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.
26 July 2021
This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections.
In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.
I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.
And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.
Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research.
Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.
Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.
I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art. I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it.
This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.
Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.
Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.
Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.
My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.
I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.
So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.
It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.
Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.
There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.
It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle. They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).
I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.
Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.
02 February 2021
You can now read and listen to the Caribbean Foodways blog series starting with Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival
Following Riaz Phillips’s wonderful blog, I would like to introduce a new project that the Eccles Centre is launching – ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’. It is inspired by an exciting spread of food-related collection items, Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (2020) and a desire to hear your stories and have your input in collections development, here at the Library.
As Phillips describes in his blog, food has often been a battleground for survival, culture, home-making and resistance. A critical roadmap for understanding histories and experiences of migration, ‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ aims to explore and highlight these histories in a collaborative way, through conversation and exchange. In recognition of food’s vital place in community and struggle, this project seeks to listen to and learn from your stories.
The British Library’s collections are stuffed with fascinating and largely untapped resources relating to Caribbean food, scattered through manuscripts, printed books, newspapers, magazines, sound and oral histories. Over the coming months we are embarking on a series of connected projects, working with communities and partners in the Caribbean and the UK, to select key collection items to digitize and make freely available online; to identify significant gaps in the collection; and to tell and record new stories and memories of food, culture and experience amongst the global Caribbean diaspora.
From Black British magazines such as Tropic (1960) and Flamingo (1961-65), to community-published cookbooks in London and colonial cookbooks published in the Caribbean, the British Library holds a variety of collection items that speak to the complexities of Caribbean food history.
Caribbean Food and You!
Through a series of initiatives, including oral history interviews, the British Library wants to engage participants in conversations about life, history and politics through food. This marks an opportunity for people to tell their food stories and memories which will inform new collection perspectives and development at the British Library.
The interviews recorded for this project will be deposited in the British Library’s Sound Archive, becoming a part of the Library’s collection forever. They will also be the basis for a series of blogs, as part of the British Library’s 2021 Food Season. In preparation for these interviews, Eccles staff will search for collection items which connect to participants’ food memories, as well as drawing up a list of new items to acquire (with public input).
There are different ways to get involved, whether the Library's buildings are open or closed:
• Put yourself forward for an interview
• Home collections: we are all the archivers of our own lives and homes, so why not explore your own shelves, photo albums, cupboards and memories to discover collection items in your own home and tell us about them
• Researching from home: we invite you to scour the British Library's online catalogue for food-related items and to write to us about items that you’re interested in. Look out for an upcoming blog on navigating the digital Caribbean collections
• Expanding the collections: have you noticed something missing from the Library's catalogue? If so, please get in touch and we can try to acquire those items
• Digitizing: we would like to expand the range of items available to view online, and would like to hear your suggestions for new items to be digitized – excerpts of books, newspapers, diaries and letters from the modern era that you think people should be able to see, for free, anywhere in the world
• Once the Library is open, come in and look at these fantastic items!
‘Caribbean Foodways at the British Library’ is about opening up the Library’s collections and creating a platform for people to tell their own story, so that, together, we can explore the relationships between personal experience and national knowledge. For us, it’s an opportunity to listen to your stories, learn more about our collections and make them better by adding your voice.
NB: Being Interviewed: If you’d like to put yourself forward to be interviewed, please send an email with some information about yourself and why you would like to share your story about Caribbean food with the British Library. Please send your statement of around 250 words to email@example.com by 5pm on Sunday 28 February 2021. Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee to interview everyone who gets in touch, but we promise to reply to everyone by 5pm on Friday 12 March. We expect interviews to take place between Monday 15 March and Friday 2 April 2021.
Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
You can now read and listen to the Caribbean Foodways blog series starting with Ann Husbands: Black Pudding and Roti at Notting Hill Carnival
Further Online Reading/Listening
• Abdul Rob, ‘The Origins of ‘slave food’: Callaloo, Dumplings and Saltfish’, Black History Month, 20 December 2016
• Bernice Green, ‘Food: From Source to Salespoint’, British Library Sound Archive, C821/49
• Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, ‘Beyond the scotch bonnet: the rise of Caribbean food in the UK’, Guardian, 20 January 2019
• ‘Frank Critchlow’, Waking the Dead, Octavia Foundation
• ‘Is it harder to make it in the food industry if you’re black?’, The Food Programme, BBC, 5 July 2020
• Keshia Sakarah, ‘Jouney Cakes’, Vittles 2.14 – The Diversity of Caribbean Cuisines, 12 June 2020
• ‘Mangrove Nine: Directed by John La Rose and Franco Rosso’, George Padmore Institute
• Nadine Chambers, ‘The Black and Indigenous present in the story of how Breadfruit came to the Caribbean’, British Library Americas blogs, 9 July 2020
• Organised Youth, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, SoundCloud
• Riaz Phillips (editor and curator), Community Comfort, online cookbook. Tezeta Press, 2020
• Riaz Phillips’ Top Caribbean Spots, Trippin
18 December 2020
Given there is no canteen Christmas lunch on offer this year, I thought I would ‘cook up’ a Caribbean Christmas meal out of the collections.
“Koo-Koo, Koo-Koo” an attendant chorus repeated, imitating the ‘rumbling sound of the bowels, when in a hungry state.’1 This was the origin of the ‘Koo-Koo’ chant according to Isaac Medes Belisario, the Jamaican Jewish painter, engraver and lithographer. The calling of Koo-Koos would sound the streets of Kingston during Junkanoo – the carnivalesque celebration that occurs around Christmas time in parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean. Rooted in the era of slavery, Junkanoo festivities were performed during the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. While the concept of Christmas was a colonial imposition in the Caribbean, the short break that this Christian holiday instigated became an opportunity for the creation of independent, creolized, defiant and delicious traditions. From the rumbling stomach of Junkanoo to the ceremonial soaking of fruit in rum, Christmas through the mouth of the Caribbean collections is a varied and delectable affair.
The Main Event
Deviating from the oft-dry Turkey, the centrepiece of a Caribbean Christmas meal might be a ‘Christmas Goat’ or a pig. As contributors to the community-published cookbook, Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole explain, Christmas in St. Lucia is a big celebration, where pigs are fattened up to be eaten on Christmas day and there are lots of dances and parties that ‘carry on through Christmas and New Year’.
Much more efficient to rear than cows and easier to farm on smallholdings, the goat has consistently been one of the most consumed meats in Jamaica since the nineteenth century. Goat was ‘also the most commonly eaten mammal in India, after the sheep,’ which made it appealing to Jamaica’s East Indian community.2 The curry goat, a classic of Jamaican cuisine, is a product of East Indian and African creolization in Jamaica.
As Carly Lewis-Oduntan writes in her article, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas,’ a British and Caribbean Christmas food fusion might encompass roast turkey accompanied with rice and peas. Derived from Akan cuisine, variations of rice and bean dishes have been a staple of Caribbean diets for centuries. During the era of slavery, enslaved peoples in the English-Speaking Caribbean subsisted on their provision ground harvests (small plots of land where anything from yams to beans were grown), which have profoundly shaped the ingredients, processes and tastes that remain central to Caribbean cuisine. Ripening just in time for Christmas, the perennial Gungo pea is an ‘essential part of the Christmas Day menu’, replacing the often-used kidney bean in rice and peas.
The Proof is in the Pudding
The Caribbean Christmas cake or pudding is the product of months (or even years) of rum soaking. Atop of kitchen cupboards you might spot dried fruit soaking in deep amber jars of rum, in preparation for baking the spiced, boozy and dense Christmas cake. From the sugar grown and harvested on plantations, to the by-product of sugar (rum is made from molasses which is produced when sugarcane is refined) and regionally grown spices like nutmeg, Christmas pudding is an example of the region’s history melding together.
A drink with that?
How about a deep red glass of tart, sweet and cool sorrel drink, made from an infusion of fresh or dried sorrel. The Jamaican name for hibiscus, B. W. Higman cites sorrel as arriving during in the eighteenth century, from Africa. Planted in August, the sorrel plant is harvested in December and January, hence, its Christmas association. The refreshing drink is made by steeping sorrel in water for two days with ginger, cloves, orange peel, rum or wine. These classic Christmas flavours encompass Britain’s colonial history and the far-reaching impact of the Spice Trade.
I hope this has whet your appetite for a Merry Christmas and has maybe even inspired you to test out one of these recipes – please get in touch if you do!
In 2021, we will be launching an exciting project that seeks to re-interpret, locate and co-create more sources on the history of Caribbean food, spanning from colonial materials, to post-independence and contemporary sources. We will need your input and participation … so watch this space and have a relaxing winter break.
