22 January 2022
Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dr Roberta Bondar blasting off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center and becoming Canada’s first female astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space!
Bondar had dreamt of this moment from an early age. As a child she showed an aptitude for science and when she was around 12 years old her father built her a laboratory in their basement. Following high school, she obtained a Bachelors degree in Zoology and Agriculture, a Masters degree in Experimental Pathology, and a PhD in Neurobiology. She became a medical doctor in 1977 and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (in neurology) in 1981.
When Canada's National Research Council set up the Canadian Astronaut Program, Bondar immediately signed up. She was selected in December 1983. In 1986 the Challenger disaster threatened the entire space shuttle programme. However, a three-year investigation resulted in its revival and in 1990 Bondar learned she would be the next Canadian astronaut to go into space. 1
Along with six colleagues, Bondar was on board the Space Shuttle Discovery from 22 - 30 January 1992 as part of the first International Microgravity Laboratory mission - the precursor to the International Space Station. The main goal of the mission was to study the effects of microgravity on a variety of organisms and the physiological changes that occur in a weightless environment. As ‘Payload Specialist 1’, Bondar conducted over 40 advanced experiments for 14 countries. Many of these focused upon the effect of weightlessness on the human body - for example, on eye motion, the inner ear, the elongation of the spine and back pain, and energy expenditure during a spaceflight. Others explored the effects of microgravity on other life forms, including shrimp eggs, lentil seedlings, fruit fly eggs and bacteria.
Bondar's ground-breaking work enabled NASA to better prepare its astronauts for long stays on the International Space Station. Following her career as an astronaut, she collaborated with NASA and led a space medicine research team investigating the neurological symptoms seen after spaceflight and their connections to neurological illnesses on Earth, including Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
After many years working as a scientist, Bondar forged a new path and became an Honours student in Professional Nature Photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California; here, she was profoundly influenced by the work of renowned American photographer, Ansel Adams. She later created the Roberta Bondar Foundation and writes of this transition:
It took time, considerable reflection and detailed planning to build a Foundation focused on two of my passions, the environment and education. Following the razor-sharp focus and discipline involved in being an astronaut and scientist, I chose to apply my love of photography to foster sustainable development. Few get to view our earth from space. It puts unimaginable perspective on life and our stewardship of the planet. I made it the catalyst to a new career. My camera lens is my way of giving back in exhibits, seminars, schools across Canada and overseas.
For her book Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000; British Library shelfmark LB.31.b.21551), Bondar photographed Canada’s 41 national parks from Gwaii Haanas in the west to Terra Nova in the east, and Point Pelee in the south to Quttinirpaaq in the north; the book includes 100 of her photos as well as six images from space.
Now in her mid-70s, Roberta Bondar remains tireless in her commitment to environmental and scientific education and to deepening humanity's love for planet Earth. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Specially Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holds the NASA Space Medal and has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
1. On 5 October 1984, Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to go into space; he went on two further missions in 1996 and 2000. Roberta Bondar was the second Canadian in space.
20 January 2022
N.B. This article may contain descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive
Slave sugar sweetened the British economy for over three hundred years. As abolitionist discourse grew over the course of the 18th century, the operations of British-owned Caribbean sugar plantations became a contentious subject. Even after abolition, the economics of the post-emancipation sugar trade remained a bitter question in British politics. In 1848, amidst revolutions and financial crises, it was sugar that dominated debate in the Commons, as Disraeli noted in his biography of Bentinck:
“Singular article of produce! What is the reason of this influence? It is that all considerations mingle in it; not merely commercial, but imperial, philanthropic, religious; confounding the legislature and the nation lost in a maze of conflicting interests and contending emotions”.
The library has recently acquired five bills of lading dating from 1714-1800. They are printed forms recording the receipt of goods transported by sea, with gaps for the addition of specific information by hand. In their printed contents alone, they are unassuming pieces of administrative ephemera. However, the devil is in the details. Three of the bills were completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an organisation that lobbied for the greater influence of the Church of England within Britain’s burgeoning empire. The Society spanned the Atlantic, including Barbados, where it operated a slave-worked sugar plantation. It is from this plantation that these bills originate.
