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96 posts categorized "History"

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

08 September 2016

Cabin Fever: Deconstructing the Log-Cabin Myth of Appalachia

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Kevan Manwaring is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. His practice-based research is a novel set in Appalachia & Scotland.

As an historical artifact and as a cultural meme I set out to explore the phenomenon of that quintessential icon of American pioneering spirit, the log cabin.

Lincoln_Log_Cabin

Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site. Photograph by Daniel Schwen [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The homely shack hacked out of the primal wilderness, or so the myth goes, the log-cabin has been called ‘a symbol of democracy’ (Shurtleff: 5). Synonymous with self-reliance, hard-work, and grit the cabin has a taken on a metaphorical dimension. How has it become the crucible of the American Creation Myth? Every state seems to have at least one of these iconic structures where their most famous son or daughter started out. Perhaps the most hallowed of these was at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, where, on the 4th July, 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to build a cabin. And live there he did, for a couple of years, cultivating his legumes and legend; but the nature of his dwelling – now enshrined in American culture and replicated countless times across the nation – is not exactly what it seems. It needs interrogating and deconstructing somewhat – but not to undermine Thoreau’s achievement or legacy – but to examine the foundations of this most enduring and beloved icon.

This ‘log-cabin myth’ (as Harold R. Shurtleff defined it in his 1939 Study of the Early Dwellings of the English Colonists in North America) is ‘an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious’ (Shurtleff: 5).

Let us look at the history of the Log-Cabin. At the risk of seeming disingenuous, I think it’s necessary to remind ourselves of what a log cabin is defined as: ‘a small house made from tree trunks’ (Cambridge Dictionary online). This is important, especially when considering Walden (it was not). It is a term that is often bandied about and misapplied.

 

But when was the log cabin first seen in the New World?

From current evidence we can deduce that the first dwellings built of round or square logs was raised by the earliest Scandinavian settlers in 1638 – primarily Swedes, but also Eastern Finnish, bringing with them the skill-set of the Savo-Karelian culture (Jordan; Kaups, 1992). German immigrants constructed their own variants, independently, from about 1710. The Scots-Irish arriving in large numbers after 1718, took up this new opportunity (having been unable to build timber-houses at home due to the lingering restrictions of that Norman construct, ‘forest’, and the financial cost) and ran with it. It seems likely they invented the term ‘log cabin’ (one belonging to a James McGavock is identified in an Irish community, Virginia, 1770). Before that, the most common one was ‘log house’ (Maine, 1662; Maryland, 1669; Massachusetts, 1678; North Carolina, 1680; New Hampshire, 1699). Via this new wave of migrants, the log cabin went ‘viral’: ‘From and through the Germans and Scotch-Irish it spread rapidly through the English colonies and by the American Revolution had become the typical American frontier dwelling from Maine to Tennessee.’  (Shurtleff: 4), to the point that, as John Alexander Williams observed: ‘The log house is the most enduring symbol of Appalachia’ (2002: 5). Cheap, convenient and quick to construct from readily available materials, with only an axe, a pair of hands, a mouthful of nails, some cussing and a lot of elbow grease, it is small wonder the log cabin or house flourished.

In summary it seems likely, that whoever got there first (and the degradable nature of the material means we will never know for certain), that ‘each group of European colonist in the seventeenth century erected the sort of dwellings they were accustomed to at home.’ (Shurtleff, 209).

Yet were they bringing coals to Newcastle, for it is noted by William Byrd in 1728 how he found ‘Indians’ in Virginia and North Carolina in the traditional lodges of their ancestors, what he called ‘Bark Cabanes’, wooden dwellings. This suggests the possibility of cross-fertilisation – that the ‘log cabin’ was the product of syncretism.

And so we can see how the notion of the ‘log-cabin’ is a constructed one, one with several influences. As a metaphor for the quintessential hybridity and Old/New World recycling of America, it is fit-for-purpose.

