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6 posts from October 2015

20 October 2015

Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off Newfoundland

[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:

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:

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]

18 October 2015

Illustrating Moby-Dick


Our Animal Tales exhibition includes a lovely edition of Melville’s Moby-Dick. Published by the Lakeside Press in 1930, it features illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I’ve always thought that Melville’s powers of description render illustrations unnecessary, and in many ways prefer to maintain my own vivid internal pictures of Ahab, Queequeg, the Pequod, Moby Dick et al, conjured up by that wonderful prose. But there’s still much to enjoy in some of the various illustrated editions of the book that have appeared over the years since the The Whale (as it was originally titled) was published in London on October 18, 1851. The more familiar title of Moby-Dick; or The Whale, came with the first U.S.edition, published in New York a few weeks later on November 14.  

The Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) illustrations are my favourite. Kent was a man of many parts - artist, writer, political activist, enthusiastic traveller. His long, varied and controversial career can’t be covered in a simple blogpost (read his Wikipedia entry to get an idea), but in many ways, he would seem to be a perfect illustrator for Moby-Dick. Kent was no stranger to adventure, remote locations and sea voyages, and published a number of books and memoirs on his travels and experiences. During the period between WWI and WWII, he enjoyed a notable reputation as an artist, producing work in a variety of media, but his seascapes were particularly popular. In addition, although he was a resolutely realist painter, he frequently employed symbolism in his work – so who better to illustrate Moby Dick, ‘a creature truly wild and open to any number of symbolic interpretations.’ And the editors at Lakeside thought so too. They in fact first approached Kent to design an illustrated edition of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, but it was Kent himself who suggested Moby-Dick instead.

Lakeside Press was a publishing imprint under R.R. Donnelly, based in Chicago. Moby-Dick was to be one of its Four American Books Campaign, aimed at building its reputation as a printer of fine trade editions, as well as proving that it was capable of producing  illustrated books every bit as good as the best presses in Europe. Kent wrote to William A. Kittredge (Lakeside’s Director of Design and Typography from 1922-1945) that he considered ‘Moby Dick….. a most solemn, mystic work,’ and that the ‘whole book is a work that should be read slowly, reflectively; the large page and type induce such reading. The character of the type should be homely, rather than refined and elegant, for homeliness flavors every line that Melville wrote.’ He wanted his illustrations to epitomise the mood of the book - the ‘midnight darkness enveloping human existence, the darkness of the human soul, the abyss, -- such is the mood of Moby-Dick.’ (Megan Benton, Beauty and the Book: fine editions and cultural distinction in America. Yale University Press, 2000, pp.105-107).

The editors were delighted with Kent’s first submissions in 1927. Kittredge wrote, ‘Your genius as a thinker, painter, and draughtsman was never more successfully demonstrated.’  Kent continued to work on the book for the next three years, alongside various other activities and expeditions, and finally completed the illustrations in Denmark in 1929. The book appeared in 1930 in a three-volume edition, housed in an aluminium slipcase, and limited to 1000 copies. Kittredge described it as, ‘the greatest book done in this generation,’ and said that, ‘we will all go jump in the lake’ if ‘it is not the greatest illustrated book ever done in America.’ (Benton, p.132, 200) The edition quickly sold out and was followed by an equally popular one-volume trade edition, published later that year by Random House and printed by Lakeside.  

Although Melville’s epic tale wasn’t exactly unknown in 1930, it wasn’t considered the classic that it is now. The popularity of the Lakeside and Kent edition of Moby-Dick therefore played some part in helping to establish its status as a masterpiece of American literature. As John Lewis writes, ‘There is a mystic streak that runs through [Kent’s] work, enabling him, if not to match Melville’s magnificent prose, at least to give some pictorial substance to this allegory. Maybe no sperm whale ever reached to the stars……Melville makes one feel it could and Kent has recaptured the mood.’ (The 20th Century Book, The Herbert Press, 2nd rev ed. 1984, p.146)

Kent's illustrations for Moby-Dick are still in copyright but you can browse some of them on the Plattsburgh State Art Museum website.


17 October 2015

Arthur Miller


Arthur Miller.  Image believed to be in the public domain (Wiki Commons).

Four months after Saul Bellow’s centenary, today – 17 October 2015 – marks the turn of Arthur Miller.

Once again a search through the Library’s holdings revealed some fascinating items. Particularly notable is a 1970 conversation on the Theatre in Video database between Miller and playwright Israel Horovitz – twenty years Miller’s junior – about the writer’s role in society and the state of American theatre.

Responding to Horowitz’s belief that none of his own plays are worth the $40 or $50 then being charged by New York theatres, Miller assures him that no play is worth that. Indeed, Miller condemns the sky-rocketing prices as an absurdity that makes unrealistic demands of the play – ‘everything’s got to be a masterpiece’ – and drives down attendance. Not only does he do anything to avoid buying such tickets himself, but, Miller confesses, he’d urge everyone else to stay home too; for him the only viable way forward is publicly-subsidised theatre.

