Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

Introduction

The Americas and Oceania Collections blog promotes our collections relating to North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania by providing new readings of our historical holdings, highlighting recent acquisitions, and showcasing new research on our collections. It is written by our curators and collection specialists across the Library, with guest posts from Eccles Centre staff and fellows. Read more about this blog

23 May 2022

The Revolution Will Be Sexualized

John G. McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan State University, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow.

What was it like for homosexual men in the era of the American Revolution? For the past few years, I have been trying to answer this question. Little has been written about same-sex intimacy in the eighteenth century and almost no one has attempted to connect homosexuality to the creation of the United States.

Specifically, I have been researching the case of British Lieutenant Robert Newburgh who was accused of buggery in 1774 and faced a court martial. Newburgh’s case (which I found at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan and at the UK's National Archives at Kew) is highly detailed. It is full of homophobic stereotypes but also a stirring defense of sexual freedom that was centuries ahead of its time.

In February and March 2022, I was privileged to spend four weeks at the British Library thanks to the generous support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies. Although I had already located most of the materials related to Newburgh’s case, I needed to contextualize his trial. How typical was his court martial and how did it compare to contemporary British military legal actions? Also, how did people in the eighteenth-century Anglo Atlantic talk about same-sex intimacy? Fortunately, I found a great deal of information at the British Library!

I spent my first two weeks going through manuscripts. The Download Haldimand guide are an especially rich collection that I strongly encourage all researchers to take a look at. Frederick Haldimand was commander in chief of North America from 1773 to 1774 and governor general of Canada from 1778 to 1786. Accordingly, he collected all types of reports about life and events during the American War for Independence. Although Newburgh’s letters to Haldimand were the only ones to mention homosexuality, I found information on other courts martial, marriage and families, and unusual individuals who ran afoul of the British establishment.

There are many interesting stories that I found in Haldimand Papers. In 1781, Stephen Tuttle wrote to Haldimand asking for his help finding his wife. Apparently, Tuttle’s wife had “entertained” some American rebels and then run away with his money. I also found the court martial of Ensigns Archibald MacDonnell and Stephen Blackader for fighting with a Canadian colonist. The colonist—who was a French speaker—called the two officers “foutre” and “Bougre” (fucker and buggerer). Also in the Haldimand Papers, I located several letters from Rev. Thomas Charles Hessop Scott. Like Newburgh, Scott was an army chaplain who found himself on the outs with the officers. Although Scott was heterosexual, he was forced out of the army when he defended civilians against soldiers’ theft and criticized his commanding officer.

I also scoured the manuscripts for any mention of homosexuality. In the Harley Papers, I located transcriptions of late-seventeenth-century accounts such as “Jenny Cromwell’s Complaint against Sodomy” which condemns England for encouraging vice, as well as “Petition of Hassan a Turk” in which a Muslim asks King William III to set aside his execution for sodomy because of cultural differences. The Miscellaneous Papers and the Morley Papers include accounts of “macaroni”: a term applied to fashionable young men in the 1770s. Many writers lampooned the macaroni as queer, that is, either asexual or homosexual. Finally, the Sloane Papers contain accounts of John Atherton who introduced the sodomy law to Ireland and was also the first man to be executed under the law.

A satirical image of a dandyish man emerging from an egg, wearing a fancy coat, with fancy hair and holding a cane above his head. The accompanying poem reads: “Behold a monster bursting to the view / Nor Turk, nor Christian, Pagan he nor Jew; No Sawney Scot, Welsh Taff or Irish Honey / But Manhood’s jest – a London macaroni!”
“Frontispiece” from John Cooke, The Macaroni Jester, and Pantheon of Wit (London: Cooke, [1773]). Shelfmark: 012331.e.126.

In my third week at the British Library, I moved on to the Rare Books and Music room. I quickly discovered many pamphlets, plays, and books that discussed homosexuality. Not surprisingly, most portrayals were negative and mocking. Satan’s Harvest Home from 1749 fretted over the preponderance of “vile Catamites” (a classical reference to homosexuals), which it blamed on the current fashion of “Men kissing each other.” This pamphlet also contains one of the few references to lesbianism, which the author terms “the Game of Flatts.” I also found sermons against sodomy, the play The Macaroni: A Comedy, and attacks on Samuel Foote who was accused of having sex with another man.

An image of an eighteenth-century gentleman wearing a mid-length frock coat, breeches, a tricorner hat and carrying a cane.
“Ganymede” from Sodom and Onan, a Satire Inscrib’d to [Samuel Foote,] Esqr., Alias, the Devil upon Two Sticks [1772]. Shelfmark: 11642 g.15.

Yet not all of the accounts are entirely negative. I was delighted to find The State of the Case of Captain Jones from 1772, a pamphlet who urged that King George III to pardon a man who had been convicted of sex with another man. Although the author believed that sodomy was a capital crime, he nevertheless made an appeal for compassion and the rule of law over mob violence. I also found An Address from the Ladies from 1754, a mocking account of an Irish archbishop who fell from power over rumors that he had a male lover. Pretending to be letters between the two men, the correspondence made the case for an acceptance of homosexuality with classical allusions including: “You may read Virgil and there you’ll find he was one of us.”

