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39 posts categorized "#EcclesFellows"

17 September 2021

The Masters of Margarita – Anglo-Spanish rivalry, treason and the slave trade

This blog by Rebecca Goetz (Visiting Fellow, 2018) 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.

In my work at the British Library in June and July 2019, I was particularly interested in documents from the late seventeenth-century Caribbean that might shed light on illegal and quasi-legal slave raiding and slave trading – moments when the evil but nonetheless completely legal (and indeed, highly regulated) trafficking in African and Indigenous American human life that we know as the Atlantic slave trades collided with the criminal or legal grey worlds of pirates and privateers. Jamaica was a particularly volatile meeting point between these different forms of maritime violence, trade and enterprise. The English seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and in the course of the next few decades, the newly-conquered island became a haven for pirates and privateers, and not coincidentally, a locus of the shadowy world of intra-European slave trading. I wanted to know how and where Europeans raided and traded for enslaved people, Indigenous and African alike. One paragraph in the records of the governor’s council of Jamaica caught my eye (Sloane MSS 1599). I had not expected to find such a vivid tale of extralegal slaving, Spanish-English rivalry, and treason against the English Crown in the British Library’s manuscripts collection – and yet here we were!

A bound volume of seventeenth-century manuscripts is open at the Minutes of a Meeting of the Council of Jamaica, 13 March 1688, Sloane MS 1599, v26-r27.
Minutes of a Meeting of the Council of Jamaica, 13 March 1688, Sloane MS 1599, v26-r27.

On 13 March 1688 , Captain Edward Reddish appeared before the council, asking for assistance in obtaining compensation from the governor of Margarita for the illegal seizure of his ship, the Inlargement, in 1682. The ship, which Reddish co-owned with several other business partners, was a slave ship carrying a cargo of 135 souls from Africa for sale in the English Caribbean. Reddish claimed he had difficulties with his ship, and so had put it at the island of Margarita to make repairs. The governor of Margarita, a man he named as Juan Fermín, seized the Inlargement and her cargo. Reddish told the council that “Firmin under the colour of freindship surprized the sd ship and detained her to owners loss of 5600 pounds.” Reddish went on to say that Fermín was not the legitimate governor of Margarita; Fermín had usurped that power from the duly appointed governor of the island and forced him to “take sanctuary in the Church.” Reddish understood that the rightful government on Margarita had been restored and wanted the council’s assistance in reclaiming his property or in winning restitution.

This short paragraph attracted my attention because I could not imagine what legitimate business an English captain might have on Margarita, a tiny island off the coast of what is now Venezuela, over 1,500 km away from Jamaica at completely the other end of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish had claimed mastery of Margarita since the mid-1520s, when they were busily laying claim to the southern Caribbean and its rich pearl beds. Margarita and its sister islets, Coche and Cubagua, were centers of the Spanish pearling industry from the 1520s to the 1540s. Even as early as the first decade of the 1500s, Margarita, Coche, Cubagua, and the nearby mainland were also centers of Spanish slaving of Indigenous people. By the later sixteenth century, Margarita had reinvented itself not as a pearling space but as a locus of a vigorous, informal, and often illegal trade in enslaved Indigenous people from the interior of South America. Margarita was an entrepot providing extralegal and untaxed access to enslaved people to other Spanish islands as well as Cartagena and Spanish settlements in central America. In the 1590s, Walter Ralegh noted a well-established slave trade in the Orinoco River basin; he described canoes full of captive Indigenous women bound for sale as slaves on Margarita. Almost a century later, Margarita remained part of an informal trading and slaving network that included English settlements in Guyana, Dutch settlements at Essequibo, and Curaçao. It seems unlikely to me that Reddish had such serious trouble with the Inlargement that he ended up at Margarita by accident. Instead, I suspect Reddish thought he could get a higher price for his enslaved cargo in Margarita than in Jamaica and he could evade English regulations and taxes while he was at it.

