Americas and Oceania Collections blog

4 posts from October 2022

24 October 2022

Reading Eighteenth-Century Enslavers for Sources on the History of Africa and Africans

Devin Leigh was a 2019 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow. He received his PhD in History from the University of California at Davis in 2021, and teaches at a number of institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If someone wanted to study the modern history of Africa and Africans, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, the last thing they would probably do is turn to books written by white racists.

The very idea of learning about the history of Africa and the experiences of Africans by studying texts produced by white supremacists seems backward. And yet, that is not the case for the eighteenth century. There is actually a good reason why, ignoring intuition, a researcher interested in studying Africa and Africans before, say, the nineteenth century should seek out and consult the unpublished collections of bigots and enslavers. The materials that these people collected and wrote sometimes contain important information on these topics because of their racism, not in spite of it. This is a lesson I learned over the course of two summers, in 2017 and 2018, researching debates on Atlantic slavery in the late-eighteenth century at the British Library. Let me explain.

I came to the British Library for the first time during the summer of 2017 to examine the Edward Long Papers.[1] Edward Long was a British slaveowner and historian associated with the colony of Jamaica in the late-eighteenth century. He was known in his own time for a three-volume history of the island that he published in 1774, entitled The History of Jamaica, but he is known now for his virulently pejorative views of African and Africans.[2] Long is arguably the most racist voice of the eighteenth century. I will not reproduce any of his views here but, if one would like to judge for themselves, then they can read his writing on Jamaica’s “inhabitants” in the second volume of his History, from page 260. (But be advised, contemporary readers may well find his writing highly offensive.)

But it was not Long’s racism that moved me to see his manuscript collection at the Library. Rather, it was a specific section of his History about a slave revolt that took place on the island in 1760. I wanted to know more about the revolt’s leaders, many of whom scholars believed were enslaved peoples from what is today Ghana, and who were then known as “Coromantees.” Long wrote more about the history of the revolt and its African background than any other contemporary author. [3]

An eighteenth-century portrait of Edward Long, a white gentleman in a top hat seated at a desk, holding writing paper and posing with a quill and ink pot.
William Sharp, “Portrait of Edward Long after Engraving by John Opie,” 1796, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D37426. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Initially, it was confusing to me that the eighteenth-century’s most racially prejudiced author was also the author of one of the most-detailed sources that we have on African identity and resistance in the diaspora. The more I studied his unpublished manuscripts at the British Library, however, the more I started to understand how this could be the case. Long lived during a period when the European slave trade was coming under attack by a metropolitan anti-slavery movement for the first time in its history. He wrote, in part, to defend racial slavery and the transatlantic slave trade from its critics. In this context, he knew that he had one distinct advantage that his opponents based in England did not: access to slave societies. People of African descent had not yet begun to publish works attacking the slave trade (this was before Ottobah Cugoano or Olaudah Equiano published their books, for example) and, at any rate, racism largely prevented them from being taken seriously by people in power. Meanwhile, almost all white abolitionists in Great Britain—like Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce—had never been to slave societies overseas, whether in West Africa or the colonies. As a result, Long thought that enslavers like himself had an opportunity to deploy what they called their “practical knowledge” of slavery. They believed they could protect their class privileges by turning their firsthand observations into political arguments.[4]

As I now understand, Long wrote about the West African backgrounds of rebels in 1760 Jamaica because he wanted his readers to blame the island’s instability on a group of ethnic outsiders, and not on the system of racial slavery itself, or on the enslavers who profited from it and perpetuated it. He knew his politicized arguments about African culture and identity would sound convincing to many readers in a European climate where peoples of African descent were rarely believed as sources of authority, and where white critics of slavery had so little personal experience with the institution themselves. As he explained in the preface to a popular manual for enslavers, reissued the year before he published his History, it was “necessary at this time” for enslavers to construct texts that could counter abolitionists “little acquainted” with slavery and “absolutely ignorant, or ill-informed of the true state of Africans in their native country, or in our British colonies.” [5]

Edward Long, “Some Unpublished Notes on Jamaica’s Slave Revolts in the 1760s,” C.E. Long Papers, the British Library, Add MS 18271, f. 3v. © British Library Board.
Edward Long, “Some Unpublished Notes on Jamaica’s Slave Revolts in the 1760s,” C.E. Long Papers, the British Library, Add MS 18271, f. 3v. © British Library Board.

