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8 posts from August 2012

31 August 2012

The radical life of Moncure Daniel Conway

Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, Sheila Rowbotham, writes,

I really should have known more about the life of the American anti-slavery  campaigner and freethinker, Moncure Daniel Conway. I have  been going to meetings in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London since the 1960s. I have the historian’s habit of wondering where the names of places and buildings come from, yet I failed to make the connection.

Because I am currently writing about two women who, in the 1880s, were members of Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , after all these years I started to investigate after finding a reference to him speaking in  the Victoria Rooms on ‘Women and Evolution’ on March 26th 1885.

The Bristol women were radical; they had links to the Garrisonian wing of  anti-slavery, inclined towards Irish Home Rule and were staunch supporters of women’s suffrage as well as being opposed to  the Contagious Diseases  Acts whereby women could be forcibly examined  for venereal diseases and confined in ‘lock’ hospitals. However as I read about Moncure Conway I wondered how much his audience knew of his extraordinary life.

From a wealthy Virginian slave-holding family, he began to ask questions after reading Emerson. In 1854, while he was studying at Harvard , a runaway slave was arrested in Boston and, after failing to obtain his release legally, abolitionists attacked the jail. A deputy sheriff was killed and with polite Boston reeling in shock, a defiant William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the U. S Constitution in protest. These startling events affected the young son of a slave-owner deeply. He turned against his father and brothers, siding with his mother and sisters who opposed slavery. In 1862, during the Civil War, he helped some of his father’s former slaves to escape to Ohio  where they  established the Conway Colony.

Breaking even with the broad and tolerant tenets of Unitarianism, he moved towards humanism and free thought. But Moncure Conway went  further.

When I read his Autobiography, Memories and Experiences in the British Library I was intrigued to find him embracing the dangerous French woman novelist George Sand who had supported the 1848 revolution and was associated with free love. Emerson had given him Sand’s Lelia to read when Moncure Conway went to lecture in Britain in 1863, but  it was not until several years later  that he met her, experiencing ‘awe’ at being in her presence..

His tribute is remarkable: ‘Margaret Fuller and Mrs Browning were both in this brain of George Sand; nay, all the aspiring and discontented women known to me in America – poets, orators, reformers – were all the offspring of George Sand, endeavouring to build in the New World a palace for Woman ..’

He admired the radical suffrage agitators Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose. In Britain he made contact with the Bright- Priestman  family nexus who were early campaigners for suffrage. Sandra Holton has written  with  scholarship and sensibility about their influence which was marked in Bristol.

An inveterate networker, friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Emerson in the U.S., Moncure Conway recounts how he collected European dissidents of every hue. He knew the most diverse radicals; the Cambridge Republican mathematician, W.K. Clifford and the utopian Scot, Thomas Davidson who inspired  the Fellowship of the  New Life from which the Fabians grew.

His autobiography enables us to glimpse how individuals transcend assumed  boundaries. After the defeat of the French Commune, the anarchist anthropologist, Elie Reclus, took him ‘to a room in Bloomsbury where the Communards were wont to gather – a poor place; but I was impressed by their intelligent and benevolent countenances’.

Conway Hall, of course, would not be accepting any spirits into its rationalist premises, but still I can imagine how those Communards might well waft discretely through the gallery from time to time, hob-nobbing with George Sand, Margaret Fuller, Tom Paine, the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , and, the sociable Moncure Daniel Conway himself.


28 August 2012

A Bond formed with conviction: linking Australia and Canada

Hobart (1839 map)
Detail of Hobart from 1839 map of Van Diemen’s Land [BL Shelfmark: Maps 92405.(2.)] illustrating the town roughly as it would have been found by Canadian convicts

The rebellions of 1837-38 are perhaps a lesser known part of Canadian history in the wider world. Yet these rebellions and the resulting changes to Canadian governance were to have consequences across the British empire. In particular, the Canadians who participated in the rebellions were transported to Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales.