Naomi Oppenheim, community engagement and Caribbean Collections intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and CDP student researching Caribbean publishing and activism. @naomioppenheim
1. Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008), p.250.
2. B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), p.387-9.
* B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), BL Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
* Carly Lewis-Oduntan, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas’, VICE, 14 December 2018
* Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain (London: Mantra Publishing, 1988) BL Shelfmark YK.1989.b.1722
* Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008). BL Shelfmark LD.31.b.1989
* Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamacian Flowering Plants (Kingston: The Mill Press, 1999)
* P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes, BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.5048
* Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica run-dung: over 100 recipes (Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973) BL Shelfmark YA.1989.a.11640
* ‘14th Day of Christmas – Gungo Peas & Christmas’, Jamaica Information Service
* B. W. Higman, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D’Oeurve’, New West Indian Guide, 72 (1998).
* Catherine Hall, ‘Whose Memories? Edward Long and the Work of Re-Remembering’ in K. Donington, R. Hanley, & J. Moody (Eds.), Britain's History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a 'National Sin'’ (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), pp. 129-149.
* Chanté Joseph, ‘Confronting the Colonial Past of Jamaica’s Hard Dough Bread’, VICE, 25 April 2019
* Colleen Taylor Sen, Curry: A Global History (London: Reaktion, 2009) BL Shelmark YK.2010.a.31951
* Edward Long, A History of Jamaica (London: T. Lowndes, 1774), 981.f.19-21. [Version available online]
* Malini Roy, ‘Reopening and reinterpretation – our Front Hall Busts’, Living Knowledge Blog, 28 August 2020
* Naomi Oppenheim, ‘A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas’, American Collections blog, 7 January 2019
* Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2017) YKL.2017.b.4909
26 August 2020
To celebrate this important anniversary, this blog highlights some of the US women's suffrage music held at the British Library.
Today - 26 August 2020 - marks the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment becoming part of the Constitution of the United States. This 39-word Amendment states: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
Although brief, this Nineteenth Amendment was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for women's suffrage. This struggle formally began in July 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, where, at a convention organised by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, around 300 people gathered to discuss "the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women." In the 72 years that followed, activists for women's suffrage created many organisations and used many strategies to achieve their goal. In the end, however, it was amending the Constitution - rather than persuading individual states to extend the franchise - that was successful.
To commemorate this milestone, US institutions, including the Library of Congress, the National Archives Museum, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, are illuminating the complex, challenging and inspirational story of the movement for female suffrage with brilliant online exhibitions.
In the late 1980s, I had the great good fortune to work as an intern on the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Spanning the years 1831 to 1906 this vast microfilm project – then housed at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – brought together more than 14,000 documents relating to these two extraordinary women. As a new graduate student with little experience of working with primary sources, transcribing Stanton and Anthony’s correspondence and indexing their weekly newspaper, The Revolution, was priceless. Yet, even then it was clear that Stanton and Anthony’s activism was not without flaws; particularly, regarding issues of race.
What excites me today as I browse these centenary exhibitions, is seeing Stanton and Anthony's contributions as one strand - albeit a hugely significant one - of the suffrage journey and realising how much is still being discovered about all of the women and men who petitioned, organised, marched, wrote to representatives, senators, and presidents, argued with friends and family, argued with each other, and ultimately refused to give up.
Viewing these virtual exhibitions has also made me extremely jealous of the collection items held by these American institutions; but that is for another day! Today, we are simply celebrating this 100th anniversary by sharing some of the women’s suffrage sheet music held by the British Library.
Like all great American reform movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the one for women’s suffrage was imbued with songs and marches. This is not surprising, given the prominent role that music played in homes, churches and social and political gatherings at this time.
Today, historians often categorise suffrage music into "parlour songs" and "rally songs". Although the lines of demarcation between these two are somewhat blurred, rally songs tended to be well-known tunes - usually hymns or anthems - that had been given new, pro-suffrage lyrics. At public gatherings, this style of music-making was particularly advantageous since the new lyrics, printed inexpensively on a single sheet of paper, could quickly be passed around a crowd. One or two people would then kick off the melody and everybody else could join in.
