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3 posts from December 2017

25 December 2017

Andrew Salkey’s Christmas Mento….Sixty-four years later

Buried in Andrew Salkey’s personal archive amongst a file of scripts, forms, notes and letters, is an unpublished Christmas poem. Andrew Salkey, co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, was a prolific writer-come-activist who made frequent contributions to the BBC. Nestled in a box, which contains his work with the BBC on programmes such as Calling the West Indies (which later became Calling the Caribbean), Caribbean Voices and the Caribbean Literary Magazine, was a typed copy of ‘Mento Theme No. 6’. Salkey described this as a ‘A poem on Christmas influenced by the Jamaican Dialect’. More specifically, it was in a folder that was particularly heavy with BBC rejection letters with returned poems attached that I discovered ‘Mento No. 6’.

Unable to ‘find any room’ in the BBC ‘First Reading’ radio programme for Salkey’s poem in 1953, the British Library America’s blog has found room for this poem’s much-delayed entry into the public sphere, sixty-four years later.


Salkey Mento Poem

Andrew Salkey Archive, BBC Files 1-3, DEP 103/016

Salkey’s poem reads as a creolised Christmas story, in which recognisable Christmas motifs and tales are recounted in patois, to a Mento tune and rhythm. Sometimes called the grandfather of reggae, Mento is a type of Jamaican folk music which fuses African and European musical traditions. The knowable tale of the star in the East which led the Three Wise Old Men, who brought ‘myrrh, gold and frankincense’, is followed (in true Salkey-style) by a mention of Anancy the Spider. Although not a traditional or known part of the Christmas story, Anancy is both known and traditional within the Black diaspora. A cunning folk trickster who travelled from West Africa, across the middle passage, to the New World, and later from the Caribbean to Britain, Anancy is a powerful and historic figure.

Salkey played a critical role in keeping the trope of Anancy alive, as demonstrated through his literary work which can be found at the library. Amongst a vast array of his work held in the British Library Collections, Anancy, Brother Anancy and Other Stories and his readings for the African Writer’s Club, which can be found on the British Library Sound webpage, are just a taste of Salkey’s contributions to West African and Caribbean folk revival.

This poem is a Mento through more than its rhythm and sound, it is a mento through the way it melds African and European cultural traditions.

Have a Merry Mento Christmas…..x

Naomi Oppenheim

Naomi is a PhD candidate on a CDP at the British Library and UCL. She is currently researching British-Caribbean popular culture and the politics of history in the post-war period.


18 December 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Rush

As described in my previous blog Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry. A desire to understand the detailed workings of the natural world was not seen to be antithetical to the idea of God the creator, but rather a means of studying and thereby celebrating the infinite variety of his creation. Indeed, far from there being a psychological or theological block on scientific enquiry, it had been institutionally and culturally encouraged since the late 17th century, becoming not only acceptable but also fashionable.

The basic ground rules of this spirit of enquiry are encapsulated in the title of Benjamin Franklin’s ground-breaking work Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6)) just as they are in Medical Inquiries and Observations (4 Vols., Philadelphia, 1805; shelfmark MFR/3019 1 Reel 36:1), the most important writings of Franklin’s friend and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Rush (1746-1813).


Benjamin Rush: an engraving by James Barton Longacre (1794-1869) from a painting by Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Like Franklin, Benjamin Rush was a practical empiricist. He became the first professor of chemistry in America (at the age of twenty-two), was the United States’ most eminent contemporary physician, and is still regarded as the father of American psychiatry. And just as many contemporary politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to unify health and social care, so Rush – himself a politician and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence – saw no divide. He firmly believed that both physical and mental health were intrinsically affected by social conditions and mores, and was a keen advocate of government intervention on a considered basis, akin to the modern practice of nudge theory.

A glance at works written by Rush and listed in Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library  illustrates both the breadth of his interests and the continuing importance of his areas of concern. These include: ‘An account of the state of the body and mind in old age’ in Sir J. Bart Sinclair, The Code of Health etc., Vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1807; shelfmark 41.d.18); Medical Enquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (2nd edition, London, 1789; shelfmark 1039.k.31); An Inquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty (Philadelphia, 1839; shelfmark 8404.e.33.(2)); A Dissertation on the Spasmodic Asthma of Children (London, 1770; shelfmark T.991.(2)); and An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind (Boston, 1812; shelfmark 1507/278).      

