05 July 2022
Owen Walsh is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Aberdeen and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
NB: This article contains historical images and descriptions relating to slavery which readers may find upsetting.
‘We are not safe in the United States’, warned the Jewish intellectual Anita Brenner in 1943, ‘without taking Mexico into account’. This fact of North American interdependence, she argued, ‘is something that Mexicans have long known, with dread, but that few Americans have had to look at.’1
My research at the British Library has been motivated by a conviction that scholars of US culture and political radicalism in the early-mid twentieth century have too often averted their gaze from Mexico while chronicling the making of an internationalist American Left. The Mexican revolutionary era, spanning c. 1910-1940, was the first major revolution of the twentieth century and a key moment in the unfolding of the global anticolonial struggle. The Revolution’s cultural legacy was described by Brenner and other contemporary critics as nothing less than ‘the first great modern art created in America’.2
My work in the British Library marks the start of a project in which I explore the travel experiences and writings of Leftist US intellectuals in revolutionary Mexico. The project traces the impact of Mexico, its rapidly changing culture and its inspired people, on radical cultural formations (New Negro writing, the proletarian literature movement) in the interwar United States. The rare books and radical journals contained in the British Library’s collections have been indispensable for this work.
The list of figures who might be included in a history of American travel in revolutionary Mexico is long and distinguished. Leftist journalists John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Gruening wrote sympathetic and romantic reports of the political and military struggles of the era. Future leading Communists Mike Gold, Charles Shipman, and Lovett Fort-Whiteman passed through the country and participated in the germination of revolutionary labour unionism and embryonic Party organisation. Major writers of American modernism including John Dos Passos and Langston Hughes found inspiration in Mexico and mixed with the cosmopolitan cultural networks around Mexico City.
During the most violent phase of the revolution in the 1910s, most of the American visitors were journalists seeking an unmediated view of the chaotic cascade of conflicts – over land, liberty, and individual egos – which together constitute the Mexican Revolution. Through the 1920s and 1930s, political and cultural pilgrims flocked to Mexico. They were often escaping persecution, but they also sought to witness and report on the social conflicts that continued to convulse their southern neighbour and to draw inspiration in their own mission to build a modern, socialist cultural order in the US.
In this short post, I want to focus on one of the earliest and most influential accounts of Mexican society in the era of revolution. Published in 1911, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co.; British Library shelfmark 10481.pp.11), was a sensational exposé of life under the rule of the pre-revolutionary dictator Porfirio Díaz. It was the product of investigative reportage by John Kenneth Turner with the help of Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara. It helped to ignite a movement in support of the radical Magón brothers (Mexican revolutionaries imprisoned in the US) and informed American sympathies with the Mexican Revolution for years to come.
Turner journeyed to Mexico in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, in 1908 and 1909, after hearing rumours of slavery prevailing in large swathes of the country, which was under the political and financial domination of US capitalism. Much of his reporting was done undercover, using disguises and employing the anti-Díaz activist Gutiérrez de Lara to help bridge cultural gaps, build networks, and provide translations. Turner’s travels took him across Mexico, from the Yucatán peninsula, where the henequen plantations were worked by indigenous Yaqui people enslaved after defeat in their war with the Mexican state, to Valle Nacional in Oaxaca, ‘the worst slave hole in Mexico’, where a racially mixed population were forced to labour on tobacco farms by the mostly Cuban planters and the Porfirian state authorities.3
Throughout Barbarous Mexico, Turner was concerned to connect the problem of slavery in Mexico with American policy. Turner’s definition of slavery was somewhat specific and limited: ‘the ownership of the body of a man, an ownership so absolute that the body can be transferred to another, an ownership that gives to the owner a right to take the products of that body, to starve it, to chastise it at will, to kill it with impunity.’4 But in Barbarous Mexico, Turner explores slavery in various subtle forms, including the informal trading of people that occurred under the legal guise of debt peonage. Indeed, in his introductory remarks Turner’s use of the slippery term ‘slavery’ went so far as to describe the imperial relationship between the two North American republics in the same terms. The US, Turner wrote, ‘enslaves the Mexican nation’ while the US media collaborated with the Porfiriato to keep ‘the American public in ignorance’.5 Such political arrangements, Turner is careful to point out, is what defines Mexico as ‘barbarous’, rather than any deficiency of its people.6
Despite its republican trappings, Díaz’s Mexico had discarded constitutional rule and the rights ‘which all enlightened men agree are necessary for the unfolding of a nation’.7 Confronted with such a nation, Turner presciently wrote that the ‘country is on the verge of a revolution in favor of democracy’.8 When the Revolution did come, Turner was a leading figure in the US solidarity movement, and he went on to pen a book-length argument against US intervention.