A large and colourful seventeenth-century map of the Caribbean Sea. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
'A Chart of the West Indies, from Cape Cod to the River Oronoque', in J. Seller, Atlas Maritimus (London, 1675). Maps 7 TAB.77. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
Detail of a large and colourful seventeenth-century map of the Caribbean Sea. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
Detail of 'A Chart of the West Indies, from Cape Cod to the River Oronoque', in J. Seller, Atlas Maritimus (London, 1675). Maps 7 TAB.77. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red



What Reddish did not expect was political chaos on Margarita. Juan Fermín de Huidobro was born on Margarita but had spent his career in various Spanish-controlled locales around the southern Caribbean, including posts on Trinidad and in Guyana. His varied career suggests to me he would have been broadly familiar with informal trade in enslaved people, foodstuffs, and commercially valuable products such as annatto (an orange-red condiment and natural dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree), tobacco, and sugar around the southern rim of the Caribbean. In 1677 he was appointed military commander in charge of fortifying the island and the nearby mainland against attack from the Dutch, English, and the Kalinagos of the Lesser Antilles. Fermín had a falling out with the civil governor of the island, Juan Muñoz Gadea, and the two spent the decade of the 1680s sparring in court at the Audiencia of Santo Domingo, in the Council of the Indies, and periodically launching rebellions against one another on the island. The saga came to a conclusion finally in 1689 when Fermín died.

Reddish clearly believed he could get compensation for the cargo of enslaved people Fermín seized from Muñoz. But the English governor of Jamaica, Christopher Monck, Duke of Albemarle, had other ideas. When Reddish brought his petition to the Council, Albemarle pointed out that some of the owners of the Inlargement had been “attainted for treason whereby the sd ship and Cargoe became forfeited.” The Council voted to write to the governor of Margarita and ask for compensation in the King’s name instead of Reddish’s. I imagine that Reddish’s business partners might have been involved in Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685, the unsuccessful uprising of several leading Protestant against the Catholic King James II, who was still on the throne at the time of Reddish’s petition (although I do not yet know for sure who they were). Reddish left the council empty-handed.

While I can flesh out the story of Reddish, the Inlargement, and political hijinks on Margarita, there is less I can say about the 135 enslaved people seized. Their “final passages,” as the historian Greg O’Malley would term them, were not recorded in the archives of Spain or of England. Illicit trading and tax evasion made it imperative for smugglers trading in enslaved people to avoid official notice—and thus details were not recorded in imperial archives. Some of these enslaved people might have remained on Margarita as pearl divers. Others might have been sold to planters in Cumaná’s nascent sugar economy. Some might have ended up in Cartagena, and others still might have been sold in Dutch, French, or English territories. Their voices and stories are lost amid tales of interimperial rivalry and treason.

06 August 2021

Two Conflicting Pioneers and their Precursors in the Amazon

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.

A  slightly side-on black and white image of G.H. Langsdorff.
Fig. 1: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta, due to Covid restrictions.

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.

Sea urchin 1
Fig. 2: Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College. 1871. British Library shelfmark: Ac.1726/36.

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.

Two women crouching and engaged in domestic tasks.
Fig. 3: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta due to Covid restrictions.
A page of musical notation and lyrics.
Fig. 4: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta, due to Covid restrictions.

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

02 August 2021

“We Must Speak with Our Bodies”

This blog by Louise Siddons is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre’s awards, have undertaken across the Library’s Americas collections.

A page from a magazine with a title and two columns of type.
Figure 1. Detail of Richard Erdoes, “Crow Dog: ‘We Have Tried to Tell the White Man With Our Lips… Now We Must Speak with Our Bodies’,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 40. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

I first started working with the Mohawk-produced newspaper Akwesasne Notes while I was a Summer Scholar at the Eccles Centre in 2018. I was researching an article about intersectional visual politics and the representation of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in its sister publication, The Black Panther—now available in the Summer 2021 issue of American Art.i Along the way, I collected examples of Native assertions of cultural sovereignty from the newspaper, setting them aside for future consideration. I’ve been back at the Eccles Centre as a Fulbright scholar this spring, and have taken the opportunity to follow up on some of those notes from a new vantage point.

