Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

Introduction

The Americas and Oceania Collections blog promotes our collections relating to North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania by providing new readings of our historical holdings, highlighting recent acquisitions, and showcasing new research on our collections. It is written by our curators and collection specialists across the Library, with guest posts from Eccles Centre staff and fellows. Read more about this blog

10 August 2022

In Search of Vanilla

Kathryn Sampeck is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and was the 2021-22 British Library Eccles Centre Fulbright Scholar.

I arrived in London with all kinds of baggage—not only clothes, personal items, and tech to see me through six months of my UK Fulbright at the Eccles Centre, but also expectations about what I would find in the archives. My project investigates the relationships of race and food. I am interested in a notable case: chocolate and vanilla. I knew from previous research that these two substances had a long history of being paired (chocolate and vanilla “go together”) yet also semantic and culinary opposites (a difference of black and white; one cannot substitute for the other). One version of the semantic contrast of the two is as racial metaphors. For example, a 1974 article in Jet magazine describes how entertainer Connie Stevens “began her act with two Black dancers and two white dancers by saying that she has two daughters at home—‘one Chocolate and one Vanilla.’”

I knew from previous research that the association of chocolate with a dark colour, pejorative qualities such as sinfulness, and racial blackness occurred as early as the seventeenth century; the evidence was less clear about vanilla’s linkage with the colour white, purity, a bland taste, and racial whiteness. I assumed that I had not looked in the right places. Surely the British Library’s mountain of rare chronicles and medical and culinary books and manuscripts would fill in the gaps about when and how vanilla got its reputation. I thought vanilla would be there, perhaps a bit everywhere, and I had overlooked it because I was focusing on chocolate. My months in the archive and in British grocery stores and restaurants showed me how wrong I was! I now understand that I had an American bias about vanilla. My American bias is that vanilla is the go-to flavour for almost anything, and I assumed that such vanilla use had its roots in British cookery and medical practice. My deep dive into the British Library holdings showed this to be untrue. It is not until the nineteenth century that, as Mrs. Beeton claimed, vanilla was “in daily use for ices, chocolates, and flavouring confectionary generally.”

I wanted to know more about how vanilla fit in with other American ingestibles, so I cast my net broadly, looking for mentions in diverse kinds of documents of any American plants or foods. What I found surprised me, even after years of chocolate-focused research. More common than chocolate were turkey and potatoes, with the latter a regular entry in Queen Anne of Denmark's Household Book (Harley MS 157) from 1613. 

Image_1_potatoes_Harley MS 157
Image 1. An entry for “Ordinary diets, daily served for 220 flesh days.” The tenth column is for potatoes. Queen Anne of Denmark's Household Book, 1613, Harley MS 157.

A close second was sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree native to eastern North America, showing up in botanical, medical, and culinary works by people including James Petiver, Apothecary to the Charter-House (“Virtues of herbs”, Sloane MS 2346), a multi-authored 1619-1674 note-book of medical and culinary recipes (Add MS 36308), Mary Glover’s 1688 cookery and medical receipts (Add MS 57944), and most prominently, in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s 1744 history and description of New France. Much less common—yet still more common than vanilla—was cochineal, a tiny parasitic insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to the tropical and subtropical Americas that feeds on prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia). The dried, ground bodies of these insects yield the brilliant red, durable natural dye carmine, which certainly gave a rosy tint to those seventeenth-century concoctions. 

Image_2_cochineal_Lady-Dacres_Add MS 56248
Image 2. “An extraordinary medicine for low spirits” uses lemon, saffron, cochineal, and white wine. Recipe collection of Mary, Lady Dacres, for cookery and domestic medicine; 1666-1696, Add MS 56248.

The works that noted sassafras, cochineal, and other American substances often also included of cocoa or chocolate, such as the seventeenth-century Medicamenta usitatiora by George Bate, MD (Sloane MS 519). Cocoa or chocolate often occurred on its own (with sugar, water, milk, or cream); the most common additional flavour to chocolate was vanilla, a pairing that various sources from the earliest mentions to well into the nineteenth century claimed improved the taste of chocolate (and made it cost more!). 

Image_3_vanilla_Wildeman_1902
Image 3. Chapter on vanilla cultivation in Africa, with a drawing of the plant. The first paragraph of the French text describes how everyone uses vanilla to perfume drinks made with cocoa. Émile de Wildeman Les Plantes tropicales de grande culture-café, cacao, cola, vanille, caoutchouc, avec une étude sur la distribution des plantes dans le centre de l'Afrique et des notices biographiques sur les botanistes et les voyageurs ayant contribué à la connaissance de la flore de l'État Indépendant du Congo., 1902, General Reference Collection 7030.dd.20.

