American Collections blog

36 posts categorized "Eccles Fellows"

06 May 2021

Finding the Humor in 'Sappho'

Louise Siddons is an associate professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture. As part of that research, she has been taking a closer look at the transatlantic lesbian press and the construction of lesbian identity. In this post, she shares the unexpected pleasure she discovered in the pages of Sappho, a British magazine that, unlike the American counterparts which advertised in its pages, routinely included comics and cartoons.

Louise will be talking about transatlantic lesbian visual culture and the lesbian gaze in a free online lecture on Monday 10 May at 19.00, Looking Like a Lesbian.

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“Every group has its share of jokes,” announced “Robyn’s Page,” a regular feature of Sappho. Founded in 1972, Sappho’s mission was to build a meaningful community among lesbian women both as readers and in person. Early in its run, Robyn worried that humor was troublingly absent from lesbian culture.1

In this blog post, I’m taking a close look at the cartoons and comics that appeared in early issues of Sappho. Why should we take humor seriously? Robyn argued that, “Jokes are … a spontaneous endorsement of what’s happening where it matters most – that’s at grass root level.” The lack of lesbian jokes, she suggested, revealed a lack of group identity among lesbians. Eager to change this, she invited readers to come up with “the great lesbian joke.”2

Studies in the psychology of humor have historically focused on the role that “out-group disparagement humor” reinforces in-group identification; in other words, people mark their status as insiders by making fun of outsiders.3 But, as Robyn pointed out, in 1972 lesbian humor was still struggling to locate the notion of “lesbian.” The visual comedy published in Sappho’s early years is almost all about defining the in-group: what does it mean to be a lesbian, and how can humor help that definition cohere?4

If a brief survey of my friends last week is any indication, lesbian humor has achieved the status of a common culture, even if the jokes aren’t always great. Universally, when I asked for a lesbian joke, the first response was: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” (Is there any point to pretending we don’t know the punchline?) “A U-Haul.”

Groan-inducing though it is, the U-Haul joke echoes the humor presented in Sappho a half-century earlier, which overwhelmingly took couples as its subject and often poked fun at the intensity of new attachments—sometimes to make a serious point about healthy relationships. My informal friend survey, utterly unscientific and drawn largely from the same “militantly middle-class” audience to which Sappho addressed itself a half-century ago, points to the magazine as a foundational source for long-lasting tropes of lesbian comedy.5

In this 1990 interview, Sappho’s editor, Jacqueline Forster, described the board’s decision to include “photos, cartoons, articles, news stories, poems, and a list of places where lesbians can meet or contact.” As her inclusion of “cartoons” makes clear, there was an expectation that the magazine would include humor, at least some of which would be visual, under the direction of art editors Jay Francis and Murray Marr.

Sappho magazine cover. Yellow with the magazine name in large black letters and a small Venus symbol in black with two faces in profile inside the circle.
Cover, Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972)

An initial encounter with the magazine does not promise comedy: in the first few issues, the discreetly monochromatic panel of the cover is disturbed only by the title of the magazine in a typeface reminiscent of Westminster, the 1960s machine-readable typeface designed by Leo Maggs, volume and issue information, and a small logo—the Venus symbol with two facing, vaguely feminine profiles inside its ring. Reminiscent of the optical illusion in which our perception shifts between two faces and a vase, the logo hints at the semiotic slippage that characterizes queer, and especially lesbian, identity throughout the twentieth century—without making us laugh.

Once inside, however, the conservative, technologically savvy design gave way to a hand-drawn aesthetic reminiscent of earlier lesbian magazines like the British Arena Three and the American The Ladder, inviting intimacy and openness in the reader. The first cartoon appeared on page 7 of the very first issue, and introduced “Mabel and Mildred,” a quirky, naked couple who venture out into the world with varying degrees of success. Although their adventures are slightly surreal, they offer a slice of lesbian life to Sappho readers.

Line drawing of a naked woman holding an axe running off a ledge with a smaller naked woman sat below the step with a speech bubble saying 'Now Mildred, look out for that first step!'
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 7

In each episode, the rendering is rudimentary: Mildred, slightly stockier than her counterpart, is perennially armed with an axe, which seems as likely to endanger Mabel as protect her. Mabel, in turn, is all knees and elbows, with a shock of unruly hair. In this first cartoon, Mildred is at the top of a precipitous set of steps, while Mabel sits at their foot, badly dinged by an apparent fall. “Now Mildred,” she warns, “look out for that first step!” Is this a commentary on Sappho’s inauguration—or on the dangers of coming out in public, as lesbians?

As a reader, I find myself less worried about Mildred than on the effect her outstretched axe will have on Mabel as she falls—a fear exacerbated by this cartoon, just a few pages later, in which Mildred has apparently chopped off Mabel’s head. The joke here is similarly dark: “For heaven’s sake Mildred,” chastises Mabel’s severed head as it floats above her fleeing body, “don’t lose your head!”