Recent news has turned mainstream attention to the horrific histories of Native American and First Nations children at boarding schools in Canada and the United States. Long seen as tools of colonial assimilation, we increasingly understand the part they played in North American genocide throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Enrollment in boarding schools peaked in the 1970s: in 1973 it was estimated that 60,000 Native American children were in boarding schools in the United States. The devaluation of Native lives and culture was systemic and diffuse: resistance to it had to be equally comprehensive in order to succeed. In the 1970s, self-fashioning became one way among many that Native activists called attention to the structural undermining of Native identity and cultural sovereignty in educational institutions.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 by young activists who had participated in a variety of earlier organizing. Although the most well-known AIM actions were the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan that led to the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, DC, and the 1973 defense of Wounded Knee, the organization was active across the country at every level. From their beginnings, AIM leaders celebrated the “outer, visible Indian.”ii The “outer Indian” was a politically engaged, educated Native person who understood their Indigeneity in racial/ethnic, as well as cultural, terms. It also had a literal meaning: AIM members celebrated their politicized self-fashioning as an act of resistance against a white assimilationist establishment, a tool for pan-Indian coalition-building, and a strategy for being seen by mainstream media and audiences.

AIM leaders defined a very specific look for Indian activism that began with long hair. They pointed to the ways in which Indian identity had been attacked by the federal government through the regulation of individual appearance, focusing particularly on the targeted assimilation of children in boarding schools throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a 1973 interview with Akwesasne Notes, Carter Camp (Ponca) summarized the history of American education of Native Americans.

A page of a magazine with three columns of text and a small black and white picture in the final right hand column of a man on a horse.
Figure 2a: Full page, “When in the Course of Human Events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
Detail of a magazine page showing a close up of a man on a horse.
Figure 2b: Detail of illustration captioned “Carter Camp at the 1973 AIM Convention,” accompanying “When in the Course of Human Events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

“They first cut your hair off,” he began, “just like they do in the Marines—to make you lose your identity.” Carter’s military reference was no coincidence, as many AIM members were Vietnam veterans who condemned the war in Southeast Asia as another colonial enterprise, as driven by racism as it was by anti-communism. Camp continued: “These little kids had no protection from this monster that has them jailed. So we have our lost generation of Indian people—the guys who work for the BIA and try to be as white as they can.”iii As Camp’s statement implied, Native people, like all people, expressed community, cultural identity, and spiritual beliefs through clothing, hairstyle, and other elements of regalia and adornment. When the United States government (and other organizations, such as churches, which also ran boarding schools) forced young Indians to cut their hair and dress in school uniforms, they were fully cognizant of its negative impact on the children, their families, and communities. Nonetheless, they proudly published “before” and “after” photographs as evidence of their success in destroying Native cultures. When members of AIM and other youth activists let their hair grow long and adopted elements of traditional regalia in their dress, they were asserting individual and cultural sovereignty and also calling attention to the schools’ atrocities.

Long hair was a gendered issue—no one cut girls’ hair against their will—and so the fight over long hair was in part a fight over Native masculinity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AIM’s leadership was dominated by men, and the emergent trope of the Indian militant did not have much space for women, despite the fact that they were politically active across the continent. As activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) put it, the American Indian Movement offered its members “a new way to express our manhood,” in a statement that seemed to equate “Indianness” explicitly with masculinity.iv And yet coverage of AIM actions included many photographs of Native American women in bell-bottoms and other period fashion, as well as wearing Pendleton blankets, and framed with imagery that contextualizes and encourages an equally politicized reading of their long hair. Like many of the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in other words, the American Indian Movement struggled with gendered expectations for its members.v

Boarding schools were not their only targets. At its 1973 convention in Oklahoma, AIM called for a “national boycott of public schools which forbid native boys from wearing long hair”. 