Turning to ‘the great freeze’ of the 1950s, Horovitz – lounging in his armchair, cigarette permanently alight – asks what causes public apathy. People are bored, explains Miller, because they’re frightened. They become apathetic when they’ve turned their back on experience. Miller recalls that he wrote The Crucible to show that ‘hysteria doesn’t solve anything’; that it kills people. But at its opening in New York in 1953, as soon as people realised this, ‘you could hear ice forming on top of the audience. You could hear it cracking as it busted through everything.’ Reviews the next morning described the play as cold. But when it was revived a few years later – after Joe McCarthy had died – the same critics, assuming there had been a re-write, praised its new-found warmth. Yet, as Miller wryly notes: ‘I hadn’t touched the script … it was them that had been re-written’.

And an article in the New York Times (online or on microfilm (MMF.MA3)) on 9 March 1953 sheds further light on Miller’s exasperation with his critics. Responding to the American Bar Association’s suggestion that certain lines in The Crucible should be deleted for disparaging lawyers at a time when respect for the law had never been more important, Miller cautions that the public’s growing sensitivity to open and honest debate is of no service to civilization. First, Miller informs the ABA, The Death of a Salesman led to ‘several organizations of sales people’ flying to arms; now it is the turn of lawyers. And if he were to write about those who did nothing, so ‘café society will probably feel put upon.’ Defending his right to speak and write the truth as he sees it, he concludes, ‘I must insist upon the play as it stands.’


– Jean Petrovic


07 October 2015

Curator, North American Published Collections

[27/10/2015 Please note, the application deadline has now passed]. You may have seen Phil's valedictory post as he moves to his new role as Digital Mapping curator ('HC SVUNT DRACONES'). We're pleased that he's still very much around in the Library, but also that we are able to advertise a slightly rijigged version of his post (it now concentrates on the US and Canada, with an emphasis on the post-1850 and contemporary). If you are interested in working with the Collections and Curation team at the Library, then you may want to look at the job description on our website (here's the job description (.pdf)). Applications are due 26 October, and we'd also be very happy to talk more about the role (and yes, we really mean this).

Earlier in the year, Phil did a YouTube film about working at the Library. It links to a couple of other curators' experiences of their work, too. Good research material for any application...



-- Matthew Shaw

05 October 2015

More Animal Tales: Ozzie the Eagle

Bald eagle

Bald Eagle (captioned 'White Headed Eagle'), from James Audubon's Birds of America [British Library shelfmark N.L.Tab.2]. Image: public domain.

For several years, a Floridian bald eagle has been the subject of a popular webcam. Fans of Ozzie could follow his day-to-day activities at the Southwest Florida Eagle Cam, observing the comings and goings of the bird along with those of Harriet, his partner of some twenty years.

But last week, we received the sad news that Ozzie is no longer with us. Discovered injured in a North Fort Myers backyard, the famous bird of prey died a few days later from infection from the wounds he received fighting off another bald eagle (as well as a possible entanglement with barbed wire). While such eagles are often said to partner 'for life', they do sometimes go their separate ways if they fail to breed. Courtship, notably, included dramatic displays of flight and free-fall, sometimes plummeting to a few feet off the ground before soaring into the sky once more. It is presumed that a final battle of aquiline love (or pride) finished him off.


'Wild Turkey', from James Audubon's Birds of America [British Library shelfmark N.L.Tab.2]. Image: public domain.

The news of Ozzie's demise went global, but perhaps struck a particularly American chord.  As the Washington Post noted, the death 'sent shock waves through Ozzie and Harriet’s loyal following, not only because of the eagles’ regal beauty as a couple, but also for what they represented: America, of course, and strong family values.' Famously trumping Benjamin Franklin's turkey proposal, the Bald Eagle has been America's national bird since 1782, appearing on the original Great Seal of the United States, thirteen arrows grasped in one talon, and an olive branch in the other:


Great Seal of the United States. Image: public domain.

It's a fitting choice: the eagle also plays an important, sacred part in many Native American cultures (for some of the museological consequences of this, see this fascinating post on 'Birds of a Feather' at the National Museum of the American Indian). And, of course, the bald-headed eagle makes a striking appearance in that great monument to Anglo-American natural history printing, James Audubon's Birds of America (image at the head this post). Here, the eagle is surrounded by the head and entrails of the scavenged dead fish that forms a large part of the bald eagle's diet. (Like Franklin, Audubon favoured the Turkey as the national bird.)

We didn't include Audubon (or indeed his precursor, Alexander Wilson) in our Animal Tales exhibition. More about this and the reasons for it next time. You can also see some of Audubon's Birds of America as part of our Turning the Pages project. You'll need a big iPad or monitor to duplicate the impact of the the double elephantine folio, though.

-- Matthew Shaw

03 October 2015

Tarrant's Seltzer Aperient


The Library's ever-busy Mechanical Curator suggested this for the weekend. Good for keeping the 'blood cool and the brain clear'. Enjoy the rest of the book here.

(Image from ‘Appletons’ Illustrated Hand-Book of American Cities … With outlines of through routes, and railway maps (1876))

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