14 October 2021
In light of the recent unprecedented demand for digital materials, we’ve decided to run a year-long series of monthly blogposts highlighting the extraordinarily rich Americas and Oceania-focused e-resources that are held at the British Library. Although most of these e-resources need to be consulted in-person in the Library’s Reading Rooms, some are accessible remotely to Reader’s Pass holders and we are hopeful that this number will continue to rise.
In terms of content, e-resources fall into two broad categories: full-text and bibliographic. The former will give you all or most of a particular item, be that a book, journal article, map, letter, playbill, diary, logbook, newspaper article, photo or minutes of a meeting. The latter will simply provide you with citations which you then need follow up elsewhere - in the Library’s Main Catalogue, for example, or a catalogue at another institution.
Over the coming year, these blogs will cover both types of e-resources (full-text and bibliographic) and will clearly flag the kind of access they offer (in-person or remote). Some will focus on particular subjects: for example, US politics, Oceania, or literature of the Americas. Others will focus on certain types of material. Next month, for example, we will look at newspapers, including historic newspapers from the Caribbean, Latin America and the US, American Indian newspapers, communist newspapers and service newspapers of World War II; many of these are accessible remotely.
All of the Americas and Oceania e-resources can be found in the Library’s Main Catalogue.
However, if you don’t have any titles or you want to get a sense of what the Library holds, please browse the holdings by subject. Currently, there are 130+ e-resources listed under History, for example, many of which have Americas and Oceania content. And more than 110 are listed under American Studies, a selection of which includes: America in World War Two; American Civil Liberties Union Papers; Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century; Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015; First World War Portal; Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange; History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988; History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1880-1990; The Nixon Years; North American Indian Thought and Culture; Slavery & Antislavery: A Transnational Archive; Trade Catalogues and the American Home; and Virginia Company Archives.
Finally, I’ll just say a few words about one of my personal favourites: Early American Imprints: Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on the 14-volume work by US bibliographer Charles Evans, this incredible database provides the full-text of almost every book, pamphlet and periodical published on American soil in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 And once you have a Reader’s Pass, you can access it whenever and wherever you wish! Among its many treasures are The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640) – the first work published in the American colonies (Fig 1, above). Anne Bradstreet’s self-revised and posthumously published Several Poems Completed with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678) – the first book by a woman to be published in North America (Fig.2, above). And An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World…(1784) by Hannah Adams – the first woman in the United States to make her living as a writer (Fig. 3, below).
Next month we will look at the Library's huge range of Americas-focused e-newspapers.
(And if you would like to learn more about the British Library's holdings of works by early American women writers, please take a look at 'For Myself, For My Children, For Money': A Bibliography of Early American Women's Writings at the British Library on the the Eccles Centre's website.)
Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America ... 14 vols. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 HRL 015.73
06 August 2021
This blog by Pola Oloixarac is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Travel has changed a lot since the early naturalists voyaged through the Amazonia, and it continues to change today thanks to Covid restrictions. While I’ve been unable to foray in person into the archives of the British Library as I was hoping - summer, London, arcane tomes - I’ve had the luck of encountering the mighty digital explorer, Dr Aleksandra Kaye. Dr Kaye knows her way around the British Library’s vast digital archives and like any sensible 19th century naturalist seeking help from a guide, I secured her expertise in unearthing their intricate holdings.
In the first written accounts of the Amazon, the anthropological gaze is under-developed. Though entranced by the power of landscape, the earliest naturalists typically didn’t consider the human culture they encountered. The richness of the human Amazonian world typically escape their notice. Indeed, where Amazonian people are referenced, early accounts by European naturalists are explicitly racist. One explorer, however, who did take some account of indigenous people was the French painter Hercules Florence, although how he saw them was problematic. He travelled to the Amazon from 1825 to 1829 and ended up spending his life in Brazil.