As I learned over the rest of that summer and the next, Long’s source on the African background of Jamaica’s rebels was just one textual artefact of the idea that enslavers had privileged access to firsthand knowledge about Africa and Africans in the late-eighteenth century. In fact, this claim to authoritative knowledge of African culture led enslavers to collect and publish in exhaustive detail rare and important primary sources on Africa and Africans in the eighteenth century. For example, it led to the publication in Europe of the first history of a West African state, written by an enslaver named Robert Norris and perhaps edited by Long himself.[6] It also led to the transcription of some of the earliest music we have that was composed by enslaved people in the diaspora, sent to Long and preserved in his papers.[7]

A manuscript page of musical notation.
Anonymous, “Some Notation of African Diasporic Songs in Jamaica, c. 1770s,” C.E. Long Papers, the British Library, Add MS 12405, f. 341r. © British Library Board.

Those interested in studying the history of Africa and Africans before the nineteenth century may have the impulse to ignore texts that were written and collected by white supremacists and enslavers. In the modern era, where people of color have much more opportunity to write their own stories, there is less of a reason for racists and white supremacists to believe they can wield firsthand knowledge about racial “others” to their advantage, and there is even less of a reason that researchers would defer to them. Quite different from this, there was a moment at the end of the eighteenth century when the most racist persons in the British Empire also happened to be those who were most incentivized to produce voluminous sources about Africa and Africans. It is for this reason that, although it likely sounds counterintuitive, the papers of racists and enslavers remain important archival collections, even if they must be approached and evaluated with proper caution and a critical eye.

[1] They are officially called the C.E. Long Papers. For an overview of this collection, see the following archival guide: Kenneth Morgan, Materials on the History of Jamaica in the Edward Long Papers held at the British Library: An Introduction to the Microfilm Collection (Wakefield, UK: Microfilm Academic Publishers, 2006).

[2] For his History, see Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, iii Vols. (London: T. Lowndes, 1774). For a recent overview of Long’s racism, see Fọlarin Shyllon, Edward Long’s Libel of Africa: The Foundation of British Racism (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021).

[3] For this section, see Long, The History of Jamaica, vol. ii, 444-475, and the following article on the source’s creation: Devin Leigh, “The Origins of a Source: Edward Long, Coromantee Slave Revolts and The History of Jamaica,” Slavery & Abolition 40, no. 2 (2019): 295-320.

[4] For the phrase “practical knowledge,” see the following: “List of Persons Examined by the Privy Council & Whose Evidence Appears to Have Been Given from Long Residence, or Practical Knowledge,” 21 May 1789, in Letter of Robert Norris to John Shoolbred, 20 January 1789, The National Archives, Kew, T70/1557, no page.

[5] [Edward Long], “PREFACE upon the Slavery of Negroes in the British Colonies.” In Samuel Martin, Essay Upon Plantership, 5th Ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1773), A.

[6] Robert Norris, Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahádee, King of Dahomey, an Inland Country of Guiney (London: W. Lowndes, 1789; 2nd Edn, 1791). For the suggestion that this history was edited by Long, see Elsa V. Goveia, A Study on the Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century (Mexico: Instituto Panamericano de Geografia e Historia, 1956), 61. For the idea that Norris’s book is “the first serious attempt by a European to write the history of a West African state,” see Robin Law, “The Slave-Trader as Historian: Robert Norris and the History of Dahomey,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 219.

[7] For this music, see the “Jamaican Airs,” C.E. Long Papers, British Library, Add MS. 12405, ff. 335r–341v. For an overview of the source, see Devin Leigh, “The Jamaican Airs: An Introduction to Unpublished Pieces of Musical Notation from Enslaved People in the Eighteenth-Century Caribbean,” Atlantic Studies 17, No. 4 (2020): 462-484.

19 October 2022

Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.

Suelin Low Chew Tung is an artist and writer and is based in Grenada; she was a 2020 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.