A magazine page with three columns of text, a black and white photograph of a man with long hair wearing a headband and two other black and white illustrations of a bird and an old woman.
Figure 3a: Full page, “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
A black and white photograph of a man with long dark hair, with a boy with long hair and glasses standing to the left. Both wear headbands.
Figure 3b: Detail of illustration captioned “Buddy Hatch & Dennis Banks: Long hair, or no school,” accompanying “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

“Buddy Hatch, 11, an Oklahoma Arapaho lad, was chosen to symbolize the struggle. ... Hatch was expelled from school a year ago because his hair violated school regulations.”vi When an appeals court upheld the school’s regulations, AIM leader Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) deplored its refusal “to recognize Indian values. The courts are hostile to Indian heritage, and this hostility denies the Indian an opportunity to public education.”vii For Native people, regulations about hair length weren’t just about censoring individual self-expression. They represented centuries of colonial oppression, and therefore allowing one’s hair to grow long was a potent and highly visible symbol of political resistance. When he was recruited by AIM in 1969, Means “started growing his shoulder-length hair out so he could emulate others in AIM by wearing braids.”viii Similarly, an anonymous member described the moment in which he became involved with AIM: “I was assimilated into the mainstream of White America. And I was disenchanted. There was always an emptiness inside me. ... So I went up to Minnesota, and for about a week I visited with my brother and other people in the movement... Finally I got so involved I started letting my hair grow long, and I stopped wearing a tie and started to sort of deprogram myself, to become just a simple person, a simple man.”ix Although some participants later disavowed the stereotypical elements of AIM self-fashioning in this period, this desire to “deprogram” himself—today we might say decolonize— lends ideological weight to the self-transformation of AIM members across the board.

_______

Louise Siddons is 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.

Endnotes:

i American Art issues are available in print at British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 0810.395000. Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.
ii This intentionally contrasted with the “inner Indian” promoted by the Society of American Indians at the beginning of the century, which also ostensibly sought the betterment of Native Americans but argued that it would come about most effectively through outward assimilation. Hanson, Jeffery R. “Ethnicity and the Looking Glass: The Dialectics of National Indian Identity,” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Spring, 1997): 202 and 204. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.)
iii Carter Camp, “When in the course of human events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
iv Quoted in Gerald Vizenor, “Dennis of Wounded Knee,” in The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): 124-138: 126. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YA.1990.b.636.
v For more on gender in the American Indian Movement, see Susan Applegate Krouse, “What Came out of the Takeovers: Women’s Activism and the Indian Community School of Milwaukee,” American Indian Quarterly 27, no. 3/4, Urban American Indian Women’s Activism (Summer-Autumn 2003): 533-547, British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.); and Donna Hightower Langston, “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s,” Hypatia 18, no. 2, Indigenous Women in the Americas (Spring 2003): 114-132. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 4352.621500.
vi “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
vii Ibid.
viii Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1996): 133. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 96/26579.
ix “V.B.”, quoted in Rachel A. Bonney, “The Role of AIM Leaders in Indian Nationalism,” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 3 (Autumn, 1977): 209-224: 214. (Digital access to this issue of American Indian Quarterly is available in the British Library Reading Rooms.) The piece was originally published in Penthouse International Magazine for Men 1973: 59.

30 July 2021

Columbus and the Idea of Cuba

This blog by JS Tennant 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.

Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not and like Columbus also it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.

– Malcolm Lowry, 1937

It might seem like a truism to restate the importance of Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas. But recent theories around primacy - those jostling counter claims attributing first transatlantic landfall to Norsemen, Basque or Bristol cod-fishermen, or a Portuguese pilot - detract little from the hemispheric and historical significance of the Genoese navigator’s albeit unintended achievement.

