American Collections blog

14 posts categorized "International"

30 July 2021

Columbus and the Idea of Cuba

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). 

Detail from the Benincasa chart showing the mythical islands of Antilia & Salvaga.
Figure 1: Portolan chart from 1470 by Grazioso Benincasa. British Library shelfmark: MS 31318A.

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. 

A yellowing manuscript page in Greek with two spherical sketches suggesting the tripartite nature of the world.
Figure 2: 14th century MS of Ptolemy’s Geographia. British Library shelfmark: Burney MS 111.

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? 

Coloured map showing the islands and sea in the Caribbean.
Figure 3: Map of Juan de la Cosa, 1500. Detail of the Caribbean Sea region. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

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.  

This detail of the planosphere has a white/cream background and shows numerous islands, some with images of wildlife.
Figure 4: Planisphere named for Alberto Cantino. 1502. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantino_planisphere#/media/File:Cantino_west.jpg

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. 

Figure 4 revised
Figure 5: Francesco di Lorenzo Roselli & Giovanni Matteo Contarini, Mundu [sic] spericum. [Florence ?], 1506. British Library shelfmark: Maps C.2.cc.4

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]. 

5 revised final
Figure 6: Johann Ruysch world map, created 1507-08. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ruysch_map.jpg

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. 

Colourful detail of Schoner's 1520 globe.
Figure 7: Detail of the globe by Johannes Schöner, 1520. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

 

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.

 

18 December 2020

Cooking a Christmas Meal in the Caribbean Collections

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.

Colourful painting of a street scene with a man dressed in costume with a feathered headpiece.
Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist. Kingston, Jamaica: The Mill Press, 2008. Shelfmark: LD.31.b.1989

“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’.

Text from a book which describes Christmas in St Lucia.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

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.The curry goat, a classic of Jamaican cuisine, is a product of East Indian and African creolization in Jamaica.

Text from a book which describes the Christmas Goat.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

 

Trimmings

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.

Sketches of different shaped beans.
B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008. Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918.

 

Front-cover with a palm tree on an island amongst a background of blue.
P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes. London: The New Europe Publishing Co. Ltd, 1946. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.5048
Recipes for Savoury Carrot Mould, Peas and Rice, Indian Cabbage and Bean Pie.
P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes. London: The New Europe Publishing Co. Ltd, 1946. Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.5048

 

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.

Recipe for Jamaican Christmas pudding
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620
Recipe continued with an illustration of a small bottle of liquor and nutmegs.
Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole and other Caribbean recipes. London: Peckham Publishing Project,  1981. Shelfmark: X.629/17620

 

A drink with that?

Colourful illustration of a sorrel flower
Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain. London: Mantra Publishing, 1988. Shelfmark: YK.1989.b.1722
A drink recipe using sorrel and rum.
Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica Run-dung: Over 100 Recipes. Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973. Shelfmark: YA.1989.a.11640

 

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.

Drawing of a yellow hibiscus flower.
Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamaican Flowering Plants. Kingston, Jamaica: The Mill Press, 1999. Shelfmark: YA.2003.a.26672

 

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

Endnotes

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.

Works Cited

* 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

Further Reading

* 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

The Centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment and US women's right to vote

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."  

Text of what would become the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
The Nineteenth (XIX) Amendment to the US Constitution passed a vote in the House of Representatives on 21 May 1919 and in the Senate on 4 June 1919; it was then sent to the states for ratification.  On 18 August 1920 it was ratified by Tennessee, the 36th - and final - state needed to ensure its adoption.  Image: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

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.

The cover photograph of this sheet music shows women in long white dresses and sashes marching in New York City for women's suffrage.
The copyright for this song was held by the New York Women's Suffrage Association which would have benefited from any sales. The cover photograph depicts one of the suffrage rallies held in New York City, 1912-14. In 1917 women gained the right to vote in New York State; this played a critical role in US President Woodrow Wilson's decision to support what would become the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
Zena S. Hawn, Fall in Line: Suffrage March. New York: Arthur W. Tams Music Library, c.1914.  British Library Music Collections: H.3826.r.(27.) 

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. 

The Liberty Bell and the American flag are colourfully depicted on the cover of this sheet music.
This song is dedicated ‘To Dr Anna Shaw and the Great Cause of Woman Suffrage’. Born in Britain Anna Shaw received her MD from Boston University in 1885 and was President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1904-1915.
M. Zimmerman & E. Zimmerman, Votes for Women: Suffrage Rallying Song. Philadelphia: E. M. Zimmerman, 1915. British Library Music Collections: H.3992.r.(18.) 