They detail three separate shipments of sugar from Barbados to England from May 1714 to April 1715. Though all three are penned by Woodbridge, each bill lists a different ship and captain. More can be learned of these ships when cross-referenced with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. For instance, one bill details a shipment transported upon the ship ‘Smith Frigate’, captained by John Riding, and signed in Barbados, 29th April 1715. When searching the database for ‘Smith Frigate’, one finds a detailed entry which tells the story of a 200 ton ship, responsible for carrying 287 enslaved people from Cape Coast Castle to Barbados in 1714. Fourteen people died during middle passage of this voyage. The ship returned to England in 1715, taking the sugar with it. By presenting this information side-by-side, we can contextualise the sugar trade and its inextricable relationship with slavery in the 18th century.
Another bill details the transport of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Kingston to London in April 1778. It is signed by the carrier, Captain James Moore, and the form has been completed by the agent, Malcolm Laing. Once again, this document is enriched when compared against databases. Laing appears on the UCL Legacies of British Slavery database as a resident slave-owner from Kingston. During probate of his estate in 1782, he owned 93 enslaved persons, 44 of which were male and 49 female. 30 were children. Unlike the other bills, this one survived with its original paper envelope. The envelope is addressed to William Philip Perrin, owner of five estates in Jamaica, inherited from his father. Further archival evidence attests to the scale of Perrin’s operations in Jamaica, where enslaved persons were forced to labour on sugar plantations, further engorging Perrin’s healthy capital. The sale of sugar from these plantations turned a profit of £4,500 per annum, equivalent to approximately £400,000 today. Perrin never visited Jamaica.
Careful consideration has been given to how these items are catalogued. It was important to contextualise these items, using supporting information drawn from databases such as those mentioned above. Unsurprisingly, none of these refers to the individuals who were kidnapped, sold, and enslaved for the production of sugar. Yet, sugar and slavery are inextricably related, and to describe such resources without any indication of this association would be reductive. Subject headings related to slavery have been included alongside those of shipping and trade. Summary notes have been added to enhance the historical context of the documents, and citations refer to the databases where this information is collated. One inescapable tragedy is that the enslaved individuals from these plantations cannot be named, but their slavers can. For named individuals, such as William Philip Perrin and Malcolm Laing, authorised name entries have been created, with adequate biographical information detailing who they were and how they made their money. By linking our catalogue records with data from other sources, we are able to enrich our metadata to contextualise these documents, and provide a valuable description of what they are and what they represent.
 Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck, (London, 1852), page 530.
 The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in obo in Atlantic History (Accessed December 2021).
Blog post by
20 December 2021
This third - and deliberately brief - instalment of our e-resources blog series focuses on the Library's ‘bibliographic’ e-resources!
By and large, searching this kind of e-resource will not bring up the full-text of books and articles. Instead, you will be given a list of citations which you then need to track down elsewhere. For example, if your search brings up a journal article that looks interesting, you will need to see if the British Library or another institution subscribes to that journal in order to be able to read the article itself.
While this might at first glance seem disappointing, the unique and utterly brilliant selling point of these databases is their capacity to stop you from ever again needing to note down and follow-up footnotes as you attempt to uncover all the previous research on your topic. Instead, in a matter of moments, you will be provided with accurate, up-to-date information about everything that has already been published in your field.
So, how do they work?
In brief, they are compiled by teams of highly-skilled indexers whose role it is to assign multiple index-terms to every article in a particular journal, thereby providing you with the greatest possible chance of retrieving citations that are relevant to your research.
All mainstream subjects – history, literature, politics, sociology, economics, art, music etc – have at least one dedicated bibliographic e-resource and these can be found by using the Subject search facility on the Library’s portal. These subject-specific e-resources include, for example:
- America History and Life, which currently indexes articles in 1,648 journals covering United States and Canadian history and culture
- MLA International Bibliography, which currently indexes 6000+ journals in literature, language and linguistics, literary theory and criticism, and folklore, and which adds over 66,000 citations every year
- HAPI Online (Hispanic American Periodicals Index Online), which currently indexes 400+ journals and includes 335,000+ citations in total
Other bibliographic e-resources cover multiple subjects, for example: Humanities Index; Arts and Humanities Citation Index; and Social Sciences Full Text (selective full-text coverage since 1994).