Portugal was the pioneering nation of exploration in the late medieval period. Columbus had first sought sponsorship for his design from the kings of Portugal and England. He then spent seven long years petitioning Fernando and Isabel of Spain, trailing around after the regents’ itinerant court among their vast retinue of hand-wringing camp followers.  Eventually, his doggedness won over the ‘Catholic Sovereigns’ whose union had brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and reached its apotheosis in the rout of Islam’s last stronghold on the peninsula at Granada.

Columbus failed to convince the regents during a debate with the country’s leading theologians and cosmographers at Salamanca in 1486, but a further audience near Granada in 1491 (under siege at the time) led Fernando and Isabel – buoyed no doubt by their imminent success – to grant his request. They urged him to set off quickly, in fact, perturbed by recent news that the Portuguese had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Spain needed to open a new, westward, maritime trade route into the lucrative spice markets of Asia.

Medieval European cartography can be generally categorised within three traditions: the mappaemundi, portolan charts and celestial maps. Mappaemundi were large, decorative circular maps of the known world, intended as much for spiritual instruction as locational accuracy. They were often beautifully illustrated with densely symbolic imagery, classical themes, placing Jerusalem at the nexus of all lands. Portolan charts, or sea charts, usually showed the Black Sea or Mediterranean and were deemed to be accurate, meant for active use by navigators. Although invented by the Phoenicians, these portable charts were perfected in late medieval times in the city states of Venice, Genoa, Florence as well as Ancona and Palma de Mallorca.

In the 1400s Europeans believed there were three continents, corresponding with those assigned to the sons of Noah: Asia, Europe and Africa. But both mappaemundi and portolan charts did signal the possibility of Terra incognita: most notably the existence of an Edenic terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, whose existence was a given for orthodox Christians in the Middle Ages. The few sea charts which have come down to us showing a portion of the Atlantic – such as that of Grazioso Benincasa (1470) [Figure 1] – often position mythical islands such as Antilia, Brasil, Saint Brendan's Isle and Salvaga out at the edge of the mar tenebroso, the shadowy sea. An entirely new continent, though – let alone two – would have been beyond the wildest imaginings (even to the highly susceptible medieval mind). 

Detail from the Benincasa chart showing the mythical islands of Antilia & Salvaga.
Figure 1: Portolan chart from 1470 by Grazioso Benincasa. British Library shelfmark: MS 31318A.

Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia – a mid-second century work of theoretical geography and manual for map-making – proved a sensation in clerical and courtly circles in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin in 1406. A manuscript of the Alexandrian scholar’s treatise had been copied out in the late thirteenth century the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and was preserved in the Monastery of Vatopedi [Figure 2]. Although not printed until the 1470s, the Cosmographia was widely circulated before then and, although it overestimated degrees of longitude (elongating the distance between west and east), confirmed the tripartite nature of the world. Having languished practically unknown – except by Arab astronomers – for 1,300 years before the time of Columbus, the eventual rediscovery of Ptolemy as a geographer became one of the major intellectual events of the fifteenth century. 

A yellowing manuscript page in Greek with two spherical sketches suggesting the tripartite nature of the world.
Figure 2: 14th century MS of Ptolemy’s Geographia. British Library shelfmark: Burney MS 111.

Like many learned men of his age, Columbus was steeped in the work of Ptolemy and colourful travelogues such as Marco Polo’s Il milione and Mandeville’s Travels. Lumbered with such preconceptions it is hardly a surprise that, when he stumbled upon the myriad cays, atolls and islands of the West Indies, he assumed this was the same archipelago off the eastern end of Orbis terrarum where the Great Khan – Emperor of China (or Cathay) – went to capture slaves. Although Ptolemy never fully mapped the outer rim of East Asia, he did describe a cluster of islands numbering 1,378 which must have recalled, for Columbus – who jotted this in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi – Polo’s 1,300 cities in Mangi (South China) and the 7,448 islands in the Sea of Mangi, verdant with fragrant trees and a profusion of white and black pepper.