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. 

A woman holds a banner saying 'Universal Suffrage' on the cover of this sheet music.
This song was privately printed by its female composer and in her  dedication she urges women to: 'Never fail to keep the cause of woman's suffrage foremost in your mind ... it is your cause and you must support it.'
Lucenia W. Richards, Suffrage March Song. Chicago: Richards & Richards, 1914.  British Library Music Collections: H.3995.nn.(18.) 

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:

The decorative inside cover of a pro-suffrage songster.
Woman's Suffrage Songs. For Public Meetings, Conventions, Entertainments or Vaudeville.  Words and Music composed by Pauline Browne.  Indianapolis: P. R. Browne, 1913.  British Library Music Collections: F.328.s.(5.) [Image courtesy Library of Congress, due to Covid restrictions].

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:  

A smiling well-dressed woman and a baby look out of an open window; the baby waves while leaning on a red cushion.
H. Paley & A. Bryan. She's Good Enough to Be Your Baby's Mother and She's Good Enough to Vote With You. New York: Jerome H. Remick, c.1916. British Library Music Collections: H.3995.q.(70.) 

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..."

A woman in flamboyant dress points dismissely at the floor as a man with curly hair and an earring begs in front of her on bended knee.
G. Edwards & Will D. Cobb, Since my Margarette became a-da Suffragette. New York: Jerome H. Remick, c.1913. British Library Music Collections: H.3992.x.(9.)

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 the sketch suffragettes wearing sashes and long dresses are breaking windows while holding a Votes for Women banner aloft.
B.A. Koellhoffer & J.J. Gallagher, Oh! You Suffragettes. Irvington, NJ: B.A. Koellhoffer, c.1912. British Library Music Collections: H.3994.u.(20.).  [Image courtesy Lester S Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries & University Museums, due to Covid restrictions.]

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.  

Jean Petrovic

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. 

 

 

23 July 2020

The Perils of Diplomatic Protection in the Early 19th Century

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.”

A page of a handwritten letter from the U.S. Consul in British Honduras to the U.S. State Department.
An example of consular correspondence. Part of a letter from U.S. Consul to State Department, 15 February 1863. The letter mentions white settlers' anxieties around plans by the government of British Honduras (today's Belize) to encourage African American immigration from the U.S.  British Library shelfmark (microfilm): T334 Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Belize, 1847-1906, roll 1, 1847 –1863.

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.

Painting of men gathering in Peshawar. Some are on horseback, others talk together in groups. Buildings and trees surround the square.
Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan). Chromolithograph from plate 9 of William Simpson's India: Ancient and Modern (1867). British Library shelfmark X108(9). Available in the British Library Online Gallery.

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.

Dr Vanessa Mongey, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is on Twitter @VMongey

Resources consulted:

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

Further reading:

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/

 

07 April 2020

Online Access to United States Government Printing Office Publications

My former colleague and Head of the Eccles Centre for North American Studies, Professor Philip Davies, would always start his remarks of welcome to Eccles Centre events by saying that the North American collections and resources of the British Library were the best in the world, outside of the Americas.

Professor Davies was most likely right on that count based on the pure size of the North American collections which have been systematically developed for around two centuries.  Nevertheless, these collections housed in the Library’s cavernous basements and storage buildings are now inaccessible due to the to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for the scholar, reader, or anyone who’s interested, there is a rich collection of North American digital resources available from the British Library website which are free to access.

One of these is the collection of the United States Government Printing Office publications available through Explore the British Library. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is the printer to the US Government and since 1861 it has played a pivotal role in keeping Americans informed about the business of government. Being official publications are meant for public circulation, a portion of these works are freely available to access via the catalogue.

To access the collection simply use the search term “Government Printing Office” in the British Library catalogue. Under Access Options select “Online” where it will list in excess of 15,000 records. By selecting the “I Want This” option on any of these records it will direct the user to a view online option and from there select US Federal Government Document by clicking “Go”. This will take you directly to the digital version of the publication.

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Explore the British Library”, showing how to access the collection of the United States Government Printing Office using the search term "Government Printing Office", and related results
Step 1. How to explore: using the search term "Government Printing Office"

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Details” / “I want this”, showing how to select and request a digital item
Step 2. How to explore: selecting and requesting a digital item

The breadth of what is published by the GPO is quite bewildering, so where would one start? In normal circumstances a suggestion might be to visit the forthcoming British Library exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which explores the complex history and battles for women’s rights. 