The concerns in Barbarous Mexico with republican principle and democratic rule override any specifically socialist propagandising in Turner’s account. But his work could only find an audience via the socialist press. Turner’s despatches were published first in the Socialist Party-aligned newspaper Appeal to Reason. The success of these articles opened a route for him to publish in the liberal American Magazine, which soon closed due to the backlash fuelled by the well-funded Porfiriato lobby. The only publisher who accepted Turner’s book was the socialist Charles H. Kerr and Co.
The role Turner and his Appeal to Reason comrades played in exposing forced labour in Mexico demonstrates the continuous histories of socialist, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist politics in the US. In making his report on slavery in the province of Yucatán, Turner’s mind repeatedly returned to ‘the slaves of our southern states before the Civil War’.9 The comparison invites us to imagine that Turner was consciously mimicking the abolitionist journalism of nineteenth-century journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Like his abolitionist forebears, Turner sought to puncture the well-funded lies of a southern slaveocracy with terrifying reports and haunting visual evidence of injustice and brutality carried out with the sanction of the US state.
Many of the thematic concerns, rhetorical strategies, and ideological negotiations that operate in Turner’s important text continued to be visible in writing by American radicals on Mexico for many years. Time and again, American radicals called on their readers to look favourably on the Revolution, to oppose US meddling in Mexican affairs, and to visualise the Mexican people as a noble and patriotic mass struggling for freedoms that were already familiar – and dearly held – to most Americans. Such appeals combined mainstream republican principles with the radical thrust of American socialism, and were often aided by Mexican Leftists who deeply understood the vulnerabilities and opportunities that come with being a subordinate neighbour to the US.
1. Anita Brenner, The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1942 (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971) p. 3.(British Library shelfmark X.800/5804).
2. Brenner, p. 65.
3. John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911) p. 67 (British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11); Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) p. 161 (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.6131).
4. Turner, p. 16.
5. Turner, Preface.
6. Turner, Preface.
7. Turner, p. 11.
8. Turner, p. 10.
9. Turner, pp. 34-5.
17 June 2022
This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.
The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?
In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.
In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.
In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.
In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.
In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.
The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.
Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.
Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…
1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986.
15 June 2022
As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the digitally available collections which can support those studying African American History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass.
N.B. This article may contain images with descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive
1. African American Communities
Let’s start with African American Communities which gives access to hundreds of pieces of primary source material for researchers examining racial oppression across social, political, cultural and religious arenas in America. You can study a range of items, from scrapbooks to official records, oral histories to 360-degree objects, which focus on Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, Brooklyn and locations in North Carolina. Topics covered by this resource’s collection include racism, desegregation, civil rights movements and expressions of African American culture displayed through artists, musicians and more.
Before delving into a few of the materials the resource provides, the platform itself has a number of very useful features to help navigate its vast offering that are worth mentioning. The ‘Nature and Scope’ link on the main landing page gives a comprehensive overview of the themes and source archives you can view. You can choose to browse items in a number of ways as all documents have been indexed using multiple categories, or you can also do a general full text search. Community case studies and thematic guides and essays are also available which offer handy entry points into the collections and give a steer as to where to start. One of my favourite features is ‘My Archive’ where you can save and revisit your previous searches and any documents you’d like to return to, quickly and easily.
A few examples will demonstrate the breadth of material on offer from this rich resource.
Researchers examining civil rights protests and movements will be interested in the collection of materials generated or collected by the Chicago Urban League. Items held here explore one of the most famous civil rights protests for open housing, which took place near Marquette Park in the summer of 1966, and its aftermath. The protest contributed to the creation of Chicago as a racially open city as many Black residents moved into its vicinities. However, as this 1977 report shows, even some 11 years later, racial tensions and violence were very much still in existence.
Other materials in the Chicago Urban League collection offer insights into the social services available to African Americans between 1935 and the 1980s, including those regarding reproductive health, youth and welfare services, general health and access to hospitals, and issues related to the aging and those with mental illness.