So this is another one of my blogs which links the Americas and Australasian collections, and is also an opportunity to point out that the Library holds a number of sources on the Canadian rebellions - for example, The Life and Times of W. L. Mackenzie, with an account of the Canadian rebellion of 1837… [1862, BL Shelfmark: 010882.g.7] and The Canadian Rebellion of 1837 [1896, BL Shelfmark: 09555.c.3].

I was also struck by the materials held which give an insight into the situation awaiting these Canadian transportees upon their arrival in the settlements of the Great Southern Land.  Of particular note is Hobart, where 92 followers of Mackenzie arrived in 1840. The above map gives a sense of what Hobart was like (one year before their arrival) and publications are also held by the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land at the time. This was Sir John Franklin, whose name we associate with colder climes, but who spent some of his career considering and administering convict discipline. A record of these thoughts (from 1838) can be found in, Convict Discipline in Van Diemen’s Land [BL Shelfmark: 7002.d.10].


24 August 2012

The Battle of Bladensburg: some War of 1812 project notes

Battle of Bladensberg

Map of the Battle of Bladensburg showing Washington. British Library Manuscript [Add. Mss. 57715 (f.10)]

Today marks 198 years since the Battle of Bladensburg, during which a British force landed at Benedict, on the Patuxent River, and marched on Washington D.C. The resulting battle was a victory for the British and ended with the burning of public buildings in the city.

As part of the War of 1812 digitisation project that myself and Matthew are working on I’ve come across the above map of the battle, a black and white reproduction of which can be found in Lossing’s The Pictorial Fieldbook of the War of 1812 (held in a later edition at the Library, DSC 81/8962). The image above is just a low-res copy as we've as yet to start the digitisation in earnest.

Digitisation will start in September, with the first selections (all maps) heading off to Imaging Services. There’s some interesting material in there, including maps of the Battle of New Orleans and a map of the Battle of Moriaviantown. There are also some interesting general maps and atlases which show the landscape and settlements of early nineteenth century North America as well as the theatre of war.

When the first materials go up we’ll let you know.


20 August 2012

Breadfruit, Rum and Mutinies: the career of William Bligh

Breadfruit [store]

 Plant accommodation on HMS Bounty [BL Shelfmark: RB.31.c.503(1)].

I’ve been doing further reading on Australian history this week and you can’t cover early nineteenth- century Australia without coming across William Bligh. Bligh became Governor of New South Wales in 1806 but prior to this he had already undertaken a number of missions for the British Government in European, Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific waters. One of these missions provides Team Americas with another blog on the links between Australasia and the Americas.

While in Tahiti as part of Cook’s first Pacific voyage, Joseph Banks noted that the local Uru, or breadfruit, had potential as a source of cheap, high energy food that could be cultivated in British colonies. Banks successfully promoted his idea after returning to London, and Bligh was dispatched with HMS Bounty to acquire plants for use in the Caribbean. After one mutiny, a trip back to London (via Koupang) and two trips to Tahiti for specimens, Bligh finally delivered the breadfruit plants to Jamaica.

Breadfruit [illus]
Illustration of breadfruit in Bligh’s A Voyage to the South Sea [BL Shelfmark: : RB.31.c.503(1)]

Following success as a Naval captain in Europe, and having earned Nelson’s favour at the Battle of Copenhagen, Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales. Arriving in 1806 Bligh immediately had to deal with the New South Wales Corps, the standing regiment for the colony which had set up a decent sideline in profiteering illegal trade items – namely, rum. Eventually this led to the 'Rum Rebellion' of 1808 and Bligh was forced to take another ignominious trip on the sea (this time to Hobart).

Breadfruit [map]
Map of Bligh’s journey, in A Voyage to the South Sea [BL Shelfmark: : RB.31.c.503(1)].

While mutinies grab popular attention, Bligh's career offers a good example of the way in which many individuals in the British Navy helped to developed global networks of exchange and control which underpinned the British Empire. He’s also a case study of what binds Team Americas and Australasia together.