 

As a cultural meme, the log-cabin has extended its influence far beyond its humble parameters. It has been taken up by politicians, writers, singers, film-makers, eco-campaigners, artists and architects…

A seminal example of this is the ‘Lincoln Log Cabin’ – the humble family home of the 16th President of the USA. At Knob Creek Farm, La Rue County, Kentucky, a neighbour’s farm was relocated to the approximate spot and turned into a heritage ‘shrine’, evidence of the Lincoln myth, and by extension, the dramatic arc of the American dream – from log cabin to the white-house.

Such ‘repackaging’ has precedent, which can be seen if we dial-back to the 14th Presidential Election Campaign. In what became known as the Log Cabin campaign of William Henry Harrison, we can see the repurposing of the log cabin for political capital. Evoking an American Arcadia, the log cabin symbolized a return to good, simple virtues, to an uncomplicated, uncorrupted way of life.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1935). Illustrated by Helen Sewell [20054.d.28.]

We see this representation of the log-cabin in classics of American literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 reformist novel; Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel! (1929); the ‘Little House’ books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932-1943); Woody Guthrie’s recently rediscovered House of Earth (1947); Wilma Dykeman’s Appalachian trilogy, The Tall Woman (1962); The Far Family (1966); Return the Innocent Earth (1973); and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997). These and many others create a sub-genre of what could be called ‘Log Lit’. 

Extending its influence far beyond Appalachia, the log-cabin offers us a place of renewal, a taste of a more authentic, embodied, embedded and sustainable life.

 

Kevan Manwaring

NOTES: 

Davis, Donald E., Homeplace Geography: essays for Appalachia, Mercer University Press, 2002

Lee, Hannah Farnham Sawyer, The Log Cabin: or, the world before you, Appleton, 1844

Grant, Richard E., Ghost Riders: travels with American nomads, London: Abacus, 2003.

Jordan, Terry G. & Matti E. Kaups, The American Backwoods Frontier: an ethical and ecological interpretation (creating the North American Landscape), John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Shurtleff, Harold R., The Log-Cabin Myth: a study of the early dwellings of the English colonists in North America, Harvard, 1939

Teale, Edwin Way (ed.), The Wilderness World of John Muir, , Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1954

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or a Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1854

Weslager, C.A., The Log Cabin in America: from pioneers to the present (1909-1994), New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1969

Williams, John Alexande,  Appalachia: a history, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002

 

Eccles Centre resources:

Imagining the West: a guide to the literature of the American West

 

02 September 2016

Stranger Things at the British Library

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If Netflix’s smash hit Stranger Things has taught us one thing this summer, it’s that even in 2016 we have serious nostalgia for all things 1980s. From Toto’s Africa to Dungeons & Dragons the show celebrates all that was great about the 80s. But there’s one reference most cultural commentators have missed – microfilm.

In Episode 3 Police Chief Jim Hawkins visits his local Library and makes full use of the Library’s microfilm collection to research the LSD mind-control experiments of the creepy Dr. Brenner. It’s a triumphant moment and one which celebrates a technology most modern researchers overlook.

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Figure 1:© Netflix

The British Library has an extensive microform collection relating to the American government and so if you fancy yourself as a bit of a modern day Chief Hopper then the Social Sciences Reading Room is the place to start. And don’t worry if you haven’t used microform before, our reading room staff are on hand to guide you through the simple process and that eighties technology is much more robust than today’s!

So what collections do we have available?

Well, we can’t promise you’ll find things on LSD mind-control but the British Library has an extensive collection of U.S. government documents and archive materials available on microform. As a federal government depository library, the Library holds a vast set of U.S. Government Printing Office documents, including Congressional reports, committee hearings and bills. These can be accessed via the CIS Indexes on the shelves in the Social Sciences Reading Room.