Researchers interested in the literary and political history of African Americans will be enthused by access to The Messenger, provided by The Newberry Library, Chicago. Founded in New York in 1917, the latter years of the publication from 1925 to its final issue in 1928, can be accessed by this e-resource. Significant in the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance, the magazine helped voice African American intellectual, cultural and political expression through articles, short stories, letters, reviews, songs and art. It featured a number of writers in the early stages of their career, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ was first published in the September 1926 edition of The Messenger. Her short story instalments in the magazine told of various characters living in an African American community just outside Orlando and used authentic dialect. Her work represented an honest picture of Black culture in the American south in the early 20th century.
Straying slightly from the more conventional primary source material one might expect from such e-resources, a quick mention goes to the Weeksville Interactive Exhibition also available on African American Communities. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses located in Weeksville (now Brooklyn) are New York landmarks preserving the homes belonging to a free and independent African American community. The interactive exhibition allows users to explore the layout and objects within the homes from the 1860s – 1930s, complete with 360-degree photography, opening a door onto how African American life in a bygone era could have looked for some. The packaging and marketing choices on the food and drinks packaging are particularly striking and could be great resources for researchers of culinary history and art.
2. Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2
Next up is Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2 from ProQuest’s History Vault (available remotely), which is another fantastic resource for researchers to turn to study both well- and lesser-known events and social movements in American history. A gathering of materials from a multitude of perspectives, this e-offering features records of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and federal records on the Black Freedom Struggle. Key archival material is available to search and view, including digitised letters, newspapers, photographs and official reports.
Researchers examining many aspects of the African American fight for freedom in 20th-century America will find it a very useful research tool indeed, to name one example: those studying the Great Migration and its impact on Black America can access materials from the 1929 National Interracial Conference regarding African American women in industry. Much of the material from which this selection draws is rich in detail on the living and working conditions of American workers. The extracts below are from a study of 15 U.S. States by the U.S. Women’s Bureau showing details of Black women workers, including their industries, numbers of employees, their hours, and facts concerning the conditions under which they worked, and earnings.
Continuing the vein of study regarding the history and impact of Black women in America, users may also be interested to note an abundance of newspaper clippings about activist Angela Davis, from the African American Police League Records, 1961 – 1988, to which the Black Freedom Struggle e-resource offers access. Provided by the Chicago History Museum, the e-folder includes clippings from 1970 to 1972 and covers key moments surrounding Davis’s trial. With cuttings from mass-readership papers such as the Chicago Daily News, to African American newspapers and university student newspapers, the selection to sift through should provide researchers with many angles from which to examine the prolific impact of, and response to, Angela Davis, in Chicago specifically.
3. Race Relations in America
Packed with primary sources you might not find elsewhere, another e-resource rich in ephemeral material offered by the British Library is Race Relations in America. The origins of the collection digitised for this resource are sourced from the records of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, housed at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.
Examining three pivotal decades in the struggle for Civil Rights in America, the items made digitally accessible by this resource give particular voice to the every-person: telling stories through the eyes and work of sociologists, activists, psychologists, teachers, ministers, students and homemakers, those on the ground trying to make change happen. Through correspondence, personal testimonies, maps, and marketing publications, researchers will find unexpected items providing an interesting look at the ways in which Civil Rights and calls for desegregation were advocated from within the home and beyond. This calendar below, entitled ‘Dateline for Freedom’, is an example of such and includes photographs of people of different races interacting in educational and leisure activities.
Race Relations in America provides access to a wealth of documents highlighting different responses to the challenges of overcoming prejudice, segregation and racial tensions. Key themes examined by the e-resource include desegregation of schools, industries and public transport; the role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement and in African American Communities; and the migration of African Americas from the rural South to urban centres, and the industrial and domestic impacts that came with it. As mentioned before, the ‘My Archive’ feature is again available here – meaning one can save every document, search result or individual image to return to at any point.
As well as sharing the experiences of everyday African American people, the resource also contains documents and materials from pioneering names in the Civil Rights Movement. You can listen to the speeches of Thurgood Marshall, along with over 100 hours of further recordings from those seeking to understand and improve racial tensions. You can also view Champions of Democracy, a pamphlet on citizenship activities at Highlander Folk School, authored by Septima Clark. Highlander, Tennessee, was the site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists and it was where Rosa Parks had attended a workshop on schools desegregation in the summer of 1955.