What excited Florence was undiscovered places and he was uninterested in indigenous village life. He remarked in his diary that the jungle is repetitive and that, "to see a Brazilian village, is to see them all"1. He became obsessed with capturing the unchartered territory and capturing it through sound and image with pioneering technology. Florence experimented making photographs in Brazil in 1833 and wanted to record the sounds of what surrounded him. This led him to devise a method to record wild bird song in the Amazon. While looking for a way to record sound, he stumbled into photography. Indeed, while trying to publicise his experiments in sound recording he managed to devise the first printing machine in Sao Paulo.
In the first page of his diary he mentions the expedition slaves, noting that all humans become the same bundle of flesh under the severity of the Amazonian environment. When the expedition’s commander, Gregory Langsdorff (Fig. 1, below) succumbs to yellow fever, Florence notes that illness made no distinction about social class in the context of the Amazon.
Langsdorff claimed to be the first to attempt the fluvial crossing of Brazil, from Pantanal to Belum. Until now it was believed that the first trip was in 1825 but Dr Kaye’s research has revealed a precursor: there was a previous trip funded by the Imperial Russian court and led by Adam Johan Krussertern in which Langsdorff took part. Before his trip with Florence in 1825, Langsdorff had added himself hastily and at his own expense to the Krussertern expedition as a second naturalist (the first was Wilhm Gottlieb Tilesius). Langsdorff, therefore, went into the Amazon at least two times, around 1803-1807. These earlier expeditions could explain why the subsequent Langsdorff trip a few decades later was hardly noticed by the very Russians who funded it, considering it, perhaps, redundant. Indeed, the reports of the Langsdorff investigation languished in St Petersburg for over a century largely undiscovered.
Langsdorff’s story is a reminder of how much these exploratory naturalist expeditions had in common with modern filmmaking. Langsdorff had, in effect, been to the Amazon first as a location scout (1803-1807), but his vision of the Amazon and the legacy of his expedition could not exist without artists to document the trip. For his 1825-1829 expedition - the one that would make him famous - Langsdorff only wanted the very best artists. He hired Johan Moritz Rugendas, but their relationship faltered when the Prussian commander sought to take ownership of the artist’s original works. Rugendas, however, was aware of his own worth as an artist and would not bow to Langsdorff. The Brazilian diaries of both Rugendas and Langsdorff paint the latter in a negative light: Langsdorff was controlling and wanted Rugendas to assign him copyright, but the artist resisted and ultimately deserted the expedition.
This is how Hercules Florence joined the trip as a second painter to first painter André Taunay. Traveling with Langsdorff, Hercules Florence experimented with photography (he called it “painting with light”). He claimed to be its first inventor, documenting his attempts using silver nitrate and natural acids like urea. Despite these claims, however, Dr Kaye found that Alexander Agassiz, also claimed to be the first to use photography through carbon printing for general illustrations of natural history. In 1871 Agassiz made this claim in the pages of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (British Library shelfmark Ac.1736/26), where his father, Louis Agassiz, was an acclaimed professor. Agassiz argues that photography is likely to overtake lithography as a mode of illustrating natural history and includes two photographs with his work. His view that the new printing technology would withstand the test of time is born out by the archive; and 150 years later, we can look at these photographs at the British Library.
Did Agassiz know of Florence’s efforts to make pictures by “painting with light”? Or was Florence unknown to his contemporaries, even those working as naturalists in Brazil? These questions beg answers. For now, we can only reflect on the fact that the London edition of the early Langsdorff travels (before his trip with Florence) is much more richly illustrated and complete than the American version. In the UK edition we find a lithograph of a Brazilian house (Fig. 3, below) and a musical score called “Brazilian Air” (Fig. 4, below). Both are accessible digitally, which makes comparing them possible. The US edition from 1817 has been digitized by the British Library and is in the public domain - the UK edition from 1813 is only available digitally inside the library, but the University of Alberta digitized their copy and made it publicly available. The London edition was published in two separate volumes, while the US edition has less images, is more cramped and in smaller format and is published as a single book. As a consequence the US edition would have been cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible to bigger audiences.