Ptolemy’s conjectural coastlines, and Polo’s fanciful writings, were of little use to him in the Caribbean, which he named ‘the Indies’: at that time a term often assigning the whole of South and East Asia, a hazily imagined space so characterised by islands that its easternmost confine was often labelled Insulindia. Encountering Cuba on his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus publicly declared it to be the fabled Golden Chersonese (the present-day Malay Peninsula), stating later it was the littoral of mainland Cathay.

Displaying their own doubts, perhaps, ahead of his second voyage, the Spanish sovereigns urged Columbus to explore Cuba, ‘known up till now as a continent [tierra firme]’, once more. In June, 1494, dismissing claims to the contrary from native inhabitants ‘so ignorant and provincial they think the whole world is composed of islands’ he made his crew sign an oath affirming the continental nature of Cuba which, if reneged upon, would entail a cutting out of tongues. Privately, he conceded the possibility it could be an island, which he initially called Juana, only later updating this to ‘Cuba’: the name used by its local peoples (which in any case may have signified Florida).

At the turn of the century Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist in the service of the Spanish court, had written of reports from men who claimed to have rounded the island. Given that he sailed under Columbus’s command on both the first and second voyages (as mate of the flagship Marigalante, which he also owned), and that first recorded circumnavigation of Cuba was by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, it is surprising that the Castilian cartographer Juan de la Cosa dared to depict Cuba as an island on his map of 1500. Beautifully executed on ox-hide [Figure 3], it also shows a putative channel cleaving the isthmus of Central America, through which wades a cartouche of St Christopher (who Columbus openly associated himself with) ferrying a cherubic Christ child on his shoulders. Was this to salve his admiral’s potential misgivings about the depiction of Cuba? 

Coloured map showing the islands and sea in the Caribbean.
Figure 3: Map of Juan de la Cosa, 1500. Detail of the Caribbean Sea region. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

The beautiful Cantino planisphere of 1502 [Figure 4, below] is coloured and adorned like a mappamundi but studded by compass roses radiating rhumb lines and strongly accented coastlines in the portolan fashion. It shows a half-figured, spectral presence of the South and North American continents, but likewise a breach in Central America, hoping against hope for a seaward passage there towards Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Cantino planisphere also carries the prominent legend The King of Castile’s Antillies, named of course after Antilia, the island or (sometimes) archipelago of legend: the place – often associated with Cuba – some of Columbus’s many detractors felt he had really reached.  

This detail of the planosphere has a white/cream background and shows numerous islands, some with images of wildlife.
Figure 4: Planisphere named for Alberto Cantino. 1502. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantino_planisphere#/media/File:Cantino_west.jpg

Columbus seems to have been afflicted with a sort of Insulindia of the senses, an archipelagic delirium derived from antiquity, the bible, and books of travel. Writing to the Pope in February, 1502, he claims that, among the hundreds of islands he discovered were Tarshish, Cethia, Ophaz, and Cipangu [Japan]; Ophir, the biblical region from where King Solomon received regular tributes of gold, ivory, peacocks and apes; as well as ‘vastly infinite lands’: it is ‘in that vicinity the Terrestrial Paradise is to be found’. Publicly, perhaps for fear of having duped the Catholic Sovereigns, Columbus maintained the unwavering conviction that he’d reached Asia – one professed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until the day he died in 1506. 

Figure 4 revised
Figure 5: Francesco di Lorenzo Roselli & Giovanni Matteo Contarini, Mundu [sic] spericum. [Florence ?], 1506. British Library shelfmark: Maps C.2.cc.4

The first printed map to show the ‘New World’ is the Contarini-Rosselli that same year, the only copy of which is held at the British Library [Figure 5, above]. Ptolemy, although writing in Greek, owed much of his knowledge to the expansion of the Roman empire; Columbus’s discovery of the Americas for Europe, and Portuguese advances across Asia, made it clear to cartographers that the old Jerusalem-centred manner of depiction no longer held. But such was the Alexandrine’s influence that, well into the sixteenth century, attempts were made to fit the Americas and Asia into a Ptolemaic framework, such as can be seen in the Contarini-Rosselli Map the Ruysch World Map of 1507 [Figure 6]. 

