25 August 2022
Stephanie Narrow is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine, and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
NB: This article contains an historical image and descriptions relating to slavery and indentured servitude which readers may find upsetting.
Beyond a shared language and general oceanic orientation, 19th-century California and Britain's Pacific colonies don’t appear to have much in common at first glance. And true, they differed greatly in terms of government organization, class structure, and the proper way to spell “pajamas” (or is it “pyjamas?”)
But when we factor in issues like 19th-century immigration, land rights, diplomacy, and the circulation of print media between these regions, we encounter more similarities than differences. And, indeed, these very issues echo into the 21st century. Exploring the historical entanglements between the American empire in California and Britain’s Pacific Empire better equips us in the present day to address issues of xenophobia, access to natural resources, and ongoing demands for decolonization.
It was my drive to better understand the evolution of these issues that brought me some 5,437 miles (or 8,750 kilometers? See, those pesky cultural differences arise again!) from California to the British Library in London. Through the generous support of a Visiting Fellowship from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, I came eager to research the entangled histories of the British and American empires during the height of the Pacific gold rushes in the 1850s. In particular, I wanted to explore how gold rushes impacted both Chinese immigration and Indigenous land dispossession; and how, or if, these empires shaped their own modes of imperial governance around each other. Was California looking to British colonies in Hong Kong, Australia, India, and British Columbia to shape their own policies about Chinese immigration, trade, resource extraction, and Native genocide? Or vice versa?
To help answer these questions, I turned to the papers of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon—an aristocrat and lifelong politician who served as the Foreign Secretary during much of this period. As Foreign Secretary, he was the head of diplomatic relations with foreign countries and was the person to whom the British Consulate in San Francisco, California, reported. I was convinced that his papers held the answers I was searching for.
As I was perusing the thick folios of his correspondence, I greedily anticipated that “eureka!” moment (gold rush pun intended) that would clearly, decisively, and unequivocally support my hypothesis. And certainly, I found much material that helped me reconstruct global diplomatic relations in this period. I did, however, come across something rather unexpected.
Here I beg for an indulgent pause and reflection on “the historical profession.” As historians, our job is to go into archives, research, and from that research tell stories that both illuminate our past and (hopefully) shed light on our present moment. We’re taught to be objective, logical. From the outside, it seems a rather neat and tidy experiment (though in reality it never is.) But nowhere in my nearly decade of graduate school training was I ever taught what to do when you find something that so wholly disturbs the peace and tranquility of the reading room.
So, one very normal morning, I turned the page of one of Carnarvon’s many folios and came across a report. It included tables of ships’ cargoes, routes, and destinations. But the following note on one table sent chills across my body:
“Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.”
This was a line in a ledger documenting the suicide of Chinese labourers aboard British sailing vessels who were sent, many through force or coercion, to Cuba in the 1850s. This “coolie trade” began in the 1840s and consisted mostly of men from China and South Asia. These labourers were often kidnapped or duped by British agents (as well as French, American, Spanish…) into so-called indentured servitude in the Caribbean, a very colonial labour solution to the end of the African slave trade.
And I sat as tears welled up and spilt over, soaking into my face mask. I couldn’t shake those six words that, for most, are probably the only earthly record remaining of their lives: “Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.” Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the furtive glances of one archivist, certainly equally parts confused about my emotional state and concerned that my tears might land on these priceless papers. I struggled to regain my composure, thinking about the hundreds of people who sooner sought what dignity they could in choosing a death at sea, far from home, than suffer under slavery and labouring on plantations in the Caribbean. It reminded me of the stories of the Middle Passage—of the horrific conditions that enslaved Africans faced upon their forced migration across the Atlantic. Many of them, too, sought solace in the sea.
At first I felt self-conscious and ashamed of my reaction. As professionals we are expected to train the emotion out of ourselves—especially us women—in order to be taken seriously. But then I realized there is strength in emotion, and the “ideal” of the unfeeling scholar is an affront to the humanity we so often claim to seek. Empathy is empowering, and I fervently encourage any reading this to embrace emotion, for it’s a universal tool that allows us to connect to other humans, past and present. After all, aren’t historians conduits between the living and the dead?
10 August 2022
Kathryn Sampeck is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and was the 2021-22 British Library Eccles Centre Fulbright Scholar.
I arrived in London with all kinds of baggage—not only clothes, personal items, and tech to see me through six months of my UK Fulbright at the Eccles Centre, but also expectations about what I would find in the archives. My project investigates the relationships of race and food. I am interested in a notable case: chocolate and vanilla. I knew from previous research that these two substances had a long history of being paired (chocolate and vanilla “go together”) yet also semantic and culinary opposites (a difference of black and white; one cannot substitute for the other). One version of the semantic contrast of the two is as racial metaphors. For example, a 1974 article in Jet magazine describes how entertainer Connie Stevens “began her act with two Black dancers and two white dancers by saying that she has two daughters at home—‘one Chocolate and one Vanilla.’”