At the moment, it might be appropriate to suggest a collection of 150 plus digital publications relating to Women’s Bureau between the 1918 -1963, which can be accessed via Explore the British Library. These publications include the Women’s Bureau Bulletin and their annual reports, along with a range of reports, legislation and studies on a Federal and State level proving rich research resources for range of disciplines. By way of an example:

“Women's Employment in Aircraft Assembly Plants in 194”: Women's Bureau Bulletin, No. 192-1.

Screenshot of Women’s Bureau Bulletin [Public –no. 259 – 66th Congress]. Title reading: “An act to establish in the Department of Labor a bureau to be known as the Women’s Bureau”. … Approved, June 5, 1920
Women's Bureau Bulletin

The United States Women’s Bureau was set up in 1920, as part of the Department of Labor to create parity for women in the labour force through research and policy analysis. Its role was to educate and promote policy change, and to increase public awareness. The Women’s Bureau is still in existence and is celebrating its centenary this year.

Furthermore, the collection contains a wide range of contemporary titles published by the Government Printing Office including:

A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy / Richard A. Hulver; Peter C. Luebke, associate editor.

The Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

Women in Congress, 1917-2017

Keeping America informed: the U.S. Government Printing Office: 150 years of service to the nation.

All the above titles can be accessed via Explore by searching the title. Bear in mind that if you are searching for a specific document, or report, this item may be part of a larger series. 

For a more in-depth insight in to the Library’s collection, there is a downloadable guide on the US Federal Government publications collection page. 

[blog post by Jerry Jenkins. Curator, Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media]

 

05 February 2020

Walter Rodney's Enduring Legacy Through Archival Collaboration

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney standing in front of a door or window
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Nearly forty years ago, on 13 June 1980, Guyanese historian, political activist and academic Walter Rodney was assassinated.  Family, friends and fans across the world mourned the loss of Rodney.  This grief expressed itself privately and publicly – through poetry, letters and protest.  Traces can be found in the British Library, particularly in the archive of Andrew Salkey.  P.D. Sharma – a Guyanese comrade – wrote to Salkey shortly after hearing the news.  He wrote of being ‘paralyzed with grief, shock and disbelief’ as expressed in the poem below; such moving remembrances of Rodney’s continue to this day: 

WALTER RODNEY IS DEAD (13th June 1980)
Weep people, cry Jesus
And drown the earth above us
Flood the oceans
Liquidify the mountains
Sink heaven.
The Eastern star is blown
No more the fairest of twinkles
Done the kingdom and the king.
Now the sun will never catch the night
The falcon god soars
And shadows we be
Our world is out.
How infinite was so brief
Too much and only but few
Except that grey men
With infants on their laps
Shall tell to eternity
Of the light that once,
Breathless and bedamned
Questioning the open
But if, what might …

(Letter from P.D. Sharma (LA) to Salkey (Massachusetts), June 1980, Walter Rodney File, Box 21, Andrew Salkey collection, The British Library)

Walter Rodney’s intellectual energy, praxis and commitment lives on.  It lives on through Black liberation struggles across the world and the action and commitment of the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA  (FHALMA). Housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the Huntley Archives is made up of Jessica and Eric Huntley’s documents, photographs and recordings.  It also holds the files of Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications (one of Britain’s earliest black publishing houses) that they collectively founded in 1968, following the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica.   

On Saturday 22 February, the 15th Annual Huntley Conference: Rodney's Enduring Legacy will offer a space for activists, scholars, students and families to engage with this legacy through a day of discussion, film, lectures and archive tours.  Supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, the LMA and the Museum of London, it brings together some of London’s key cultural heritage institutions.  It also builds on an ongoing collaboration between the British Library, LMA and FHALMA as part of the mass sound digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Volunteering for FHALMA and helping to organise this conference has offered a brilliant opportunity to extend my Collaborative Doctoral Partnership beyond the British Library and UCL by connecting with archives and community groups across London.  Related to ongoing research on Caribbean publishing as activism, the conference provides an important space to discuss the history and legacy of Caribbean intellectual thought.