5 revised final
Figure 6: Johann Ruysch world map, created 1507-08. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ruysch_map.jpg

Confusion, sparked by Columbus’s equivocations over the nature of Cuba, are evidenced here in analysis which has shown that Ruysch painted over his original inscription Terra de Cuba, on the large island in its place, leaving it unnamed. The 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller maps mislabel Cuba as ‘Isabella’, while the latter goes as far as to categorise an area of mainland Mexico as Terra de Cuba, Asie Partis. Similarly, the 1520 Schöner Globe marks Terra de Cuba on a landmass floating where North America should be, with Japan hovering tantalisingly nearby through an open sea channel [Figure 7]. In the end, Columbus’s characteristic intransigence had a devastating effect on the posterity and status he so craved. His false idea of Cuba contributed to the two continents being named instead for his friend, a Florentine also in the service of Spain: the explorer Américo Vespucio. 

Colourful detail of Schoner's 1520 globe.
Figure 7: Detail of the globe by Johannes Schöner, 1520. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

 

JS Tennant’s work Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba is forthcoming from William Collins. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award.

 

23 July 2021

The Paradoxes of Power: Photographic records and postwar nuclear testing

This blog by Timothy Peacock is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre’s awards, have undertaken across the Library’s Americas collections.

 

Nuclear cloud superimposed over the New York skyline
Figure 1: ‘Bomb vs Metropolis’ – a composite photograph comparing [the] initial height of Crossroads Baker mushroom cloud with New York buildings. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 215.

 

75 years ago in July 1946, Operation Crossroads involved the first postwar nuclear weapons tests, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. These consisted of two Bombs, codenamed Able, which was dropped from an aircraft, and Baker, positioned underwater, both targeting a fleet of over 90 decommissioned US and captured WW2 ships.i Further examination of the British Library’s holdings, which include the Official Pictorial Report on Crossroads, highlights not only the destructive force of the weapons and their multiple impacts, but also the ‘power’ and paradoxes of the images themselves. Such paradoxes vary from the photography and ways in which images were used, to scientific planning being accompanied by choices based on luck rituals, to the wide range of what was tested beyond the ships themselves.


Figure 1 is a stark example, a composite near the end of the book which superimposes New York’s skyline onto the Crossroads Baker nuclear cloud, to give readers some frame of reference as to the potential scale of the blast. This image echoed contemporary practices of newspapers, which printed maps of US cities with circles on them to indicate potential radii of atomic destruction.ii Nevertheless, while generating contemporary interest, this is one of the images which has, ironically, not been nearly as widely circulated in subsequent years as those of the unobscured originals (including, for instance, Figure 2). These pictures, which showed the growth of the cloud itself, whether from closeup or afar, seem to have had an even more powerful impact and reusability, possibly by not being tied to any skyline or context, and the even greater psychological visual disparity they display, engulfing the tiny dots at their base which were full-sized battleships.

 

Nuclear mushroom cloud
Figure 2: Image at a distance of the Crossroads Baker cloud and ships at the base of the cloud. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 199.

 

A significant paradox is that Crossroads was, at the time, one of the most photographed events in history, but many of the pictures were not made public. The Record itself is a mere 200 still images out of over 50,000 taken. Half the world’s film footage was used to capture the event, leading to shortages in Hollywood and film studios elsewhere for months. However, much footage remained (and remains) classified, some material only released in recent years. Those images which are available illustrate a fraction of the different perspectives and cameras used, including the self-referential pictures of the camera equipment itself. A further paradox is that only a few thousand televisions existed in the US in 1946, so many people would have experienced Crossroads either via the shared ritual of watching on newsreels in cinemas or through pictures in newspapers or in this Record.