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Figure 2: Example of some of the CIS Indexes in the Social Sciences Reading Room

The Library also holds a significant number of NARA documents, including Presidential Papers. The full collection is listed by subject in the Social Sciences Reading Room card catalogue and most collections have indexes available on the reading room shelves. Some of the collections we hold include, Nixon’s Presidential Papers relating to China-Vietnam negotiations and the Department of Justice’s Classified Subject Files on Civil Rights.

 

 

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Figure 3: Examples of some of the microform collection subject guides available

If Stranger Things has prompted you to revisit your favourite books, films and songs from the 1980’s, why not hop on your BMX? and come down to the British Library and get hands on with the microform collections to boost your research project?

 

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Figure 4: © Netflix.

A detailed description of the collections is available in our ‘Guide to United States Official Publications in the British Library’ (PDF format). - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/united-states-federal-government-publications#sthash.uMGqFc21.dpuf

 

Mark Eastwood

 

26 January 2016

An Irish Account of the First Days of the American Civil War

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'It is not in the nature of an Irishman to fight with four or five pounds of boiled pork and biscuit banging at his hip' – so beings the third and final part of the short, thirteen page account of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in the Three Parts (General Reference Collection 9604.aaa.10.), written by then-Captain Thomas Francis Meagher in 1861 during the early days of the American Civil War. It is one of a number of archive holdings the British Library has relating to the conflict and the involvement of Irish American men and women in the fight for the survival of a United States between 1861-1865, an area which forms the foundation of my doctoral research, with the generous fellowship support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

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Thomas Francis Meagher, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in Three Parts (New York, 1861), title page. Image in the public domain.

Meagher, a former Young Irelander who had escaped exile in Van Diemen’s Land and migrated to America in the early 1850s, was one of the most prominent Irish-born soldiers during the war. He rose from a captain attached to the 69th New York State Infantry Regiment to founder and commanding general of the Irish Brigade, the bastion of Irish American military service, with its constituent regiments present at every major battle of the brutal conflict. The 69th New York formed the Brigade’s foundation. They were born from a state militia regiment whose pre-war fame originated after the refusal of their commander Colonel Michael Corcoran (also Irish-born and later himself a prominent Union general) to march the past Edward, Prince of Wales during the future king’s visit to New York City in 1860. The exploits of Meagher, Corcoran, the 69th New York and the Irish Brigade’s military service during the Civil War were widely known in contemporary Union and Confederate societies and were recounted in several of the memoirs, accounts, newspaper records and ballads. Some of the songs relating to the Irish experience of the conflict can be seen in the Library’s online gallery collection of digitized American Civil War archives.

Meagher’s Last Days of the 69th in Virginia details events the 69th New York Infantry participated in from 12-18 July 1861 – the days leading up to the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, the first major battle of the Civil War. It thus gives a fascinating and unique insight into the mobilisation and immediate experiences of thousands of soldiers rallying to the impending front-line, completely unaware of the battle and the subsequent four long tortuous years of war that would soon be upon them. Meagher chose to focus on the days preceding the battle fought on 21st July because its “incidents and events, the world, by this time, has heard enough… the battle, the [Union] retreat, the alarm and confusion of the Federal troops, columns and volumes have been filled”. Instead, Meagher’s writing reveals the journey of the 69th New York from their base at Fort Corcoran on Arlington Heights outside of Washington D.C., to the fields around Manassas, travelling through the Virginian town of Centreville, made famous in a wartime photograph taken by Timothy H. O’Sullivan showing its use as a Confederate supply depot and war’s scarring on the land. The image was published in Alexander Gardener’s collection of Civil War photography, of which the Library holds a copy (General Reference Collection 1784.a.13.). Meagher was not particularly complementary about Centreville, describing is as a 'dingy, aged little village' with a 'miserable little handful of houses. It is the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decrepitude…One is astounded on entering it, to find that a molehill has been magnified into a mountain.'

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, later General Meagher, commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (1861).

