19 October 2022
Suelin Low Chew Tung is an artist and writer and is based in Grenada; she was a 2020 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.
My days as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library, from July to August 2022, were happily spent pouring over maps, ledgers, bound letters, loose papers, and other documents related to Grenada, an island (and the name of the State of Grenada) located at 12°07’N 61°40’W.
Grenada is part of an archipelago variously known as the Caribes Islands, Lesser Antilles, West India Islands, and Windward Islands, within a space called the West Indies or the Caribbean. My project is to list changes in names during the French and British colonial ownership of this small island nation and overlay them on a contemporary map. I will then have a better idea of where was called what, why, and if any of the original colonial names survived as the physical landscape both changed and changed hands.
I spent most of my time in the Maps Reading Room reviewing single maps, duplicate maps, maps on paper and fabric, both coloured and black and white, in books and boxes. I came across maps referring to Grenada as l’isle de la Grenade (British Library shelfmark: Maps 147.e.8.); las Islas Granada (Maps D.DE.H.SEC.9.(506.)); island of Granada (Maps 82410.(2.)); and l’Isola di Granata (Maps C.24.f.10.). No wonder there is confusion as to the correct pronunciation.
After the British gained control of the island from the French in 1763, however, the name changed from la Grenade to Grenada.1 So, it’s Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.
I was determined to find all documents relating to Grenada in the British Library’s catalogue. The staff in Maps, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Asia & Africa and the Newsroom were accommodating, and I was grateful for their input. Regarding the former, the Library contains one of the best map collections on Grenada. Representations on early maps in Jomard’s collection and the Blathwayt Atlas, showed the island as a blob, a cross, a backwards L, and even a crab’s claw.2 I saw the island’s shape evolve from a smudge to the elegant outline we are accustomed to seeing on Google Earth—a green mango set against blue sea. Unfolding each map opened new ideas for artwork, and suddenly Grenada was not just a speck on the world map but a place that vibrated throughout history.
I was beyond thrilled.
Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard, contains several maps showing Grenada:
• Map XIX. 1: Mappemonde peintre sur parchemin par order de Henri II, roi de France, is a 1542 map which shows an unnamed Grenada hanging off the edge of the image.
• Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot, pilote-major de Charles-Quint, de la première moitié du xvie siècle. On this 1544 map, the shark tooth-shaped island is called la Granada. It is connected to I. vicente (St. Vincent) by two strands of unnamed islands; the effect is of a necklace, a Kalinago caracoli.
• Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa, pilote de Christophe Colomb, fin du xve siècle. On this map, Grenada is called Mayo.
According to J.A. Martin (2013), de La Cosa’s map showing Grenada took information from Vincente Yañez Pinzón’s map of his exploration of the Americas in 1499-1500.3 Though Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ and naming Grenada as Conception, Pinzón apparently visited Grenada on 1 May 1500 at what is now St. George’s Harbour. Map XVI shows Grenada as a blue cashew nut shape, identified as Mayo. Pinzón’s landfall is listed as “poyna” a corruption of Puerto de la Reyna, meaning Port of the Queen (Isabella).
In the Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.), John Sellers’ Chart of the Caribe Islands (p. 25) enlarges that backwards L so the island shape is recognisable as a smaller version of modern-day Trinidad. On the 1656 map by Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville and George duRoy, Les Isles Antilles (p. 26), Granada is a crab’s claw at the end of a shattered arm of granular rocks they called Granadilla. John Sellers’ The Island of Tobago (p. 29), includes a Chart of the Carriby Islands where the Granada claw is less pronounced, and the smaller rocks are called Granadillos. The Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae (p. 37), is a map of Venezuela showing the Caribbean archipelago. On this, Granada looks more like an opened nutmeg, eerily similar to the one on our national flag.
My visit with the Library's Philatelic team was also an absolute pleasure. I got a good introduction to how stamps are made, the Grenada stamps in the Tapling Collection, and Grenada stamps in general. As they explained: stamps hold a mirror to history. Indeed, these vignettes of our island’s story will inspire a series of artworks on the currency of stamps, given that fewer people are using stamps as postage.
Apart from creating a series of artworks inspired by the British Library’s collections, my main intention is to render a single map of Grenada place names. This will connect old place names with new, identify places which no longer exist and new spaces which fill that void. I hope to start conversations on shifting landscapes and narratives of Grenada’s past, and heritage education/appreciation/conservation policy.