Culinary and medical recipes “white” or “clear” foods were abundant and had flavourings such as ambergris, sugar, mace, and cinnamon, but no vanilla.

Image_4_Mary_Glover_1688
Image 4. “A White Custard” recipe has cream, egg whites, sugar, and mace. Mary Glover, Cookery and medical recipes, 1688, Add MS 57944.

Why didn’t one of these substances pegged as white become the contrast to chocolate? I found one clue in the seventeenth-century Observations on the preparation and virtues of Chocolate (Sloane MS 1471). After discussing the medical and sensorial qualities of “Bainilla”, the author goes on to describe that “All those Ingredients are usually put into the Chocolatte…But the meaner sort of people, as blackmors, and Indians commonly put nothing into it, but Cacao, Achiotte, Maiz, and a few Chiley with a little Anny seeds.” Chocolate consumption in itself did not distinguish race and class, but the subtleties that people added to it drew a sharp distinction between people of colour and (by implication, white) people of taste. The “Account of the inhabitants of Cathagena from Ulloa’s Voyage to South-America” in the New York Magazine; or A Literary Repository for July, 1792 echoes a similar complaint that chocolate (there known as cacao) was so common that an enslaved Black person “constantly allows himself a regale of it after breakfast” and Black women “sell it ready made about the streets”; their habit was to consume cacao with wheat bread. So, chocolate was cheap, easily available, and a significant part of the diet of Afro-Latin Americans, but the authors complain—and thereby distinguish their tastes from these South American Blacks—that it was not good (i.e. pure) chocolate: “This is however so far from being all cacao, that the principal ingredient is maize.”

The implication of these and other complaints is that in the hands of people of colour, chocolate did not realise its full potential for flavour. Furthermore, not just any flavour would enhance chocolate—vanilla was a key to good taste, worth paying more for. This brings me to the discovery that surprised me the most: vanilla became increasingly associated with the colour white in foods or medicines after it was associated with racial whiteness. Vanilla and chocolate history give a remarkable view into the depth of the history of the construction of racial disparities; colour did not precede colourizing.

Image_5_cacao_Wildeman_1902
Image 5. Chapter on cacao cultivation in Africa, with a drawing of the plant. Émile de Wildeman Les Plantes tropicales de grande culture-café, cacao, cola, vanille, caoutchouc, avec une étude sur la distribution des plantes dans le centre de l'Afrique et des notices biographiques sur les botanistes et les voyageurs ayant contribué à la connaissance de la flore de l'État Indépendant du Congo., 1902, General Reference Collection 7030.dd.20.

08 August 2022

Black Women’s Activism in the Americas

The Eccles Centre recently hosted a one-day symposium on Black Women’s Activism in the Americas, in collaboration with the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW). The day included a Show and Tell for the delegates, inspired by some of the topics under discussion. Here are some highlights from the display.

Claudia Jones
A few years ago the Library acquired a number of issues of Spotlight magazine. Produced by American Youth for Democracy during World War Two (formerly the Young Communist League), it was edited by Claudia Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist who emigrated to the US as a child.

Spotlight combined
Left: Spotlight cover, Right: editorial column by Claudia Jones; ‘Spotlight: 1776. The Glorious Fourth. 1944’; July 1944, by American Youth for Democracy; edited by Claudia Jones. (New York, NY : New Age Publisher, 1944.) Shelfmark: RF.2018.b.176

Following the persecution of Communists by the US Government, Jones was deported to Britain in 1955. She continued her Communist activism in the UK and went on to found Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958, and played a major role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. You can read more about Jones’ life and work in the British Library’s Windrush Stories online exhibition here. As with many histories of activism by women of colour, Jones’ legacy was maintained for many years by community activists and historians, through works such as Claudia Jones, 1915-1964: A Woman of Our Times [researched and compiled by Jennifer Tyson], published by Camden Black Sisters Publications in c1988.

Claudia Jones pamphlet

Claudia Jones pamphlet
‘Claudia Jones, 1915-1964: a woman of our times’ [researched and compiled by Jennifer Tyson] (London: Camden Black Sisters Publications, c1988). Shelfmark: LD.37.a.200


Angela Davis
Later US Communist activist and scholar Angela Davis was also represented with the Show and Tell including a number of works produced around her imprisonment in 1971 on murder and kidnapping charges. The case generated interest around the world and the display included items published in the UK and Germany demonstrating solidarity with her case, as well as a booklet produced by the United States Information Service and distributed by the US Embassy in London which endeavoured to present the ‘legal background’ to the case.