My days as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library, from July to August 2022, were happily spent pouring over maps, ledgers, bound letters, loose papers, and other documents related to Grenada, an island (and the name of the State of Grenada) located at 12°07’N 61°40’W. 

Grenada is part of an archipelago variously known as the Caribes Islands, Lesser Antilles, West India Islands, and Windward Islands, within a space called the West Indies or the Caribbean. My project is to list changes in names during the French and British colonial ownership of this small island nation and overlay them on a contemporary map. I will then have a better idea of where was called what, why, and if any of the original colonial names survived as the physical landscape both changed and changed hands.

I spent most of my time in the Maps Reading Room reviewing single maps, duplicate maps, maps on paper and fabric, both coloured and black and white, in books and boxes. I came across maps referring to Grenada as l’isle de la Grenade (British Library shelfmark: Maps 147.e.8.); las Islas Granada (Maps D.DE.H.SEC.9.(506.)); island of Granada (Maps 82410.(2.)); and l’Isola di Granata (Maps C.24.f.10.). No wonder there is confusion as to the correct pronunciation.

After the British gained control of the island from the French in 1763, however, the name changed from la Grenade to Grenada.1 So, it’s Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.

I was determined to find all documents relating to Grenada in the British Library’s catalogue. The staff in Maps, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Asia & Africa and the Newsroom were accommodating, and I was grateful for their input. Regarding the former, the Library contains one of the best map collections on Grenada. Representations on early maps in Jomard’s collection and the Blathwayt Atlas, showed the island as a blob, a cross, a backwards L, and even a crab’s claw.2 I saw the island’s shape evolve from a smudge to the elegant outline we are accustomed to seeing on Google Earth—a green mango set against blue sea. Unfolding each map opened new ideas for artwork, and suddenly Grenada was not just a speck on the world map but a place that vibrated throughout history.

I was beyond thrilled.

Detail of a black and white map, with large writing and tiny islands.
Fig. 1: Detail of Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot. British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11.

Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard, contains several maps showing Grenada:

• Map XIX. 1: Mappemonde peintre sur parchemin par order de Henri II, roi de France, is a 1542 map which shows an unnamed Grenada hanging off the edge of the image.
• Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot, pilote-major de Charles-Quint, de la première moitié du xvie siècle. On this 1544 map, the shark tooth-shaped island is called la Granada. It is connected to I. vicente (St. Vincent) by two strands of unnamed islands; the effect is of a necklace, a Kalinago caracoli.
• Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa, pilote de Christophe Colomb, fin du xve siècle. On this map, Grenada is called Mayo.

According to J.A. Martin (2013), de La Cosa’s map showing Grenada took information from Vincente Yañez Pinzón’s map of his exploration of the Americas in 1499-1500.3 Though Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ and naming Grenada as Conception, Pinzón apparently visited Grenada on 1 May 1500 at what is now St. George’s Harbour. Map XVI shows Grenada as a blue cashew nut shape, identified as Mayo. Pinzón’s landfall is listed as “poyna” a corruption of Puerto de la Reyna, meaning Port of the Queen (Isabella).

Detail of a coloured map.
Fig. 2: Detail of Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa. British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11.

In the Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.), John Sellers’ Chart of the Caribe Islands (p. 25) enlarges that backwards L so the island shape is recognisable as a smaller version of modern-day Trinidad. On the 1656 map by Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville and George duRoy, Les Isles Antilles (p. 26), Granada is a crab’s claw at the end of a shattered arm of granular rocks they called Granadilla. John Sellers’ The Island of Tobago (p. 29), includes a Chart of the Carriby Islands where the Granada claw is less pronounced, and the smaller rocks are called Granadillos. The Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae (p. 37), is a map of Venezuela showing the Caribbean archipelago. On this, Granada looks more like an opened nutmeg, eerily similar to the one on our national flag.

Detail of a black and white map of Venezuela.
Fig. 3: Detail of Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae. British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.

My visit with the Library's Philatelic team was also an absolute pleasure. I got a good introduction to how stamps are made, the Grenada stamps in the Tapling Collection, and Grenada stamps in general. As they explained: stamps hold a mirror to history. Indeed, these vignettes of our island’s story will inspire a series of artworks on the currency of stamps, given that fewer people are using stamps as postage.