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney sitting at a typewriter on a table covered with papers; a woman stands behind him
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Notably, the conference will include roundtable sessions called 'Groundings' which are modelled on and inspired by Rodney’s practice of talking plainly about human rights, identity and Black history directly with grassroots communities.  These intergenerational conversations will explore themes of Black liberation, solidarity and class, whilst considering the role of youth, academics, communities and creative producers within historic and contemporary struggles.

Professor Patricia Daley's keynote, 'Walter Rodney: The Black Academic and the Importance of the Study of Africa for Global Black Emancipation', will reflect on Rodney's impressive contribution to radical scholarship on Africa and consider his understanding of ‘groundings’ as a form of academic and political practice, central to black emancipation globally.

The frontispiece of Walter Rodney Speaks - black print on a green cover
Walter Rodney, Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118)

Walter Rodney continues to challenge us through our archives.  You can find Rodney in the British Library’s Andrew Salkey collection, from recordings of memorial lectures to Bogle-L'Ouverture book launches.  Rodney also speaks to us through his many texts - published both when he was alive and posthumously - including: The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (1970), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Walter Rodney Speaks: the making of an African Intellectual (1990).

Suggested further reading/listening:

  • Bogle book launch (1985), Andrew Salkey collection, C1839/62.
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited.  Barbados: Canoe Press, UWI, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: YC.2005.a.8199).
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Mona: University of the West Indies, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 99/13124). 
  • Manning Marable lecture (1987), Andrew Salkey Collection, C1839/45.
  • Colin Prescod, ‘Guyana’s socialism: an interview with Walter Rodney’, Race & Class, 18 (1976), 109- 128. (British Library shelfmark: Ac.6236.a). 
  • Kate Quinn (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.  (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.16051) 
  • Researching Walter Rodney in the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archive.

Works by Walter Rodney:

  • The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: X.709/10382) 
  • A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 72/14824)
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1976. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 82/24897) 
  • Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118) 

Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and UCL researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain. Follow her on Twitter @naomioppenheim

 

17 October 2019

Black History Month

October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.

To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th 2019 including poetry, food and performance.

 

Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections (Italian)
 
Front cover of 'Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale'
Cover of: Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 

Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.

 

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775

Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Cover of 'Back of the Big House'
Cover of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775        
Book open to show photographs and plans of buildings
Inside pages of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775;

 

This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America.  I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited.  As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x).  The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service.  During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book.  These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project.  As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii).  I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative.  I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners.  I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).

For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.

 

 

 

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702

 
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
 
Book cover of 'The Color Purple'
First edition cover of The Color Purple. Image from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Biblioctopus.

 

I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).

 

Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark HS.74/2436

 
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Oceania Published Collections Post-1850)
 
Campaign poster on Aboriginal flag background with slogan 'Land Rights Before Games'
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) British Library shelfmark HS.74/2436

This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.

 

 

 

11 September 2019

Five reasons why we can’t wait to read The Testaments

Of course there are far more than five reasons why The Testaments has jumped to the top of our reading list and why its publication was among one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2019, if not the decade. But along with the other eight million people around the globe who own a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are more than a little excited for the follow up to arrive at the Library.

Last night I went to the National Theatre’s live screening of Margaret Atwood in conversation with journalist Samira Ahmed, an event that was streamed to 1,400 cinemas of Handmaid fans all over the world.

Screen from In Conversation with Margaret Atwood, Tuesday 10 Sept 2019, showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green
Photograph from 'In Conversation with Margaret Atwood' showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

The atmosphere of the crowd was one of eagerness and total awe as Atwood spoke of her journey to writing The Testaments, and as she recalled the world setting which brought about the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale almost four decades ago. Atwood’s ability to turn the answer to every question into a carefully considered and utterly compelling story never ceases to amaze me. Her historical, literary and worldly observations from the past and present entwine with her fiction to create stories that readers embark on with a kind of dreaded excitement; part of you can’t wait to open the book, while the other knows it’s almost too frighteningly close to reality to want to step into.

So as we patiently wait for The Testaments to arrive for the Library's collection, here’s a very brief reflection of five of my takeaways from last night’s launch event – and the things I’m most looking forward to encountering in the reading of the novel.