Angela Davis International response
Left: ‘Angela Davis on trial’ (London: Angela Davis Defence Committee, [1970]), Shelfmark: Collection YD.2010.a.4174; Right: ‘Free Angela Davis: Hero of the other America = Freiheit für Angela Davis!: Heldin des Anderen Amerika’, by Dr. Klaus Steiniger ([Germany]: National Council of the National Front of the German Democratic Republic, [1972?]), Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.446

 

Angela Davis USIS Legal Background
‘The Angela Davis case. The legal background.’ United States. United States Information Service. London, [1972]; Shelfmark: A.S.975/73



Alongside Official Government Publications, such as the USIS booklet shown above, another type of collection item which may be less familiar to British Library researchers are examples of political ephemera. The Library continues to acquire a range of this type of material including this striking broadside “I Am A Black Woman Communist”, featuring a portrait of Angela Davis, which was produced for the 20th Convention of the Communist Party USA in New York in February 1972. The following quote is printed beneath her portrait: "I am a black woman Communist / the corrupt government of this country could not accept such a combination / this is why they launch an effort to murder me." The artist's signature, identified only as ‘Sherman,’ is printed at upper right corner.

Angela Davis broadside
Broadside: "I Am A Black Woman Communist...". (New York: CPUSA, 1972). Shelfmark: RF.2020.b.53



Léila Gonzalez
The political ephemera continued with election pamphlets produced by the Worker’s Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) during Brazilian federal elections in 1982. Included amongst those standing for office was Lélia Gonzalez, the leading Afro-Brazilian feminist, intellectual, politician, professor, anthropologist and Black and women’s rights activist. Her influential concept of Amefricanidade or ‘Amefricanity’ references both the black diaspora and indigenous populations of the Americas, signalling their histories of resistance as colonised peoples. Among a long career in activism and education, she ran as a federal candidate for the Worker’s Party in 1982. The broader context of the PT slate of candidates (included at the same shelfmark) provide fascinating insights in to the range of social justice concerns active in Brazilian politics in the early 1980s, including gay rights.

Leila Gonzalez election pamphlet & other PT pamphlets v2
A political pamphlet of Lélia Gonzalez [centre]. Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlets (Brazil: O Partido, [1982]), Shelfmark X.0520/785; other pamphlets produced in support of other PT candidates in the same election can be seen behind (all stored at the same shelfmark)



Philatelic Collections
An underused part of the Library’s holdings, the Philatelic Collections offer a fascinating way into many different aspects of social and political histories. The Show and Tell was enriched by items from our Philatelic colleagues which illustrated the way black women’s activism has been commemorated on stamps, in turn helping to construct national and international conversations about women’s history and achievements. To find out more about Philately at the British Library, visit their subject page or their social media channels.

Stamps
From the top: Carrie Best: Canada 2011; Harriet Tubman: USA 1978; Mary McLeod Bethune: USA 1988; Sojourner Truth: USA 1986; Ida Bell Wells-Barnett: USA 1990; Gladys Bustamante: Jamaica 1968; Mary Seacole: Jamaica 1991; Mabel Alice 'Cissie' Cauderion: Dominica 1982; Phillis Wheatley: Senegal 1971



By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, August 2022 (with thanks to my Eccles and Americas colleagues for their help developing and mounting the Show and Tell)



04 August 2022

A Case of "Archive Fever" (Cause: Due to Drafts)

Jessica Mehta is currently a Fulbright Nehru Senior Scholar in Bengaluru, India, and was a 2019 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

I was fortunate to visit the British Library as an Eccles Fellow in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic. The intention of this visit was to support my PhD thesis, “Women Poets and Eating Disorders: 1840–1970s.” Two of “my” key poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and the Library holds myriad handwritten drafts from both poets. Archival analysis was critical to my doctoral work and is greatly informing my post-doctoral life as I prepare my research into monograph form. As Jane Dowson says, “the best use of archival writing is to open up, rather than close down, interpretive possibilities”. 1 Stephen Dilks sums up how we, and I, are using such archives: “When a new generation of readers rediscovers [literature’s] meaning in a new historical context, it partially remakes its meaning; it extends its meaning into the present; it makes it live again, and not precisely as it ever lived before”. 2

My three-part methodological approach culminated in a unique way to examine these poets’ work. My steps included analysing (oftentimes handwritten, unpublished, and non-digitised) archival drafts; comparing drafts to the published version(s) of poems; and examining these poems (both via the comparison of draft progressions to published poems and the completed poems as they stand) alongside various medical theories related to eating disorders during the poets’ eras. Dilks stresses that when we read, it is with “an incomplete sense of the context” which is “one reason why experts continue to debate the meaning or meanings of texts that have been read thousands of times”. 3 It might seem like some poems, such as “Aurora Leigh,” have been read and analysed ad nauseum, but have they really? I argue they have not. Similarly, archives and drafts are key to a close exploration of a poet’s work because they reveal process, not just in a poetic sense but in terms of the writer’s internal progression. Wim Van Mierlo says, “Literary archives allow us to study that writing not only in its finished, but also in its inchoate, embryonic state … the avant-texte, the text before it is ‘the text’”. 4 Derrida famously dubs such places home to Archive Fever (1995), which he claims, “verges on radical evil”. 5