This was my fifth visit to the British Library since 2011, but the first on a fellowship. The Eccles Visiting Fellowship provided opportunity and funding for research at the British Library, a safe space to dream, to learn and be inspired. I needed at least another month.
- Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
- Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard (British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11); Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.).
- Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.
22 January 2022
Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dr Roberta Bondar blasting off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center and becoming Canada’s first female astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space!
Bondar had dreamt of this moment from an early age. As a child she showed an aptitude for science and when she was around 12 years old her father built her a laboratory in their basement. Following high school, she obtained a Bachelors degree in Zoology and Agriculture, a Masters degree in Experimental Pathology, and a PhD in Neurobiology. She became a medical doctor in 1977 and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (in neurology) in 1981.
When Canada's National Research Council set up the Canadian Astronaut Program, Bondar immediately signed up. She was selected in December 1983. In 1986 the Challenger disaster threatened the entire space shuttle programme. However, a three-year investigation resulted in its revival and in 1990 Bondar learned she would be the next Canadian astronaut to go into space. 1
Along with six colleagues, Bondar was on board the Space Shuttle Discovery from 22 - 30 January 1992 as part of the first International Microgravity Laboratory mission - the precursor to the International Space Station. The main goal of the mission was to study the effects of microgravity on a variety of organisms and the physiological changes that occur in a weightless environment. As ‘Payload Specialist 1’, Bondar conducted over 40 advanced experiments for 14 countries. Many of these focused upon the effect of weightlessness on the human body - for example, on eye motion, the inner ear, the elongation of the spine and back pain, and energy expenditure during a spaceflight. Others explored the effects of microgravity on other life forms, including shrimp eggs, lentil seedlings, fruit fly eggs and bacteria.
Bondar's ground-breaking work enabled NASA to better prepare its astronauts for long stays on the International Space Station. Following her career as an astronaut, she collaborated with NASA and led a space medicine research team investigating the neurological symptoms seen after spaceflight and their connections to neurological illnesses on Earth, including Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
After many years working as a scientist, Bondar forged a new path and became an Honours student in Professional Nature Photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California; here, she was profoundly influenced by the work of renowned American photographer, Ansel Adams. She later created the Roberta Bondar Foundation and writes of this transition:
It took time, considerable reflection and detailed planning to build a Foundation focused on two of my passions, the environment and education. Following the razor-sharp focus and discipline involved in being an astronaut and scientist, I chose to apply my love of photography to foster sustainable development. Few get to view our earth from space. It puts unimaginable perspective on life and our stewardship of the planet. I made it the catalyst to a new career. My camera lens is my way of giving back in exhibits, seminars, schools across Canada and overseas.
For her book Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000; British Library shelfmark LB.31.b.21551), Bondar photographed Canada’s 41 national parks from Gwaii Haanas in the west to Terra Nova in the east, and Point Pelee in the south to Quttinirpaaq in the north; the book includes 100 of her photos as well as six images from space.
Now in her mid-70s, Roberta Bondar remains tireless in her commitment to environmental and scientific education and to deepening humanity's love for planet Earth. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Specially Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holds the NASA Space Medal and has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
1. On 5 October 1984, Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to go into space; he went on two further missions in 1996 and 2000. Roberta Bondar was the second Canadian in space.
06 August 2021
This blog by Pola Oloixarac is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Travel has changed a lot since the early naturalists voyaged through the Amazonia, and it continues to change today thanks to Covid restrictions. While I’ve been unable to foray in person into the archives of the British Library as I was hoping - summer, London, arcane tomes - I’ve had the luck of encountering the mighty digital explorer, Dr Aleksandra Kaye. Dr Kaye knows her way around the British Library’s vast digital archives and like any sensible 19th century naturalist seeking help from a guide, I secured her expertise in unearthing their intricate holdings.
In the first written accounts of the Amazon, the anthropological gaze is under-developed. Though entranced by the power of landscape, the earliest naturalists typically didn’t consider the human culture they encountered. The richness of the human Amazonian world typically escape their notice. Indeed, where Amazonian people are referenced, early accounts by European naturalists are explicitly racist. One explorer, however, who did take some account of indigenous people was the French painter Hercules Florence, although how he saw them was problematic. He travelled to the Amazon from 1825 to 1829 and ended up spending his life in Brazil.