This brief blog only touches the surface when it comes to the fully accessible, digital collections that one can use for researching African American history and American racial oppression. Other e-resources on the subject that that Library provides access to, and that are available for free with your Reader Pass, include History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988, Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2017, Slavery & Antislavery: a Transnational Archive, and Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture, and Law. Don’t forget that newspaper and periodical-specific e-resources also offer a wealth of material that could be of interest – take a look at African American Newspapers Series 1 1827-1998 and Series 2 1935-1956 (Readers with a valid pass have remote access to this resource), and Baltimore Afro-American, 1893-1988. You can see a full list of the e-resources you can access remotely with a Reader Pass here, as of 2022 a number of ProQuest e-resources related to the Americas have been added.
Look out for next month’s instalment in this blog series focusing on our e-resources that support researchers examining the Caribbean, past and present.
By Rachael Culley, Curator North American Published Collections Post 1850
01 June 2022
Katey Castellano is Professor of English at James Madison University and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
During my Eccles Fellowship at the British Library in March and April 2022, I researched the publications and perspectives of the Black Romantic-era writer, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/36). Wedderburn was born enslaved in Jamaica, and as a young man he migrated to London, where he became involved in London’s ultraradical circles. My research suggests that, even though he was publishing in London, Wedderburn’s political theories grow out of his experiences of being raised by his enslaved mother, Rosanna, and his grandmother, Talkee Amy. His writing importantly provides a rare glimpse into what Vincent Brown describes as an “oppositional political history taught and learned on Jamaican plantations—a radical pedagogy of the enslaved.”1 Wedderburn’s publications challenge the abolitionist narrative that liberal, individualist freedoms should be spread from England to the West Indies. Instead, Wedderburn instructs his white, lower-class readers in London about already existing African-Jamaican practices of land and food reclamation.2 In other words, Wedderburn’s abolitionist pedagogy insists that food and freedom are inseparable.
The British Library holds one of two remaining copies of Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root, or a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica (1817). An inexpensive weekly periodical for working-class readers, Axe Laid to the Root’s six issues disseminate a vision of abolition that opposes private property, both in people and land, because access to land for growing food is necessary for freedom from the plantation system. Wedderburn declares, “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing; for if you once give up the possession of your lands, your oppressors will have power to starve you to death.”3
When Wedderburn admonishes enslaved people in Jamaica to “keep possession of the land,” he is referring to the provision grounds, land distributed by enslavers for enslaved people to grow their own food. Access to this land allowed enslaved people to cultivate kinships and culture around growing and eating yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, and other vegetables. Sylvia Wynter argues, “Around the growing of yam, of food for survival” enslaved laborers in Jamaica “created on the plot a folk culture—the basis of a social order.”4
The provision grounds were not spectacular or immediately revolutionary, like other moments of Black self-emancipation, such as Tacky’s War or the Haitian Revolution. Yet the provision grounds not only nourished people, they also reterritorialized estates. For example, a survey of Edward Long’s Lucky Valley Estate (1769), demonstrates that a large part of the estate must be reserved for provision grounds. The map illustrates how the provision grounds were limited and hemmed by the plantation, yet the grounds were also located close to the mountains and away from the surveillance of enslavers and overseers. Growing food also allowed some self-determination in diet and provided subsistence for self-emancipated individuals who fled the plantations.
Guided by Wedderburn’s theory that abolition requires access to land and food, I explored other colonial texts at the British Library that describe the provision grounds. Matthew Lewis is best known as the author of the popular gothic novel The Monk (1796), yet while at the British Library I studied his Journal of a West India Proprietor, which was written from 1815 to 1818. The journal records two visits to inherited plantations in Jamaica. As Lewis attempts to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved people, the provision grounds become a point of contentious negotiation. By the middle of his first visit, the people that Lewis enslaved had negotiated increased freedom to visit their provision grounds: “I therefore granted them as a matter of right, and of which no person should deprive them on any account whatever, every Saturday to cultivate their grounds.”5 Throughout his journal, Lewis vacillates between his anxiety about the independence cultivated by the provision grounds and his desire to be a hero in facilitating access to them. Provision grounds finally provoke a crisis within the idea of the people as property: if people are property, how can they have rights to the land? Enslaved people bequeathed provision grounds to their kin and earned money from selling excess produce, but, legally, enslaved people were themselves property. By cultivating independent food production on the provision grounds, then, the seeds of freedom had been sown before Emancipation.