And some bibliographic e-resources focus on a particular type of content, for example:
- Proquest Dissertations and Theses and EThOS index, in different ways, doctoral dissertations and Master's theses
- Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 offers digitized access to William Frederick Poole’s ground-breaking attempt to make accessible the vast amount of magazine and journal content published in the 19th century.
Below are some of the bibliographic e-resources with Americas content that are currently offered by the British Library, but please take a look at the full range of these resources on the Library’s website as there will be at least one database that will make your literature search both quick and comprehensive; some of these resources will include books as well as journal articles, and an increasing number of them are, happily, offering full-text access:
ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature)
America: History and Life
Anthropological Index Online
Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts
Arts and Humanities Citation Index
Book Review Digest Plus (1983- ) & Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982
Humanities and Social Sciences Index Retrospective, 1907-1984
Humanities Index, 1962 – present
International Political Science Abstracts
MLA International Bibliography
Policy File Index
Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 (Part of Eight Centuries)
Proquest Dissertations and Theses
RLIM Abstracts of Music Literature
SciELO Citation Index
Social Sciences Citation Index
Social Sciences Full Text
Wishing you a wonderful festive season and all the very best until 2022 when the next blog in this series will highlight everything you need to know about Americas-focused Women's Studies e-resources!
12 December 2021
Today’s blog does three things!
It commemorates the 75th anniversary of Viola Desmond’s refusal to leave a whites-only section of a Nova Scotian movie theatre - an action that galvanised the modern civil rights movement in Canada. It celebrates the British Library's acquisition of a stamp commemorating the Canadian journalist and social activist Carrie Best. And it illuminates how these two wonderful women are connected.
In the mid-1940s, Viola Desmond was a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. As a young Black woman, she had been unable to train as a beautician in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After honing her craft elsewhere – including at Madame C.J. Walker’s beauty school in New York City – she had returned to Halifax and established a beauty salon, her own line of beauty products, and the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, which she hoped would prevent other Black women from facing similar obstacles to their training.
On 8 November 1946, Desmond was travelling on business when her car broke down in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Forced to stay overnight, she decided to see a movie. At that time, racial segregation in Canada varied according to place and context. After taking a seat in the Roseland Theatre’s 'Main' section, Desmond was informed that she could not remain there. Returning to the kiosk, she was told she could not purchase a ticket for this whites-only section. Rather than heading to the Blacks-only Balcony, however, Desmond chose to return to the Main section. She was then forcibly removed by a policeman and sent to jail overnight. The following morning, without being offered legal representation, she was tried and fined $20 for defrauding the government of one penny; the difference in Entertainment tax between the Main and Balcony sections. With the support of prominent members of Halifax’s Black community, Desmond fought this decision. Yet several months later, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court upheld the original verdict.
One of those who supported Desmond was Carrie Best. Three years earlier, Best – a life-long Black resident of New Glasgow – had bought tickets for the Roseland’s Main section for herself and her son. Like Desmond, they were arrested for attempting to watch a movie. They fought the charge in order to challenge the legal justification for the theatre's segregation, but their lawsuit was also unsuccessful. Best responded by establishing The Clarion, the first Black owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia, which has now has been digitised by the Nova Scotia Archives. With its by-line 'Published in the Interest of Colored Nova Scotians', it was the very first issue of The Clarion that broke Viola Desmond’s story (Fig. 2).