 

Rows of recording equipment in front of an airplane.
Figure 3: A total “of [328] cameras used by the Army Air Forces” at Crossroads, not including the Navy cameras on “planes and on ships, or in fixed shore installations”. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), pp. 72-3.

 

While Crossroads involved highly scientific and rigorous planning, it is interesting to see the extent to which photos also captured human rituals of betting and chance and how these shaped parts of the exercise. However, these rituals either echoed previous responses to such scientific uncertainties or were considered fair methods of selection. In some cases, this involved decisions prior to Crossroads: the former German battleship Prinz Eugen, for example, pictured in the Report and one of the three non-US target vessels, had originally been awarded as a war prize to the US by drawing lots with the British and Soviets for other vessels.iii At Bikini Atoll, there were informal pools among military personnel and scientists (Figure 4), betting on such aspects as “how many ships would be sunk [by Crossroads], or as to the exact time” of bomb detonation for the air-dropped weapon. Similarly, while those few journalists documenting Crossroads Able from the air were selected by their peers (Figure 5) “the radio commentator was chosen by lot”. That these latter details and images are even contained in the Record shows something of them being regarded as significant in the ‘human’ stories behind the tests, while also reminiscent of the very first nuclear bomb test ‘Trinity’ a year earlier, when scientists took bets, including on whether they were going to set the atmosphere on fire!iv

 

Three men stand together.
Figure 4: “ATOMIC PARI MUTUEL […] Rear Admiral T. A. Solberg […] N. J. Hotter project physicist […watching] Major Harold H. Wood, bombardier” filling in an atomic betting pool. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 100.

 

 

Four men stand with their bags in front of a plabe with The Voice written on the side of it.
Figure 5: Standing in front of a B-17 plane “four newsmen who covered the atomic bomb tests from the air […] The radio commentator was chosen by lot.” Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 86.

 

While Crossroads mainly involved testing atomic bombs against ships, the images also highlight, paradoxically, the wide variety of equipment loaded onto the decks of target vessels to assess how atomic bombs would impact these, from tanks and aircraft parts to clothing and rations.

 

A tank is hoisted in the air.
Figure 6: “AN ARMY TANK JOINS THE NAVY […] a new light 26-ton tank armed with the Air Corps 75 mm cannon is hoisted aboard the "Pennsylvania"”. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 66.

 

 

Men walk passed large equipment on board the ship's deck.
Figure 7: “experimental wing panels installed […] on the deck of a target vessel […] Visible also along the deck are a tail assembly, stablilizer, range-finder, and rear support of a small mobile”. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 68.

 

 

Bow of a battleship with tanks and other equipment parked on it.
Figure 8: “Bow of the battleship "Arkansas" with Army Ground Force equipment in place.” Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946 (British Library shelfmark W67/5211), p. 65.

75 years on, perhaps the greatest paradox from these images is that Crossroads’ story, which was foundational in the history of nuclear weapons development and was intended to have the widest possible photographic/filmic dissemination, remains relatively unknown. Its history is, ironically, overshadowed by its most visual legacy in popular culture, the mushroom cloud itself.

_____

Dr Timothy Peacock, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He is on Twitter @DrTimPeacock

_____

i The source material for this blog is drawn from Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211. This item is also available digitally courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. For further information about the Operation, see Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994) British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 94/14429
ii Rosemary B. Mariner, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), p. 4.
iii Fritz-Otto Busch, Prinz Eugen (London: First Futura Publications, 1975), pp. 212-13. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.708/41193
iv US DOE, ‘The Manhattan Project’ - https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm

NB Readers interested in Operation Crossroads may also wish to read an earlier blog by Timothy Peacock and a blog by Mark Eastwood, who undertook a PhD placement with the Eccles Centre in 2016.

 

02 February 2021

We're calling for your Caribbean food stories

You can now read and listen to the Caribbean Foodways blog series starting with Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival

 
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

You can now read and listen to the Caribbean Foodways blog series starting with Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival

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

 

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