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4 posts from October 2010

28 October 2010

Yes We Can!... But...


Team Americas are likely to be glued to More4 this evening, as President Obama makes his first appearance on the Daily Show as POTUS.   We are also waiting for reports on the Million Man March - March for Sanity/to Keep Fear Alive on Saturday.  We can't decide whether this is all a good thing of Swiftian brilliance, or some sort of post-Baudrillard ridiculousness, and are slightly troubled as to how historians of the future will get hold of the online and television materials that document/create this phenomenon.  Something else to worry about/keep fear alive, I suppose.



21 October 2010

Interconnected worlds: thinking across the Library's collections

Exterior of the Boiler House (Clark) 
“Exterior of the Boiling House, Antigua” from William Clark (1823), Ten Views from the Island of Antigua (Shelfmark: 1786.c.9)

Tuesday 13th October saw various members of British Library staff come together to produce a public display of the Library’s African, Caribbean and South Asian materials. The event sought to mark Black History Month and highlight the cross-connections that exist between the Library’s collection areas. In doing this the event also aimed to assert the interconnectedness of Africa, Britain, the Caribbean and South Asia over a long historical period, with display items covering the early 1600’s until the mid twentieth century.

The Caribbean materials on display articulated how these interconnections were expressed through knowledge transfer, individual biographies, the development of industrial processes and the growth of globalised transport networks. The arrangement of African and South Asian materials around those from the Caribbean provided further details and nuance to the narratives on display, illustrating how cause and effect operated on a global level, in particular as a result of the slave trade. The display of account books from slave traders based in Africa (some of which can be found at Shelfmark: Add ms 43841) and letters detailing the kidnap, sale and enslavement of individuals (an example is John Toogood’s 1720 account, held at: India Office Records/E/1/11 ff. 326-328v) added depth to the displayed illustrations of slavery in operation in the Caribbean, represented in part by William Clark’s idealised depiction above. Further, the display of India Office records regarding the transportation of indentured labour from South Asia to the Caribbean (for example: India Office Records:L/PJ/1/86), one of the responses to the ending of the slave trade, again illustrated how developments in one area could have marked effects on another.

While the event attempted to illustrate through the Library’s collections that the global interconnectedness we perceive as being a modern phenomena is not, in fact, new, it should still remind us of the myriad connections people and places maintain across the globe today. Indeed, this is part of a theme of an event being held at the Library next week, on the 25th October. Entitled "Our Memories of the Uprisings: the 1980's revisited", the event seeks to discuss the unrest of the 1980’s, its causes and contexts, and highlight the continuing significance of these years to multicultural, globalised contemporary Britain. Here too we can perceive how the Library’s collections of interconnected materials, from newspapers, to oral histories, to music and printed books provide opportunities for detailed research into the subject.


14 October 2010

Mining the collections

Chilean mine1 
Peter Schmidtmeyer, Travels Into Chile, Over the Andes, in the Years 1820 and 1821. London: Longman, 1824 [BL 567.h.22]

We’re so used to seeing bad news on TV or in the papers that it was a real delight to watch the Chilean miners emerging slowly but safely into the arms of their families and loved ones (though I do wonder if the miner who asked both his wife and mistress to meet him might have been better off staying down there). I’m not sure that I would have wanted such a media frenzy to welcome me up but everyone seemed to cope with it pretty well, and these days the notion of privacy doesn’t carry much weight. And who can deny such a national, if not global cause for celebration, particularly after the impact of the February earthquake on the country. I also enjoyed the newspapers vying for punning headlines (my favourite has to be ‘The Freed Hot Chile Fellas,’ which is probably the only time you will ever get me quoting from The Sun).

Mining of course has a very long history in Latin America – just consider all the Inca and Aztec gold. And, as usual, I can’t help but relate events to our collections. When we were researching for our recent exhibition on Spanish American Independence, we came across images of mines in many of the travellers accounts, particularly of the silver mine in Potosí (in present day Bolivia but then in the Viceroyalty of Peru) and also in Mexico. Mining was a very lucrative enterprise for the Spanish Crown in its American colonies, but many of the mines were destroyed or abandoned in the period after the wars of independence. The new republics then revived the industry by attracting foreign investment, expertise and technology. As early as the 1820s, British entrepreneurs were starting to invest capital in the modernisation of Spanish American mines, sending machinery and specialised workforces. Copper, one of the main natural resources of Chile, was a very profitable metal at that time. Aware of the financial opportunities on offer, many British miners started to emigrate to the country and Chile now has the largest population of British descent in Latin America.

But mining continues to be a dangerous business - read Ariel Dorfman on the subject of mining in Chile in The Guardian


08 October 2010

Polar resources: 400 years of exploring the final frontiers

Voyage of the Fox 

The voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas: a narrative of the discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions / Francis Leopold McClintock. London: John Murray, 1859. BL: 10460.d.2.

Information about the Polar Regions is currently being accumulated in vast quantities by governments and scientific bodies across the globe. This is not a new phenomenon as the history of human interaction with the Arctic and Antarctic is one littered with paper, maps and other notations. The British Library collections are a significant repository of these materials, with holdings relating to the Arctic dating back at least as far as the sixteenth century. In the current geopolitical climate these materials can provide us with insights into how current interactions of government and corporate interests with the Polar Regions may develop.

The North West Passage has long been a subject of fascination to explorers, profiteers and geopolitically minded governments and the history of its exploration by British interests is well documented at the British Library. In sixteenth-century accounts of the search for a passage to the East via the north of the Americas, by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Martin Frobisher, we see concerns familiar to current interest in the Arctic. Rights of access to profitable trade routes and prospecting for resources are significant concerns to these explorers, set against a background of major geopolitical change as Europe’s power balances shift in the aftermath of Columbus navigating to the Caribbean.

Nineteenth-century collections in the Library bear out a similar tale, although by this point the major actors in the sphere of Arctic exploration and exploitation are the British Navy, Canadian government and Hudson’s Bay Company. The writings of Sir John Barrow are spread across the Library’s collections and his accounts of the significance of the Arctic to the British empire are punctuated with warnings about threats to sovereignty posed by business interests and geopolitical concerns raised by the actions of countries such as Russia. We also begin to clearly see the importance of science as a tool for envisioning, delimiting and enforcing control over the Arctic, as evidenced by the significant role of factually accurate illustrations and detailed cartographic charts in writings from this time.

Historical collections are a significant resource to contemporary researchers interested in today’s Polar geopolitics. Scratching the surface of the Library’s collections reveals a long history where exploration and science are used to assert sovereignty and define borders. It also suggests cyclicality to these events and highlights the significance of wider geopolitical pressures, motivated by periods of change, to the intensification of interest in the Arctic across a broad historical transect. More information on these resources can be found here should you wish to use these collections to supplement your research.


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