Someone else turned into a mountain in Civil War histories is 'our Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, a rude and envenomed martinet' who, for 'whatever his reasons for it were…exhibited the sourest malignity towards the 69th'. Meagher spoke here of William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous as the general who led the Union advance through the southern states in the final years of the Civil War. A colonel at the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman’s continual ordering of the Irish soldiers to bivouac on “the dampest and rankest” of ground led Meagher to state that the then-colonel 'was hated by the regiment'. Despite no love being lost between Meagher and Sherman, the former unwittingly included a rather pointed note of historical irony about the latter. He described how advancing Union soldiers passing by farmsteads on the road to Manassas were 'forbade' to touch the 'cocks of hay and stacks of corn'. The people of Georgia would have surely wished that this version of Sherman had marched through their state in 1864.

Alongside derogatory descriptions of southern towns and fellow Union Army officers, Meagher detailed the exhausting march and Confederate skirmishes through the Virginian countryside in the July heat. Bivouacking subjected the men to night-time humidity, which caused the Stars and Stripes to become 'damp with the heavy night dews'. In the day the men of the 69th New York dealt with 'heat and dust and thirst'. His account paints a sensory portrait of the Union Army mustering to face the Confederacy; a visual 'splendid panorama, those four miles of armed men – the sun multiplying, it seemed to me, the lines of flashing steel, bringing out plume and epaulette and sword, and all the finery of war, into a keener radiance, and heightening the vision of that vast throng with all its glory'. He spoke similarly about aural imagery: 'the jingling of the bayonets, as the stacked muskets tumbled one after another… The sound was so like that of sabres slapping against the heels and spurs of charging troopers'. Amongst those on the march was the 79th New York Infantry Regiment looking 'stanch and splendid'. Led by Colonel James Cameron, the regiment were nicknamed 'The Highlanders' in honour of their connection to New York Scottish fraternity organisations.

The Library’s copy of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia was 'published at the office of the '"Irish-American"' in New York City by Lynch and Cole, publishers of the Irish-American newspaper, the foremost Irish organ for the largest community of Irish men and women in America. It was subsequently circulated in other Irish newspapers in the country, namely the Boston Pilot. The account is in three parts, leading to the suggestion the publishers serialised Meagher’s writings before producing a book form sometime in the last summer/early autumn of 1861. It is possible that it was used as part of Meagher’s promotion tour of Irish American communities in New York, Boston and Philadelphia while he was galvanising support for the formation of the Irish Brigade. Very few copies of the account in this book form exists today and although it appears in the bibliographies of Irish American, wartime and Meagher histories, it is rarely quoted from, with scholars choosing newspaper accounts of his numerous wartime speeches and Michael Cavanagh’s Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.g.1.) as their primary source focus. With limited personal wartime writings of Thomas Francis Meagher available, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia provides a revealing insight into one prominent Irish American’s contemporary account of the initial days of the American Civil War. It helps show how the Irishman’s gift of rhetorical skill transposed itself to his writing, despite his friend Captain W.F. Lyons stating in his book Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.aaa.29.) that 'journalism was, in fact, not Meagher’s best field of action…[which] he had abandoned…for the stormy life of the soldier'.

What The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia demonstrates is that Meagher’s writing of the actual field of action was extremely eloquent. He could switch from the humorous – describing how Corcoran’s horse 'was greedily eating newspapers' on the morning of the First Battle of Bull Run – to the patriotic fervour that became commonplace amongst lyrical expressions of Irish American dual identity in the nineteenth century. He also provides a perfect description of why such a source is important for American Civil War scholars. Meagher’s account created 'a picture far more striking and exciting than any I had ever seen. War, assuredly, has its fascinations as well as its horrors…and so emboldens and spurs the tamest into heroism.'

Catherine Bateson

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]

24 August 2015

Team Americas meets Reverend Jesse Jackson

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William Wells Brown (portrait)  Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: portraits from the works of William Wells Brown [BL: 10880.a.6] and Olaudah Equiano [BL: 1489.g.50], two items displayed for the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Last week Team Americas had the pleasure of putting on a small show of collection items for Reverend Jesse Jackson, who visited the Library's Magna Carta show ahead of his event on Friday evening. I've done more than a few collection displays while I've been a curator and it's always entertaining to collate a selection of material, usually on a tight timescale, from the Library's vast collections and making a narrative that will interest the audience and illuminate the significance of the objects on show.