The radical nature of the provision grounds emerges even more clearly during Emancipation (1834), when the provision grounds became openly contested spaces. In the Holland House Papers, an estate manager, Thomas MacNeil, complained to Lord Holland that formerly enslaved people “have withheld so much labour from the estate” while at the same time “they have devoted much labour to improve their cottages, and increase the extent of their provision lands.” Holland wants formerly enslaved labourers to cultivate sugar cane and pay rent for their land, but MacNeil reports, “They declare they will not pay any rents whatever until they see ‘the Queen's Law’ to say they must do so, that their parents before them, had possession of the land and had houses where theirs now are, before Lady Holland was born and that they cannot think of paying any rent whatever and work for the estate also.”6 MacNeil’s letter indicates that formerly enslaved people “cannot think” of paying rent after emancipation because they understood freedom as the right to possess the provision grounds as an intergenerational inheritance. The formerly enslaved people on Holland’s estate struggle to retain African-Jamaican land and food-based freedoms nearly identical to those advocated by Wedderburn: “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, our freedom is not worth possessing.”
After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people in Jamaica resisted leaving or paying rent for their grounds. Both planters and antislavery activists wanted to detach African-Jamaicans from the land in order to force the formerly enslaved population into useful wage-labour for the British economy. Following Wedderburn’s argument that food and land are inseparable from freedom, I found evidence in planter journals and letters that African-Jamaican food systems challenged the plantation system during and after slavery.
For more information about African American foodways, see the interview with Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011; British Library shelfmark DRT.ELD.DS.70649), at the British Library’s Food Season 2022.
1. Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard: Harvard UP, 2020), 242.
2. I have made this argument in “Provision Grounds Against the Plantation: Robert Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root (1817),” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 25.1 (2021): 15-27.
3. Axe Laid to the Root; or, a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, no. 1 (London, 1817): 4.
4. “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou 5 (1971): 99. My reading of Wynter’s plot is influenced by Janae Davis, Alex Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crisis,” Geography Compass 13.5 (2019): 1-15.
5. Journal of a West India Proprietor (London, 1834): 191-2.
6. Letter from Thomas MacNeil to Lord Holland, 15 February 1839, Holland House Papers, Add Ms. 51816, ff. 169-70. I originally found reference to these letters in Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications, 1988), 108.
31 May 2022
In the latest of our blogs on digital resources for Americas Studies, the Eccles Centre's Philip Abraham looks at the early period of European contact and invasion of the Americas. Remember, once you have your Reader Pass a number of these e-resources can be accessed remotely, from the comfort of your own home.
The emergence of what many scholars now think of as Vast Early America during the early modern period is one of the central pivots of global history.  The emergence of an Atlantic world during the two centuries after 1450 was a complex and truly transnational phenomenon, which involved the transfer and circulation (often violent and coerced) of peoples, plants, animals, goods and ideas between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Because this moment involved so many different kinds of people and things scattered across three continents, it is also a subject that particularly benefits from the development of digital platforms. Digital technology allows researchers to bring together documents and sources from institutions and repositories from around the world in a way that was only possible for the most privileged researchers in the analogue age. These platforms often also include features like maps and infographics which help students and researchers to visualize the movements and voyages that are so fundamental to understanding these histories.
This blog is going to focus on some of the more specialized digital platforms and resources available through the British Library, but it is always worth remembering that some of the more general resources for the humanities (and early modern studies in particular) have a lot to offer. 
For building a bibliography, general resources that have been mentioned elsewhere, like the Hispanic American Periodicals Index, America: History & Life and the Bibliography of British and Irish History (which, despite the name, also covers the British Empire in North America and the Caribbean, and Britain's military, economic and diplomatic relations with Latin America) are indispensable starting points. These platforms rely on keywords searches, however, which is great if you have a fairly specific idea of what you are looking for, but less useful if you’re entering a subject for the first time and would like a bit more guidance. For those new to the subject, the best jumping off point for building a reading list are the annotated bibliographies in Atlantic History available through Oxford Bibliographies. Assembled by world-leading experts and covering 360 themes ranging from ‘African Retailers and Small Artisans’ to ‘Dreams and Dreaming’ in the Atlantic world, it is an eclectic but extremely inspiring way into the subject.