Another interesting item with connections to Brazil uncovered by Dr Kaye is a 1916 book of short stories by Edith Wharton, the American author, called Xingú, and Other Stories (London; New York printed: Macmillan, 1916; British Library shelfmark NN.4057). The “Xingú” text portrays a dialogue between elite ladies who cannot fathom what is meant by Xingú. They think Xingú is something mysterious or rude, which creates quite a lot of drama among them. Eventually they discover it’s a Brazilian River. The text keeps you wondering, what would The Age of Innocence (Mrs. Wharton’s vivid masterpiece) be like, if set in the Império do Brasil? A crossover of the directors Martin Scorsese and Joaquim Machado de Assis, with vast corridors of palms, would surely depict a young emperor obsessed with becoming a masterful photographer, like Dom Pedro II of Brazil once was. He would have been especially pleased about finding the British Library's digital versions of his photographs available today.
Pola Oloixarac is the author of the novels Savage Theories, Dark Constellations and Mona. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.
1. Hercule Florence Diary: http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio:kossoy-1977-florence/kossoy_1977_hercules_florence.pdf
02 August 2021
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.
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.
“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”.
“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.
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.
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
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.
23 July 2021
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
13 July 2021
This is the ninth and final blog coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***
This blog is about Hazel Daniels who was born in Guyana in 1946. Training and practicing as a radiographer in Georgetown, she then married Omar Daniels in 1973 and moved to the UK in 1975, where they have lived ever since, raising their three children. An enthusiastic home cook, Hazel likes to experiment with different cuisines and flavours in the kitchen, but is guided by her Guyanese roots. This blog focuses on Hazel’s descriptions of Guyanese ingredients and dishes alongside her philosophy of food and health, but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
‘if you want to take something forward, into the future, I think it has to be pepperpot’
All the participants of Guyanese heritage that I have interviewed for the Caribbean Foodways oral history project spoke about pepperpot. A dish with First Nations origins, pepperpot is history in a bowl. Paying tribute to the First Nations people of Guyana, ‘the people who were there hundreds and hundreds of years … before the colonies,’ Hazel explains the intriguing process of making this historic meal. The key ingredient is cassareep, which is made from boiling cassava for hours, until the pristine white flesh of the root becomes a ‘dark substance.’ The seemingly magical ‘preservative quality’ of the cassareep means that this rich stew, which is made from combining meat, fish or vegetables with the dark sauce, does not need to be refrigerated and it sits on the back of the stove, being eaten day in and day out until the pepperpot is gone!
Also commenting on the importance of the cassava to 'Guinan natives', Rev. J. G. Wood's exploratory index to Charles Waterton's, Wanderings in South America (1882) described how boiled cassava was then 'flavoured with red-pepper' to become the 'well-known cassareep' and that 'when the palate has become accustomed to the inordinate amount of red pepper, is not only nourishing but appetizing.'1 Moreover, 'the pot is never cleaned, so that, as it is very thick, very soft, and very porous, it absorbs the juices.'2 Alongside Hazel's interview and recipes, Wood's glossary evokes the continuity of cassareep in Guyana's foodways.
‘a language that we can virtually all communicate with, even without speaking’
Attuned to the variance and connectivity that encompasses the Caribbean region, Hazel compares Guyana’s ‘racing rivers’ to the island nations of the region that have ‘beautiful beaches and blue water.’ Whilst highlighting the distinctiveness of Guyana as a mainland country, located on the South American continent, she believes that the ‘roots are virtually the same … we understand each other, we eat each other’s food.’ This understanding is the outcome of the region’s history, where all these societies have been profoundly shaped by the African diaspora.
Experimenting in the Kitchen
Hazel moved to England in 1975 to join her husband, Omar Daniels, who was studying psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Having trained as a radiographer in Guyana, she started working at King’s College Hospital. Upon moving to England, Hazel noticed that ‘the food was different,’ it lacked ‘that extra bit’ from the food she had grown up with – the wonders of fresh thyme, juicy tomatoes, papayas and garlic that smelt ‘to high heaven.’ Inviting her new colleagues round for dinner, Hazel would ‘try to create’ classic English dishes with ‘a little twist’ by adding a stick of cinnamon, sweet peppers or pomegranate molasses (that she likens to cassareep), which seemed revolutionary to her dinner guests who were bowled over by her food.