What excited Florence was undiscovered places and he was uninterested in indigenous village life. He remarked in his diary that the jungle is repetitive and that, "to see a Brazilian village, is to see them all"1. He became obsessed with capturing the unchartered territory and capturing it through sound and image with pioneering technology. Florence experimented making photographs in Brazil in 1833 and wanted to record the sounds of what surrounded him. This led him to devise a method to record wild bird song in the Amazon. While looking for a way to record sound, he stumbled into photography. Indeed, while trying to publicise his experiments in sound recording he managed to devise the first printing machine in Sao Paulo.
In the first page of his diary he mentions the expedition slaves, noting that all humans become the same bundle of flesh under the severity of the Amazonian environment. When the expedition’s commander, Gregory Langsdorff (Fig. 1, below) succumbs to yellow fever, Florence notes that illness made no distinction about social class in the context of the Amazon.
Langsdorff claimed to be the first to attempt the fluvial crossing of Brazil, from Pantanal to Belum. Until now it was believed that the first trip was in 1825 but Dr Kaye’s research has revealed a precursor: there was a previous trip funded by the Imperial Russian court and led by Adam Johan Krussertern in which Langsdorff took part. Before his trip with Florence in 1825, Langsdorff had added himself hastily and at his own expense to the Krussertern expedition as a second naturalist (the first was Wilhm Gottlieb Tilesius). Langsdorff, therefore, went into the Amazon at least two times, around 1803-1807. These earlier expeditions could explain why the subsequent Langsdorff trip a few decades later was hardly noticed by the very Russians who funded it, considering it, perhaps, redundant. Indeed, the reports of the Langsdorff investigation languished in St Petersburg for over a century largely undiscovered.
Langsdorff’s story is a reminder of how much these exploratory naturalist expeditions had in common with modern filmmaking. Langsdorff had, in effect, been to the Amazon first as a location scout (1803-1807), but his vision of the Amazon and the legacy of his expedition could not exist without artists to document the trip. For his 1825-1829 expedition - the one that would make him famous - Langsdorff only wanted the very best artists. He hired Johan Moritz Rugendas, but their relationship faltered when the Prussian commander sought to take ownership of the artist’s original works. Rugendas, however, was aware of his own worth as an artist and would not bow to Langsdorff. The Brazilian diaries of both Rugendas and Langsdorff paint the latter in a negative light: Langsdorff was controlling and wanted Rugendas to assign him copyright, but the artist resisted and ultimately deserted the expedition.
This is how Hercules Florence joined the trip as a second painter to first painter André Taunay. Traveling with Langsdorff, Hercules Florence experimented with photography (he called it “painting with light”). He claimed to be its first inventor, documenting his attempts using silver nitrate and natural acids like urea. Despite these claims, however, Dr Kaye found that Alexander Agassiz, also claimed to be the first to use photography through carbon printing for general illustrations of natural history. In 1871 Agassiz made this claim in the pages of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (British Library shelfmark Ac.1736/26), where his father, Louis Agassiz, was an acclaimed professor. Agassiz argues that photography is likely to overtake lithography as a mode of illustrating natural history and includes two photographs with his work. His view that the new printing technology would withstand the test of time is born out by the archive; and 150 years later, we can look at these photographs at the British Library.
Did Agassiz know of Florence’s efforts to make pictures by “painting with light”? Or was Florence unknown to his contemporaries, even those working as naturalists in Brazil? These questions beg answers. For now, we can only reflect on the fact that the London edition of the early Langsdorff travels (before his trip with Florence) is much more richly illustrated and complete than the American version. In the UK edition we find a lithograph of a Brazilian house (Fig. 3, below) and a musical score called “Brazilian Air” (Fig. 4, below). Both are accessible digitally, which makes comparing them possible. The US edition from 1817 has been digitized by the British Library and is in the public domain - the UK edition from 1813 is only available digitally inside the library, but the University of Alberta digitized their copy and made it publicly available. The London edition was published in two separate volumes, while the US edition has less images, is more cramped and in smaller format and is published as a single book. As a consequence the US edition would have been cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible to bigger audiences.
Another interesting item with connections to Brazil uncovered by Dr Kaye is a 1916 book of short stories by Edith Wharton, the American author, called Xingú, and Other Stories (London; New York printed: Macmillan, 1916; British Library shelfmark NN.4057). The “Xingú” text portrays a dialogue between elite ladies who cannot fathom what is meant by Xingú. They think Xingú is something mysterious or rude, which creates quite a lot of drama among them. Eventually they discover it’s a Brazilian River. The text keeps you wondering, what would The Age of Innocence (Mrs. Wharton’s vivid masterpiece) be like, if set in the Império do Brasil? A crossover of the directors Martin Scorsese and Joaquim Machado de Assis, with vast corridors of palms, would surely depict a young emperor obsessed with becoming a masterful photographer, like Dom Pedro II of Brazil once was. He would have been especially pleased about finding the British Library's digital versions of his photographs available today.