I’ve noted in an earlier blog the Library’s collections on Cook and his expedition, and there is also a significant collection on the expeditions of Bligh; for starters see, A Voyage to the South Sea, 1792 [BL Shelfmark: RB.31.c.503(1)] and A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, 1790 [BL Shelfmark: G.3066].


17 August 2012

Mrs Hemingway, Mr Hemingway and Miss Pfeiffer

Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Photograph courtesy of Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.  

‘All things truly wicked must start from an innocence’ Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, a memoir published after his death in 1964.

The last story of the Feast tells of a married couple ‘infiltrated’ by a rich young woman. It is the story of Hadley and Ernest and his mistress, Pauline Pfeiffer. Miss Pfeiffer, Hemingway wrote, used the ‘the oldest trick’ there is to snag a husband: becoming the wife’s ‘temporary best friend’. The story casts the Hemingways as innocents caught in the net of a rich socialite.

But other sources show a more complicated picture. Carlos Bakers’ Selected Letters, for example, shows an eminently more remorseful Ernest. In a letter to Fitzgerald in November 1926, Hemingway wrote ‘Needless to say Hadley has been grand and everything has been completely my fault in every way. That’s the truth, not a polite gesture.’

Two other volumes also show Hadley taking some share of the blame. Gioia Diliberto suggests Mrs Hemingway’s passivity contributed to Pauline’s success in her biography Hadley. ‘I tend to give up before other people do,’ Hadley commented. ‘I should have said to her, “No, you can’t have my husband.” But I didn’t.’

Hadley had had a lonely life before she met Hemingway. In many ways this made her too grateful for his ‘rescue’ six years earlier. ‘He gave me the key to the world,’ Hadley told her first biographer, Alice Sokoloff, in her book The First Mrs Hemingway. When someone else was favoured with this key, Hadley kept schtum and did not protest.

And yet A Moveable Feast has become perhaps too dominant in how we read the unhappy Hemingway ménage-a-trois. In his early letters Hemingway writes of his urgent and aching love for his mistress: ‘All I want is you Pfife and oh dear god I want you so,’ he wrote as the divorce papers landed on his desk from Hadley, ‘I love you love you love you so – and I’m yours all shot to hell’.

Furthermore, a recently published ‘restored’ edition of A Moveable Feast (2010) includes much material excised from the 1964 publication. While the Feast is remembered as a eulogy to Hadley, the 2010 edition goes some way in restoring Pauline’s reputation as something more than a snake in Dior. 

‘For the girl to deceive her friend was a terrible thing but it was my fault and blindness that this did not repel me. Having become involved in it and being in love I accepted all the blame for it myself and lived with the remorse,’ reads a ‘redacted’ section from the new edition.

Though much less satisfying as a piece of prose, the restored edition refutes the simple geometry of a married couple infiltrated by an outsider. The 1964 edition reads: ‘I loved her and I loved no one else.’ But the 2010 edition shows the hell of when ‘you truly love two women’. The 2010 Feast does not exonerate Pauline, but it does lighten her load.

Everything, in the end, is of course conjecture, but by casting the nets further out than just the ‘definitive’ Moveable Feast, we can see how the wickedness and innocence might just have belonged to all three.

Naomi Wood is one of the current Eccles Centre Writers in Residence and will be talking about her novel Mrs Hemingway at the Summer Scholars Series at the British Library on 22 August. 



14 August 2012

Team Americas looks forward to a great Fall events programme

We've been feeling decidedly down in the mouth after the Olympics - we’ve all enjoyed the last couple of weeks so much that it was inevitable that things would suddenly feel a bit flat. But we’ve now perked up considerably since we find ourselves not only very busy but with a lot to look forward to over the next couple of months. Matt and Carole are wearing their Beat hats as they prepare for the arrival of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript scroll in early October - how exciting is that! And then there is the accompanying programme of events, featuring a preview screening of Walter Salles’ new film of On the Road, and an evening with Amiri Baraka to mention just two. The full programme can be found on the BL’s website under events (check under each month), and details of the exhibition will be up very soon.