This playful approach to cooking, which contrasted with Hazel’s serious and accurate line of work as a radiographer, offered a feeling a freedom. Describing herself as a maverick in the kitchen, Hazel speaks about being ‘free to try new things’ without the constraints of a cookbook or scales. Always inspired by other cuisines, Hazel’s food has been influenced by the aromas and textures of Egypt, where Omar received a scholarship to study medicine (and her paternal grandfather had fought for the British army). Talking me through her favourite meals, she describes cooking melting lamb and rice with almonds and fruits, a dish that is traditionally eaten for Iftar, when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. From roast beef and tagines to plant-based stews, Hazel’s repertoire captures her open spirit and tastebuds that are always trying to create not only tasty, but beautiful looking dishes.
Whilst not one for using recipes, Hazel’s ‘Fish Creole with Herb Dressing’ features in Rosamund Grant’s landmark cookbook, Caribbean and African Cookery. Published in 1989, with a foreword by Maya Angelou, it was one of the first Black-British authored cookbooks about Caribbean food. An old friend of Grant’s, the two attended primary school together in Georgetown. Meeting up at her legendary North London restaurant, Bambaya, Hazel reminisces about the joys of eating at a restaurant that served ‘all the food that we remembered.’ As Grant explains in her own oral history with the British Library, ‘Europeans tend to see Caribbean food in a particular way,’ for example, it is stereotyped as ‘spicy’ or ‘exotic.’5 In defiant response to this, Grant stated ‘I will define who I am and I will define … what I’m cooking.’6 Much like her schoolfriend, Hazel has forged her own personal and culinary path.
‘food is so much more than sustenance’
Given her lengthy career in healthcare, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that Hazel's food philosophy is embedded in a belief that food is a ‘preventative medicine.’ Throughout the interview, she often highlights the mineral and vitamin qualities of certain ingredients, such as getting magnesium from avocados, nuts and raisins. Much like this page in the health section of a West Indian cookery book, Hazel has wide-ranging knowledge of food’s nutritional value, which was partly shaped by her parent’s emphasis on maintaining a balanced diet and eating well.
As Hazel sets out in her philosophy, ‘culture and food are integral to the sense of identity … of every human being.’ Food has shaped Hazel’s life profoundly and that of her children, to whom she has passed down an adaptable Guyanese culinary heritage that lives on through the spices that they rub, coat or add to food. As the last blog in the Caribbean Foodway series, I think that Hazel’s food philosophy is the perfect note to end on, as it encompasses the centrality of food in the politics of health, community, history and identity formation. In the words of the remarkable Hazel Daniels … ‘it’s what defines us all and brings us all together’!
I will leave you all with Hazel’s recipe for a classic Guyanese pepperpot, which she has generously shared. The Caribbean Foodways series may be over for now, but I invite you all to continue your exploration of Caribbean cooking by trying out the recipes shared in these blogs by our wonderful participants. Whether it is Ranette Prime’s Trini Phoulourie, or Ann Husband’s Green Banana Salad, tweet us with photographs of what you’ve cooked @BL_EcclesCentre!
Thank you Hazel Daniels for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality
Further reading / references
- Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.
- Hazel Daniels interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, April 2021 (uncatalogued)
- High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021)
- James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
- Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to the America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) British Library Shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.70649
- Annual Jamaican potpourri, 1951 – 1969 Reprint (Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1970) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.
- Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014) British Library Shelfmark YKL.2015.a.1788
- Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
- Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35
- Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
- Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882), pp.50-51
- Ibid, p.51.
- Olive Senior, ‘Preface’, in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014), pp.11-16 (p.11).
- High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021).
- Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35.
19 June 2021
Yesterday marked the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the US, following President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law earlier this week. Today, Saturday 19 June, is actually Juneteenth, and marks the 156th anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in all the rebel states, enforcement generally relied on the arrival of Union troops. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 at locations around the city, informing Texans that all slaves were now free.
Juneteenth was marked by African American residents of Galveston in 1866 and annual celebrations gradually spread across Texas, then the south and eventually to other parts of the country, often thanks to Texans migrating. Celebrations are typically locally organised. In the early years they combined religious, civil and community elements.