Pola Oloixarac is the author of the novels Savage Theories, Dark Constellations and Mona. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.
1. Hercule Florence Diary: http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio:kossoy-1977-florence/kossoy_1977_hercules_florence.pdf
30 July 2021
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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].
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.
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.
07 October 2016
The last three months of my PhD placement at the Eccles Centre here at the British Library have flown by. There is much I will miss about being here on a daily basis – and not just the very good, helpfully subsidised, staff canteen! Hopefully this blog post will shed some light on what I have been doing and prompt others to apply for the placement scheme in the future.
In all honesty, probably the greatest benefit of the placement has been working so closely with the Americas collections. Before coming to the British Library, I had what I thought was a good understanding of the collections. Having used them daily for three months, I now realise that I was only aware of a fraction of what exists. In particular, whilst I knew that there would be some useful American foreign policy documents available, it was only when I explored the Social Sciences Reading Room that I began to realise just how vast an archival collection was available. From Presidential papers through to specific primary collections on everything from Civil Rights to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there is a treasure trove of material for researchers and it’s all available without those costly flights to the United States!
[General Reference Collection OPL 973.0076]
[General Reference Collection OPL 973.03]
Aside from archival collections, there wasn’t one secondary text which I searched for that I couldn’t gain access to in under 48 hours. Finally, the digital collections which the Library has access to are unparalleled compared to any of the university libraries’ I have used. In particular, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and Readex Congressional Records are invaluable resources and well worth a trip to the Library to access.
The vastness of the collections led to the first project I undertook during the placement. Realising that, like me, most researchers only knew of a few of the Americas collections available, I compiled two guides to make the collections more accessible for future researchers. The first guide is on the political archival collections the Library holds, such as Presidential papers, whilst the second is a guide dedicated to the Congressional documents available. As well as telling readers how to access the collections, the guides provide examples of what materials can be found in each collection to illustrate the utility of said collection. Hopefully these guides will help fellow researchers take as much from the collections as I have.
A second project I have undertaken involved the organisation of an academic symposium. One of the Eccles Centre’s key roles is to promote the Americas collections to the academic community; often this is done through the hosting of specific events, which are sometimes linked to the Library’s public exhibitions. The British Library’s next major exhibition, which opens on 4 November, is titled ‘Maps of the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line.’ As the American-Soviet Cold War dominated the geography of the twentieth century, this offers an excellent opportunity to host an event focusing on the geography of the Cold War. The ‘Cold War Geographies’ symposium in January 2017 will bring together international academics to explore and assess how the Cold War changed boundaries, restructured terrain and redefined concepts of space and place.
The placement at the British Library also exposed me to the practicalities of working in a large cultural institution. In particular, this occurred with a planned digital exhibition I was hoping to curate. The Library is going through some significant changes to improve its website and digital exhibitions. This meant that the three short months I was at the Library was not enough time to implement the project. The matter was also complicated by my desire to focus on twentieth century materials which brought in a whole raft of issues relating to copyright! Whilst the project did not materialise in the way I envisioned, I was able to gain access to excellent research material and develop a more practical understanding of the processes involved in curating an online exhibition within a large cultural institution
That said, I feel that the three month placement at the British Library has been an unqualified success. I have developed a far greater understanding of the collections, both for my own research and produced materials to assist others with their future research. Unexpected benefits also emerged in the form of using these blog pages to further disseminate my work, as well as taking part in Eccles Centre events which have greatly enhanced my academic networks. These new connections look likely to lead to positive future collaborations. Fortunately, the end of this placement is not the end of my affiliation with the Library. The symposium in January means that I will remain in contact for the foreseeable future, providing longer-term benefits of undertaking the placement.
From both a research and experience perspective, the PhD placement has been a highly rewarding and beneficial one. I hope that the outputs produced during this placement will be as beneficial to my fellow researchers.
28 August 2015
Above: displays have always been a highlight. This was of our Edward Curtis materials, for students from NYU (image: PJH)
Well, after five years as part of Team Americas (nine, if you count my time as an MA and PhD student) I'm moving on to new pastures - even if they are still part of the British Library. Next week I'll be taking up the post of Lead Curator, Digital Mapping, and will be based with colleagues in the Contemporary British team.