Apart from creating a series of artworks inspired by the British Library’s collections, my main intention is to render a single map of Grenada place names. This will connect old place names with new, identify places which no longer exist and new spaces which fill that void. I hope to start conversations on shifting landscapes and narratives of Grenada’s past, and heritage education/appreciation/conservation policy.

This was my fifth visit to the British Library since 2011, but the first on a fellowship. The Eccles Visiting Fellowship provided opportunity and funding for research at the British Library, a safe space to dream, to learn and be inspired. I needed at least another month. 


  1. Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
  2. Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard (British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11); Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.).
  3. Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.






05 October 2022

Delicate Materials - Imaginative Texts

Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.

With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg. 

While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.

A colourful book slip-case stands upright, alongside a colourful opened book showing a portrait of a man on the left and a blue and pink illustration on the right.
Fig. 1: This Loujon Press publication of the Order and Chaos volume comes with a slipcase made out of flowery-patterned and colored paper. On the verso cover page is Hans Reichel’s photograph, while on the recto cover page Reichel’s painting “Homme dans La Lune” is reproduced on the dust jacket.  Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.

The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.

The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A collection of hand-printed poems and images are displayed on a table top.
Fig. 2: Four of the uniquely crafted broadside poems and the booklet containing information about the project, all of them gathered together into a big black portfolio box as well as carefully wrapped in thin white paper. The specific box is number 57 out of the limited edition of 150 copies. Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.

It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.

What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.

In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.

Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.

Works Cited

Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.

Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.


03 October 2022

On my desk: Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood

The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of our curators for North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

Double Persephone by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – which is a self-published poetry collection written in 1961.

Why is it on your desk?

Our team were recently tasked to update some British Library webpages related to the collection areas we are responsible for. Jobs like this always make for a great opportunity to dive into the collections and gain a better understanding of our holdings. Alongside lesser-known authors, I was looking for particularly interesting or unexpected titles by popular Canadian authors which might help give Readers approaching our collections an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available at the British Library. It was a real delight when I discovered we held a copy of Margaret Atwood's rare first book, the poetry collection Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.)

Photograph of the front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed
Front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed

Why is it interesting?

Margaret Atwood would have only been around 21/22 years old when she self-published (meaning, ‘made public’) the chapbook, Double Persephone. The collection would see her enter and win a poetry competition for students at the University of Toronto, awarding her the E. J. Pratt Medal. I wonder if the selection committee reading those poems and deciding on Atwood as the winner knew the gem they were holding in their hands at the time, or what lay ahead for the young author?

Her follow-up poetry collection published three years later would win the Governor General's Award (The Circle Game, of which the British Library holds the fourth printing at X.950/8654.). As we now know, Atwood would go onto publish in excess of 100 works, from poetry collections to short fiction, novels, graphic novels, television scripts, works of non-fiction, and children’s books. To think this unassuming-looking little collection of seven poems was the start of that, I think is quite amazing.

The small, private press, Hawkshead Press of Kitchener and Toronto, in Atwood’s home province of Ontario, published Double Persephone. In order to afford to self-publish the collection, student Atwood was hands-on in the design and publishing process; she handset the book herself with a flat bed press, designed the cover with linoblocks, and only made 220 copies[1]. The copies were sold for 50 cents apiece[2].

Photo of the full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed
The full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed

In a talk Atwood delivered in 2011 (which is available to watch online – see link below in footnotes), she joked at wishing she’d made and kept more of the publication – on the market today, the item can fetch some considerable amounts. The Library’s copy has a red British Museum Library stamp with the date 15th December 1961, so whoever was responsible for purchasing the item some 60 years ago acted quickly indeed, securing a copy for the Library in the same year the item was published, and at what is now considered a bargain price no doubt!

Double Persephone is available to view in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room in St Pancras, London. Anyone with one of our FREE Reader Passes can order and consult the item, as well as the thousands more collection items available for your research, inspiration and enjoyment held at the British Library. 


[1] TOC 2011: Margaret Atwood, "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View"

[2] Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses by Nick Davies (published 3rd July 2013)