Since returning to America, I have been sorting through my findings. These will greatly enrich my findings and will certainly appear in my forthcoming book on Robert Newburgh and what his case can tell us about homosexuality in the American Revolution. I am grateful to the Eccles Centre and the British Library for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

19 May 2022

Cross-media Research: Searching for Poets, Painters and Photographers

Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

The British Library is an excellent place to do cross-media research. During my research stint, I intended to study the working relationship between poets and visual artists, especially Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). As a consequence, I spent most of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room where papers of both are held. In addition to finding many relevant letters and manuscript drafts that reveal how the English poet and American artist collaborated, I found plenty of doodles and drawings that showed the genesis of several books on which the two worked together. The detailed finding aids on the British Library website often describe these, but they cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this visual material in person. In order to take photographs or have scans made, it is necessary to acquire permission from the copyright holders, so it is advisable to seek this before making the trip to the British Library. It is much more of an ordeal to do that after visiting.

The British Library’s holdings of fine press materials was equally relevant for my research, but to check these out I needed to go one floor down, to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.1 Hughes and Baskin collaborated on many books that were published by their own publishers, Eremite Press and Gehenna Press, respectively. The leather bindings containing the richly illustrated books printed on handmade paper are sights to behold. Some of the fine presses were short lived and have remained obscure, but they often presented young authors with their first opportunity to publish, or gave established writers the chance to try out new approaches for their work. It allowed Hughes, for instance, to express his grief about Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath in poems hidden in limited and sumptuously designed editions, years before this became public knowledge with his more public Birthday Letters, which he issued through a commercial publisher.

In a different corner of the same reading room, I listened to many interviews with poets, painters and photographers. These recordings are not accessible from outside the British Library, but through a few desktop computers of the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. They include radio recordings, footage made at and by the British Library, and assorted other tapes that were digitized. I was able to listen to dozens of digitized cassette tapes that Ian Hamilton recorded for his biography of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). He only used a tiny fraction of these interviews for his book. This raw material will undoubtedly give researchers new leads, insights, and ideas, as Hamilton could obviously not pursue all angles, and there are always unexpected pronouncements in these interviews that are waiting to be explored further. Not all links that I clicked on worked, but the reference staff encouraged me to fill out forms when that occurred, so that they could help repair the broken links.

The physical papers of the Ian Hamilton collection are still largely unprocessed, and so not readily accessible. Yet the curators are interested in making portions of them available if scholars can specify what exactly they are looking for. I was lucky to be able to peruse some transcripts of interviews and some correspondence from that collection that are not yet detailed in finding aids, but that I can now use for my research. The joy of searching through boxes and folders of unsorted material is the distinct pleasure of being like a kid in a candy store. Every time you open a folder or box you don’t know what it will contain, and I discovered nuggets that I know will become part of articles or essays that I will write down the line. I was allowed to look at these unsorted papers in the Maps Reading Room, yet another reading room that I could add to my tally at the British Library.

My favorite research experience was looking at Fay Godwin’s contact sheets and photographs in the Visual Arts Reading Room. Tucked away in the much larger Asian and African one, this tiny reading room is only open from 10.30am to 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you need to make an appointment before going there. Godwin (1931-2005) was an English photographer who collaborated with Hughes on a book, Remains of Elmet, about the area of Yorkshire where Hughes grew up. Godwin, however, also took photographs of many poets and writers, including of Lowell. The contact sheets and developed prints held in the Visual Arts Reading Room allow one to retrace the photographer’s steps. The sequence of shots helps you to see how she conceived of several images, and decided which one to single out to develop as a photograph. Godwin clearly wanted to showcase chess pieces in her photograph of Robert Lowell, for instance, when she visited him and his wife Caroline Blackwood at Milgate House in Kent in 1971. He stares intently and bemused into her camera, and as viewers we are interested in observing the next move in his life, and also Godwin’s next move as photographer.

A middle-aged man wearing spectacles, dark trousers and an open neck shirt, lies on his side on a sofa with his head propped up by his hand. In front of him is a coffee table with an inlaid chess board, and a box of chess pieces can be seen on the floor.
Robert Lowell by Fay Godwin © British Library Board.

The limited access time and spacing in the Visual Arts Reading Room made me value the opportunity and experience of viewing this unique visual material even more. Like visiting the other reading rooms, it deepened my interest into how poets and visual artists collaborated together. To make the most of your research time at the British Library, it is surely important to plan ahead, but also to allow for chance to occur. Allow some time to wander around, and to inspect some of the other reading rooms that you were not intending to visit. You never know what you will find.

Notes:

1.  A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down). 

03 May 2022

The Falklands forty years on

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.

 

Andrew Prescott, English Historical Documents (BL, 1988), p. 79. Shelfmark: 2702.b.127. Reading: Como en 1806 y 1807 echemos a los ingleses!! muera el cinismo yanqui!! Paz con dignidad por la victoria: gobierno de emergencia sin exclusiones
Andrew Prescott, English Historical Documents (BL, 1988), p. 79. Shelfmark: 2702.b.127.

 

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.

 

DETAILS:

[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.

Hugh Thomson, Andrew Graham-Yooll Obituary, Guardian 18 July 2019.

Blog post by Barry Taylor, European Collections