02 June 2023
**CALL FOR PAPERS: DEADLINE EXTENDED TO 4 AUGUST 2023**
Call for papers for a one-day symposium for academics, creatives, activists and community-based researchers to share research, ideas and reflections on the Grenada Revolution.
The British Library | Friday 27 October 2023
In 1979, Grenada became the first and so far only revolutionary socialist nation in the history of the English-speaking world. The Revolution arguably began with the emergence of the New Jewel Movement in 1973, initially a coalition and coalescing of diverse radical Black energies, and ended dramatically and violently with the USA’s invasion of the island ten years later.
This one day symposium, co-organised by Black Cultural Archives and the British Library, invites researchers from across academic disciplines, creative practices, and other forms of knowledge making to present new thinking about the Grenada revolution, its origins and its aftermath.
Themes for presentations might include:
- The place of the Grenada Revolution in longer and wider histories of Caribbean and socialist revolutionary movements
- The Revolution in this history of Black political thought
- Grenada and Black Power in the Caribbean
- The transnational entanglements and legacies of the Grenada Revolution
- Literature, music, film and visual art
- The invasion of Grenada and US imperialism
- The Grenadian diaspora in the aftermath of Revolution
- Memory and memorialisation
Contributors will be invited to give a 15 minute presentation based on original research or new ways of understanding the Grenada Revolution, and there will be ample opportunity for shared discussion and reflection. Presentations can be delivered online or in person.
If you have any questions please email [email protected].
If you would like to participate in the symposium, please email a 250 word proposal of your presentation, together with a CV, to [email protected], with 'Grenada Revolution Symposium' in the subject line. Please indicate in your email if you would like to present in person or online.
02 March 2023
Suelin Low Chew Tung is a Grenada-based artist and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
During my Eccles Fellowship research at the British Library in summer 2022, I came across a familiar image: a print of a stipple engraving and etching of a memorial at the Anglican Church in the Town of St. George, the capital of Grenada (Fig. 1).
This engraving by Anthony Cardon is of a 1799 design by Richard Westmacott, part of King George III’s Topographical Collection, donated to the British nation by George IV. The accompanying description in summary reads, ‘Monument erected by the Legislature of Grenada to the memory of the Inhabitants... who were murdered at Mount Quaqua, 8th of April, 1795. By R. Westmacott, Jun. engraved by A. Cardon’ (British Library shelfmark: Cartographic Items Maps K.Top.123.113). Westmacott’s monument is described as being an ‘inscribed rectangular tablet crowned with urn and garland between female personifications of the Island of Grenada kneeling at its feet, flanked by two oval tablets also inscribed and decorated with military regalia, palm leaves, laurel and sugar cane hanging from chains.’
The church housing this memorial - St George Anglican Parish Church - sits on the site of the French-built St. James Catholic Church, confiscated in 1784 by the Protestant government for use as an Anglican church.1 Time, Hurricane Ivan, and recent renovations at the church, have collectively reduced the middle section of this memorial to rubble (Fig. 2, below):
There has been no such remembrance for participants of Fedón's Rebellion - the 'excitable Bandiitti', as inscribed on the central tablet - named in the Trial of Attainers record book of 1796. My two-part proposal honours both the participants of the Rebellion, as well as their descendants, many of whom make up contemporary Grenadian society.
2025 will mark 230 years since the start of this Rebellion, led and controlled by Julien Fédon, a free person of colour and an enslaver. Fédon's involvement with the Rebellion that later bore his name had little to do with ending slavery. Grenada’s French population—white, free people of colour, and Blacks—had suffered religious, social and political persecution under the British from the handover of Grenada in 1763. The Rebellion, which lasted until 19 June 1796, was primarily for the reassertion of their civil rights and the reinstatement of Republican French rule.2 Most of the enslaved people who dared take their freedom did so on the urging of Fédon, but some chose not to fight with him and most not to participate.3
In the end, the ‘Brigands War’ as it was called by the British, decimated Grenada’s agricultural base, made traitors of the people who rallied behind Fédon’s command, and caused the deaths of between 4,000 and 7,000 enslaved people, hundreds of British soldiers, and 47 British hostages, including Lieutenant Governor Home who was executed at Fédon’s Camp. According to J. A. Martin, an engraved stone pillar on Morne Fédon, or Fédon’s mountain, installed sometime in the 1970s by Premier Eric Gairy, is the only visible artefact marking Fédon’s Camp, (Fig. 3, below):
In mid-February 2023, I projected the names of the ‘rebels’ who were captured, deported/exiled or executed, onto the ruins of Westmacott's memorial. The rebels' names are listed according to race and class in the Court of Oyer and Terminer for Trial of Attained Traitors record book  (BL Shelfmark EAP295/2/6/1). The white French names start at Augustine Chevalier DeSuze (executed), and the names of the free people of colour and other rebels begin with Julien Fédon (unknown end).