Three new voices

While The Handmaid’s Tale was told solely from the perspective of Offred, The Testaments, as the name implies, includes the testimonies of three different voices. One we are familiar with from The Handmaid’s, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia. Then we are introduced to two new young women – one rescued from Gilead while still a baby (Daisy), and Agnes, who grew up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. We learn of what drove Lydia to her position of power and of her life before Gilead, and of the parallel lives the Daisy and Agnes have led. The evening’s event featured readings from the book by Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation), Sally Hawkins and Lily James. Atwood hinted that their separate tales may be more connected then first meets the eye…

Historical nods

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Many of the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, such as men abusing positions of power, rules and laws being created and imposed by those who will never be impacted or effected by their force, the restriction of free speech, episodes of violence and mass execution, ‘are not new motifs’ Atwood said on more than one occasion. When asked about how Atwood conjures up her dystopian worlds, she very matter-of-factly stated that ‘these are not made up’, instances of all have taken place in the real world over the course of time, and continue to do so. Atwood mentioned historical figures and events that had influenced her writing: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, Stalin, Pinochet, the division of Germany, extreme Puritan traditions in America, the fear of 70s cults, and a disturbing story from the Old Testament (the concubine of a Levite), to name but a few. Literary influences from Vasily Grossman and George Orwell also resonate through her pages.

A slide from the event showing book covers of The Handmaid's Tale from around the world
The iconic Handmaid's Tale book covers from around the world shown at the event (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

Equality Now

Through her writing and public eminence Atwood continues to strive for equality for women and the launch of The Testaments is run alongside a campaign with Equality Now, an organisation supporting ‘a just world for women and girls’. When asked about how Atwood felt about the use of the Handmaid’s outfit by political activists in recent years, particularly around the abortion debate in the US, Atwood highlighted its silent power – women wearing the attire can’t be penalised for any reason – they have their heads down, they are quiet, they are covered to the ankle – yet their visual protest speaks volumes. An element of pride was detected in Atwood’s voice when she spoke of how her timeless creation has become such a cult image and sign of resistance.

Atwood’s dark optimism

 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic’ Atwood told us with a wry smile. Of course the audience laughed. The fact that it ends with a symposium shows that humanity has survived the atrocities of the Gilead regime. When we survive history we do what we always do with it, ‘turn it into something studied in schools, a symposium, or a theme park’ Atwood joked (but we all know it’s true). She insinuated that the same element of hidden optimism is buried within The Testaments too; we know that some children are rescued, Daisy is the living proof. But what lasting damage is done? And what becomes of Aunt Lydia and Agnes?

Climate change

In a world that seems on the brink of collapse ‘what can we do to save humanity?’ Atwood was asked by one of the audience members. Her response: the number one thing we need to address right now is the issue of climate change.

In a passage from the voice of Aunt Lydia, a world ravaged by extreme weather and its disastrous effects is described; a frightening echo of the pictures we see on the news today with more and more frequency. ‘When the environment is disturbed, you get more social unrest’ Atwood proclaimed. She spoke of her admiration for activist Greta Thunberg and of her optimism around young people and the Extinction Rebellion campaign. 50 years ago when scientists foresaw the climate crisis no one listened, Atwood remembered, but now we have people paying attention, and acting, and who will soon be able to vote on these matters. It seems even the green figure on the front cover of the book could be a nod to Atwood’s concern on this subject – the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up frequenting the forests of Quebec and Ottawa, even living in them in a tent as a young child while her father built their log cabin home.

Image of Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942
Photograph from the slides at the launch event showing a young Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942 (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you’ were the last words Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia read at the event and the youthful looking silhouette of the girl on the book’s cover, arms outstretched, is the figure of hope on which the evening’s focus ended. Atwood maintained that climate change needs to be the primary focus for politicians today and we are not too late to address this.

[RSW] (overjoyed that her copy of The Testaments arrived by the time she finished writing this blog) 

Suggested reading

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Heinemann New Windmills, 1993), General Reference Collection Nov.1993/888

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, 1991), General Reference Collection Nov.1992/377

Strange Things: the Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (Clarendon Press, 1995), General Reference Collection YC.1997.a.983

Margaret Atwood edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, c2000), Document Supply m00/27831

Mary Queen of Scots (Pitkin Pictorials, 1973), General Reference Collection YK.1993.b.3611

The rise & fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's most faithful servant by John Schofield (The History Press, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.321626

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Classic, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.190531

Nineteen eighty-four: a novel by George Orwell (S. J. Reginald Saunders and Company Limited, 1949), RF.2018.a.197

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (William Blackwood & Sons, 1876), General Reference Collection 20098.bb.21.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Gateway, 2015), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.12524

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