Compilations of suffrage songs - often a combination of these re-worded hymns with original compositions - were frequently published by local and national suffrage associations as a means to raise funds. Others, including the one below, were created by single individuals:
In contrast to rally songs, "parlour songs" tended to have both original lyrics and original tunes. They enabled the singer – in the non-threatening environment of her own home – to express why women wanted the vote and the benefits this would bring to society. Many appealed to the listener’s sense of justice and fair play, including the one below, which opens with the declaration that: "No man is greater than his mother / No man is better than the wife he loves." It then lists women's qualities and accomplishments, before arriving at the surely inevitable conclusion that women also deserve to vote:
Opposition to female suffrage took many forms, but particularly common were accusations that women would become "sexless" (scathing references to "spinsters" were common) or would neglect their homes and families. These views were reflected in the sheet music of the time, including in the song below. Published in 1913, this song is full of stereotypes not only about those supporting women's suffrage but also about Italian Americans. The song's protagonist bewails the fact that since "his" Margarette became a suffragette, not only does she no longer cook or clean the house, but, worst of all, "She wear a-da pants / Dat kill da romance..."
From the earliest days, there were strong ties between those working for women's suffrage in the United States and their counterparts in Great Britain. In the 1910s, concern about the increasing militancy of the British movement was reflected not only in the American press but also in popular music. The cover illustration of the song below, published in New Jersey in 1912, depicts British suffragettes marching in their sashes while throwing bricks and breaking windows. The song’s protagonist – recently arrived from England – shares the horrors he has witnessed there and concludes in the chorus: "They’re growing too strenuous by jingo/ These women on mischief are bent/ With brick bats they’ve smashed all the windows/ And raided the Houses of Parliament/ They’re wearing men’s collars and shirt fronts/ Less bashful are these sweet coquettes/ They’re after our votes just as well as our notes/ And our trousers! Oh! You suffragettes":
In spite of the vigorous efforts of the anti-suffrage contingent, on 19 January 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would guarantee women the right to vote. This Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on 4 June 1919, ratified on 18 August 1920 and officially incorporated into the Constitution on 26 August 1920.
Just over fifty years later, on 16 August 1973, Congress approved H.J.Res. 52 - introduced by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) - designating 26 August as Women's Equality Day.
Due to Covid restrictions, some of the images in this blog are from non-British Library sources; I wish to express my thanks to these institutions.
Please note, you can read more about Bella Abzug and other women involved in the (still-ongoing) battle for the Equal Rights Amendment in my colleague Rachael Culley's evocative two-part blog inspired by the recent TV series Mrs America. Please also note that the British Library's next major exhibition 'Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights', is currently on hold until later in the year.
04 August 2020
This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy. I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto. It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital. Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed. Little did I know that would change the course of my life. The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life. As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone. Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand. Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men. Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.
Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020. A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic. A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma. While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic. Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2
Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking. I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma. Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy. We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3 Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable. While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts. Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history. Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other. Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’. People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’. This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.
Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope. They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities. We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick. These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly. Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).
I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing. Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities. My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.
Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.
For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792
1. Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100; Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.
2. D. Crimp, AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16. General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.
3. Sontag, 1989. p. 180.
Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:
C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.' Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504
C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.' AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.
30 July 2020
This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53). The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982). The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy. The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death. Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.
The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication. It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises. They can be accessed only by visiting the Library. Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined. Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey. Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.
The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one. It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England. One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes. One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.
However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood. Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases. Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton. One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973). The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising. She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.” She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.” She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints. How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.
The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career. They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle. Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series. In this interview she discusses her life and works. Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.
Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.
23 July 2020
This post by Vanessa Mongey is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
How far should diplomatic protection extend? Surely, consul James Buchanan argued, there must be limits to American “humanity.” In Belize, a British settlement in Central America, Buchanan was trying to understand his responsibilities towards U.S. citizens. The hurricane season of 1849 had caused a few ships to wreck near the coast and the officers, crew, and passengers had sought refuge in the port of Belize. They turned to Buchanan for help. The consul paid for a few destitute sailors to return home, but the situation soon got out of control. Officers demanded he pay for their room and board. Sailors asked storekeepers to send their bills to him.
When the consul refused to reimburse all these expenses, the crew complained to the local British police and magistrates. They turned to the Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen (1796) that provided certificates for the protection of sailors. They argued that the U.S. government owed them not only diplomatic but also financial protection. Buchanan was as annoyed as he was confused. He asked the State Department what to do with U.S. citizens stranded abroad. He confessed that he had “no legal knowledge of what the consul’s duties are in this matter.”