Line-drawing of two naked women. The woman on the right holds an axe and is running towards the woman on the left who is running away. With her head detached from her body she has a speech bubble saying 'For heavens sake Mildred, don't lose your head!
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 12.

By the second volume, the two are clearly gendered as a butch/femme pair, thanks to the artist’s pointed application of a decorative bow shape: as a bowtie on Mildred (and her axe), and as a hair accessory on Mabel. It affirms the physical stereotyping already in place: Mildred is relatively stout (and violent), while Mabel is slim, with substantial breasts that occasionally overshadow her knobbly knees and elbows.

Line drawing of six people queuing for an opera performance.
“Mabel and Mildred,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 18.

With sly humor, this unusual level of clothing for the pair is featured in a cartoon in which the pair have joined a queue for a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra. The four characters in line ahead of them represent various characters comically typical of performing arts audiences, all carefully disregarding the naked women behind them. Mildred, facing the viewer and thus seen frontally rather than in profile, explains to Mabel that “It’s about a disturbed nuclear family.” In Strauss’s opera, Electra is armed with an axe with which she avenges her father’s death at the hands of her mother; the myth was taken up by Carl Jung as the basis for a psychoanalytic model of the feminine psyche in 1915.

As an early example of humor in Sappho, “Mildred and Mabel” reflected the middle-class values of the editors in its expectation that readers would recognize references to Strauss and Jung, as well as in the types of activities in which Mabel and Mildred participate. At the same time, the cartoon couple embodied—literally—the paradox of middle-class lesbian existence. Asserting their cultural savvy in their choice of outings, yet persistently appearing naked in public, they thematize the struggle of queer visibility and social acceptance with irony and self-deprecation.

With the caveat that it’s outdated, a friend offered me: "What's the difference between a lesbian and a dyke?" "About $30K a year."

Class was a persistent discussion in Sappho despite its declared affinity with the middle class. In an early issue, Forster refuted the Union of Women for Liberation’s claim that the lesbianism of “a few petty bourgeois women” was “irrelevant to the economic needs of working-class women.” She regularly published letters from readers who asked for more working-class representation, and class struggle came up regularly throughout the magazine’s pages.6

In 1974, cartoonists Kate Charlesworth—now well-known, but in her early work for Sappho credited as “Kaye”—and Sue Neumann joined the masthead of Sappho as artists. They both created witty, many-layered comics for the magazine that draw on art history, public schools, tourism, fashion, and other features of middle-class lesbian experience. Alongside their carefully crafted images, a series of relatively simple images began to appear. Created by a variety of artists (none credited, although a few of the images are signed with initials), they transformed the Venus symbol familiar from the Sappho logo into an anthropomorphic character.

This had two important effects: first, it largely eliminated class-specific references—as well as racial or ethnic markers, which provoked less specific comment at the time, but are striking to contemporary readers. And second, by making visual puns that relied on the formal qualities of the Venus symbol rather than the cultural specificity of a human character, these apparently minor cartoons became surprisingly conceptual in their comedy.

Line drawing of two Venus symbols
“Stop acting butch,” Sappho 3, no. 11 (1975): 19.

The first to appear was this small bit, tucked into the corner of a page about halfway through the magazine. Two Venus signs are side-by-side: the one on the left is oriented in the expected way, but the one on the right is rotated so that the cross that should be beneath the circle is pointing up at a forty-five-degree angle, mimicking the position of the Mars sign typically used to signify male identity. The circle of the Venus on the left cracks into a speaking smile: “Stop acting butch,” she says. How are we supposed to interpret this directive?

Although Steven Dryden has noted elsewhere on the British Library blogs that the scholarly consensus is that “there was a class dimension to the hostility towards butch lesbian identities,” the illustrations in Sappho normalized butch-femme pairings. Along with “Mabel and Mildred,” “The Gailies,” for example, was a recurring strip by Jay Francis that featured a butch-femme couple, and a comic by Charlesworth replaced Tarzan with a butch Jane as she rescues a hapless femme damsel.7

The difference between “Stop acting butch,” and these other examples is that the former is stripped of any extraneous cultural markers, thanks to the reduction of our protagonists to symbols. In other words, the visual humor is based not on our ability to recognize a human type from their class/race/gender markers, but rather on a visual pun: the Venus symbol is acting out of character by rotating itself 135º anticlockwise—thereby mimicking the appearance of a different symbol.

The cartoon is immediately funny, but it also rewards sustained attention. Consider the effectiveness of the symbol’s transgressive resignification of itself: acceding to the anthropomorphism of the artist, we understand perfectly what the Venus symbol intends to represent—masculinity. At the same time, we understand the artist’s intent: to represent masculinity with a symbol that signifies femininity. The humor comes from our ability to comprehend both meanings at once, almost instantly, without this pedantic explanation. And then we realize that the artist is inviting us to transfer that awareness onto our understanding of gender: in the semiotic space of the tilted Venus, one sign signifies twice, equally effectively, because signs—and genders—are both arbitrary cultural constructions.

