big storm, they heard in the air, as if on the crow’s nest or masts of their vessels, these human voices making a great noise, without their being able to discern intelligible words… These voices caused them a hundred times more astonishment then the tempest around them. They well knew that they were close to the Isle of Demons… (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 61-62)

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tempest#/media/File:Rowe_Tempest.JPG

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source.

There are echoes of Thevet’s tale in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610–11), published thirty-five years later, by which time  Cosmographie Universelle was widely available in English translation. The winged devils in the air above the ship in the frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest in Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays (pictured above) bear an uncanny resemblance to those hovering above the Isola de Demoni in Ramusio’s map of 1556 (pictured above). When Prospero asks the spirit Ariel, “Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?”, Ariel replies:

 …Now on the beak, 

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin

I flamed amazement. Sometime I’d divide,

And burn in many places. On the topmast,

The yards, and boresprit…

Delighted, Prospero presses Ariel, keen to know if this storm performed infected its intended victims’ reason. Ariel proudly reports that, indeed, the King’s son Ferdinand leapt up and cried: “Hell is empty, And all the devils are here!”

Although much of Thevet’s fanciful if highly inconsistent writing has been widely discredited by later historians, his shifting account of the Isle of Demons cannot be entirely dismissed as a tall tale as it’s based upon an eye-witness account. In 1542 Jean-Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, Viceroy of Canada, sailed for Newfoundland with three ships, two hundred colonists, and a young noble woman named Marguerite de La Roque, who may have been Roberval’s cousin or his niece. On grounds that she had entered into an affair with one of the young officers on board, Roberval set Marguerite, her lover, her nurse, and four guns ashore on a small, deserted island somewhere off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland, which Roberval refers to as the Island of Demons in an attempt to scare off any would-be rescuers. Two years and five months later a passing Basque fishing boat rescued Marguerite, the sole survivor of this ordeal. Upon her return to France she narrated her tale to a number of people, including none other than Thevet, who relates:

it was a pity to hear the ravages which those evil spirits made around them and how they tried to destroy their little dwelling, appearing as divers kinds and shapes of frightful animals… at night they often heard such loud cries that it seemed as if there were more than 100,000 men together (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 64).

The story of Marguerite de La Roque on the Island of Demons continues to resonate in contemporary Canadian literature. In Douglas Glover’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel Elle (2003), an un-named first-person narrator based on Marguerite states: “The wind screams like a hundred hundred demons, far worse than the screaming of the birds. And in bpNichol’s poem “Lament” (1985) it is the wind that lends the island it’s demonic moniker:

…the isle of demons
so called because the wind howled over the rocks
drowned in sound the three of them

Listen to bpNichol’s poem “Lament” at Penn Sound

The sound of voices figures prominently in Thevet’s published account of Marguerite’s orally recounted ordeal. These sounds locate this narrative within one the most advanced communications network of the day, that of shipping. Sixteenth-century sailing ships were small, fragile by twenty-first century standards. Transatlantic expeditions were timed to avoid the worst of the seasonal flows of icebergs in the North Atlantic, to arrive after the breakup of the thick pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. After many weeks on the open ocean, arrival at Newfoundland coincided with thick fogs coming off the warming continent, and with the breading season of the great flocks of seabirds that inhabit the coastal cliffs and off-shore islands. When mating, Great Auks utter utterly demonic sounds, low moans and guttural growls. Considered in this context, the Isle Demons assumes a more tangible form. Passing pilots and mariners were plagued, not by the human voices of 100,000 men but rather, by the moans and growls of thousands of mating sea birds. Among the strange beasts Marguerite encountered were walruses and snow white polar bears. Among the evil spirits – salt mists, sea frets, sleet, snow, gale-force winds, and the stink of centuries-worth of gauno.

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Odysseus_Sirens_BM_E440_n2.jpg

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source

Though it is almost certainly from a malodorous genealogy that the name of the modern-day Funk Island descends, it is interesting to note that in German, the word ‘funk’ means radio or wireless. This false genealogy, with its association with sound and broadcast, resonates with the Greek myth of the Isle of Sirens. The winged creatures depicted tormenting the ship of Odysseus on the Attic vase pictured above date from over 2000 years before the winged devils shown on Ramusio’s map. In Classical times the perils of sea travel rationalised by the invention of dangerous beautiful creatures who lured passing sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. In the early sixteenth-century, the Island of Demons was born of a similar necessity. Where better to place the fears, desires, rumours, and superstitions of an Early Modern Europe than on a phantom island hovering just offshore of this strange new world?

[JR Carpenter]