In addition to supporting some of the On the Road events/exhibition, our wonderful Eccles Centre for American Studies is sponsoring a fantastic range of autumn talks, including our Summer Scholars series (featuring e.g. Naomi Wood and Sheila Rowbotham, our 2 Eccles Writers in Residence), as well as events with Liza Klaussman (who, incidentally, happens to be Herman Melville’s great-great-great granddaughter!), Andrea Wulf, and Lord Putnam to pick out just a few. And how could we forget that there happens to be a big election coming up in the U.S. in November, and we of course have that covered too. For the full range of Eccles events see

And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ll be showcasing some of our artists’ books on 4 September at Inspired by Artists' Books, we have David H.Treece speaking about The Meanings of Music in Brazilian Culture for Brazil World Music Day on September 7, and we'll be celebrating Jamaican Independence on October 5th . Finally, the Olympics are still in our thoughts as we look forward not only to Rio, but to our conference Social Change and the Sporting Mega-event on November 5, organised in collaboration with our Brazilian colleagues.

Whew! Hopefully, you’ll find at least some of these events of interest and we hope to see you at the Library in the near future.

08 August 2012



Where are You? Some USA supporters at Stratford.  Photo: M. Shaw

Team Americas has been spending some time watching the Olympics; this included a trip to see the basketball, which was as near-as-dammit the full-on U.S. experience, with a Jumbotron kiss cam, cheerleaders (from the Ukraine) and lots of loud music.  The only thing missing was the hotdogs. Oh, and a U.


06 August 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Dentons

Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence, Sheila Rowbotham, writes:

I came across the Denton family from Wellesley, Massachusetts while reading the manuscript journals of Helen Tufts at Smith College. In the 1890s she was friendly with the two younger Dentons, William and Carrie. They were part of a radical circle intent on questioning both politics and social conventions. The archivist at Wellesley College, Jane A. Callahan kindly sent me an article by Beth Hinchcliffe on the Dentons’ extraordinary collection of butterflies.

She relates how William Denton senior lost his teaching post in England in the revolutionary year of 1848 because of his heretical views. Upon migrating to America, he threw himself into the anti-slavery movement. The anti-slavery cause gathered many other emancipatory aspirations around it and he met the woman who would become his wife, Elizabeth Foote, when he escorted her to safety from a furious crowd, outraged because she was working as typesetter and wearing bloomers. The couple travelled around the country lecturing on geology and natural history collecting minerals, fossils and butterflies. As the children grew older they accompanied their parents doing magic lantern shows to illustrate the talks.

In 1881 William went on a three year trip with two of his sons, Sherman and Shelley, to Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, dying of jungle fever in 1883 when he tried to explore New Guinea alone.

It was enterprising Sherman who worked out how to preserve butterflies on a plaster mount covered with glass and they were soon exhibiting in the United States and in Europe. In 1900 the Dentons’ butterflies won the gold medal at Paris Exhibition, the Parisian couturier Worth designed gowns inspired by the butterflies, and they influenced the American Arts and Crafts pioneer, Elbert Hubbard. When Queen Victoria died, Shelley Denton was asked to apply his skill to preserving the flowers on her coffin.

This summer I went to do research in the Labadie collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and there I learned more of the fascinating Dentons. Elizabeth Denton was interested in spiritualism, William junior and his companion and later wife May C. Hurd, were friendly with the early birth control campaigners Josephine and Flora Tilton. The Dentons were so remarkable that their contemporaries were quite unable to fit them into any known category. Neighbours would say that there were three kinds of folk in Wellesley, the good the bad and the Dentons.

Carrie Denton proved to be the unorthodox one; surrounded by non-conformists and free lovers, she struck out for propriety. When she and the lover of Flora Tilton, Archibald Simpson, were both old in 1943, he teased her for asking searching questions about his relationship with Flora in the 1890s.’You were conservatively moral and didn’t approve’. Carrie might well have observed that if you were born a Denton you did not yield to the opinion of others. After all had not William Denton senior edited The Social Revolutionist in 1856 which stood for ‘a free press, resting on a free soil’.


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