For the projections, I decided to arrange the names alphabetically—single names, executed rebels, and then all of the names, alphabetically by surname. This arrangement introduces democracy into the listing and makes family names easier to locate. The names were projected across the baptismal font fronting the memorial (see Fig. 4). Serendipitously, the font was swathed with red, green and gold fabric to mark 7 February, Grenada’s Independence, with entwined stalks of sugarcane as part of the decoration. In capturing Grenada’s national colours and the sugarcane, the projections link the French population then fighting for independence from British rule and contemporary Grenada’s independence from British rule. The font symbolises the Church of England in Grenada as keeper of that knowledge and rebirth.
I have also proposed that the church install two permanent memorial tablets at either side of the existing ruins, plus a printed history on a nearby plaque to represent a more balanced narrative. Side tablets would be engraved with the names from the Attained Traitors book, in alphabetical surname order. The left tablet would be crowned with a jar of earth from Morne Fédon and the right tablet would be similarly crowned with a small boulder or other artefact from that location; a counterfoil to the Westmacott sculpture (Fig. 5, below). This addition will be sacred to the memory of the participants of the Rebellion, some of whose descendants live in villages named after persons in the Attained Traitors book—a more meaningful representation of their history than the Westmacott monument acknowledges.
The 1796 record book branded the participants in the Rebellion as traitors. While the names of a handful of the participating enslaved people are known, the majority remain nameless. At a time when former European colonies, including Grenada, are calling for reparations, I think a reparation of Grenada’s historical memory is also required.
- J. A. Martin, A~Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn; 2022.
- T. Murphy, A reassertion of Rights: Fédon’s Rebellion, Grenada, 1795-96, La Révolution française, 2018 (14) at https://journals.openedition.org/lrf/2017#entries.
- Martin, 2022.
07 February 2023
Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.
I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.
One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.
One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.
I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.
Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.
What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.
I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.
As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.
25 January 2023
Philatelic comics, cartoons and caricatures comprise an important research resource in assessing public response to postage stamp design. Published globally from the nineteenth century to the present era, examples of this genre are in the thousands. Significant cartoonists, writers and illustrators had a hand in their creation, as exemplified by the life and work of the Australian historian, artist and writer Montague Thomas Archibald Wedd.
Born on 5 January 1921 in Glebe, New South Wales, Wedd worked as a junior poster artist for a printing firm, then as a designer and illustrator for a furniture manufacturer. Serving in the Australian Armed Forces during the Second World War temporarily interrupted his studies at the East Sydney Technical College in commercial art. Upon completing his studies on the restoration of peace, he produced his first comic strip under the moniker ‘Monty Wedd’ titled ‘Sword and Sabre.’
Following its commercial success, Wedd developed several other important Australian comics including ‘Bert & Ned,’ ‘Captain Justice’ (Figure 1) and ‘Kirk Raven.’ In 1954, he created his best-selling strip ‘The Scorpion’ and became a prolific cover designer for various pulp fiction novels during the 1950s. In 1963, Wedd turned his hand to animation producing ‘Marco Polo Junior versus the Red Dragon’ and the ‘Lone Ranger.’
Wedd also used his amazing talents of art and narration for didactic purposes. In 1966, he created the cartoon mascot ‘Dollar Bill’ to educate the public about Australia’s imminent switch to decimal currency. Later, he produced artwork for the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations in addition to a pioneering biographical comic strip chronicling the life of iconic nineteenth century bushranger, Ned Kelly.
Retiring from comics in 1977, Wedd established a museum dedicated to the Australian army with his wife’s support and published a richly illustrated, informative monograph ‘Australian Military Uniforms 1800-1982’ just five years later in 1982 (Figures 2-3). Returning to comics in 1988, Wedd created the long running historic comic strip ‘The Birth of a Nation’ chronicling Australia’s history published in various newspapers. Given this prodigious output, Wedd received the Order of Australia in 1993 for his services as an author, illustrator and historian. Sadly, he passed away on 4 May 2012 in New South Wales aged ninety.
From its launch in 1954, Wedd provided regular contributions to the important new Australian philatelic magazine ‘Stamp News,’ submitting over two hundred comics and illustrations to the editor, which became one of the publication’s most popular features. In their totality, this corpus of material provides a potted cultural history of the world narrated through the lens of stamps, postal history and collecting.
Wedd’s Stamp News work comprises of three distinct categories. First, ‘Postmen in other lands’ being a potted global history of postal communication from ancient times to modernity. Each instalment comprises a single illustration accompanied with a short body of text as illustrated by shown by these two instalments on the Sleigh Posts of North West Canada and Pony Express of the U.S. Mail (Figures 4-5).
His second, longer-lasting series ‘Stamp Oddities’ developed on the previous format, each one devoted to a particular stamp design or historical vignettes from postal history as well as stamp collecting. These generally comprised several connected or independent illustrations, accompanied with a short paragraph of relevant information. This ‘The Inca Post’ strip takes inspiration from the six-peseta stamp depicting an ‘El Chasqui’ issued as part of Spain’s 1966 ‘Explorers and Colonisers of America’ issue (Figure 6).
Another example, ‘Long Legged Lady’ provides a description of a popular masquerade character performed by the Mother Sally Dance Troupe depicted upon Guyana’s 1969 ‘Christmas’ stamp (Figure 7).
In ‘Fake Signature’ Wedd recalls the public uproar occasioned by the US Post Office’s announcement that it amended George Washington’s signature on the design on the USA 1960 4c stamp of its ‘American Credo’ issue to make it more legible (Figure 8).
‘Women Pirates!!’ was inspired by two stamps from Grenada’s 1970 ‘Pirates’ issue to raise awareness of famous female pirates once active in the Caribbean (Figure 9).
However, Wedd’s most developed contributions comprised single-page comic strips, narrating the cultural contexts of particular stamps or philatelic themes. ‘First Born’ recounts the story of the first baby of English parentage born in America via the United States of America’s 18 August 1937 ‘Virginia Dare’ 5-cent stamp (Figure 10).
‘The Pitch Lake’ based on Trinidad and Tobago’s 1953-1959 ‘Definitive’ issue 6-pence stamp looks into the historic, geological and economic background of this world famous geological landmark (Figure 11).
‘The Legend of Toivita Tapaivita’ was part of of a series commemorating myths and legends of Papua New Guinea (Figure 12). This particular instalment was based on 60-cent stamp of Papua New Guinea’s, 8 June 1966 ‘Folklore, Elema Art’ (1st Series) issue.
The story of how Tierra Del Fuego issued a set of local stamps in 1891 forms the crux of the narrative in ‘Tierra Del Fuego: Land of Fire’ (Figure 13).
Finally, ‘The First Fleet’ focuses on the establishment of Britain’s penal colony in Botany Bay as seen through a couple of Australia’s commemorative postage stamps from 1938 (Figure 14).
Inspired by various texts and illustrations as well as postage stamps, the intertextual nature of Wedd’s work effectively culminated in the generation of creative new cultural meanings. Influencing mid-twentieth century western worldviews, Wedd’s work provides a powerful example of response to postage stamp design from a highly talented artist and influencer.
By Richard Scott Morel, FRPSL
Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections
The British Library’s Philatelic Collections: Stamp News Australia.
Toby Burrows and Grant Stone. Comics in Australia and New Zealand. Routledge, 1994.
Monty Wedd. Australian Military Uniforms 1800-1982. Kangaroo Press, 1982.
Monty Wedd. Captain Justice. Sydney, Australia: New Currency Press.
23 November 2022
The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).
Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.
Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.
One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.
The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here.
With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.
Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
19 October 2022
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.
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).
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.
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.
- Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
- 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.).
- Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.
10 August 2022
Kathryn Sampeck is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and was the 2021-22 British Library Eccles Centre Fulbright Scholar.
I arrived in London with all kinds of baggage—not only clothes, personal items, and tech to see me through six months of my UK Fulbright at the Eccles Centre, but also expectations about what I would find in the archives. My project investigates the relationships of race and food. I am interested in a notable case: chocolate and vanilla. I knew from previous research that these two substances had a long history of being paired (chocolate and vanilla “go together”) yet also semantic and culinary opposites (a difference of black and white; one cannot substitute for the other). One version of the semantic contrast of the two is as racial metaphors. For example, a 1974 article in Jet magazine describes how entertainer Connie Stevens “began her act with two Black dancers and two white dancers by saying that she has two daughters at home—‘one Chocolate and one Vanilla.’”
I knew from previous research that the association of chocolate with a dark colour, pejorative qualities such as sinfulness, and racial blackness occurred as early as the seventeenth century; the evidence was less clear about vanilla’s linkage with the colour white, purity, a bland taste, and racial whiteness. I assumed that I had not looked in the right places. Surely the British Library’s mountain of rare chronicles and medical and culinary books and manuscripts would fill in the gaps about when and how vanilla got its reputation. I thought vanilla would be there, perhaps a bit everywhere, and I had overlooked it because I was focusing on chocolate. My months in the archive and in British grocery stores and restaurants showed me how wrong I was! I now understand that I had an American bias about vanilla. My American bias is that vanilla is the go-to flavour for almost anything, and I assumed that such vanilla use had its roots in British cookery and medical practice. My deep dive into the British Library holdings showed this to be untrue. It is not until the nineteenth century that, as Mrs. Beeton claimed, vanilla was “in daily use for ices, chocolates, and flavouring confectionary generally.”
I wanted to know more about how vanilla fit in with other American ingestibles, so I cast my net broadly, looking for mentions in diverse kinds of documents of any American plants or foods. What I found surprised me, even after years of chocolate-focused research. More common than chocolate were turkey and potatoes, with the latter a regular entry in Queen Anne of Denmark's Household Book (Harley MS 157) from 1613.
A close second was sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree native to eastern North America, showing up in botanical, medical, and culinary works by people including James Petiver, Apothecary to the Charter-House (“Virtues of herbs”, Sloane MS 2346), a multi-authored 1619-1674 note-book of medical and culinary recipes (Add MS 36308), Mary Glover’s 1688 cookery and medical receipts (Add MS 57944), and most prominently, in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s 1744 history and description of New France. Much less common—yet still more common than vanilla—was cochineal, a tiny parasitic insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to the tropical and subtropical Americas that feeds on prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia). The dried, ground bodies of these insects yield the brilliant red, durable natural dye carmine, which certainly gave a rosy tint to those seventeenth-century concoctions.
The works that noted sassafras, cochineal, and other American substances often also included of cocoa or chocolate, such as the seventeenth-century Medicamenta usitatiora by George Bate, MD (Sloane MS 519). Cocoa or chocolate often occurred on its own (with sugar, water, milk, or cream); the most common additional flavour to chocolate was vanilla, a pairing that various sources from the earliest mentions to well into the nineteenth century claimed improved the taste of chocolate (and made it cost more!).
Culinary and medical recipes “white” or “clear” foods were abundant and had flavourings such as ambergris, sugar, mace, and cinnamon, but no vanilla.
Why didn’t one of these substances pegged as white become the contrast to chocolate? I found one clue in the seventeenth-century Observations on the preparation and virtues of Chocolate (Sloane MS 1471). After discussing the medical and sensorial qualities of “Bainilla”, the author goes on to describe that “All those Ingredients are usually put into the Chocolatte…But the meaner sort of people, as blackmors, and Indians commonly put nothing into it, but Cacao, Achiotte, Maiz, and a few Chiley with a little Anny seeds.” Chocolate consumption in itself did not distinguish race and class, but the subtleties that people added to it drew a sharp distinction between people of colour and (by implication, white) people of taste. The “Account of the inhabitants of Cathagena from Ulloa’s Voyage to South-America” in the New York Magazine; or A Literary Repository for July, 1792 echoes a similar complaint that chocolate (there known as cacao) was so common that an enslaved Black person “constantly allows himself a regale of it after breakfast” and Black women “sell it ready made about the streets”; their habit was to consume cacao with wheat bread. So, chocolate was cheap, easily available, and a significant part of the diet of Afro-Latin Americans, but the authors complain—and thereby distinguish their tastes from these South American Blacks—that it was not good (i.e. pure) chocolate: “This is however so far from being all cacao, that the principal ingredient is maize.”
The implication of these and other complaints is that in the hands of people of colour, chocolate did not realise its full potential for flavour. Furthermore, not just any flavour would enhance chocolate—vanilla was a key to good taste, worth paying more for. This brings me to the discovery that surprised me the most: vanilla became increasingly associated with the colour white in foods or medicines after it was associated with racial whiteness. Vanilla and chocolate history give a remarkable view into the depth of the history of the construction of racial disparities; colour did not precede colourizing.
08 August 2022
The Eccles Centre recently hosted a one-day symposium on Black Women’s Activism in the Americas, in collaboration with the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW). The day included a Show and Tell for the delegates, inspired by some of the topics under discussion. Here are some highlights from the display.
A few years ago the Library acquired a number of issues of Spotlight magazine. Produced by American Youth for Democracy during World War Two (formerly the Young Communist League), it was edited by Claudia Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist who emigrated to the US as a child.
Following the persecution of Communists by the US Government, Jones was deported to Britain in 1955. She continued her Communist activism in the UK and went on to found Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958, and played a major role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. You can read more about Jones’ life and work in the British Library’s Windrush Stories online exhibition here. As with many histories of activism by women of colour, Jones’ legacy was maintained for many years by community activists and historians, through works such as Claudia Jones, 1915-1964: A Woman of Our Times [researched and compiled by Jennifer Tyson], published by Camden Black Sisters Publications in c1988.
Later US Communist activist and scholar Angela Davis was also represented with the Show and Tell including a number of works produced around her imprisonment in 1971 on murder and kidnapping charges. The case generated interest around the world and the display included items published in the UK and Germany demonstrating solidarity with her case, as well as a booklet produced by the United States Information Service and distributed by the US Embassy in London which endeavoured to present the ‘legal background’ to the case.
Alongside Official Government Publications, such as the USIS booklet shown above, another type of collection item which may be less familiar to British Library researchers are examples of political ephemera. The Library continues to acquire a range of this type of material including this striking broadside “I Am A Black Woman Communist”, featuring a portrait of Angela Davis, which was produced for the 20th Convention of the Communist Party USA in New York in February 1972. The following quote is printed beneath her portrait: "I am a black woman Communist / the corrupt government of this country could not accept such a combination / this is why they launch an effort to murder me." The artist's signature, identified only as ‘Sherman,’ is printed at upper right corner.
The political ephemera continued with election pamphlets produced by the Worker’s Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) during Brazilian federal elections in 1982. Included amongst those standing for office was Lélia Gonzalez, the leading Afro-Brazilian feminist, intellectual, politician, professor, anthropologist and Black and women’s rights activist. Her influential concept of Amefricanidade or ‘Amefricanity’ references both the black diaspora and indigenous populations of the Americas, signalling their histories of resistance as colonised peoples. Among a long career in activism and education, she ran as a federal candidate for the Worker’s Party in 1982. The broader context of the PT slate of candidates (included at the same shelfmark) provide fascinating insights in to the range of social justice concerns active in Brazilian politics in the early 1980s, including gay rights.
An underused part of the Library’s holdings, the Philatelic Collections offer a fascinating way into many different aspects of social and political histories. The Show and Tell was enriched by items from our Philatelic colleagues which illustrated the way black women’s activism has been commemorated on stamps, in turn helping to construct national and international conversations about women’s history and achievements. To find out more about Philately at the British Library, visit their subject page or their social media channels.
By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, August 2022 (with thanks to my Eccles and Americas colleagues for their help developing and mounting the Show and Tell)
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- Call for Papers: Grenada, 1973-1983 | Beginnings of a Revolution, Invasion and After
- Reclaiming Fédon’s Rebellion: Identifying and Acknowledging the ‘Rebels’ in Modern Grenada
- Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections
- The World According to Monty Wedd: Philatelic Comics, Cartoons and Caricatures
- Black Theatre Makers: Una Marson
- Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.
- In Search of Vanilla
- Black Women’s Activism in the Americas
- Publishing in the Colonial Anglophone Caribbean: A New Guide to the British Library's Holdings
- Food and Freedom in 19th-Century Jamaica