I took a traditional approach to archival exploration, travelling the globe in my quest—the farthest I traveled was the British Library. Sadly, as Carolyn Steedman bemoans, “Many modern historians simply never use the[se] kind of archives,” suggesting that the “majority” of historians today “have never set foot in a départementale or national archive”. 6 This became increasingly true as travel was stopped and borders closed during COVID-19. However, it was in this approach, in becoming Steedman’s “figure solemnly hunched over a list of names, compiling a long time ago for a purpose quite different from the historian’s,” where I truly connected with my poets. 7 Here, in the Library, I felt that I, too, was gaining “entry to an inner world”. 8 There are several notes made in the drafts I examined, such as Barrett Browning’s question to herself regarding a shawl in a draft of her persona poem “Runaway Slave.” She asks, “Does that sound like a slave’s article of clothing?” (British Library shelfmark: Ashley MS A2517). This was, obviously, well before the era of culture vultures and cultural appropriation.

Manuscript of Barret-Browning's poem, with her vertical note to herself in the top-right.
Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” 1846, British Library shelfmark: Ashley MS A2517.

The sense of privacy revealed in drafts suggest that these papers provide a more honest peek into the poet’s world, letting us unearth realities and perhaps truths not yet buried in the polished poems. After my time at the Library, I wholeheartedly agree with Helen Taylor’s summation that, “This generation of scholars perhaps needs to be reminded of an age when scholarship involved long train journeys to archives”. 9 Digital records are simply not the same though, ultimately, I depended on digitisation from other archival libraries when lockdowns occurred.

My months spent in the Library’s archives led to uncovering much more than early drafts. Here, things get personal. I was tasked with avoiding the trap of, as Steedman puts it, feeling “able to speak on behalf of the dead, and to interpret the words and the acts they themselves had not understood”. 10 These archives reveal how poets were responding to world events, such as the abolition of slavery in the United States, and their own flourishing knowledge and experiences. The labour of drafting poems gives us the opportunity to watch the evolution of an anorexic aesthetic and the chance to see how choices (such as adding more em-dashes or capitalising certain food- or hunger-centric words) led various poem iterations to become increasingly reflective of the processes and results of eating disorders. The work these writers undertook often mimics the presentations and cycles of an eating disorder, beginning with the most overt aspect of the editing process: the scraping away of excess fat.

The idea and motivation for my thesis, successfully defended in March 2023, began many years ago with the quiet, sudden realisation that I was not the only one. I had sisters. That bond strengthened during my research. I found myself in that space, deep in the archives, where, as Steedman says, “You think: I could get to hate these people, and then: I can never do these people justice, and finally: I shall never get it done”. 11 As Derrida says, “If Freud suffered from mal d’archive, if his case stems from trouble de l’archive, he is not without his place, simultaneously, in the archive fever or disorder we are experiencing today”. 12 Delicately poring over precious ephemera, yearning to touch history and become a part of it, I came to understand the fluid, subjective fleetingness of what archives entail. “We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives,” says Derrida, and further expounds:

It is to burn with a passion. It is to never rest, interminably, from searching for the archive … It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. 13

Years ago, I found kindred spirits in women who were writing eras and lifetimes ago. My experience at the Library led me to a place as a researcher that Simon Barker beautifully describes: “[Researchers] soon discover that beyond the boundary of the archive they may become not the mere writers of stories that ought to be told, but a figure in the story that is being told”. 14 Don’t we all want to be such protagonists, such heroes? Isn’t that, at least in part, what brings us to the Library?

References

  1. Jane Dowson, “Poetry and Personality: The Private Papers and Public Image of Elizabeth Jennings", in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 107.
  2. Stephen Dilks, et al. Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past. Boston; New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001, p. 4.
  3. ibid, 4.
  4. Wim Van Mierlo, “The Archeology of the Manuscript: Towards Modern Paleography,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead. London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 15–16.
  5. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 19-20.
  6. Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, x.
  7. ibid, xi.
  8. Linda Anderson, et al., editors. “Introduction: Poetry, Theory, Archives.” The Contemporary Poetry Archive: Essays and Interventions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p. 1.
  9. Helen Taylor, “‘What Will Survive of Us Are Manuscripts’: Archives, Scholarship, and Human Stories,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 198. 
  10. Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 38.
  11. ibid, 18.
  12. Derrida, p. 90.
  13. ibid, 91.
  14. Simon Barker, “Lost Property: John Galsworthy and the Search for ‘That Stuffed Shirt,'” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 103.