Interest in Desmond’s case soon spread not only across Canada but also the United States; the article below, for example, was published in the Baltimore Afro-American on 1 February 1947:
Interestingly, A. Ritchie Low, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, had interviewed Carrie Best in the summer of 1946 while investigating the lives of Black Canadians in the Maritime Provinces (Fig. 4, below):
Best had made it clear to Low that things were far from perfect for the Black community and had shared with him her experience at the Roseland as well as her plans for her newspaper. Low was clearly impressed with her, writing (in language somewhat of its time):
Mrs Carrie Best is a dynamic personality. It didn't take me long to discern that. She is a young, small, wiry, up-and-coming little body who doesn't allow the grass to grow under her feet. By no means. Nor does she, like most of us, wait for something to turn up. Instead, Mrs Best goes ahead and turns up something! For example, one of the local theaters forbade colored people to enter its downstairs section; they must go upstairs, insisted the manager. They didn't like it, but did nothing to express their disapproval, that is to say, all except Carrie Best. She went in, sat downstairs and made a test case. She didn't win out, because of some technicality of the law, but she still has hopes of doing something. "I must show you a little paper I'm editing," she told me, excusing herself to go and fetch it. (Baltimore Afro-American, 14 September 1946)
Subsequently, Best started a radio show in 1952 which ran for twelve years, and between 1968-75 she was a columnist for The Pictou Advocate. Sadly, Desmond did not fulfil her dreams of opening a chain of beauty salons and would move away from Halifax. Yet her courageous actions are now credited with kickstarting the modern movement for civil rights and racial equality in Canada.
In recent decades, both women have been recognised and honoured. In an historic first, Viola Desmond was posthumously pardoned in 2010. The Crown-in-Right of Nova Scotia also apologised for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged that she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination. In 2018 she became the first Canadian woman to appear alone on a bank note.
Carrie Best was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and posthumously awarded the Order of Nova Scotia in 2002. The 59c stamp commemorating Best (Fig. 1) was issued to mark Canada’s Black History Month in February 2011.1 We are hugely grateful to our Philatelic colleagues for acquiring this significant stamp on behalf of the British Library.
1. The stamp was designed by Laura Minja and manufactured by Lowe-Martin using a lithographic printing process.
24 November 2021
In this second instalment of our Americas e-resources blog series we will focus on US newspapers, both historic and contemporary. All of the databases referred to here are full-text and many of them can be consulted remotely once you have a British Library Reader’s Pass.
Published by Readex, Early American Newspapers (Series 1, 1690-1876 & Series 2 1758-1900) is one of our absolute favourites. With facsimile coverage beginning in the late 17th century, when newspapers were often published by small-town printers reflecting the interests and values of the communities they served, its hundreds of titles chronicle the evolution of American society and culture through eyewitness reporting, editorials, obituaries, letters to the editor, advertisements, and much, much more. Search options include material type, date, keywords, name of publication, place of publication and language. The content is printable, downloadable and accessible remotely. Included among its riches is the first multipage colonial newspaper, Publick Occurences Both Forreign and Domestick; published in Boston on 25 September 1690, it was immediately suppressed.
Also published by Readex and remotely accessible is African American Newspapers (Series 1, 1827-1998 & Series 2, 1835-1956). This extraordinary resource offers facsimile copies of more than 350 newspapers published by or for African Americans in more than 35 states. Coverage spans life in the Antebellum South; abolitionism; the growth of the Black church; the Jim Crow Era; the Great Migration to northern cities, the West and Midwest; the rise of the NAACP; the Harlem Renaissance; the civil rights movement; political and economic empowerment; and more. Many of the titles are rare and historically significant, including Freedom’s Journal, the first Black owned and operated newspaper in the United States, which was founded on 16 March 1827 in New York City by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish.
American Indian Newspapers was made possible by the permission and contribution of the newspaper publishers and Tribal Councils concerned and is published by Adam Matthew. It includes over 170,000 pages from 9,000 editions of Indigenous US and Canadian national periodicals, local community newspapers, and student papers and magazines. Coverage runs from 1828 to 2016, although the bulk of its 45 titles were founded during the 1970s and document the proliferation of Indigenous journalism that grew out of the occupation of Wounded Knee. There are numerous bi-lingual and Indigenous-language editions, and many titles – including Ak-Chin O’Odham Runner, the Cherokee Phoenix and the Navajo Times – are digitised in runs of more than 500 issues. Unlike Early American Newspapers and African American Newspapers, it has to be consulted at the Library.