Rush was a man of strong opinions and could sometimes be fractious. He certainly did not lack either physical or moral courage. As surgeon general of the army he fought alongside General Washington at the Battle of Princeton, but was later sacked for ‘disloyalty’ after he sought to bypass Washington while attempting to reform the administration of the army’s hospitals.

Rush battle

In this painting by John Trumbull - The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 - Benjamin Rush can be seen behind George Washington; both are on horseback. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even more famously, Rush stayed in Philadelphia to treat the sick (including himself) throughout the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed one in ten of the city’s population. Indeed, Rush was uniquely influential in the development of medicine in the early years of the Republic. In 1792 he became the first Professor in the Institutes of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following two decades he taught an estimated 3,500 students. His Sixteen Introductory Lectures (shelfmark: X.329/1803) influenced many more after his death and has been republished three times during the past half century. [1]

A humanitarian, Rush was an active campaigner for penal reform and a lifelong opponent of slavery. His 1773 Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America (shelfmark MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13) led the next year to the creation of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such institution in America. [2]

Benjamin Rush, like Benjamin Franklin, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

George Goodwin

George is an Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).


1.  Benjamin Rush, Sixteen Introductory Lectures. Oceanside, N.Y: Dabor Science Publications, 1977. Repr. of the 1811 edition published by Bradford and Innskeep, Philadelphia. (Shelfmark: X.329/18023)

2.  Benjamin Rush, Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America by Benjamin Rush. Philadelphia: J. Dunlap, 1773. (Shelfmark: MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13)

Further Reading 

Claire G. Fox, Gordon L. Miller and Jacqueline C. Miller, comps. Benjamin Rush, M.D.: A Bibliographic Guide. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996. Shelfmark: 2725.e.3276.

Lyman Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush (2 vols). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813, New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

14 December 2017

The 1867 British North America Act

On 16 November the Canada-UK Council visited the British Library with delegates taking part in the Dilemmas of Democracy conference that was held at Runnymede.  The North American curators had prepared a ‘Show and Tell” with a particular focus on the 150th Anniversary of the passage of the 1867 British North America Act which had established the Dominion of Canada.

The material reflected on relations pre and post confederation, including this beautifully illustrated work containing a painting of the Canada stand at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Also displayed was Portraits of British North Americans, a collection of biographies illustrated by William Notman's photographic portraits;

Portraits of British North Americans, shelfmark 010803.f.1.


Finally, an interesting work which makes the case for financing a Canadian Pacific railway, an issue that was closely tied to confederation.

Suggestions on the true and practical
The Confederation of the British North American Provinces; their past history and future prospects... Shelfmark 10410.dd.13.

The delegates were given a short presentation on one of the books on display: a History of Canada 1849-59, by Alexander Tilloch Galt, which was published in London in 1860.  The book was of particular interest because Galt (who was one of the Fathers of Confederation a few years later) was the Minister of Finance in the coalition government of Upper and Lower Canada at the time. The book can be understood as a Prospectus to persuade influential Britons – and notably financiers – that Canada represented a safe long-term investment. Galt had a personal as well as a political interest in conveying this message, as it was over this period that he was amassing a considerable fortune in the Grand Trunk railroad. It was important to keep the money flowing!

Canada: 1849 to 1859, shelfmark 8154.b.45.

Galt starts out by confirming (what few in England perhaps understood at that time) that Canada was already essentially independent.  In 1846 Lord John Russell, as Prime Minister, had admitted the principle of responsible government in Canada.  A new system had been inaugurated, and: “…as from that date no attempt has ever been made to interfere with its free and legitimate operation. The political differences and difficulties of Canada have been dealt with by her own people and legislature, and Great Britain has never been required to take part in any local question whatever” (except to give effect to the express desire of the Provincial legislature).

Galt notes, however, that the true start date for Canada’s sole control of its trade and customs duties was not 1846, with the admission of this principle, and with the repeal of the Corn Laws, but 1848, with the repeal of differential duties, and 1849 with repeal of discriminatory navigation laws.