Louise Siddons, May 2021

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Endnotes
1 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12; “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
2 “Robyn’s Page,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 12.
3 Rod A. Martin and Thomas E. Ford, The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach (Academic Press, 2018).
4 Not exclusively, though: there’s a cartoon with two Venus symbols sharing a snide comment as the Mars sign bumps his arrow into a doorframe—and even Mildred gets an opportunity to turn her nose up at the thought of a man as a potential mate.
5 “About Sappho,” Sappho 1, no. 1 (1972): 3.
6 “Militant Madams,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 9-10; Jackie Forster, untitled editorial, Sappho 4, no. 1 (1975): 3.
7 Steven Dryden, https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/arena-three-britains-first-lesbian-magazine; “The Gailies” first appear in Sappho 1, no. 7 (1972); Kate Charlesworth, “Me Jane!,” Sappho 2, no. 11 (1974): 20.

02 February 2021

We're calling for your Caribbean food stories

Newspaper article titled 'Ridley Rd Market', black and white images of market stalls selling yams and bananas.
West Indian World, 9 July 1971. British Library shelfmark: LOU.4359 [1971]

Following Riaz Phillips’s wonderful blog, I would like to introduce a new project that the Eccles Centre is launching – ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’. It is inspired by an exciting spread of food-related collection items, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (2020) and a desire to hear your stories and have your input in collections development, here at the library.

As Phillips describes in his blog, food has often been a battleground for survival, culture, home-making and resistance. A critical roadmap for understanding histories and experiences of migration, ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ aims to explore and highlight these histories in a collaborative way, through conversation and exchange.  In recognition of food’s vital place in community and struggle, this project seeks to listen to and learn from your stories.

Front-cover of pamphlet-style cookbook.
Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica Run-dung: Over 100 Recipes. Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973. British Library shelfmark: YA.1989.a.11640

The British Library’s collections are stuffed with fascinating and largely untapped resources relating to Caribbean food, scattered through manuscripts, printed books, newspapers,  magazines, sound and oral histories. Over the coming months we are embarking on a series of connected projects, working with communities and partners in the Caribbean and the UK, to select key collection items to digitize and make freely available online; to identify significant gaps in the collection; and to tell and record new stories and memories of food, culture and experience amongst the global Caribbean diaspora.

From Black British magazines such as Tropic (1960) and Flamingo (1961-65), to community-published cookbooks in London and colonial cookbooks published in the Caribbean, the British Library holds a variety of collection items that speak to the complexities of Caribbean food history.

Front cover of the magazine with a woman posing in blue summer dress, a red and white head scarf and jewellery.
Flamingo, October 1961. British Library shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq

 

Advert for Edwin McKenzie Tropic Food, drawing of palm trees with a list of foods available e.g. hot pepper sauce and guavas.
Tropic, September 1960. British Library shelfmark: P.P.7615.kf

 

Introduction page including a list of contributors.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project, 1981. British Library shelfmark: X.629/17620

Caribbean Food and You!

Through a series of initiatives, including oral history interviews, the British Library wants to engage participants in conversations about life, history and politics through food. This marks an opportunity for people to tell their food stories and memories which will inform new collection perspectives and development at the British Library.

The interviews recorded for this project will be deposited in the British Library’s Sound Archive, becoming a part of the Library’s collection forever. They will also be the basis for a series of blogs, as part of the British Library’s 2021 Food Season. In preparation for these interviews, Eccles staff will search for collection items which connect to participants’ food memories, as well as drawing up a list of new items to acquire (with public input).

There are different ways to get involved, whether the Library's buildings are open or closed:
   • Put yourself forward for an interview
   • Home collections: we are all the archivers of our own lives and homes, so why not explore your own shelves, photo albums, cupboards and memories to discover collection items  in your own home and tell us about them
   • Researching from home: we invite you to scour the British Library's online catalogue for food-related items and to write to us about items that you’re interested in.  Look out   for an upcoming blog on navigating the digital Caribbean collections
   • Expanding the collections: have you noticed something missing from the Library's catalogue?  If so, please get in touch and we can try to acquire those items
   • Digitizing: we would like to expand the range of items available to view online, and would like to hear your suggestions for new items to be digitized – excerpts of books, newspapers, diaries and letters from the modern era that you think people should be able to see, for free, anywhere in the world
   • Once the Library is open, come in and look at these fantastic items!

‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ is about opening up the Library’s collections and creating a platform for people to tell their own story, so that, together, we can explore the relationships between personal experience and national knowledge.  For us, it’s an opportunity to listen to your stories, learn more about our collections and make them better by adding your voice.

NB: Being Interviewed: If you’d like to put yourself forward to be interviewed, please send an email with some information about yourself and why you would like to share your story about Caribbean food with the British Library. Please send your statement of around 250 words to naomi.oppenheim@bl.uk by 5pm on Sunday 28 February 2021. Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee to interview everyone who gets in touch, but we promise to reply to everyone by 5pm on Friday 12 March. We expect interviews to take place between Monday 15 March and Friday 2 April 2021.

Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim

Further Online Reading/Listening

• Abdul Rob, ‘The Origins of ‘slave food’: Callaloo, Dumplings and Saltfish’, Black History Month, 20 December 2016
• Bernice Green, ‘Food: From Source to Salespoint’, British Library Sound Archive, C821/49
• Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, ‘Beyond the scotch bonnet: the rise of Caribbean food in the UK’, Guardian, 20 January 2019
• ‘Frank Critchlow’, Waking the Dead, Octavia Foundation
• ‘Is it harder to make it in the food industry if you’re black?’, The Food Programme, BBC, 5 July 2020
• Keshia Sakarah, ‘Jouney Cakes’, Vittles 2.14 – The Diversity of Caribbean Cuisines, 12 June 2020
• ‘Mangrove Nine: Directed by John La Rose and Franco Rosso’, George Padmore Institute
• Nadine Chambers, ‘The Black and Indigenous present in the story of how Breadfruit came to the Caribbean’, British Library Americas blogs, 9 July 2020
• Organised Youth, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, SoundCloud
• Riaz Phillips (editor and curator), Community Comfort, online cookbook. Tezeta Press, 2020
• Riaz Phillips’ Top Caribbean Spots, Trippin

Curry goat to political rallying

Riaz Phillips on Caribbean takeaways, foodways and politics

When people ask me for intel on the best jerk chicken or Trini roti in London or where to visit for some Caribbean goodness when they are in a number of other cities across the country, while I do of course have some small personal favourites, the question for me always misses the point.  For me the importance of Caribbean food institutions in the UK has never been about the food but rather their importance as a community hub.

An open book, with a page of text on the left about 'Caribbean Food in the UK' and a mural of the Empire Windrush on the right.
Riaz Philips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK. Second Edition. London: Tezeta Press, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tezeta Press. First edition, London: Tezeta Press, 2017. British Library shelfmark YKL.2017.b.4909..

The particular plight of the post-war Caribbean community in the UK and the treacherousness of everyday life has been wonderfully depicted in all manner of media.  Favourites include Samuel Selvin’s 1956 book The Lonely Londoners to films like Horace Ove’s 1975 film Pressure.  While much of focus of the Caribbean community in the UK, like in other diaspora regions such as the USA and Canada, is placed on the globally renowned subculture of Reggae, I struggled to find much, if anything, about the places and spaces outside one’s home where people congregated to eat.

Book cover of The Lonely Londoners depicting a woman and two men, all smartly dressed. The woman is wearing a white blouse, white jewellery and black skirt; both men are wearing jackets, ties and hats.
Samuel Selvon, The Lonely Londoners. London: Allan Wingate, 1956. British Library shelfmark: RF.2013.a.2

In books and magazine clippings, mostly found researching at the British Library, I rejoiced whenever a restaurant or eatery was mentioned in passing.  Early instances of particularly Caribbean food and drink establishments - cafés, bars and social clubs selling Caribbean food and cooked meals - date back to the late 1920s.  This handful included the likes of the Caribbean Café at 185a Bute Road in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, which was the locale of the 1919 South Wales riots, and 50 Carnaby Street in Central London.1   The latter, founded by Sam Manning and Amy Ashwood, a political activist and first wife of famed Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, was described as an intellectual hub, “guests were attracted to the rice n peas West Indian Cuisine.”2  The fact that many of these food-related histories are hard to find is why the British Library is a launching a Caribbean foodways project which seeks to amplify food stories and memories.

Black and white photograph of one woman and four men standing next to each other in front of a short wall; all are smartly dressed.
Amy Ashwood Garvey stands on the left Ethiopian Sympathizers at London Meeting, 1935. British Library shelfmark 515019168. © Bettmann / Contributor

From their inception, these institutions went beyond simply being buildings at which to summon a takeaway box of curry goat to being places at which to politically rally, to be merry and more importantly to be free from persecution.  All this - the banter, the arguments over the hottest latest musician, the comedic tiffs between nuances of the different Caribbean islands and, when necessary, the planning of political upheaval - were pleasingly depicted in 2020’s Mangrove feature film directed by Steve McQueen.  However, years before this, I felt that the breadth of these spaces hadn’t truly been given the documentation they deserved in the wider story of this vivid group of people in the UK.

Collage of photographs taken at Mister Patty in Brent.
Photo courtesy of Riaz Phillips.

I like to use the word "vivid" because one thing I feel that outsiders don’t realise about the Caribbean is the great diversity of its people - from African-descendant Rastafari and generational Chinese in the west of the Island group, to Muslim southeast Asians at the other reach of the Caribbean.  Be it the Ital vegan spots, the Guyanese roti shops, Jamaican jerk huts or even home cooking, foodways are the perfect route in convoying stories and memories of the Caribbean and any project encompassing this will always reveal some gems.