It's a return to my founding discipline, as I'm a Geographer originally, but I will miss working with the Americas collections. Over the last five years I've learnt a lot through the Library's collections and the chance to wallow in their breadth has been fascinating. I can safely say there is more material here than you could ever possibly imagine. In many ways, and in contrast to doing a PhD, this is the joy of working as a curator; getting to stretch yourself out over a vast range of information about the history and present of the Americas and their place in the world.
Above: looking over exhibition design proofs for Lines in the Ice (image: PJH)
This being the case I thought it would be a shame to leave without noting down some of my highlights working for Team Americas, mostly for nostalgia but also because some of it might interest you. So, here we go;
- Y'all: I wrote last week about it being an honour to meet Reverend Jesse Jackson but, while this is true, I can honestly say it's been my absolute pleasure to work with each and every one of you. The main joy of my role has been getting an inside view of what questions researchers on all levels are asking about the collections. As our Summer Scholars show, you're all doing great work.
- The Eccles Centre: most of you reading the blog know this already but many of us in American, Canadian and now Caribbean Studies would get an awful lot less done without them.
- Students: we hear a lot about how awful it is being a graduate student and, yes, the hours are long and the subsequent employment prospects are less than great. However, the amount of brilliant work PhDs in Americas studies are doing is astonishing and adds a huge amount to their fields and the broader understanding of the Library's collections. On top of this my own PhD students have been fantastic and a guaranteed highlight to any week I've worked with them.
- Events and exhibitions: I've been lucky during my time in the Americas collections and have run a number of events and displays, as well as one exhibition. Lines in the Ice was a privilege to put on but for all the academic praise it received the biggest achievement was getting younger children interested in the Arctic. Seeing young folk (be they 5 or 15) every day enjoying listening to the sounds of walruses under water or Inuit throat singing was a delight. The events have been great too, Summer Scholars was a hoot (especially when Naomi Wood was blasting out music next to the Conservation Centre) and events like 'Our Memories of the Uprisings' brought communities together.
- The societies: be it BAAS, BACS or SCS, the Americas area studies societies are an important hub for their respective disciplines. Make no bones about it, times are tough for area studies scholars and departments but the members of these groups keep bringing people together, innovating and, along with the Eccles Centre, providing a hub to keep on raising important questions.
- Australasia: my adopted charge. I took on these collections while we were without an Australasia curator and it was an immensely rewarding experience. I learnt that I knew as good as nothing about Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island history and got to rectify that by using original historical documents. A unique and exciting adventure.
- The collections: I'll be working with physical collections a lot less now but, even in a digital age, it's impossible to over-stress how important these are. Be they books, photographs, newspapers, maps or manuscripts each of these objects, produced yesterday or a thousand years ago, is a connection to the past. This connection is partial, obscured, provocative, confusing and many other things that stop it being (as we too often say) a 'window' onto the past but the fundamental truth that some other person touched this object, be they another reader, an eighteenth-century mapmaker or King George III, makes that connection tangible and personal.
- This blog: last but not least. Writing on here about what Team Americas has found, who has visited and what we're up to has always been enjoyable. It's tough to find the time, as it always is with writing, but the blog both inspires research and acts as a record of what has happened to Team Americas since late 2009. Hopefully I'll pop back up occasionally, but for a while it will carry on without me.
Above: hopefully, I'll still be working with the originals of these. Occasionally.
This, of course, isn't everything and nor should it be as I'm not leaving the Library. There is a lot I still get to do and, thankfully, that includes working with the Americas team and the Eccles Centre, even if this doesn't happen quite as often. However, for now, this is goodbye to our time working together with the Americas collections.
I'm off to find some [digital] dragons.
08 April 2015
Above: A winter camp during Franklin's famously hungry first expedition [BL: 10460.c.34]
When we first pitched Lines in the Ice as an exhibition idea one thing was clear from the start, this could only ever hope to be an introduction to the Library's polar and even Northwest Passage related collections. As a result all the individual stories that form the whole of the exhibition are notes in wider narratives which could be further expanded by looking deeper into the Library's collections. Even Franklin, who receives so much attention on the gallery floor and was one of the drivers for putting on the exhibition, has a larger story to tell through the Library's collections.