In 1895 the community of Parsons, Kansas, a railroad town which would have had many black residents with connections to Texas, held its first community Juneteenth celebration. The ‘Local and Personal News’ column of the Parsons Weekly Blade, an African-American newspaper, reported that:
Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fair grounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies […]. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day.1
There were songs, including ‘Hold the Fort’, a gospel hymn inspired by a Union victory in 1864, which melds martial and Christian imagery, and ‘John Brown’s Body’, a popular song commemorating the executed abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Both songs had been popular with the Union army during the Civil War. (They still held currency in 1895 and would continue to have a place in the gospel and folk traditions, as well as within protest and workers movements in the 20th century: you can find Pete Seeger, for example, performing both songs on YouTube if you’d like to hear them.)
Following the music and speeches by religious leaders, ‘an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves as highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.’
Well into the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations continued to have a regional flavour and were generally still associated with Texas. In 1941 The Negro Star, a black newspaper from Wichita, Kansas, ran an Associated Negro Press story, ‘Texas Preparing for “Juneteenth” Celebration’. Reporting from Houston, Texas, the item noted that, ‘This city, together with the rest of Tan Texas is busily preparing for the annual “Juneteenth” celebration, most colorful and all inclusive holiday celebrated by Negroes in the Lone Star state. Held on June 19th, civic, social and fraternal organizations join hands in celebrating their day of deliverance from slavery.’2 The article went on to explain that ‘most people use [the day] as a means of being excused from work. Few if any of them can be found on their jobs on that day. White employers have found it expedient to overlook their colored employees’ absence on Juneteenth.’ The main events were to be held in Emancipation Park, an area of the city originally solely used to mark Juneteenth but later donated to the city, and which, from 1922 to 1940 was the only park for African-Americans during segregation.3 There was to be ‘a traditional program of speaking and singing of spirituals […], and guests were to include ‘World war vets, Spanish-American war vets, and the few remaining ex-slaves.’ The inclusion of the formerly enslaved in an event taking place during the Second World War is a stark reminder, even now, of how near the experience of slavery is in human terms.
The popularity of Juneteenth celebrations dipped during the Civil Rights era, when campaigning energies were put towards integrationist efforts and making space for black Americans within existing social, political and cultural structures. However, with the rise of Black Power and renewed interest in African American history and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s, Juneteenth saw a resurgence across the US. This revival saw large celebrations take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 1970s.
In 1974 the Milwaukee Star, an African American newspaper, reviewed the inner city Juneteenth celebrations of the previous week, giving a sense of the vibrancy of the event with people ‘dancing, laughing and singing’ in a heavily-illustrated article.4 Black arts and culture had taken a larger role in the celebrations by this point: the article noted ‘on one side street a poet stands speaking to a small crowd on Black love, while next to him a local DJ tries hard to drown him out with a very loud James Brown record.’ The journalist, Michael Holt, also noted the political tensions encapsulated by the day, describing a pull between those who felt the anniversary should be a solemn occasion and those ‘who look at the festivities as a vehicle to relieve the inner frustrations, if only for a day.’ Holt quoted a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who had told his class the previous year that the ‘so-called Juneteenth Day celebration “was nothing but a modern day version of the practice in slavery days of masters giving slaves the day off to get drunk and release tensions upon themselves.” But despite the explanation by the professor, many of his students could be seen roaming the streets on the so-call Black Fourth of July celebration.’
The connection to the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations has often prompted reflection on the broader significance of Juneteenth. A thoughtful editorial by Paula Harris-White in the Afro-Hawaii News in July 1991 noted that the Fourth of July holiday ‘often serves as a reminder of the position that people of color have held in America. They have been slaves, coolie workers, “savages”, foreigners, in spite of the fact that this was their place of birth. For many Americans, actual independence came long after July 4, 1776. Sometimes people who thought they were free, could have that freedom arbitrarily revoked, even in the 20th century, because their name was Wantanabe or Yamada.’5 Harris-White went on to explain the origins of Juneteenth to her readers and observed, ‘I share this information with all of you because sometimes we need to put our history in perspective. While I do acknowledge those leaders who chose to liberate the thirteen colonies from England, as a woman of color, I can quite never forget that their act of declaring freedom did not include people like me.’
As Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, noted in the New York Times on 18 June 2021:
What Juneteenth and other Emancipation days commemorate is both the promise of freedom and its delay. For June 19, 1865, doesn’t mark the day enslaved African Americans were set free in the United States but the day the news of Emancipation reached them in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a holiday ringed, like a good brisket, though not in smoke but irony. Out of such ironies Black people have made the blues, made lemonade, made good. The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.6
For those interested in researching African American history at the British Library, the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource from Readex is an excellent starting point, and is available for registered readers to access remotely. You can find out about the range of remote access e-resources here, including the US Congressional Serial Set, American Broadsides and Ephemera, and Early American Newspapers.
-- Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre
1. ‘Local and Personal News,’ Parsons Weekly Blade (Parsons, Kansas), June 22, 1895 (p.4)
2. ‘Texas Preparing for "Juneteenth" Celebration,’ The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), June 6, 1941 (p.3)
3. ‘Emancipation Park, Written Historical and Descriptive Data’, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. TX-7, HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (available here)
4. ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), June 27, 1974 (p.5)
5. Editorial, Afro-Hawai'i News (published as Afro-Hawaii News) (Honolulu, Hawaii), July 31, 1991 (p.3)
6. Young, Kevin, ‘Opinion: Juneteenth Is a National Holiday Now. Can It Still Be Black?,’ New York Times, June 18, 2021 (accessed online)
26 May 2021
This is the fifth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***
This blog is about Ranette Prime, a London-based lawyer and food enthusiast who set up her own supper club. Ranette’s parents, Randolph and Lynette Prime, travelled from Trinidad and Guyana to England, in the 1960s, and they have both shaped her love of food. This blog focuses on Ranette’s memories of family trips to Brixton market and life in Sheffield, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
Sundays at Brixton Market
On Sunday mornings, Ranette’s family would pack into a car and drive from West Sussex to Brixton Market, where they would spend the whole day stocking up on supplies of food, beauty products and incense. Ranette’s memories of the market speak to Brixton as a hub of Black Britain – a place where were nods and smiles were signs of ‘community acknowledgement’. Trailing round the market for hours, getting the best eddoes or the cheapest sarsaparilla, and make-up from Island Beauty, Ranette and her siblings were rewarded with patties at the end of the ‘marathon’ shopping trip. Ranette’s recollection that she ‘felt very at home in Brixton’ echoes Brixton’s history as a place of Caribbean settlement, political activism, commerce and leisure.
These articles from the 1960s reflect this sense of Brixton as the heart of Black Britain at the time. Founded in 1960, Tropic magazine was a popular glossy magazine that described itself as the ‘voice of 250,000 coloured people in Britain.’1 ‘Living in Brixton’ tells its readers that if you ‘Walk through the famous Brixton market any Saturday and you are bound to hear the lilt of West Indian and West African voices mingled with cockney accents.’ On the next page, the article pinpoints the highlights of living in Brixton, including a photograph of Claudia Jones at the West Indian Gazette offices that were housed at 250 Brixton Road – above Theo Campbell’s record shop – and Leslie and Chris Morgan’s Caribbean Bakeries Limited. Founded a few months after Tropic’s demise, Flamingo magazine was similar in terms of content and style. This 1963 article, ‘West Indians in Brixton Market’ explains the increasingly profitability of ‘West Indian food, vegetables and tinned goods’ alongside recognising its importance as a ‘meeting place’. As Ranettes’ interview reveals, her memories of Brixton market in the 1980s and 1990s are in dialogue with these longer histories that have been documented in Britain’s Black magazines.2
Moving to Sheffield
‘Over the years we established a bit more of an identity in Sheffield … we had pockets … but it took a while’
At the age of 11, Ranette and her family moved to Sheffield. As they built a new life, they sought out ‘parallels’ to what they had in London. Interestingly, the parallels that they were seeking were often food-based – they searched for familiar ingredients and flavours. In this clip, Ranette remembers a man called Martin who delivered Caribbean food to families across Sheffield. His van was an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ that was filled with fresh and dry foodstuffs, such as plantains, cakes and hardo bread. By the early 2000s Martin had opened a ‘massive’ shop in Pitsmoor, on the outskirts of Sheffield. This story of Martin’s evolution from his travelling van to a permanent shop captures Ranette’s broader reflections on adaptation and community-building, as Sheffield’s Black Caribbean communities established themselves.