Riaz Phillips is a writer, videomaker and photographer.  His book Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK was published in 2017 and a second edition was published in 2020.
@riazphillips

If you would like to read more about 'Caribbean Foodways at the British Library', please read We're calling for your Caribbean food stories to find out more about the project, including information on how you can participate.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Footnotes:

1.  Cardiff Migration Stories. London: Runnymede Trust, 2012. 
2.  C. Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa. London: Vintage, 2009., p. 437. British Library shelfmark YC.2010.a.1521;  S. Okokon, Black Londoners, 1880-1990. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub., 1998. British Library shelfmark YC.1999.b.664

References

Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK. London: Tezeta Press, 2017. British Libary shelfmark YKL.2017.b.4909

 

18 December 2020

Cooking a Christmas Meal in the Caribbean Collections

Given there is no canteen Christmas lunch on offer this year, I thought I would ‘cook up’ a Caribbean Christmas meal out of the collections.

Colourful painting of a street scene with a man dressed in costume with a feathered headpiece.
Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist. Kingston, Jamaica: The Mill Press, 2008. Shelfmark: LD.31.b.1989

“Koo-Koo, Koo-Koo” an attendant chorus repeated, imitating the ‘rumbling sound of the bowels, when in a hungry state.’1  This was the origin of the ‘Koo-Koo’ chant according to Isaac Medes Belisario, the Jamaican Jewish painter, engraver and lithographer.  The calling of Koo-Koos would sound the streets of Kingston during Junkanoo – the carnivalesque celebration that occurs around Christmas time in parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean.  Rooted in the era of slavery, Junkanoo festivities were performed during the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle.  While the concept of Christmas was a colonial imposition in the Caribbean, the short break that this Christian holiday instigated became an opportunity for the creation of independent, creolized, defiant and delicious traditions.  From the rumbling stomach of Junkanoo to the ceremonial soaking of fruit in rum, Christmas through the mouth of the Caribbean collections is a varied and delectable affair.

The Main Event

Deviating from the oft-dry Turkey, the centrepiece of a Caribbean Christmas meal might be a ‘Christmas Goat’ or a pig.  As contributors to the community-published cookbook, Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole explain, Christmas in St. Lucia is a big celebration, where pigs are fattened up to be eaten on Christmas day and there are lots of dances and parties that ‘carry on through Christmas and New Year’.

Text from a book which describes Christmas in St Lucia.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

Much more efficient to rear than cows and easier to farm on smallholdings, the goat has consistently been one of the most consumed meats in Jamaica since the nineteenth century. Goat was ‘also the most commonly eaten mammal in India, after the sheep,’ which made it appealing to Jamaica’s East Indian community.The curry goat, a classic of Jamaican cuisine, is a product of East Indian and African creolization in Jamaica.

Text from a book which describes the Christmas Goat.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

 

Trimmings

As Carly Lewis-Oduntan writes in her article, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas,’ a British and Caribbean Christmas food fusion might encompass roast turkey accompanied with rice and peas.  Derived from Akan cuisine, variations of rice and bean dishes have been a staple of Caribbean diets for centuries.  During the era of slavery, enslaved peoples in the English-Speaking Caribbean subsisted on their provision ground harvests (small plots of land where anything from yams to beans were grown), which have profoundly shaped the ingredients, processes and tastes that remain central to Caribbean cuisine.  Ripening just in time for Christmas, the perennial Gungo pea is an ‘essential part of the Christmas Day menu’, replacing the often-used kidney bean in rice and peas.

Sketches of different shaped beans.
B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008. Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918.

 

Front-cover with a palm tree on an island amongst a background of blue.
P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes. London: The New Europe Publishing Co. Ltd, 1946. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.5048
Recipes for Savoury Carrot Mould, Peas and Rice, Indian Cabbage and Bean Pie.
P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes. London: The New Europe Publishing Co. Ltd, 1946. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.5048

 

The Proof is in the Pudding

The Caribbean Christmas cake or pudding is the product of months (or even years) of rum soaking.  Atop of kitchen cupboards you might spot dried fruit soaking in deep amber jars of rum, in preparation for baking the spiced, boozy and dense Christmas cake.  From the sugar grown and harvested on plantations, to the by-product of sugar (rum is made from molasses which is produced when sugarcane is refined) and regionally grown spices like nutmeg, Christmas pudding is an example of the region’s history melding together.

Recipe for Jamaican Christmas pudding
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620
Recipe continued with an illustration of a small bottle of liquor and nutmegs.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

 

A drink with that?