The correspondences of U.S. consular representatives in the British Library abound with this kind of complaints and queries. Many politicians, jurists, and citizens in the United States embraced the view that individuals had a natural right to leave their country. Increasing numbers of U.S. Americans traveled abroad during the nineteenth century. Some served in Latin American independent armies and navies. Many settled in neighbouring foreign territories like Florida, Texas, and California, eventually leading the United States to invade and annex these territories. Freedom of movement often bolstered U.S continental and commercial ambitions.
Although the nineteenth century saw relatively unregulated movement, the right to travel was racialized. Freedom of movement was often a privilege of European and Euro-descendants as shown by tensions surrounding Chinese immigration to California and issues around enslaved and free travelers of African descent moving across state and national lines.
Even for free white U.S. Americans, the right to travel freely created new challenges: what happened when citizens crossed international borders and got into trouble abroad? Instrumental in defining and implementing diplomatic protection were consular networks. Lacking a significant overseas presence in the first half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government possessed neither the resources nor the capabilities to monitor the activities of their citizens abroad. With no formal training, consuls were the ones on the ground who assisted Americans when they ended up in jail, aided them in navigating estate and inheritance issues, or represented their legal interests. They often had to decide whether an individual was really a U.S. citizen, and therefore entitled to consular protection, at a time when no definition of national citizenship existed.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States could not set up permanent consular posts in India. The British kept tight control over the region, thwarting U.S. consuls in Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai). The India Office Records and Private Papers in the British Library show that tensions frequently erupted between British and U.S. representatives. British authorities complained about distressed sailors who ended up in their care. One U.S. consul in Singapore simply refused to help naturalized American citizens, arguing that those who were born British subjects fell under the Common Law doctrine of perpetual allegiance. In brief, once British, always British—especially if these individuals were potential drains on consular finances.
In addition to uncertainty and confusion expressed by U.S. consuls, these correspondences also reveal how U.S. citizens understood their rights and responsibilities. When they had the resources or the connections, they sent letters to journal editors in the United States, hoping to put pressure on consuls.
This early phase of diplomatic experimentation came to an end in the middle of the nineteenth century. As the U.S. consular service expanded outside of Europe and the Americas and into China, Japan, and Siam, the government formalised the diplomatic and consular system in 1856. A reform legislation introduced salaries for a greater number of consular officials, hoping to reduce corruption and professionalise the service. The same year, the State Department received sole issuing power over passports and limited their use to U.S. citizens, thus reducing the autonomy of consuls. The Civil War (1861-1865) prompted a sharp growth of the consular service. At the end of the war, the fourteenth amendment defined national citizenship to include all persons born or naturalized in the United States. Monitoring international travel served as a testing ground for restrictions of citizenship rights along class, gender, and racial lines.
For US Federal Government Publications, the finding aid Diplomatic Records: A select catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications (shelf mark OPL 973.0076) is available in the Social Sciences reading room. It has been annotated to indicate which microfilms are in the British Library and gives their shelfmarks. I made particular use of ‘The correspondences of U.S. ministers at overseas posts’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.21) and ‘U.S. consuls at overseas ports’ (shelfmark SPR Mic.B.22). The India Office Records and Private Papers: the general shelfmark is IOR/Z/E/ and this is the collection guide.
Fahrmeir, Andreas O. & Patrick Weil (eds.), Migration Control in the North Atlantic World: The Evolution of State Practices in Europe and the United States from the French Revolution to the Inter-War Period. New York: Berghahn Books, 2002. British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply m03/17964; General Reference Collection YC.2003.a.13981; General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.515229.
Glanville, Luke. “The Responsibility to Protect Beyond Borders.” Human Rights Law Review. 12: 1 (2012): 1–32. British Library shelfmarks: Document Supply 4336.440550; General Reference Collection ZC.9.b.7074.
Green, Nancy L. “The Politics of Exit: Reversing the Immigration Paradigm.” The Journal of Modern History. 77: 2 (2005): 263-289. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 5020.680000.
Jones, Martha S. Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. British Library shelfmark: YC.2019.a.4852.
Kennedy, Charles Stuart. The American Consul: A History of the United States Consular Service 1776–1924. New York: Greenwood, 1990. British Library shelfmark: YC.1992.b.1026. (Rev. ed. published by New Academia Publishing, 2015).
Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. British Library shelfmark: YC.2017.a.660.
Phelps, Nicole. Researching the U.S. Consular Service https://blog.uvm.edu/nphelps/
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