Service Newspapers of World War Two contains over 300 publications for soldiers serving in all of the major theatres of that conflict. More than 60 of these were published for US military forces, including the Stars and Stripes, which was printed in dozens of editions in numerous locations. In addition to maintaining the troops’ morale and helping to create an atmosphere of solidarity, these newspapers played a vital role in keeping servicemen informed about events in their unit and immediate locality, as well as delivering news from home and about the war at large. A large number were written by the servicemen themselves, although some were sanctioned by senior staff and had a more official agenda. Most contained a mix of articles, news reports, op-ed pieces, letters, military facts, trivia, cartoons and photographs. Like American Indian Newspapers, it is published by Adam Matthew and needs to be consulted at the Library.
Currently, the British Library subscribes to three of Proquest’s Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2017), The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988) and the Communist Historical Newspaper Collection. All offer full-text facsimile copies, but they are not accessible remotely. The New York Times probably needs no further discussion. The Baltimore Afro-American was founded in 1892. Five years later, its printing presses were purchased at auction by John H. Murphy, Sr. Murphy had been born into slavery in Baltimore in 1840 and in 1868 married Martha Howard, the daughter of a well-to-do free black farmer. Although the Library's digital coverage of the Afro-American ends in 1988, this weekly publication is still in print and is the longest running African American family-owned newspaper in the United States. At its peak, regional editions were being printed in 13 major US cities; it has campaigned with the NAACP on a huge range of civil rights cases; and noteworthy contributors include writer Langston Hughes and artist Romare Bearden.
The Communist Historical Newspaper Collection offers the full-text editions of nine Communist newspapers published in the US, including The Daily Worker (1924-1958), Daily World (1968-1986), and the Ohio Socialist (1917-1919).
Last but by no means least, we want to flag up the remotely accessible Newsbank Access World News. Despite its rather understated interface, it is an absolute goldmine if you are doing contemporary US research. It currently offers up-to-the minute full-text (non-facsimile) access to over 1300 US dailies, including Boston Herald (1991 – ); the New York Daily News (NY) (1995 – ); Los Angeles Times (1985 – ); Miami Herald (1982 – ); New York Post (1999 – ) and San Francisco Chronicle (1985 – ). It also offers access to more than 20 news magazines, including The New Yorker, The Nation and The Atlantic; the transcripts of more than 200 major TV news and radio programmes, including 60 Minutes (CBS; 2004 – ) ; CBS Evening News (2005 – ); CNN (2004 – ); Face the Nation (CBS; 2010 – ); Fox News’s various channels (2003 – ); Meet the Press (NBC; 2012 – ); MSNBC (2003 – ); NPR (1990 – ); and PBS NewsHour (2006 – ). On top of this it includes more than 300 web-only news sources and more than 80 newswires, including Associated Press (1997 – ); AP State Wires (from all states, 2010/2011 – ); CNN Wire (2009 – ); and UPI NewsTrack, (2005 – ). It is a truly unique and remarkable resource and we cannot recommend it enough.
Next month we will be having a look at some of our broad-brush ‘bibliographic e-resources’. This type of database offers you lists of sources (books, journal articles etc) that you will then need to track down elsewhere. These e-resources are particularly useful at the beginning of a project when you are trying to get a sense of the research landscape, but are equally valuable at the end, when you need to make sure you have caught everything that has been published in the previous few months.
26 October 2021
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)
This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.
Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.
The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.
In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.
Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.
I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.
- Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820.
14 October 2021
In light of the recent unprecedented demand for digital materials, we’ve decided to run a year-long series of monthly blogposts highlighting the extraordinarily rich Americas and Oceania-focused e-resources that are held at the British Library. Although most of these e-resources need to be consulted in-person in the Library’s Reading Rooms, some are accessible remotely to Reader’s Pass holders and we are hopeful that this number will continue to rise.
In terms of content, e-resources fall into two broad categories: full-text and bibliographic. The former will give you all or most of a particular item, be that a book, journal article, map, letter, playbill, diary, logbook, newspaper article, photo or minutes of a meeting. The latter will simply provide you with citations which you then need follow up elsewhere - in the Library’s Main Catalogue, for example, or a catalogue at another institution.
