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

21 February 2024

Researching and Unraveling Haitian Stories in the Archives

Jean Renel Pierre Louis (aka Prensnelo) is a Haitian-Grenadian artist and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

I came to the British Library as an Eccles Visiting Fellow in July 2023 to research and unravel Haitian stories within the Library’s collection. My objective was to find inspiration for a new series of artworks, drawing strength from both my own recollections of the 2010 earthquake and the profound spirituality that defines Haitian existence and resilience. 

Hispaniola – named in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and split between French and Spanish control – over time became the distinct entities of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Opening and unrolling maps created between 1564 and 1794 revealed the evolving contours of this shared landmass and was very emotional for me. The many changes to the border separating the two nations shows a history of changing plot lines and its impact on the Haitian psyche. Varying spellings of Haiti and other place names which still exist, including those that were new to me, also caught my attention.  

A man looks at a large map of the Isle of San Domingo.
Isle of San Domingo or Hispaniola. London: Printed for William Faden, 1794. British Library shelfmark: Maps K.Top.123.36.2. 

The Library’s Philatelic collection holds what could be described as a Haitian history in miniature. From stamps honouring revolutionary heroes and commemorating the bicentennial of Port au Prince – showing George Washington, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Simon Bolivar – to a 1979 stamp portraying a rural Haitian mother breastfeeding and marking the 50th Anniversary of the Interamerican Children Organisation, these stamps are a mosaic of Haiti’s triumphs and tribulations. I had not thought of stamps as holders of history before this and finally appreciated the value of my father’s cherished collection, held in two red and brown suitcases and including a stamp of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Haiti’s 40th President.  

Seven stamps in different colours of Haitian revolutionary heroes.
British Library Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection, Haiti.

I did not find much information on Faustin Elie-Soulouque, a politician and military commander from Petit-Goave (my maternal hometown) who was president and later Emperor of Haiti. However, documents on Henry Christophe, a key leader in the Haitian Revolution and the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti, included a peculiar typewritten addition to the Library’s copy of Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta (Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850; British Library shelfmark W.4769): an image of ‘Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti.’ This addition reminded me that history, like ink on paper, can be amended and expanded. 

A skecth of young man in a military uniform, including a bicorn hat with a large feather.
'Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti', in Colesworthey Grant, Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta. Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850. British Library shelfmark: W.4769. 

Photographs of Haiti in its glory days made me a little sad, given the many buildings that are still unfixed more than a decade after the earthquake. However, those images, as well as video and recordings of ceremonial songs and festivals, were good references for future projects.  

Between July and November my days at the British Library helped me to think more broadly about how I, as a visual artist, can pay my respects to the resilience of a nation and of a people that have endured such highs and lows. The Eccles Fellowship provided me with a wellspring of inspiration for canvases yet to come. 

 

01 February 2024

Hello - and moving forward...

The Americas and Oceania team is delighted to connect with you for the first time since the cyber-attack on the British Library at the end of October 2023. Together with the rest of our colleagues, we are so grateful to our Readers for your incredible support during the last few months. 

As you may be aware, the Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire are open for personal study. Access to collection items and online resources is limited but steadily expanding, so please visit the British Library website for the most up-to-date information. The website includes information about renewing or obtaining your Reader Pass. It also includes a recently released searchable online version of the Main Catalogue which contains records of the majority of the Library’s printed collections along with extensive ‘FAQs’ and a video to assist you in ordering and accessing collection items. 

Although most of the Library’s digital collection and online resources are currently unavailable, the following freely available online resources include British Library items:  

 Other available resources include: 

Within the Library’s Reading Rooms there is an extraordinarily rich collection of Americas reference materials. In Rare Books and Music, for example, there are guides to American sheet music and jazz, and histories of the book in the Caribbean. Humanities 1 has a wealth of reference works and encyclopedic works in history and literature while Humanities 2 has books and journals on entertainment, film and popular music studies. The Newsroom also has extremely useful histories and guides to the press and media landscapes of the Americas and Oceania, and there are also plenty of relevant and inspiring titles available in Social Sciences and Manuscripts. All these books are on the Main Catalogue or you can browse in person with a Reader Pass.

The 'Enciclopedia de Mexico' (HLR 972.003) in Humanities 1.
The 'Enciclopedia de Mexico' (HLR 972.003) in Humanities 1.
A selection of American music titles in Rare Books and Music
A selection of American music titles in Rare Books and Music

 

A selection of popular music books in Humanities 2
A selection of popular music books in Humanities 2

 

A selection of media studies books in the Newsroom
A selection of media studies books in the Newsroom

 Finally, the Reference Services team is on hand to answer research queries and advise on collection availability at [email protected]; they are receiving a high volume of enquiries but will get back to you as soon as possible. If you have an Americas-focused collection query you can also email [email protected]  

Thank you so much again for keeping in touch and for your ongoing support! 