Colourful illustration of a sorrel flower
Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain. London: Mantra Publishing, 1988. Shelfmark: YK.1989.b.1722
A drink recipe using sorrel and rum.
Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica Run-dung: Over 100 Recipes. Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973. Shelfmark: YA.1989.a.11640

 

How about a deep red glass of tart, sweet and cool sorrel drink, made from an infusion of fresh or dried sorrel.  The Jamaican name for hibiscus, B. W. Higman cites sorrel as arriving during in the eighteenth century, from Africa. Planted in August, the sorrel plant is harvested in December and January, hence, its Christmas association.  The refreshing drink is made by steeping sorrel in water for two days with ginger, cloves, orange peel, rum or wine.  These classic Christmas flavours encompass Britain’s colonial history and the far-reaching impact of the Spice Trade.

Drawing of a yellow hibiscus flower.
Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamaican Flowering Plants. Kingston, Jamaica: The Mill Press, 1999. Shelfmark: YA.2003.a.26672

 

I hope this has whet your appetite for a Merry Christmas and has maybe even inspired you to test out one of these recipes – please get in touch if you do!

In 2021, we will be launching an exciting project that seeks to re-interpret, locate and co-create more sources on the history of Caribbean food, spanning from colonial materials, to post-independence and contemporary sources. We will need your input and participation … so watch this space and have a relaxing winter break.

Naomi Oppenheim, community engagement and Caribbean Collections intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and CDP student researching Caribbean publishing and activism.  @naomioppenheim

Endnotes

1. Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008), p.250.
2. B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), p.387-9.

Works Cited

* B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), BL Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
* Carly Lewis-Oduntan, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas’, VICE, 14 December 2018
* Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain (London: Mantra Publishing, 1988) BL Shelfmark YK.1989.b.1722
* Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008). BL Shelfmark LD.31.b.1989
* Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamacian Flowering Plants (Kingston: The Mill Press, 1999)
* P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes, BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.5048
* Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica run-dung: over 100 recipes (Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973) BL Shelfmark YA.1989.a.11640
* ‘14th Day of Christmas – Gungo Peas & Christmas’, Jamaica Information Service

Further Reading

* B. W. Higman, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D’Oeurve’, New West Indian Guide, 72 (1998).
* Catherine Hall, ‘Whose Memories? Edward Long and the Work of Re-Remembering’ in K. Donington, R. Hanley, & J. Moody (Eds.), Britain's History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a 'National Sin'’ (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), pp. 129-149.
* Chanté Joseph, ‘Confronting the Colonial Past of Jamaica’s Hard Dough Bread’, VICE, 25 April 2019
* Colleen Taylor Sen, Curry: A Global History (London: Reaktion, 2009) BL Shelmark YK.2010.a.31951
* Edward Long, A History of Jamaica (London: T. Lowndes, 1774), 981.f.19-21. [Version available online]
* Malini Roy, ‘Reopening and reinterpretation – our Front Hall Busts’, Living Knowledge Blog, 28 August 2020
* Naomi Oppenheim, ‘A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas’, American Collections blog, 7 January 2019
* Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2017) YKL.2017.b.4909

 

04 August 2020

Reactions to HIV in the 1980s and COVID-19 stigma

This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US  collections.

My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy.  I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto.  It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital.  Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed.  Little did I know that would change the course of my life.  The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life.  As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone.  Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand.  Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men.  Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.

Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020.  A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic.  A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma.  While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic.  Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2

A photo of Susan Sontag sitting in her own home. Her left arm rests on a table and the right rests on the arm of the chair. Her dark hair is loose. She is wearing an open-necked striped shirt and a dark waistcoat. There are floor to ceiling bookcases in the background.
Susan Sontag, photographed in her own home. 1979. Copyright Lynn Gilbert.  (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking.  I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma.  Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded.  The body is not a battlefield.  The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.  We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3  Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable.  While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts.  Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history.  Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other.  Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’.  People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’.  This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.

Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope.  They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities.  We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick.  These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly.  Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).

I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing.  Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities.  My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.

Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792

References:

1.  Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100;  Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.

2.  D. Crimp,  AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16.  General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.

3.  Sontag, 1989. p. 180.

Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:

C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.'  Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504

C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.'  AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.

28 July 2020

Colonial American Theatre

This post by Jeffery Kennedy is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

As friends and colleagues heard that I had received a Fulbright Scholar Award to the British Library, their first question was to ask what I would be researching.  When I told them a new text on American Theatre history, their puzzled look was typically followed by “At the British Library?”  The reality is that studying British theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries is precisely where one needs to begin as this is the origin from which almost all of Early American theatre springs.  My research goals while a guest of the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies revolved around three main threads of study: 1) identifying the British ancestry of colonists recorded to have performed the first play in the American colonies; 2) the significant influence the Puritans had on theatre in both Britain and America; and 3) the Restoration plays that were the first to be performed professionally in the colonies.  I want to report here about the first item, which was the ancestral work the resources at the Library allowed me to complete.