For Reverend Jackson's display I focussed on the long march to abolish slavery and attain racial equality in the Americas, which is extensively detailed in manuscript, book, newspaper and other collections held here. It was an opportunity to look at a number of items I know of but have not spent time with and also to show some of the notable interconnections between the items, collections and ideas that make up the wider Americas collections.

Spending time with material you've not read before is always fascinating and the Library's holdings of manuscript letters between King Henri Christophe of Haiti and Thomas Clarkson, written in 1816, are particularly so. Consisting mostly of a lengthy letter from Christophe to Clarkson there are two main threads to the message: Christophe explaining why the Haitian revolution was so necessary and also thanking Clarkson for dispatching some (reading between the lines) British teachers to support education in this new free state. The arrival of these teachers raises a question as to exactly what is going on here. Christophe is undoubtedly pleased with their arrival ('the greatest benefit' he calls them) but why, above all things, did Clarkson send teachers? Was he asked to? Did he decide they were an important part of, perhaps, shaping free Haiti into a recognisably European state? Or did he think educating free Afro-Caribbeans would make a useful case for his own abolitionist work?

Whatever the case, the letters remind us of a few important points: that the networks involved in promoting the end of slavery and subsequent racial equality in the Americas were international in nature; that they involved a large number of individuals with prodigious global contacts; that each party in these networks had their own aims and objectives; and that activism in these networks could spring up in the most unlikely of places. Another item on display was a copy of Olaudah Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative' and a glance at the subscribers in this work illustrates the above nicely. A recent blog post by our student Ellie Bird (whose research was also on display) illustrates the surprising locations involved, as authors promoting Underground Railroad publications found their way to the Lake District.

The only problem with these displays (as with these blogs) is that people are busy and there's never enough time to talk about absolutely everything that piques one's interests. Sadly, my time of doing these displays is coming to an end too as, at the beginning of September, I'll be taking up the post of Lead Curator, Digital Mapping, here at the Library. Given this will be one of my final displays I've decided to leave it on the blog for future reference and so the handout can be downloaded below. 

Download Freedom and Equality in the Americas (Rev Jackson display, final)

[PJH]

10 August 2015

Over the Ice: Polar Exploration from the Air

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In case you missed Friday's lecture, we're re-posting this piece from our BL Science colleagues' blog. Over the summer the British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online will be publishing a series of posts as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series of talks. 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. This post is by Marionne Cronin, University of Aberdeen, on how aviation changed the nature of polar exploration. A schedule for the remaining Scholars talks can be found here]

Richard_Evelyn_Byrd
Richard Evelyn Byrd (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

For Americans, the spring of 1926 was an exciting time in long-distance aviation.  The newspapers were full of thrilling tales of pioneering flights, including three aerial expeditions aiming for the North Pole.  The excitement came to a head on 9 May 1926, when Richard E. Byrd, a young American naval aviator, returned to his expedition’s base at King’s Bay, Spitsbergen (Svalbard), after a flight of just over 15 hours, proclaiming that he and his co-pilot Floyd Bennett had become the first people to reach the North Pole by air.  Byrd’s announcement triggered a patriotic outpouring in the American press, with headlines trumpeting the United States’ polar conquest.  Byrd returned home a national hero, where he was met by cheering crowds and public accolades, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But what exactly were these crowds cheering? 

In part, they perceived Byrd’s feat as evidence of America’s technological progress and as a symbol of their nation’s modernity.  Celebrating the mechanical triumph, however, also risked undercutting the heroic nature of exploration, particularly when the flight was compared to previous expeditions, which had produced images of intrepid fur-clad explorers battling their way across the dangerous polar ice.  By lifting the explorer high above the ice and shielding him within the body of a machine that carried him towards the pole, the airplane seemed to make the process far too easy to be considered heroic.  Much as it jeopardized the explorer’s heroic status, the airplane also threatened to domesticate the Arctic, thereby destroying its imaginative potential as a space for heroic adventure.  In particular, the use of aircraft seemed to shatter the Arctic’s image as a theoretically untouched wilderness cut off from the modern industrialized world.

How was it, then, that Byrd continued to be seen as an exceptional man, even when ensconced in the machine’s protective shell soaring high above the polar ice?  The process of creating a polar hero in this context was not straightforward and the result was not a single stable image.  This heterogeneity, however, offers a window into how Americans in the interwar period sought to reconcile a celebration of mechanical progress with ideas about heroic masculinity.

Fokker_F.VII_plane_of_Byrd-Bennett_in_flight_in_1926
Fokker F.VII plane with Byrd-Bennett in flight in 1926. (Image:Wikimedia Commons)

On the one hand, many narratives rehearsed various longstanding romantic images of polar exploration in order to buttress Byrd’s heroic status.  But, perhaps more interestingly, several of these narratives also reimagined the practice of exploration itself.  These accounts extended the landscape of exploration vertically, imagining the skies as a new field to explore.  By underscoring the dangers present in the Arctic atmosphere – its extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather, and unknown aerial currents – newspaper stories created a new environment that could test both the polar explorer and his machine.  Much as the deep oceans and space would emerge as new frontiers later in the century, in these accounts the air became a new wilderness for a modern society to explore.  These stories also drew on popular interwar images of aviation, which imagined it as a technology of wonder and grace that enabled aviators to escape the quotidian mundaneness of everyday life and to enter a new, transcendent world.  Thus, much like the polar explorers of earlier eras, the pilot became a daring pioneer who stepped into the unknown and was transformed into a heroic figure.

To remain a polar hero, however, Byrd needed to be more than a mere passenger on this aerial adventure.  Instead, his ability to control the machine, to bend its power to his will, became a key component of what it meant to be an aerial explorer.  In particular, coverage emphasized the flight’s mental challenges, specifically the intense concentration demanded by the mathematical calculations required to navigate over the polar ice.  Thus, aerial exploration became as much a mental as a physical challenge.  By demonstrating the mental ability necessary to control the machine, Byrd acquired the power to penetrate previously inaccessible areas, to see further than terrestrial explorers, and therefore to pierce the Arctic’s secrets.  At the same time, risks from technology itself, in the form of mechanical failures, offered a new set of hazards for the technological explorer to overcome.  The technology itself thus became a site of exploration as the venture into new arenas tested both the explorer’s and the machine’s limits. The explorer’s willingness to brave these dangers and his ability to control the machine under difficult conditions became important signs of his heroic masculinity.

Coolidge_awarding_Medal_of_Honor_to_Byrd_and_Bennett_1927
Coolidge awarding Medal of Honor to Byrd and Bennett 1927 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Through the newspaper stories covering Byrd’s flight, we can see their authors exploring the question of how to successfully incorporate the machine into exploration narratives without abandoning the hero’s central place.  By reimagining the nature of exploration and reconceiving of the air as a new frontier, these authors sought to create an image of heroic exploration that could accommodate the presence of the machine.  In doing so they articulated a vision of the technological explorer that would influence later depictions of figures such as Charles Lindberg and the first astronauts, and would continue to influence perceptions of heroic masculinity across the 20th century.

Dr Marionne Cronin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Northern Colonialism Programme at the University of Aberdeen, where her research investigates the place of technology in the culture of polar exploration. She is currently working on a book examining how interwar polar explorers’ use of new technologies – particularly airplanes – was incorporated into popular images of heroic exploration, masculinity, and modernity. She will be an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow in North American Studies in June-August 2015.

If you want to learn more about science in extreme environments you can watch the video of our recent TalkScience event here.