Canada had started the decade of 1850-60 with a “ravaged exchequer”, still recovering from the violent uprisings of 1837-8. But – says Galt – it had stopped asking for, and did not expect, help.

He sketches, first, the institutional machinery of democracy that had already been put in place. Membership of the Lower House had grown from 84 to 130 in 1853, and the voting franchise had been extended to $30 pa (roughly £6) in towns, and $20 pa (or £4) in rural areas.  Elections had been introduced for the Upper House, which consisted of a single member from each of 48 districts.

He notes Queen Victoria’s 1857 choice of Ottawa as Canada’s capital, and records that “public buildings are now in course of erection” – but gives no hint of the controversy surrounding this choice which had already caused one Government to fall, and which rumbled on for a full decade.

He outlines the system of municipal government  that had been introduced in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1849/50 and that had now been consolidated into a single Statute, securing powers  “to levy local rates for local objects” and giving each district “the most perfect control of its own affairs”. In Lower Canada (modern Quebec), he observes, an earlier attempt had been made to introduce a system shortly after the 1837/38 rebellion, “but with the exception of several English counties, the effort proved a complete failure”!

The History goes on to enumerate the progress achieved in education, where a new system had been introduced in 1846 following an examination of European models. By 1858 there were 3,866 schools in Upper Canada, with 293,683 scholars, and 2,800 schools in Lower Canada, with 130,940 scholars. (One of the pleasures of this history is Galt’s precision with numbers. An appendix at the end records tax and excise revenues literally to the penny!)

The question of land-holding, he observes, had been bedevilled by the existence of ‘Clergy Reserves’ and of ‘Feudal or Seigneurial Tenure’:

  • The Clergy Reserves constituted one seventh of all land in Upper Canada which had been appropriated by Imperial legislation for the support of protestant Clergy. This was a “fruitful cause of evil of every kind”. The problem had been resolved in 1854 with full separation of church and state.
  • The Seigneurial land problem in Lower (ie French) Canada was a legacy from Europe where its “extinction had been bought with much blood”. It had been a difficult issue to address because the problem was rooted in fundamental laws of property. In the end, the government had agreed to pay £650,000 in indemnity to those whose rights of property were required to be surrendered.

Galt is passionate in countering the charge that Canada had been “lavish and wasteful” in resolving such problems (which leads one to suppose that he had indeed faced such criticism from sceptical British financiers). On the contrary, he says, questions of property rights had been the cause of political division and violent disorder in many other parts of the world. Their resolution in Canada had been achieved with remarkable serenity and economy.

He records that land in Canada is available for purchase by immigrants at 2 shillings an acre, with the responsibility of government confined to “opening of the leading county road” in each district at a total cost of only £15,000 pa. “No further expenditure is made from the public chest”.

He goes on to describe the existing infrastructure of roads, canals (with the enlargement of the Welland Canal in 1841 and thereafter, meaning that vessels of up to 800 tons could now reach Lake Ontario) and rail with 1,112 miles of trunk rail – or 2,093 miles if spur lines were included – now representing “probably the most complete and comprehensive railway system in the world”. 

In order to “remedy the evil effects” of English regulations that favoured its own steamships, Canada had been obliged to subsidise a weekly line of steamships of her own at a cost of £45,000 pa.  The journey from Quebec to Liverpool took 10 days 3 hours. Liverpool to Quebec was a little slower, at 11 days 5 hrs.

Throughout the history, Galt is careful to avoid all reference to political turmoil in Canada (though these were pretty turbulent years!) “Canada stands at the bar of public opinion in England to be judged not by the acts of any party, but as a whole: and no public man possessing any claim to patriotism would seek, by parading sectional difficulties and disputes, to gain position in Canada through the disparagement of the country and her acts in England.”

Galt ends on an optimistic note for the future for Canada, and Canada-UK relations: “…whatever may be the future destinies of Canada, her people will always value as their most precious right the free and liberal institutions they enjoy, and will cherish the warmest sentiments of regard towards the mother-country, from whom they have received them.”

- Anthony Cary

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