Establishing a sense of community in Sheffield was a gradual process and one that was at times complicated by questions of food and identity. ‘Surrounded by fish and chip shops’, Ranette expresses a sense of fascination with their signification of Britishness. This beautiful ‘Fried Fish and Chipped Potatoes’ rhyme, that was printed on greaseproof paper and published in Leeds, in 1906, embodies this quintessential ‘British’ fish and chips narrative that Ranette speaks of. However, these positive, wholesome and British connotations were a relatively recent development in the early 20th century. In Fish and Chips: A History, Panikos Panayi explains how Sephardic Jewish refugees brought traditions of frying fish to Britain in the late 19th century. Panayi interprets records of people complaining about the “nauseous odour”, as symbolising denigrating associations between fried fish and London’s poor areas, where Jewish communities settled.3 So, interestingly, Britain’s ‘national dish’ tells a history of migration, othering and adoption.
As well as eating fish and chips, Ranette remembers asking her mum to make that ‘British stuff … peas and fish fingers’, when her school friend came over to the house. Reflecting on her associations of certain foods, like shop bread and fish and chips, with British culture, Ranette remembers her young self, feeling a need to identify with these foods. This anecdote of culinary elasticity signifies the multiple ways in which people, especially children, self-consciously shape their identities.
‘I lived in little Trinidad as it were, and little Guyana at home’
As Ranette explains, her approach to cooking, whether at home or for her supper club (Eats and Beats), has been profoundly influenced by the food of her parents i.e. the food of Trinidad and Guyana. However, other cuisines, from Turkish to Korean, have also shaped Ranette’s tastes and cooking style. Speaking about the her parents, she describes a ‘common ground in their culture that Guyanese and Trini … complement each other really well’ – a harmony of tastes that is born out the region’s complex history. Phoulorie, which is widely eaten in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, reflects this ethnic and culinary crossover that is in part a result of their respective Indo-Caribbean populations. There is a basic recipe for phoulorie in E. Phyllis Clark’s West Indian Cookery book , but I think that Ranette’s recipe, which she has generously shared, sounds far tastier than Clark’s version which seems under spiced. Why not try it at home this weekend?
Thank you Ranette Prime for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Anselm Berkely: From Field to Shelf to Plate
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road
References / further reading
- Black London Histories http://www.blacklondonhistories.org.uk/
- Caribbean Market, Brixton, 1961, British Pathé
- Conversation in Sheffield about accent, dialect and attitudes to language, BBC Voices, British Library Shelfmark C1190/28/05
- Flamingo, July 1963, British Library Shelfmark: P.P.5109.bq
- Crossley, Fried fish and chipped potatoes (Leeds, 1906) British Library Shelfmark HS.74/1588
- Loretta’s Kitchen
- Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020), 136-162
- Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). British Library Shelfmark 2016.a.1892
- Sahar Shah, Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history, gal-dem, 1 December 2020
- Shopping, Brixton, 1975, British Pathé
- Ranette Prime interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
- ‘The Hyper-Regional Chippy Traditions of Britain and Ireland’, Vittles, 30 October 2020
- Tropic, August 1960, British Library Shelfmark P.P.7615.kf.
1. Tropic, March 1960, p.1
2. Naomi Oppenheim, ‘Popular history in the Black British press: Edward Scobie’s Tropic and Flamingo, 1960-64’, Immigrants & Minorities (2020)
3. Panikos Panaya, Fish and Chips: A History (London: Reaktion Books, 2014); Sahar Shah, 'Fish and chips are uniquely British, and so is its hidden migrant history', gal-dem, 1 December 2020
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