Over the coming year, these blogs will cover both types of e-resources (full-text and bibliographic) and will clearly flag the kind of access they offer (in-person or remote). Some will focus on particular subjects: for example, US politics, Oceania, or literature of the Americas. Others will focus on certain types of material. Next month, for example, we will look at newspapers, including historic newspapers from the Caribbean, Latin America and the US, American Indian newspapers, communist newspapers and service newspapers of World War II; many of these are accessible remotely.
All of the Americas and Oceania e-resources can be found in the Library’s Main Catalogue.
However, if you don’t have any titles or you want to get a sense of what the Library holds, please browse the holdings by subject. Currently, there are 130+ e-resources listed under History, for example, many of which have Americas and Oceania content. And more than 110 are listed under American Studies, a selection of which includes: America in World War Two; American Civil Liberties Union Papers; Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century; Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015; First World War Portal; Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange; History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988; History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1880-1990; The Nixon Years; North American Indian Thought and Culture; Slavery & Antislavery: A Transnational Archive; Trade Catalogues and the American Home; and Virginia Company Archives.
Finally, I’ll just say a few words about one of my personal favourites: Early American Imprints: Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on the 14-volume work by US bibliographer Charles Evans, this incredible database provides the full-text of almost every book, pamphlet and periodical published on American soil in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 And once you have a Reader’s Pass, you can access it whenever and wherever you wish! Among its many treasures are The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640) – the first work published in the American colonies (Fig 1, above). Anne Bradstreet’s self-revised and posthumously published Several Poems Completed with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678) – the first book by a woman to be published in North America (Fig.2, above). And An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World…(1784) by Hannah Adams – the first woman in the United States to make her living as a writer (Fig. 3, below).
Next month we will look at the Library's huge range of Americas-focused e-newspapers.
(And if you would like to learn more about the British Library's holdings of works by early American women writers, please take a look at 'For Myself, For My Children, For Money': A Bibliography of Early American Women's Writings at the British Library on the the Eccles Centre's website.)
Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America ... 14 vols. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 HRL 015.73
06 August 2021
This blog by Pola Oloixarac is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Travel has changed a lot since the early naturalists voyaged through the Amazonia, and it continues to change today thanks to Covid restrictions. While I’ve been unable to foray in person into the archives of the British Library as I was hoping - summer, London, arcane tomes - I’ve had the luck of encountering the mighty digital explorer, Dr Aleksandra Kaye. Dr Kaye knows her way around the British Library’s vast digital archives and like any sensible 19th century naturalist seeking help from a guide, I secured her expertise in unearthing their intricate holdings.
In the first written accounts of the Amazon, the anthropological gaze is under-developed. Though entranced by the power of landscape, the earliest naturalists typically didn’t consider the human culture they encountered. The richness of the human Amazonian world typically escape their notice. Indeed, where Amazonian people are referenced, early accounts by European naturalists are explicitly racist. One explorer, however, who did take some account of indigenous people was the French painter Hercules Florence, although how he saw them was problematic. He travelled to the Amazon from 1825 to 1829 and ended up spending his life in Brazil.
What excited Florence was undiscovered places and he was uninterested in indigenous village life. He remarked in his diary that the jungle is repetitive and that, "to see a Brazilian village, is to see them all"1. He became obsessed with capturing the unchartered territory and capturing it through sound and image with pioneering technology. Florence experimented making photographs in Brazil in 1833 and wanted to record the sounds of what surrounded him. This led him to devise a method to record wild bird song in the Amazon. While looking for a way to record sound, he stumbled into photography. Indeed, while trying to publicise his experiments in sound recording he managed to devise the first printing machine in Sao Paulo.
In the first page of his diary he mentions the expedition slaves, noting that all humans become the same bundle of flesh under the severity of the Amazonian environment. When the expedition’s commander, Gregory Langsdorff (Fig. 1, below) succumbs to yellow fever, Florence notes that illness made no distinction about social class in the context of the Amazon.