A contemporary heritage plaque indicating where 'The Bear and the Cub' was performed.
The Bear and the Cub Marker: This sign is located on Highway 17 in Pungoteague, Virginia, telling of the town’s history of staging the first play in America. Image courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The first recorded play performed in the American colonies took place on 27 August 1665 in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Virginia.  The play was titled “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” and we know of the performance because of its entry in the legal record.  After being performed in Fowlkes Tavern, a citizen, Edward Martin, reported his moral objection to the local authorities, though what his protest was specifically is not known.  Likely it sprang as a remnant from the twenty-year ban on theatre in Britain that was a result of Puritan dominance after 1640.  The Puritans, who desired a stricter religious practice than the new Church of England required, believed that theatre was, at its core, evil.  Charles I was beheaded as head of the Church of England by the Puritan rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell and monarch rule was suspended.  Puritan influence led to similar kinds of judgements about theatre in America, particularly in the northeastern colonies of New England.  However, the “Restoration” occurred after Charles II was installed as king in 1660, returning Britain to being led by a monarch.  As a result, theatres reopened in London, most often performing frivolous comedies of manners that featured women on stage for the first time.

A sepia photograph of a tavern with 15 or so people standing in front.
An old photograph of Fowlkes Tavern, courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The local Accomack judges responded to Martin’s charge by bringing before them the play’s likely author, William Darby, and Cornelius Watkinson and Philip Howard, who performed it with him.  After they were “subjected to a rigid cross-examination,” the council ordered them to perform the play at their next session, costumes and all.After the performance, finding the play innocent in content as well as intent, the council released the three men from all charges and instead ordered their accuser, Martin, to pay the expenses incurred.  Sadly, there is no existing script of the play, nor are the plot or characters known.  Some scholars conjecture that the title implies a critique of mother England’s (the Bear) newly imposed restrictions on direct sales to other countries of goods created in the colonies (the Cub).  Also, little has been known about the lives of the three who performed the play, particularly Darby.  One of my goals was to conduct genealogical research to see if I could discover anything, including where in England he had emigrated from, something previously unknown.

I consulted many genealogical records within the Library, most of which were typically kept by the local parishes that recorded births, christenings, marriages, and burials.  One of the most helpful was from the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society, published in 1912.2  The evidence strongly suggests that William Darby was born in Tipton, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.  His family moved to nearby Rowley when he was still a boy, and it is here that he married Elizabeth Heywood.  The last record of the family living in Rowley is the 1650 death of William’s middle daughter, Anne, at the age of nine; all references after this locate them in Virginia.  William had five children, and we gain the most information by tracing the life of his eldest son, Daniel. We know that by 1665, the year the play was performed, William was forty-eight-years-old and that this same year 25 year old Daniel married the 22 year old Dorothy Churchill in Accomack County, Virginia.  Dorothy had come to Accomack in 1664 as a “headright,” the name for those who self-indentured; such individuals were provided with passage via ship and basic necessities in exchange for a fixed period of unwaged labour in the new colony.  Whether the Darbys were freemen or became freedmen is so far not known.  Daniel eventually became a land-owner and served in local civic affairs.  How or why William was involved in presenting and perhaps even writing a play is so far unknown, but I intend to pursue this further.

My research through the Eccles Centre yielded this critical information, which is more than has been able to be confirmed to this degree by other scholars.  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic required me to return to the U.S. after just a short time, not allowing me to finish more research.  However, I hope to return to the Library’s hallowed halls to pursue even more deeply those Brits involved in the vital launching of theatre in America.

Jeffery Kennedy, Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar 2019-20, is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

References

  1. This comes from J. C. Wise, Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond, Va: Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911.  British Library shelfmark: 9602.s.2.
  2. Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. Privately printed for the Society, 1902- .  British Library shelfmarks: Ac.8131 & Document Supply 8426.420000.

23 July 2020

The Perils of Diplomatic Protection in the Early 19th Century

This post by Vanessa Mongey is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

How far should diplomatic protection extend?  Surely, consul James Buchanan argued, there must be limits to American “humanity.”  In Belize, a British settlement in Central America, Buchanan was trying to understand his responsibilities towards U.S. citizens.  The hurricane season of 1849 had caused a few ships to wreck near the coast and the officers, crew, and passengers had sought refuge in the port of Belize.  They turned to Buchanan for help.  The consul paid for a few destitute sailors to return home, but the situation soon got out of control. Officers demanded he pay for their room and board.  Sailors asked storekeepers to send their bills to him.

When the consul refused to reimburse all these expenses, the crew complained to the local British police and magistrates.  They turned to the Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1796) that provided certificates for the protection of sailors.  They argued that the U.S. government owed them not only diplomatic but also financial protection. Buchanan was as annoyed as he was confused.  He asked the State Department what to do with U.S. citizens stranded abroad.  He confessed that he had “no legal knowledge of what the consul’s duties are in this matter.”

A page of a handwritten letter from the U.S. Consul in British Honduras to the U.S. State Department.
An example of consular correspondence. Part of a letter from U.S. Consul to State Department, 15 February 1863. The letter mentions white settlers' anxieties around plans by the government of British Honduras (today's Belize) to encourage African American immigration from the U.S.  British Library shelfmark (microfilm): T334 Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Belize, 1847-1906, roll 1, 1847 –1863.