Again, many of the general platforms for early modern studies offer important pathways into the subject of Europe’s overseas expansion. Early English Books Online (which has a digitized copy of almost every book printed in the British Isles and North America before 1700) is invaluable if you are interested in the ideas that animated England’s engagement with the Atlantic, as you can retrieve texts like Richard Hakluyt’s foundational treatise, Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, at the click of a button.
EEBO (as those in the know call it!) is an amazing achievement but again, it rewards those that know what they are looking for. European Views of the Americas, 1493-1750 similarly does not easily facilitate browsing but is a really useful gateway into online primary sources for more experienced researchers. There are no comparable resources available through the British Library in languages other than English, however, so if you want to get a more pan-European, indeed pan-Atlantic, perspective, some of the specially curated platforms are very useful.
Its somewhat old-fashioned (indeed, some might say problematically euphemistic) title notwithstanding, Age of Exploration, c. 1420-1920 is a really dynamic and compelling way into the subject, and has a number of really useful features. It has hundreds of documents relating to Europe’s colonization of the Americas (as well as Europe’s colonization of other regions of the world, as it is not focused solely on the Atlantic), organized into collections and themes to make browsing much easier. A particularly useful feature are the interactive maps, which not only chart the routes taken by some of the most significant voyages of exploration during this period, but connects these to fascinating primary sources. For instance, the map plotting William Baffin’s second voyage (March – August 1616) in search of the fabled Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans links to a full digitization of his account of the journey and the log of the voyage. 
Other documentary highlights include a digitized copy of Antonio de la Ascensión’s 220 page account of Sebastián Vizcaíno’s voyage along the coast of California in 1602-1603, and an equally long manuscript describing the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia’s subjugation of Chile in the 1540s.
Age of Exploration also features videos by leading scholars introducing a number of topics, as well as essays and biographies of several major white European men involved in the exploration and invasion of the Americas. Other curated platforms that similarly offer in-depth access to select primary sources together with helpful editorial or secondary interpretive material include Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange, which uses datasets, documents and maps relating to 15 raw and manufactured goods such as fur, silver and gold, sugar and coffee as ways into global history. Empire Online covers the British Empire from a broad range of perspectives. Obviously, the African and Indigenous experiences need to be brought into view before a full picture of the emergence of the early modern Americas can be made, but these resources on European travel, war-making, trade and early settlement are a good starting point.
 This notion was developed by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and is very well articulated by former Director Karin Wulf here.
 This blog will not deal in depth with digital resources concerned with the Atlantic slave trade, or the Indigenous American experience of European colonization. Look out for blogs that will deal with these themes in the future.
 This happens to a British Library manuscript. William Baffin, True Relation of his Fourth Voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage, in the year 1615; preceded by the Log of the voyage, Add MS 12206.
03 May 2022
The fortieth anniversary of the Falkland Islands War is an opportunity to draw attention to the extensive collections on the subject, British and Argentinian, in the BL.
One immediate effect on the then Hispanic Section of the Library, responsible for acquisitions from all Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries (we are now split into European Collections and American Collections) was that books from Argentina bought for the Library were impounded at Dover and curators had to examine them to satisfy the authorities that they were not a threat to national security.
Showcase items from the period might include the volumes of ephemera collected and donated to the BL by Argentinian journalist Andrew Graham-Yooll (1944-2019), who had fearlessly exposed the Junta’s ‘dirty war’ at risk of his life.
[A collection of communiqués issued by the Argentine government relating to the Falkland Islands War of 1982]. Shelfmark: HS.74/2206
[A collection of communiqúes issued by the Argentine Government and printed ephemera relating to the Falklands Islands War of 1982]. Shelfmark: HS.74/2207
[A collection of newspaper cuttings from US and Argentine papers relating to the Falkland Islands War]. Shelfmark: HS.74/2208
Researchers though don’t go to a library to see standout items but common or garden books and journals. According to Explore, we have 618 books on the subject (Search “Falkland Islands War 1982”), 333 in English and 263 in Spanish. One shouldn’t give greater attention to one publisher over another, but 44 of these are published in Buenos Aires by Falklands specialists Ediciones Argentinidad and 4 by Grupo Argentinidad. On both sides of the Atlantic the anniversary year has encouraged publication of personal testimonies by combatants of both parties.