Langsdorff claimed to be the first to attempt the fluvial crossing of Brazil, from Pantanal to Belum. Until now it was believed that the first trip was in 1825 but Dr Kaye’s research has revealed a precursor: there was a previous trip funded by the Imperial Russian court and led by Adam Johan Krussertern in which Langsdorff took part. Before his trip with Florence in 1825, Langsdorff had added himself hastily and at his own expense to the Krussertern expedition as a second naturalist (the first was Wilhm Gottlieb Tilesius). Langsdorff, therefore, went into the Amazon at least two times, around 1803-1807. These earlier expeditions could explain why the subsequent Langsdorff trip a few decades later was hardly noticed by the very Russians who funded it, considering it, perhaps, redundant. Indeed, the reports of the Langsdorff investigation languished in St Petersburg for over a century largely undiscovered.
Langsdorff’s story is a reminder of how much these exploratory naturalist expeditions had in common with modern filmmaking. Langsdorff had, in effect, been to the Amazon first as a location scout (1803-1807), but his vision of the Amazon and the legacy of his expedition could not exist without artists to document the trip. For his 1825-1829 expedition - the one that would make him famous - Langsdorff only wanted the very best artists. He hired Johan Moritz Rugendas, but their relationship faltered when the Prussian commander sought to take ownership of the artist’s original works. Rugendas, however, was aware of his own worth as an artist and would not bow to Langsdorff. The Brazilian diaries of both Rugendas and Langsdorff paint the latter in a negative light: Langsdorff was controlling and wanted Rugendas to assign him copyright, but the artist resisted and ultimately deserted the expedition.
This is how Hercules Florence joined the trip as a second painter to first painter André Taunay. Traveling with Langsdorff, Hercules Florence experimented with photography (he called it “painting with light”). He claimed to be its first inventor, documenting his attempts using silver nitrate and natural acids like urea. Despite these claims, however, Dr Kaye found that Alexander Agassiz, also claimed to be the first to use photography through carbon printing for general illustrations of natural history. In 1871 Agassiz made this claim in the pages of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (British Library shelfmark Ac.1736/26), where his father, Louis Agassiz, was an acclaimed professor. Agassiz argues that photography is likely to overtake lithography as a mode of illustrating natural history and includes two photographs with his work. His view that the new printing technology would withstand the test of time is born out by the archive; and 150 years later, we can look at these photographs at the British Library.
Did Agassiz know of Florence’s efforts to make pictures by “painting with light”? Or was Florence unknown to his contemporaries, even those working as naturalists in Brazil? These questions beg answers. For now, we can only reflect on the fact that the London edition of the early Langsdorff travels (before his trip with Florence) is much more richly illustrated and complete than the American version. In the UK edition we find a lithograph of a Brazilian house (Fig. 3, below) and a musical score called “Brazilian Air” (Fig. 4, below). Both are accessible digitally, which makes comparing them possible. The US edition from 1817 has been digitized by the British Library and is in the public domain - the UK edition from 1813 is only available digitally inside the library, but the University of Alberta digitized their copy and made it publicly available. The London edition was published in two separate volumes, while the US edition has less images, is more cramped and in smaller format and is published as a single book. As a consequence the US edition would have been cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible to bigger audiences.
Another interesting item with connections to Brazil uncovered by Dr Kaye is a 1916 book of short stories by Edith Wharton, the American author, called Xingú, and Other Stories (London; New York printed: Macmillan, 1916; British Library shelfmark NN.4057). The “Xingú” text portrays a dialogue between elite ladies who cannot fathom what is meant by Xingú. They think Xingú is something mysterious or rude, which creates quite a lot of drama among them. Eventually they discover it’s a Brazilian River. The text keeps you wondering, what would The Age of Innocence (Mrs. Wharton’s vivid masterpiece) be like, if set in the Império do Brasil? A crossover of the directors Martin Scorsese and Joaquim Machado de Assis, with vast corridors of palms, would surely depict a young emperor obsessed with becoming a masterful photographer, like Dom Pedro II of Brazil once was. He would have been especially pleased about finding the British Library's digital versions of his photographs available today.
Pola Oloixarac is the author of the novels Savage Theories, Dark Constellations and Mona. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.
1. Hercule Florence Diary: http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio:kossoy-1977-florence/kossoy_1977_hercules_florence.pdf
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