 

30 October 2023

Tales from the Philatelic Crypt: The ‘Haunted Canada’ Postage Stamp Series

Halloween’s origins remain obscure, yet it is the calendar event where humanity’s fascination with the supernatural is openly celebrated. Millions of individuals commemorate Halloween every year by attending fancy-dress parties, going trick or treating, watching horror movies, visiting ‘haunted’ sites or narrating ghost stories. Whether a believer or sceptic, the supernatural is in reality an economically significant cultural phenomenon generating millions of pounds each year for the tourist, publishing, merchandising and entertainment sectors. As central component of humanity’s visual, material and print cultures, postage stamps are unsurprisingly replete with depictions of ghosts, creatures, myths and legends. Canada Post leads the way having issued several visually striking, innovative stamp sets as mini-sheets chronicling the nation’s rich heritage of hauntings and ghostly sightings (Figure 1). Not released for Halloween, the content of these ‘Haunted Canada’ stamps is nevertheless a perfect accompaniment to a Halloween blog.

A Canada Post mini-sheet showing 5 stamps on Haunted Canada
Figure 1: Canada Post's mini-sheets of Canadian hauntings

The first series released on Friday 13th’ June 2014, comprises five separate designs developed by Lionel Gadoury and Terry Popik from the illustrations of Sam Weber and C. H. J. Snider. Manufactured by the Canadian firm, Lowe-Martin using a lithographic printing process two stories centre upon particular sites rather than specific individuals. One, labelled ‘Ghost Bride’ depicts a veiled woman and candles in the background. It refers to reported sightings of a ghostly figure wearing a long flowing dress descending the staircase of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (Figure 2). Many believe she is the apparition of a bride who tripped and fell to her death from the staircase on her wedding day. The second, ‘Ghost Train’ illustrates a steam-train with a ghostly spectre in the background and takes inspiration from sightings of a ghostly glowing light known as the ‘St Louis Light’ in the Saskatchewan River Valley (Figure 3). This unexplained phenomenon is locally associated with the tale of a long dead Canadian National Railway Conductor decapitated by a passing train whilst examining the track-line with a lantern during the 1920s.

Two illustrated stamps. Figure 2 is on the left showing a ghostly female figure. Figure 3 on the right shows a steam train with ghostly spectre in the background
Figure 2 and Figure 3

A second series was issued on 14 September 2014, all printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company using a lithographic printing process. The set includes five stamps designed by Lionel Gadoury and Kammy Ahuja using illustrations from Sam Weber as well as Photography from Peter Bregg. Two stamps chronicle hauntings centred on particular individuals from local history. One depicting a woman standing above a gibbet with two phantom trees refers to the spirit of Marie-Josephte Corriveau (Figure 4). Executed for murder in 1763, her remains went on public display in Levis, Quebec as a warning to others. Local residents have encountered her sprit walking the road at night, frightening unwary travellers. Moving on, the ‘Caribou Hotel’ stamp reveals a clothed skeleton representing the ghost of Bessie Gideon, one-time owner of the historic gold-rush era hotel situated in Carcross, Yukon (Figure 5).

Two illustrated Canada Post stamps. Figure 4 is on the left and shows a woman (Marie-Josephte Corriveau) between two haunted trees. Figure 5 is on the right and shows a clothed female skeleton and is labelled as Bessie Gideon
Figure 4 and Figure 5

On 8 September 2016, the third ‘Haunted Canada’ series lithographed by Colour Innovations in Toronto went on sale. Lionel Gadoury developed each stamp, from Sam Weber’s illustrations and Peter Bregg’s photographs. The ‘Lady in White’ Stamp presents the evocative image of a woman standing in a lake with a skeletal reflection (Figure 6) in reference to the tale of Mathilde-Robin, whose spirit haunts Montmorency Falls, Quebec. Following the death of her fiancé during the Battle of Montmorency in 1759, she committed suicide. Finally, 'Dungarvon Whooper’ narrates the legend of a cook brutally robbed and murdered at a logging camp near the Dungarvon River in Renous, New Brunswick (Figure 7). Upon discovering the body, some lumberjacks buried the remains within a shallow grave. That night they were horrified by hideous screams and whooping sounds emanating from the new grave during a snowstorm.

Two illustrated Canada Post stamps. Figure 6 shows a woman in a lake with a skeleton reflected and is anntoaed as being Mathilde-Robin. Figure 7, on the right, shows a man with an axe above a cooking pot over a fire, with a hand rising out of the pot. It is annotated as being Dungarvon Whooper.
Figure 6 and Figure 7

Contemporary to the release of these stamps was the publication of a series of books titled ‘Haunted Canada,’ recounting some of these tales. Beyond their entertainment value, each stamp is also inherently didactic, showcasing Canada’s topography, histories, myths and legends. In doing so, they buttress national identity within Canada whilst becoming ambassadors for the nation’s wider cultural diplomacy. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections would like to wish everybody a fun, spooky and scary Halloween!

By Richard Scott Morel

Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections