10 November 2021
Music and migration, environments and spiritualties – introducing the new Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship programme
This week the Eccles Centre is relaunching its Fellowship programme, which has been running in various versions and iterations since 2007. The programme has expanded considerably since its inception. First, the Centre’s geographical remit has expanded over the thirty years since it started, spreading from the USA to include Canada, then the Caribbean and now Central and South America. Second, we have attempted to embrace a more capacious notion of who a researcher is, what they do and what they make with their research. These changes reflect, we hope, both the rapidly changing landscape of higher education (including increasing precarity in the sector) and to acknowledge that meaningful reading, listening and thinking about the Americas can take place within and beyond academic institutions. Because the geographical scope and eligibility criteria have expanded, for this next round of Fellowships we wanted to offer some shape and coherence to the programme by introducing four research themes that applicants are invited to apply to. This new structure aims to bring researchers working across scholarly and creative disciplines into fruitful conversation with one another, building a cohort of Eccles-supported research coalescing around some of the most pressing questions in Americas studies.
But what are these four themes and how did we come up with them? For the past few months we've been asking far and wide, canvassing opinion from colleagues throughout the Library and having a series of conversations with Eccles Centre networks across academia and the creative industries. As a result of this process we have landed on four topics which we hope will encourage use of often underused but rich British Library collections, and which are exciting areas of current social and cultural enquiry.
Although none of the themes specifically invite explorations of ethnicity and race, gender, sex and sexuality, or dis/abilities in Americas studies, we consider such perspectives to be foundational approaches to the study of the Americas and anticipate that they will be a central focus of many Fellowship projects. We look forward to receiving applications that explore the experiences and identities of the Americas in all their diversity and complexity.
Below are the four themes for the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowships, 2022-24.
Sound and Music of the Americas
This theme centres on sound and music as both subjects and sources in studying the Americas. In particular, we encourage use of the sound archive and the collections of printed and manuscript music. The Library’s music collections are among the finest in the world, and have many resources for the study of the Americas. Recent or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include musical performance in eighteenth-century Jamaica, the folk songs of Henry Clay Work, and the politics of nineteenth century US sheet music.
The sound archive is also an untapped trove for studying the Americas. Home to over 6.5 million recordings including speech, music, and wildlife and the environment recordings, there is still much to be discovered about the Americas through this material. Current or ongoing Eccles-supported projects include the creole music recordings of Jamaican ethnomusicologist M G Smith, and recordings of James Baldwin from British broadcasters and cultural organisations. As mentioned above, this theme encourages investigations into the sonic and musical aspects of the cultures of the Americas, and methodological innovations that use sound and music.
Americans Beyond the Americas
This theme seeks to flip the script on prevailing narratives which define the Americas by inbound migration – of invading armies, of free settlers, of bonded and enslaved workers. Not only can such narratives end up erasing the vitality of Indigenous presences before, during and after such waves of migration, but they can also encourage insular perspectives on the Americas which ignore the significance of Americans’ movement and action in the world (we use the word ‘Americans’ very much in the hemispheric sense here!). This theme invites researchers to consider how various American experiences and identities have been forged through military and colonial enterprise, travel and tourism, emigration and exile, to lands beyond the Americas.
The Eccles Centre has supported a number of projects in this vein over the past few years including the experience of Native American and First Nations travellers to England during the eighteenth century; Black American loyalists and the settlement of Sierra Leone; African American abolitionist activism in the British Isles during the nineteenth century; the making of Caribbean community and identity in Britain during the twentieth century; and Latin American political exiles in London. These are just a few of the ways this theme could be approached and supported by the British Library’s collections, and we would be very excited to hear from researchers working on similar projects.
This theme seeks to support researchers exploring the role of the environment and the natural world in the making of the Americas, and their futures. Environmental humanities has been one of the most dynamic intellectual fields to emerge over the past generation, and we are excited to support researchers asking new questions of the British Library’s collections from an eco-perspective . The Centre has recently supported researchers investigating ecological change in eighteenth-century Barbuda; the colonial origins of climate change in Canada through King George III’s topographical drawings; and an artist exploring the relationships between pigments and dyes and Jamaican identity. We also very much welcome projects that will apply eco-critical methodologies and insights to the Library’s literary print and manuscript collections, and which use collections such as the Library’s newspaper and government document collections to trace the development of environmental thought and policies in the Americas.
As well as artists, creatives and academics working with environmental humanities and associated perspectives, the Eccles Centre is keen to support social scientists, policy makers and natural scientists who feel they could productively develop their work on the Americas through a month at the British Library. As well as the historic collections for which the British Library is famous, the Library’s social science and science collections offer world-class resources to complement researchers’ field work or lab work, and we’d be excited to support that library work by anyone working on the environment in the Americas.
Religion and Spirituality in the Americas
The British Library has an outstanding collection of sacred texts and objects which bear witness to religious encounters and experiences in the Americas. Many of these items - the Library’s collections of Bibles and Psalters in Indigenous American languages, for instance - are not only of historic importance but are also highly contested items. This theme invites researchers to interrogate the British Library’s collections and ask often difficult questions about the role of religion and spirituality in the making of the Americas. The Centre has supported a number of projects in American religious studies, including studies of enslaved Africans’ spirituality in North America; Muslim identity and the Nation of Islam in twentieth-century Jamaica; and Indigenous spirituality at the Guyana-Venezuela borderlands.
Religion in the Americas is of course not only a question of historic significance, but remains an issue of ongoing social, cultural and political concern. We are therefore also keen to hear from researchers interrogating recent and future religious trends in the development of the Americas, including (but of course not limited to) such issues as the rise of white evangelicalism in the USA and Latin America; religion and Indigenous activism; or the character of American secularisms and atheisms.
Finally, for those whose projects fall outside the scope of these four themes, don’t worry – you can still apply to fifth strand of the programme, an ‘open call’ for any project that demands the unique research materials or context of the British Library. But we particularly encourage potential Fellows to apply to one of the four themes, as Fellows will be appointed in equal number to each of the five strands.
02 November 2021
Seynabou Thiam-Pereira was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library in September 2021, I was interested in material from late eighteenth-century British North America relating to American Loyalists and race issues in Atlantic Canada. The economic, political, military and social consequences of the American War of Independence had been major for the British empire. However, my focus was on the exiles from America and the relocation of thousands of Loyalists and disbanded soldiers within the empire.
After the outbreak of the war in 1776, 'Tories' - Loyalist inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies - together with their slaves, Black and Native Loyalists, as well as disbanded soldiers, migrated to Atlantic Canada, the British West Indies, Great Britain and Botany Bay to seek refuge. The first evacuation took place in 1776 when Loyalists from Boston chose to settle in Nova Scotia. Formerly called Acadia, it had been a British territory since the end of French and Indian War when many New Englanders migrated there after the expulsion of the French Acadians. The largest evacuations occurred years later from Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1782, from New York City in 1783 and from St-Augustine, in East Florida until 1785.
Propaganda promoting the reception of Loyalists within the empire spread rapidly in pamphlets and newspapers. The image below, for example - 'The reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain, in the year 1783' by H. Moses - details the variety of social status and ethnicities of the Loyalists. We can see Britannia opening her arms to American loyal subjects, to Natives and to Blacks.
A wide range of documents illuminating these massive departures still exist, including petitions, muster rolls, letters, handbills, maps, and official registers either written by British officials or civilians. At the British Library, the Clarkson Papers and the miscellaneous letters and papers relating to American affairs, contain several petitions from disbanded soldiers and Loyalists to obtain land in order to settle in British American colonies.
Unsurprisingly, the question of land seems to have preoccupied the British government and the settlers throughout the War; not owning property meant being excluded from the shareholder status and its ensuing political rights. In 1782 a strong push began in Britain to offer land in Jamaica, Bermuda, St-Lucie, Barbados and the Bahamas islands to Loyalist planters from the southern colonies. The main arguments used were the possibility of bringing the slaves to the British West Indies which offered the accustomed warm climate and agricultural system. The opportunity to bring thousands of new planters or white settlers with slaves to the British Caribbean was essential in order to maintain the slave societies on these islands. But how could Free Black and Native Loyalists be integrated into this slaveholding system with their liberated, manumitted or free-born status?
In order to accommodate this massive arrival of Loyalist settlers, towns were founded or extended and provisioned. Land had to be quickly divided into lots in order to be distributed to about 10,000 people in Jamaica, 5,000 in the Bahamas and hundreds in St-Lucie, Bermuda and Barbados. In some cases these Loyalists doubled or tripled the black and white population of the territories. One must bear in mind the challenge of rapidly organising the evacuation and resettlement of so many refugees while dealing with the peace treaty and trade regulations between Great Britain, France and the United States of America. If we take the example of Canada, muster rolls indicate the large number of disbanded troops, Loyalists and slaves who arrived in Upper/Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia. In 1784, while the province of Quebec was receiving more than 5,500 new settlers, Nova Scotia had more than 28,000 Loyalists including about a thousand slaves and 3,000 Black Loyalists (Native Loyalists were excluded from general musters).
Beyond the British empire, land acquisition was also a huge issue in the settlement of the Black Loyalists and the Black Poor out of Britain and Atlantic Canada to Sierra Leone, Africa, in 1787 and 1792. Promises of land - between five and twenty acres - were given by the Sierra Leone Company to the 1,190 coloured men, women and children from the Black Loyalists community in Canada willing to participate in the British project 'Back to Africa'.
Land was also very much linked to economic concerns, since each Loyalist and their descendants were allowed to request financial compensation from the British government for any loss in the Thirteen Colonies. In the 1784 Land Claim Commission register extending to 1815, 47 Black Loyalists out of thousands of claimants gave lists of their lost properties in America. Consequently, the massive arrivals of new settlers shaped a Loyalist mosaic and participated in creating multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-linguistic societies in the late eighteenth-century British empire.
These documents unquestionably permit a more detailed research of the Loyalist diaspora and the under-studied question of land distribution. Social studies of Loyalists can also encompass these records in order to examine a broader cultural outcome in modern British societies.
26 July 2021
This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections.
In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.
I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.
And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.
Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research.
Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.
Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.
I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art. I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it.
This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.
Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.
Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.
Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.
My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.
I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.
So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.
It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.
Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.
There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.
It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle. They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).
I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.
Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.
08 December 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given us the difficult task of witnessing one of the most unmerciful global challenges since the world wars.
As it happens during times of crises, artists start producing objects, or creating digital content, which reflect part of the daily struggle for life. Their creation can be seen as a process that transforms art in ephemera and ephemera in arts, and the boundaries between what is art and what is not are often impalpable and undefinable. How do we see these objects now, through the lens of time, and while enduring another lockdown?
The descent of the lockdown on our bodies and souls has forced us into living in a dystopian society, as well as a forced daily exploration of digital content and images or, at least, that is what has happened to me.
Last spring, during one of my virtual exploration sessions at @CovidArtMuseum, I was particularly attracted by artistic responses from the southern hemisphere. I met an inspirational graphic artist on Instagram, and having decided to use a couple of graphic creations, I contacted her to discuss copyright but we ended up talking about books, art inspirations and feelings of deprivation.
Graphic art from Guatemala: the soap dispenser
An embellished soap dispenser represents the dispensation of creativity and thoughts of positivity as a remedy to panic and desperation in a moment of crisis. Behind the dispenser, a sky coloured background and an invisible sub-message that reads: wash your hands.
Art is vital for human kind. Keep creating. El arte es vital para tu humanidad. En cualquier disciplina, forma, con cualquier material, con desafíos físicos o emocionales, sin importar quien lo vea o si es solo para tus ojos. Crear es bueno para ti (Caption to the image. @mayteoliva). [Art is vital to your humanity. In any discipline, shape, with any material, with physical or emotional challenges, no matter who sees it or if it is only for your eyes. Creating is good for you].
The reference to Van Gogh's Starry Night is brilliant. Entirely painted from memory during the day while in isolation at the sanatorium of Saint-Rémy-de-Provance, Van Gogh reproduced the vision of the stars in the dark from outside his sanatorium room window. It represents the oneiric interpretation of the reality of the asylum experience as he perceived it, apocalyptic, terrifying and yet astonishingly creative.
“Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, above which in the morning I see the sunrise in its glory” (from Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo).
Graphic art from Brazil and Australia: the toilet paper
Another curious object strongly associated with life during the pandemic, is the toilet paper roll. I was particularly attracted by this image with its direct message, and all that goes with it, on the unrolled paper square. This visual reprimand, created on the eve of the first lockdowns, would have resonated with people around the world and at more or less the same time.
“I made this piece the day that the government in my country announced the curfew, supermarkets were crowded, and people took very selfish attitudes. I think it is important to raise awareness of this type of actions on social networks, so that more people see it as something negative and can take positive attitudes in difficult situations” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).
During the same time, a colleague in the library started a very difficult newspaper-copy hunt for a particular issue of the Northern Territory News which wryly included an 8-page insert of toilet news-paper. Libraries around the world had started collecting this special issue, and it soon became very difficult to obtain one. It was immediately clear that this item would become a collectable item documenting a certain aspect of consumer society; one of those objects that you could easily imagine seeing in an exhibition, perhaps entitled “Art Pandemic: incubation 2020”!
The toilet paper Instagram colloquium with the graphic artist @mayteoliva, evolved into a much freer talk and exchange of ideas. When asked which books have recently inspired her, she promptly sent photos of covers, and her thoughts on the books incriminated.
In conversation with the artist @mayteoliva
“There is beauty in everything, and this is a great guide to find it. I find this book really inspiring, makes me want to create something, draw something, cook something, try something new and appreciate it. The other night I was making cinnamon rolls for the first time, and the process was beautiful, this book has helped me appreciate these things of everyday life and then translate my experiences into visual art” (In conversation with @mayteoliva in reference to Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything).
“Madame & Eve, Women portraying women is an amazing compilation of women artworks in contemporary art. Here are some of my favourite artist, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, but I have found many other artists who have impressed me a lot” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).
Embroidered poetry from Brazil
From the collection #museodoisolamento (museum of isolation), I found this incredible piece of concrete poetry. From the visual exploration of it, I immediately had multiple sensorial messages sent to my brain. I needed a few minutes to fully decode them into sensation and emotions, and to have them automatically connected to my personal consciousness which was strongly affected by the circumstances of the moment.
My first sensorial association was the light blue impressions of the fabric to the pale blue of surgical masks. In this case it was transformed in a wide canvas ready to receive a concise and concrete message behind which the essence of art is explained.
“Uma das minhas frases preferidas. É de Ferreira Gullar, poeta maranhense, ao falar sobre sua trajetória na arte durante uma entrevista. ‘Arte é uma coisa imprevisível, é descoberta, é uma invenção da vida. E quem diz que fazer poesia é um sofrimento está mentindo: é bom, mesmo quando se escreve sobre uma coisa sofrida. A poesia transfigura as coisas, mesmo quando você está no abismo. A arte existe porque a vida não basta’“(Caption to the image. @mayara5ilva)
[One of my favourite phrases. It is by Ferreira Gullar, a poet from Maranhão, when talking about his career in art during an interview. "Art is an unpredictable thing, it is discovered, it is an invention of life. And whoever says that making poetry is suffering is lying: it is good, even when writing about something suffered. Poetry transfigures things, even when you are in the abyss. Art exists because life is not enough”].
Emerging formats: poetry from the US
And people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply …
(From the web, by Kitty O’Meara).
Kitty O’Meara, awarded the “poet laureate of the pandemic” by the web arena, is an Irish American teacher who wrote the poem during the days of the pandemic outbreak last March. The poem went immediately viral, and has now become an illustrated book for children. This represents an emerging format type of literary production: those produced, acclaimed, and published in a very short interval of time.
The circulation of ideas, inspirations, and artistic products have been floating around the world, not only via the powerful means of the World Wide Web, but also through the most traditional and time-sensitive channel: the postal service.
Mail art: mailing hope from New York and Mexico
In May, New York-based artist and researcher Lexie Smith, founded a food-based art project, Bread on Earth, offering to send free active sourdough starters preventively dehydrated via UPS to anyone who would have made requests. Over 700 people responded to the call at the beginning. As she explains on her website: “Stay safe, and let this time remind you that bread is only a threat when in the hands of few, and power when in the hands of many”.
The project also aimed to create a ‘locations of the jars’ map. As the sourdough travelled to people around the world, the map would show the spread of this happy bread-making community, since sourdough starters can be easily shared with friends, family and neighbours. She has sent parcels all over the U.S. and Canada, Singapore, India, Bulgaria, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Paris, London, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Mexico, and Hawaii amongst other places.
Mail Art has never been so vivid since its glorious time of the 60s, and it has now become so iconic that I have found it portrayed in an oil on canvas, and it looks great.
“Por medio de mi obra exploro el concepto de optimismo, pues a mi modo de ver es un tema que contiene una dualidad entre conformismo y ambición. El optimismo llega a ser en algunos casos incluso doloroso, pues la presión por ser agradecido, así como la culpa por no serlo, se traducen en frustración. Este último es un sentimiento que se generaliza, crece y que está directamente relacionado con el fortalecimiento de las redes sociales, el microtargeting, la publicidad y los medios de comunicación masiva” (Mariana Lagunas’ website)
[Through my work I explore the concept of optimism, since in my view it is a theme that contains a duality between conformity and ambition. Optimism can be, in some cases, even painful, since the pressure to be grateful, as well as the guilt for not being grateful, translate into frustration. The latter is a sentiment that is generalizing, growing and that is directly related to the strengthening of social networks, micro-targeting, advertising and the mass media].
Banner Art: from Toronto and London
First exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mark Titchener’s banner "Please believe these days will pass," have been found all around the city during the days of the first lockdown. It made London and many other UK cities the perfect hosts of this gigantic artist’s book. With this banner, Titchener visually confronted the passers-by using his typical language-based graphic statement. In those early days of desperation and fears it came as a revelation, a vector towards the mass common denominator: to believe that these days will pass for us all.
The 2006 Turner Prize-nominee's work particularly fits with studies in typography and typographical characters when they are used to inspire people, communicate to the core of the community and bring art to a street-based-level. The people become part of it, deciding how to read it and which voice to give to it. No captions are provided, just the imagination and personal, or common, feelings and circumstances of passers-by. Here is a piece of art in which each of us is part of it.
[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, Americas and Oceania Collections]
Bibliography and suggested readings:
Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything, London: Do Book Co., 2016. Shelfmark: YKL.2017.a.11507
Liz Rideal, Kathleen Soriano, Madam & Eve: women portraying women, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2018. Shelfmark: YC.2019.b.367.
Leo Jansen, Jans Luijten and Nienke Bakker (editors), Vincent Van Gogh. The letters: the complete illustrated and annotated edition, London: Thames & Hudson, in association with the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, 2009 (Volume 5: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Letters to his brother Theo). Shelfmark: YC.2010.b.362 vol. 5.
Mark Titchner, Why and why not: vibrations, schizzes and knots, London: Book Works, 2004. Shelfmark: YC.2007.a.6117.
Martin Clark, Mark Beasley, Alun Rowlands, Tom Trevor, (editors), Mark Titchner, Bristol: Arnolfini, 2006. Shelfmark: YC.2011.b.820.
Richard L. Hopkins (editor), The private typecasters: preserving the craft of hot-metal type into the twenty-first century, Newtown, Pennsylvania: Bird & Pull Press, 2008. Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.103).
On the art and poetics of Ferreira Gullar, see the British Library holdings at: https://bit.ly/3qaHmXs
From the web to the publisher. Kitty O’Meara’s "And the people stayed home: https://trapublishing.com/products/and-the-people-stayed-home
Collect, preserve and cataloguing emerging format at the British Library:
On the definition of Mail Art as an artistic phenomenon: https://bit.ly/2JvBW8E
Mail Art initiatives at the time of the first coronavirus pandemic wave:
On Mail Art publications and items at the British Library:
01 October 2020
The Americas and Oceania collections are pleased to offer three new electronic resources on women's rights, Native American studies, and early settlers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The resources can be accessed by Readers in the British Library Reading Rooms which are currently open but in a restricted capacity. Our hard-working Reference Enquiry Team are also able to access these new resources in order to support your virtual enquiries. You can contact them on their Quick Chat service for short research enquiries from Monday to Friday: 09.30–17.00, or get in touch with individual Reading Room teams via the 'Ask the Reference Team' function.
This digital collection is comprised of records of three important women's rights organizations in the US: the National Woman's Party, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's Action Alliance. Material included shows the organisations’ concerns with issues such as employment and employment discrimination, childcare, health care, and education and U.S. politics from 1920 to 1974. Types of content include party papers, correspondence, minutes, legal papers, financial records, printed material and photos. It’s an absolutely fascinating range of documents; lots of correspondence letters, offering a very different kind of approach to historical research on the topic of women’s rights
The collection provides a good primary resource for the study of first and second wave feminism. It includes the records of three important women's rights organizations in the US for the period 1913-1996, with additional material dating back to the 1850s. This resource complements existing areas of the British Library’s collections, particularly in regard to printed material around women’s suffrage movements in America. Later this month, the Library will be highlighting its collection around women’s rights with its major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, taking place, and this resource will provide researchers with further ways to investigate the stories and issues touched upon in the exhibition.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers looking at Indigenous Studies, American Studies and Canadian Studies, North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, First Nations publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an important resource for all those interested in research into the history of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples. It includes an archive of key texts about and by Indigenous peoples, including biographies, oral histories (audio and transcript), and photographs.
This resource complements existing collection strengths on North American Indigenous peoples at the British Library. Covering several centuries, its value particularly lies in the numerous accounts by Indigenous people (written and oral) which add a much needed dimension to the collections. Many of the materials it provides access to are otherwise unavailable in the UK. Autobiographies by Black Hawk and Okah Tubbee can be accessed, and rare books included represent Sequoyah and Standing Bear. Twenty prominent Native Americans have been selected for special emphasis, with multiple biographies presented, including Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Plenty Coups.
Virtually all North American groups are represented—nearly 500 in all. Some nations are covered in great depth, including the Eskimos and Inuit of the Arctic; the sub-Arctic Cree; the Pacific Coastal Salish; the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the Plains. Biographies have been collected from more than 100 Native American publications, such as The Arrow, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the Chickasaw Intelligencer. The collection includes 2,000 oral histories presented in audio and transcript form and at least 20,000 photographs including from the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other rare collections.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers in settler colonial studies, history, area studies, migration studies, Indigenous studies, and more, this collection of first-person accounts provide a unique and personal view of events in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Through letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, we are able to hear the voices of the time and explore the experiences of women and men, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts, explorers, soldiers, and officials . Thousands of unique documents have been drawn from the archives of the State Library of Victoria; State Library of New South Wales; State Library of Queensland; Flinders University; University of Melbourne; and University of Waikato.
A key feature of this resource is the extensive indexing of material which allows the sources to be browsed and cross-searched in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. Content can be explored by writer, region, audience, personal and historical event, environmental features including fauna and flora, and more. Supporting material such as images, maps, and photographs supplement the first-person narratives and provide additional context. The resource builds on the legacy of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in providing first-hand accounts of those who settled in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific following Cook’s exploration in the region.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections
21 July 2020
This post by Shaelagh Cull is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
In January, my research into the history of art, craft, and trade in the James Bay region of Northern Ontario, Canada, took me to the Americas collections of the British Library as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow. Today, the region referred to as Northern Ontario stretches from the French River, Lake Nipissing, and the Mattawa River northwards to Hudson Bay, with Manitoba to its West and Québec to the East. The traditional territory of the Cree and Anishinaabe peoples, Northern Ontario has been a site of cultural contact and exchange for centuries. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the region played a central role in the British and French fur trades. Ontario’s oldest English-speaking settlement, Moose Fort (now Moose Factory), was established by the British Hudson’s Bay Company on the southern end of James Bay in 1673.1
As the fur trade expanded, a rival Northwest Company fort was built on nearby Hayes Island in 1803, and the Parisian company Revillon Frères began operating in the region in 1903. By the twentieth century, economic expansion into mining, pulp and paper, and agriculture and the development of the Canadian Pacific (begun in 1881) and National Railways (1919) created new opportunities in the North. J.B. MacDougall’s Building the North (1919), records that mines between the communities of Porcupine, Cobalt, and Sudbury were responsible for producing 61% of the gold, 91% of the silver, and 90% of the nickel in the world, with the Sudbury area alone producing two hundred and fifty million dollars' worth of nickel.2
Towns sprung up quickly around mining centres and pulp mills, drawing immigrants from a variety of cultural backgrounds – including Scots, Irish, Cornish, Italian, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Polish, amongst others – to the region.3 While mining is still a major industry in the North, local economies also diversified with communities offering ecotourism experiences and promoting art and craft. With Britain’s historical connection to the region, the collections of the British Library houses documents which record the changing names, boundaries, economic activities, and social milieu of the area.
Many of the resources in the Library’s collections relate to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and French/English presence (and occasional conflict) on James Bay. One of the earliest documents to reference the region in the Library’s collections is J. Seller’s The English Pilot, Fourth Book (1671), a treatise on seventeenth century navigation (British Library Maps: C.22.d.2 ).4 It outlines the history and topography of James Bay and Henry Hudson’s 1608 attempt to locate the Northwest Passage trade route through North America. Additionally, the manuscript contains a number of early maps charting the region, including “A Chart of the North Part of America” (Figure 1) which divided what is today Northern Manitoba and Northern Ontario into New North Wales, New Yorkshire, and New South Wales.5
Moose Fort was established two years after the publication of Seller’s manuscript and during the nineteenth century was made the administrative headquarters of the Southern Department of the Hudson’s Bay Company.6 Moose Fort Journals, 1783-85 (British Library shelfmark: Ac.8565/6) and Moose Factory 1673 to 1947 (British Library shelfmark: 10470.t.21) provide key information about the early presence of the Hudson’s Bay Company and commerce within the region.7 The Library also houses maps recording the French presence in the region, including “Carte de la Baye de Hudson”  (Figure 2).
W.A. Kenyon’s book, The Battle for James Bay (1686), traces the often violent encounters between the British and French as they competed for the region’s fur resources, most notably with Captain Pierre de Troyes’ capture of Moose Fort in 1686 (British Library shelfmark: X.809/13837).8 These documents record British and French stakes in and visions for James Bay as they began colonizing Northern Ontario.
As my own research focuses on the collection and reception of art, craft, and material culture from James Bay, I was particularly interested in the Library’s resources pertaining to Indigenous material and visual culture in Northern Ontario. The Central Cree and Ojibway Crafts series published by the Indian and Northern Affairs division of the Canadian government in 1974 catalogues historical Indigenous craft to document the material history of the Cree and Anishinaabe of Northern Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba and institutions where these objects are housed (British Library shelfmark: C.S.E.20/73).9 The Library also contains various promotional materials, catalogues, and albums (Figure 3) related to the 1967 International and Universal Exposition held in Montreal, Quebec (Expo 67) and the Indians of Canada Pavilion, a landmark in North American Indigenous art and a politically-charged critique of Canadian Confederation during the country’s one-hundredth anniversary celebrations.
The Pavilion featured the work of contemporary Indigenous artists, many of whom - such as the highly influential painters Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray, who popularized the Woodlands Style - came from Northern Ontario. First-hand accounts such as Lillian Small’s, Indian Stories from James Bay (British Library shelfmark: YA.1998.a.12925) and a collection of poetry by Margaret Sam-Cromarty, James Bay Memoirs: A Cree Woman's Ode to Her Homeland (British Library shelfmark: YA.1994.a.12583), provide Indigenous perspectives on James Bay Cree history and culture.10
These resources are starting points for those interested in Northern Canada, the history of James Bay, and Indigenous art. Both for researchers in the UK and North America, the Americas collections of the British Library provide unique glimpses into the regional histories of communities in Canada.
Shaelagh Cull, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a graduate student at Queen's University, Ontario, Canada.
1 “History of Moose Factory,” Moosetalk, (Summer 1979): 4.
2 J.B. MacDougall, Building the North. Toronto: McClelland and Stuart Publishers, 1919, pp. 21-22. British Library shelfmark: 08365.g.41.
3 Kerry M. Abel, Changing Places: History, Community, and Identity in Northeastern Ontario. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006, xii. British Library shelfmark: m06/28009.
4. The English Pilot. The Fourth Book, describing the North Coasts of America from Groenland to Newfoundland. [London], . British Library shelfmark: C.22.d.2. NB: There are many subsequent versions of this work; please consult the Library's catalogue.
5. “A Chart of the North Part of America” also includes a second major inlet named “The Great Bay of God’s Deliverance” beside James Bay which does not exist and was not included on subsequent historical maps of the region.
6. “Staff House at Moose Factory,” Hudson’s Bay Company, accessed June 22, 2020, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/places/forts-posts/staff-house-at-moose-factory.
7. Hudson's Bay Company, Moose Fort Journals, 1783-85. Edited by E.E. Rich. London, 1954. British Library shelfmark: Ac.8565/6; Eric Ross Arthur, Moose Factory, 1673 to 1949. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949. British Library shelfmark: 10470.t.21.
8. W.A. Kenyon. The Battle for James Bay, 1686. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, . British Library shelfmark: X.809/13837.
9. Canada. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Central Cree and Ojibway Crafts. Ottawa, 1974. British Library shelfmark: C.S.E.20/73.
10. Lillian Small, comp. Indian Stories from James Bay. Cobalt, Ont.: Highway Book Shop, 1972. British Library shelfmark: YA.1998.a.12925.; Margaret Sam-Cromarty, James Bay Memoirs: a Cree Woman's Ode to her Homeland. Lakeland, Ont.: Waapoone, c.1992. British Library shelfmark: YA.1994.a.12583.
14 July 2020
This post by Marie Ruiz is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across the Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
My research focuses on Victorian emigration societies as well as migration infrastructures such as colonial training centres for female and male emigrants. In the second half of the 19th century, the growing need for qualified emigrants to people the British Empire led to the creation of colonial training centres for gentlemen and gentlewomen in Britain as well as in the colonies.
My study mainly focuses on the British Women’s Emigration Association (1884–1919). Its periodical, The Imperial Colonist (Figure 1), being completely accessible at the British Library, my Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship allowed me to study the journal in depth and focus on the articles relating experiences of colonial training.
Opened in 1874, the Ontario Agricultural College only accommodated male students until the founding of the MacDonald Institute of Domestic Science for women in 1903. As young women increasingly left rural Ontario for the urban centres, the MacDonald Institute was expected to increase the appeal of rural life for young men and women. The objective was to sustain rural life and solve the problem of untrained immigrants in Canada. As such, this training centre addressed concerns of the time: rural depression, colonial productivity and the surplus of women in Britain. The women involved in such emigrant training ranged from the upper-working class to the upper middle-class. Many were impoverished upper middle-class or educated upper-working class women and their migration was marked by social mobility.
At the Macdonald Institute, women were taught physiology and food science using chemical testing to determine the food structures, but also food economics to improve the health of the population and overcome poverty, and a growing interest in dietetics is evidenced by the emigrants’ careers. In 1901, only 6% of British women held occupations in farming, and they were mostly represented in small-scale farming and horticulture. Advocated by female activists, one solution to the surplus of women question was to open up women’s employment in agriculture and horticulture across the Empire.
Although there were training schools for emigrants in Britain, the colonial authorities were convinced that women could learn better in the colonies. In 1909, Mary Urie Watson, director of the MacDonald Institute, wrote to the British Women’s Emigration Association to object to the training given to emigrants in Britain before departure. She proposed setting up courses supervised by colonists in Britain, completed by training in the colonies.1 So, a farm house opened in Surrey, managed by a graduate from the MacDonald Institute, and it replicated Canadian domestic conditions in a course ‘for home makers overseas.’2
The Macdonald Institute worked closely with the British Women’s Emigration Association and in 1904 a scheme was set up to train Englishwomen as housekeepers for Canadian life. Yet, the scheme was expensive and many emigrants actually only used the opportunity to gain free passage to Canada. Whereas some emigrants had signed a contract binding them to work for free at the Macdonald Institute in exchange for free education and board, many directly moved to Canada without setting foot at the Macdonald Institute.3 After the Great War, the Macdonald Institute’s training was mostly offered to Ontario students to increase the quality of life in rural homes. Similarly, British male students at the Ontario Agricultural College represented 10.5% of all students between 1874 and 1899, and this proportion decreased to 4.8% between 1900 and 1929.
Agricultural training provided higher education for women, yet it remained home-based and in keeping with the macro-narrative on women’s role in society and in the household. Hence, the Macdonald Institute may also have been founded to encourage rural marriages as the Minister of Agriculture declared in 1904: ‘I want some one [sic] to love the girls who come to the Macdonald Institute’ to which journalist James Creelman replied ‘The College boys will do that.’4 Indeed, male and female students regularly met during mixed classes in the Ontario Agricultural College buildings and at the library.
Yet, gender segmentation was reflected in the very building of the MacDonald Institute, which was on the Ontario Agricultural College campus in Guelph, but on a hill and separated from the rest of the Ontario Agricultural College campus as well as the city,5 as the map below from the British Library shows. As such, the female students were both close enough to access the Ontario Agricultural College and the city, but protected from unwanted influence.
In conclusion, the study of colonial training centres highlights the development of scientific education for women as a response to pressing concerns about the health and welfare of the nation. Yet, the figures show that the Macdonald Institute did not train a high number of British immigrants, but farming and gardening became career options for unmarried gentlewomen in this period. This was promoted by British female activists such as Jessie Boucherett and Frances Power Cobbe who were convinced that solutions were to be found at home before considering emigration. The Macdonald Institute represented a tool in the campaign for female emancipation and imperialist propaganda, and paved the way for women’s scientific education.
Dr Marie Ruiz, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne, Amiens, France.
1. ‘MacDonald Institute,’ The Imperial Colonist, April 1909, 57. (British Library shelfmark: P.P.3773.fa.)
2. N. C. Goldie, ‘Overseas Training School for Women,’ The Imperial Colonist, May 1914, 79. (British Library shelfmark: P.P.3773.fa.)
3. James Snell, Macdonald Institute: Remembering the Past, Embracing the Future. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2003, 69.
4. ‘Locals,’ The O.A.C. Review, vol. XVII, n° 3, December 1904, 211. (Available courtesy University of Guelph: https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/handle/10214/13600)
5. Mary Margaret Wilson, ‘Cooking the books: curriculum and subjectivity at the MacDonald Institute for Domestic Science, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1903-1920’ (PhD thesis: University of Toronto, 2007), 143.
Suggestions for further reading:
Hammerton, James A. (1979) Emigrant Gentlewomen: Genteel Poverty and Female Emigration, 1830–1914. London: Croom Helm. (British Library shelfmark: DRT ELD.DS.79088)
Opitz, Donald L. (2013) "'A Triumph of Brains over Brute': Women and Science at the Horticultural College, Swanley, 1890-1910" Isis 104: 30-62. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 4583.000000)
Opitz, Donald L., S. Bergwik, and B. Van Tiggelen, eds. (2016) Domesticity in the Making of Modern Science. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. (British Library shelfmark: DRT ELD.DS.300766)
Ruiz, Marie (2017) British Female Emigration Societies and the New World (1860-1914). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. (Brtish Library shelfmark: DRT ELD.DS.437310)
Wilson, Mary Margaret (2007) 'Cooking the books: curriculum and subjectivity at the MacDonald Institute for Domestic Science, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, 1903-1920'. PhD Thesis: University of Toronto.
16 April 2020
Above: 'HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters', from A Series of Fourteen Sketches Made during a Voyage up Wellington Channel [BL1781.a.23]
It feels like it has been years since I wrote something for the Americas blog (actually, I think it has been) but recent days have got me thinking about old research and getting back to writing. Unfortunately, this is because I’ve spent the last two weeks pretty much staring out the same window. I’ve been holed up in bed getting over what seems to have been a bout of Coronavirus. I have been fortunate in terms of how hard it has hit and I’m lucky to be on the mend now. So, this turned my mind to getting better physically and getting active mentally, which reminded me about my work on the search for the Northwest Passage.[i]
Why? Well, for many Europeans and Americans who visited the North American Arctic in the nineteenth century overwintering was part and parcel of the expedition. Sometimes this was deliberate, in the case of multi-year voyages of exploration, and sometimes it was accidental, for unfortunate crews that had bad luck or worse plans. For every expedition that spent the winter in the Arctic one thing was essential, keeping mind and body active in often confined and restrictive conditions. I think you can see where this is going.
Winter in the Arctic was a time when expeditions could get important survey and exploration work done but for most, spending winter in the Arctic was about one thing: waiting out the dark, cold months so the sun would return, the ice might melt and activity could resume again. These sailors, then, were isolated, alone together and with limited space in which to do all they needed in order to thrive. Yet, many crews successfully navigated these winter months and, not only that, came to summer feeling fit and enthusiastic for the back-breaking work ahead. Which leads me to wonder, what did these crews in the Arctic do to thrive in the winter months of isolation and can we learn anything from them? Here are the best and, sometimes, simplest things captains and crews did to make the most of the winter:
First off, the absolute fundamental. It was easy for discipline to break down in the early months of winter, especially in crews who were not expecting to be stuck in the Arctic, and one of the first signs of trouble was the crew refusing to dress and clean. In the winter of 1897, the crews of eight American whaling vessels were trapped in ice off Point Barrow when winter came early. Later, when a crew from the US Revenue Cutter Bear reached them it became immediately clear that discipline had broken down as no one had cleaned or changed their clothes for months.[ii] As a result, the first thing the commander of the relief expedition did to rebuild morale was to order everyone to wash and change their clothes on a regular basis. Which probably means I should transition out of sweatpants at some point.
Above: a game of Arctic cricket. From, Journal of a second voyage of discovery for a North-West Passage [BL G.7394]
Almost all Navy expeditions to the Arctic recognised the importance of exercise during the winter months. However, not everyone had the luxury of the space and conditions that allowed Capt. Parry’s crews to organise games of cricket on the Arctic ice, as pictured. For those stuck on their ship, focus turned to things like tests of strength, indoor athletic competitions and so on. All of which means that running a marathon on your balcony probably isn’t a new phenomenon.
Stretching your mind was crucial during the winter months. When Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition departed for the Arctic, it took equipment for evening schools in the winter months. On top of the exercise books, work slates and other materials, each of Franklin’s ships carried a library of 1,200 publications ranging from magazines to best-selling novels, to technical manuals.[iii] So if you’re starting a new book or learning a new language right now then you are following in the footsteps of many Arctic over-winterers before you.
Above: Arctic entertainments, Illustrated Arctic News [BL: 1875.c.19]
Crews bound for the Arctic also frequently took instruments with them and during the winter months these could form an integral part of the plays, balls and farces organised on ship. These entertainments, such as the ‘Grand Bal Masque’ shown here in the Illustrated Arctic News were an important way of relaxing discipline and, most importantly, blowing off steam.[iv]
Finally, writing. Capt. Parry’s first command in the Arctic, 1819, saw his crew stuck in the ice for months and overwintering in the Arctic. Science Officer Edward Sabine decided the crew should write and print a newspaper on board ship, giving rise to the North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle.[v] Sabine’s idea was so successful it was replicated on many later expeditions, including that of the Resolute (see The Illustrated Arctic News, above) and subsequent Antarctic expeditions under Scott and Shackleton.
These five ways of getting through the Arctic winter may even help in the coming months. I plan on trying them all out as soon as I can, although exercise may have to wait a while. However you approach it, take care and stay well.
[i] Lines in the Ice, BL Publishing 2016 [BL LC.31.b.17528]
[ii] Report of the Cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter “Bear” and the overland expedition for the relief of whalers in the Arctic Ocean, from November 27, 1897, to September 13, 1898. [With maps and illustrations.], Washington, 1899 [BL General Reference Collection A.S.538]
[iii] Michael Palin gives a detailed account of the equipment taken for the expedition in, Erebus (2018) [BL General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.317564]
[iv] Facsimile of the Illustrated Arctic News published on board H.M.S. Resolute: Captn. Horatio T. Austin, in search of the expedition under Sir John Franklin. Published in London on 15 March 1852 [BL 1875.c.19]
[v] The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle, reprinted in London by John Murray, 1821 [BL P.P. 5280]
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction
- E-Resources on European Colonization in the Americas to c.1650
- A welcome return for on-site Doctoral Open Days
- E-resources for Women in the United States
- Commemorating Roberta Bondar's voyage into space
- Bibliographic E-resources: or, how to give up footnote-chasing forever...
- Celebrating Viola Desmond, Carrie Best and a new philatelic acquisition
- The Eccles Centre at 30
- Music and migration, environments and spiritualties – introducing the new Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship programme
- Loyalists, Race and Atlantic Canada