The correspondences of U.S. consular representatives in the British Library abound with this kind of complaints and queries.  Many politicians, jurists, and citizens in the United States embraced the view that individuals had a natural right to leave their country.  Increasing numbers of U.S. Americans traveled abroad during the nineteenth century. Some served in Latin American independent armies and navies.  Many settled in neighbouring foreign territories like Florida, Texas, and California, eventually leading the United States to invade and annex these territories.  Freedom of movement often bolstered U.S continental and commercial ambitions.

Although the nineteenth century saw relatively unregulated movement, the right to travel was racialized.  Freedom of movement was often a privilege of European and Euro-descendants as shown by tensions surrounding Chinese immigration to California and issues around enslaved and free travelers of African descent moving across state and national lines.

Even for free white U.S. Americans, the right to travel freely created new challenges: what happened when citizens crossed international borders and got into trouble abroad? Instrumental in defining and implementing diplomatic protection were consular networks.  Lacking a significant overseas presence in the first half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government possessed neither the resources nor the capabilities to monitor the activities of their citizens abroad.  With no formal training, consuls were the ones on the ground who assisted Americans when they ended up in jail, aided them in navigating estate and inheritance issues, or represented their legal interests.  They often had to decide whether an individual was really a U.S. citizen, and therefore entitled to consular protection, at a time when no definition of national citizenship existed.

Painting of men gathering in Peshawar. Some are on horseback, others talk together in groups. Buildings and trees surround the square.
Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan). Chromolithograph from plate 9 of William Simpson's India: Ancient and Modern (1867). British Library shelfmark X108(9). Available in the British Library Online Gallery.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States could not set up permanent consular posts in India.  The British kept tight control over the region, thwarting U.S. consuls in Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai).  The India Office Records and Private Papers in the British Library show that tensions frequently erupted between British and U.S. representatives.  British authorities complained about distressed sailors who ended up in their care.  One U.S. consul in Singapore simply refused to help naturalized American citizens, arguing that those who were born British subjects fell under the Common Law doctrine of perpetual allegiance.  In brief, once British, always British—especially if these individuals were potential drains on consular finances.

In addition to uncertainty and confusion expressed by U.S. consuls, these correspondences also reveal how U.S. citizens understood their rights and responsibilities.  When they had the resources or the connections, they sent letters to journal editors in the United States, hoping to put pressure on consuls.

This early phase of diplomatic experimentation came to an end in the middle of the nineteenth century.  As the U.S. consular service expanded outside of Europe and the Americas and into China, Japan, and Siam, the government formalised the diplomatic and consular system in 1856.  A reform legislation introduced salaries for a greater number of consular officials, hoping to reduce corruption and professionalise the service.  The same year, the State Department received sole issuing power over passports and limited their use to U.S. citizens, thus reducing the autonomy of consuls.  The Civil War (1861-1865) prompted a sharp growth of the consular service. At the end of the war, the fourteenth amendment defined national citizenship to include all persons born or naturalized in the United States.  Monitoring international travel served as a testing ground for restrictions of citizenship rights along class, gender, and racial lines.

Dr Vanessa Mongey, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is on Twitter @VMongey

Resources consulted:

For US Federal Government Publications, the finding aid Diplomatic Records: A select catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (shelf mark OPL 973.0076) is available in the Social Sciences reading room. It has been annotated to indicate which microfilms are in the British Library and gives their shelfmarks. I made particular use of ‘The correspondences of U.S. ministers at overseas posts’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.21) and ‘U.S. consuls at overseas ports’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.22). The India Office Records and Private Papers: the general shelfmark is IOR/Z/E/ and this is the collection guide

Further reading:

Fahrmeir, Andreas O. & Patrick Weil (eds.), Migration Control in the North Atlantic World: The Evolution of State Practices in Europe and the United States from the French Revolution to the Inter-War Period. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002. British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply m03/17964; General Reference Collection YC.2003.a.13981; General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.515229.
Glanville, Luke. “The Responsibility to Protect Beyond Borders.” Human Rights Law Review. 12: 1 (2012): 1–32.  British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply 4336.440550; General Reference Collection ZC.9.b.7074.
Green, Nancy L. “The Politics of Exit: Reversing the Immigration Paradigm.” The Journal of Modern History. 77: 2 (2005): 263-289. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 5020.680000.
Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018.  British Library shelfmark: YC.2019.a.4852.
Kennedy, Charles Stuart. The American Consul: A History of the United States Consular Service 1776–1924. New York: Greenwood, 1990. British Library shelfmark: YC.1992.b.1026. (Rev. ed. published by New Academia Publishing, 2015). 
Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. British Library shelfmark: YC.2017.a.660.
Phelps, Nicole. Researching the U.S. Consular Service https://blog.uvm.edu/nphelps/

 

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