As the exhibition draws to a close (we've now got less than a fortnight to run) I'm thinking about Franklin again and all that the collections here can tell us about his role in the search for the Northwest Passage. As a result of his fate and the humorous sound bites about his overland expeditions Franklin is often popularly remembered as a failure. Lines in the Ice has sought to raise questions about this perspective and my recent work on our materials relating to Franklin has only affirmed my opinion that a man (and a team) of such determination and who achieved such monumental feats of endurance cannot be so easily dismissed.
Above: Franklin's team are approached by Inuit kayaks during his second overland voyage [BL: G.7398]
The appendices to Franklin's published accounts illustrate the fact. Not only did he and his team chart large tracts of the Arctic coast of North America while enduring some of the worst weather on record they also recorded the climate, geological observations and the flora and fauna of the areas they crossed. The result is a detailed record not just of the expedition but of the ecology and climate of northern Canada in the early nineteenth century. On top of this, other members of the expedition left behind records of the individuals and cultures they encountered on the journey, most notably in the form of Lieutenant Back's translation of voyageur songs, 'Canadian Airs'.
Above: some of the illustrations from the zoological appendix to Franklin's first account, compiled by Joseph Sabine [BL: 569.f.16]
In the context of the first expedition all of this was achieved in the face of not only extremely bad weather but an ongoing feud between the North West and Hudson's Bay companies that all but deprived Franklin and his team of the required support. While the expedition was a disaster and this led to a high rate of death (and unsavory incidents) amongst the men the significance of factors originating outside of the expedition must be noted, as should the achievements the expedition managed to make. That men survived and produced an insightful record of the journey makes it less easy to dismiss Franklin's overland expeditions just as poorly-conceived follies. Instead, we should perhaps view them within the context of Franklin's life as a whole, one marked by distinguished service, postings around the world and an ability to survive the worst war and exploration could throw at him. At least until his later, fateful, journey.
Above: Frontispiece of 'Canadian Airs' produced from songs compiled and translated by Lieut. George Back during Franklin's first overland expedition [BL: G. 416]
With this in mind, why not pop on your boots and come to see Lines in the Ice before it closes on April 19th? You'll not only learn more about Franklin and the search for the Northwest Passage, you'll hopefully get a taste to find out more in our reading rooms too.
13 August 2014
While working on entries to the forthcoming Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography I have been exploring our collection of writings by the Brazilian engineer, geographer, cartographer, architect, and ethnographer Teodoro Fernandes Sampaio (1855-1937).
Many of you may have been following the recent debates and protests regarding the massive public investment in the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil. Indeed, public works projects have historically been at the centre of re-inventions of the Brazilian nation and usually a source of controversy. And the work of Teodoro Sampaio is a fine example of this. Sampaio lived through some of Brazil’s greatest historical transformations: from slave-society to industrial capitalism, from the Imperial era to the Vargas nation-state. Sampaio not only lived through these transformations, however, but was at the heart of many of them – including designing and overseeing the creation of railroads, mapping and surveying the contours and boundaries of the nation, designing urban sanitation systems, and founding many of Brazil’s first historical and geographical institutions.
Sampaio also anticipated many of the great social problems that Brazil would face throughout the twentieth century. His engineering and geographical studies focused on the creation of economic opportunities and social integration. Through his research and writings Sampaio attempted to give voice to the poor and marginalised people of Brazil’s interior and Brazil’s indigenous communities.
One of my favourites of his publications that we hold here at the British Library is the Vocabulario geografico brasileiro - O tupi na geografia nacional (BL shelfmark X.700/22900). The book is essentially a dictionary of Tupi words, however each entry includes an geographical and cultural analysis of the word or phrase. Sampaio systematically unpacks the ways in which social roles and cultural concepts are bound up with geography, and the way geography and landscape shape cultural paradigms. Sampaio also recognised that the Tupi had a detailed and historic knowledge of the Brazilian interior that would be essential to the success of new public works projects. Sampaio studied the local and indigenous knowledge of Brazil’s terrain in order to create some of the best maps and charts and river navigations that anyone has ever done of the interior of Brazil. The Library holds many of Sampaio’s works including the classic O Rio Sao Francisco e a Chapada Diamantina (BL shelfmark X.808/36311).
Next week, King’s College London will be hosting the annual Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) congress – the first time that it has been held in Europe. I'm looking forward to it and I hope to see some of you there.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
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- Goodbye, and stay tuned for the Cold War symposium!
- HC SVUNT DRACONES
- The Man Who Ate His Boots
- Sampaio: public works, protest and the Brazilian nation
- Changing Scenes: Canadian landscape views
- Picturing Canada: mapping a collection