Blog post by Barry Taylor, European Collections
20 April 2022
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
11 April 2022
As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the collections which can support those exploring US Politics and Political History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass. All previous posts in the series can be found here.
There are many resources which can help uncover the operation of government, with Congress being especially well represented. The Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection 1789-1997 and the US Congressional Serial Set 1817-1994 provide impressive levels of insight into the legislative process. The Congressional Record is a substantially verbatim account of the remarks made by Senators and Representatives while they are on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives (the equivalent of the UK’s Hansard). It also includes all bills, resolutions, and motions proposed, as well as debates, and roll call votes. The Serial Set is comprised of the numbered Senate and House Documents and Senate and House Reports, bound by session of Congress. There is also a dedicated selection of maps with the Serial Set. The Serial Set, and its maps, can be accessed remotely by registered Readers. The maps can be browsed by State as well as topic. The image below shows the Indian Reservations in the United States in 1940.
The Library’s selection of electronic resources is very wide, and it is worth looking at resources which may not seem immediately ‘Political Studies’ yet may still hold relevant material. For example, the American History, 1493-1945 resource is drawn from the diverse collections of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, and has some fascinating collections including materials related to the private lives of First Ladies, and Presidential Pardons. Below is part of the pardon by President Polk of an elderly counterfeiter, Samuel Howard, convicted of passing counterfeit coin and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, who was pardoned due to age, previous honesty, his family’s dependence on him, the small amount of counterfeited money involved, and the judge’s recommendation for clemency.
Similarly, there are many aspects of US domestic politics which are well-covered in other thematic resources focused on different identity groups, such as women’s suffrage campaigns, LGBTQ+ political activism, and African-American civil rights campaigns and political activism. For example, the African American Communities resource holds legal papers of justices and policymakers which shed light on the politics around busing and school desegregation, including the Algernon Lee Butler Papers, 1928-1978, from the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Butler Papers consist of Butler's political, legal, and personal papers from 1928 until 1978. Featured are a wide variety of writings and speeches Butler produced on political, educational, and civic topics, including materials relating to school desegregation and civil rights cases.
There are many full-text US newspapers available in the electronic resources, which were covered in this earlier post. These newspapers are a fantastic resource for many aspects of US social and political life. Importantly, these don’t just include historical newspapers. The British Library subscribes to the excellent NewsBank: Access World News resource, which is available via Remote Access for registered Readers. This is an extraordinary database and an excellent resource for events from the 1980s to the present, including full-text coverage of more than 1300 American dailies such as the Boston Herald (1991 to the present) and the New York Post (1999 to the present); transcripts of more than 200 major TV news and radio programmes including 60 Minutes (2004 to the present) and Fox News Channel (2003 to the present); full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines; output from more than 300 web-only sources; and access to more than 80 newswires.
Finally, our electronic resources are very strong on US foreign policy and international relations, particularly how other countries viewed the US. These include the Confidential Print: North America, 1824-1961 collection which comes from the National Archives at Kew and contains British Government documents covering the US (as well as other parts of the Americas). The collection covers topics such as slavery, Prohibition, the First and Second World Wars, racial segregation, territorial disputes, the League of Nations, McCarthyism and the nuclear bomb. For a broader global perspective, researchers can explore the excellent Foreign Broadcast Information Service (also available via remote access). FBIS was a US government operation which translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from non-English sources. The idea was to understand more about foreign opinion of the United States and its policies. It is an archive of 20th century news from around the world, offering global views on US foreign and domestic policy after World War II. The documents cover the Cold War, the Middle East, Latin America, the Soviet Union and more. Below is an example from the Soviet Home Service criticising America’s perceived plans in Asia as it ended the official postwar occupation of Japan.
This whirlwind tour of the Library’s e-resources has just scratched the surface, but it does give an indication of the wide range of collections which include materials helpful for both historic and contemporary US Political Studies. For those interested in diving further into US politics at the Library, do check out the Collection Guide for US Federal Government Publications.
By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, April 2022
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- US Radicals in Revolutionary Mexico
- The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction
- Electronic resources for African American History
- Food and Freedom in 19th-Century Jamaica
- E-Resources on European Colonization in the Americas to c.1650
- The Falklands forty years on
- Writer's Award Winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part I
- Electronic Resources for US Politics
- A welcome return for on-site Doctoral Open Days
- E-resources for Women in the United States