I knew from previous research that the association of chocolate with a dark colour, pejorative qualities such as sinfulness, and racial blackness occurred as early as the seventeenth century; the evidence was less clear about vanilla’s linkage with the colour white, purity, a bland taste, and racial whiteness. I assumed that I had not looked in the right places. Surely the British Library’s mountain of rare chronicles and medical and culinary books and manuscripts would fill in the gaps about when and how vanilla got its reputation. I thought vanilla would be there, perhaps a bit everywhere, and I had overlooked it because I was focusing on chocolate. My months in the archive and in British grocery stores and restaurants showed me how wrong I was! I now understand that I had an American bias about vanilla. My American bias is that vanilla is the go-to flavour for almost anything, and I assumed that such vanilla use had its roots in British cookery and medical practice. My deep dive into the British Library holdings showed this to be untrue. It is not until the nineteenth century that, as Mrs. Beeton claimed, vanilla was “in daily use for ices, chocolates, and flavouring confectionary generally.”
I wanted to know more about how vanilla fit in with other American ingestibles, so I cast my net broadly, looking for mentions in diverse kinds of documents of any American plants or foods. What I found surprised me, even after years of chocolate-focused research. More common than chocolate were turkey and potatoes, with the latter a regular entry in Queen Anne of Denmark's Household Book (Harley MS 157) from 1613.
A close second was sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree native to eastern North America, showing up in botanical, medical, and culinary works by people including James Petiver, Apothecary to the Charter-House (“Virtues of herbs”, Sloane MS 2346), a multi-authored 1619-1674 note-book of medical and culinary recipes (Add MS 36308), Mary Glover’s 1688 cookery and medical receipts (Add MS 57944), and most prominently, in Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s 1744 history and description of New France. Much less common—yet still more common than vanilla—was cochineal, a tiny parasitic insect (Dactylopius coccus) native to the tropical and subtropical Americas that feeds on prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia). The dried, ground bodies of these insects yield the brilliant red, durable natural dye carmine, which certainly gave a rosy tint to those seventeenth-century concoctions.
The works that noted sassafras, cochineal, and other American substances often also included of cocoa or chocolate, such as the seventeenth-century Medicamenta usitatiora by George Bate, MD (Sloane MS 519). Cocoa or chocolate often occurred on its own (with sugar, water, milk, or cream); the most common additional flavour to chocolate was vanilla, a pairing that various sources from the earliest mentions to well into the nineteenth century claimed improved the taste of chocolate (and made it cost more!).
Culinary and medical recipes “white” or “clear” foods were abundant and had flavourings such as ambergris, sugar, mace, and cinnamon, but no vanilla.
Why didn’t one of these substances pegged as white become the contrast to chocolate? I found one clue in the seventeenth-century Observations on the preparation and virtues of Chocolate (Sloane MS 1471). After discussing the medical and sensorial qualities of “Bainilla”, the author goes on to describe that “All those Ingredients are usually put into the Chocolatte…But the meaner sort of people, as blackmors, and Indians commonly put nothing into it, but Cacao, Achiotte, Maiz, and a few Chiley with a little Anny seeds.” Chocolate consumption in itself did not distinguish race and class, but the subtleties that people added to it drew a sharp distinction between people of colour and (by implication, white) people of taste. The “Account of the inhabitants of Cathagena from Ulloa’s Voyage to South-America” in the New York Magazine; or A Literary Repository for July, 1792 echoes a similar complaint that chocolate (there known as cacao) was so common that an enslaved Black person “constantly allows himself a regale of it after breakfast” and Black women “sell it ready made about the streets”; their habit was to consume cacao with wheat bread. So, chocolate was cheap, easily available, and a significant part of the diet of Afro-Latin Americans, but the authors complain—and thereby distinguish their tastes from these South American Blacks—that it was not good (i.e. pure) chocolate: “This is however so far from being all cacao, that the principal ingredient is maize.”
The implication of these and other complaints is that in the hands of people of colour, chocolate did not realise its full potential for flavour. Furthermore, not just any flavour would enhance chocolate—vanilla was a key to good taste, worth paying more for. This brings me to the discovery that surprised me the most: vanilla became increasingly associated with the colour white in foods or medicines after it was associated with racial whiteness. Vanilla and chocolate history give a remarkable view into the depth of the history of the construction of racial disparities; colour did not precede colourizing.
01 June 2022
Katey Castellano is Professor of English at James Madison University and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
During my Eccles Fellowship at the British Library in March and April 2022, I researched the publications and perspectives of the Black Romantic-era writer, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/36). Wedderburn was born enslaved in Jamaica, and as a young man he migrated to London, where he became involved in London’s ultraradical circles. My research suggests that, even though he was publishing in London, Wedderburn’s political theories grow out of his experiences of being raised by his enslaved mother, Rosanna, and his grandmother, Talkee Amy. His writing importantly provides a rare glimpse into what Vincent Brown describes as an “oppositional political history taught and learned on Jamaican plantations—a radical pedagogy of the enslaved.”1 Wedderburn’s publications challenge the abolitionist narrative that liberal, individualist freedoms should be spread from England to the West Indies. Instead, Wedderburn instructs his white, lower-class readers in London about already existing African-Jamaican practices of land and food reclamation.2 In other words, Wedderburn’s abolitionist pedagogy insists that food and freedom are inseparable.
The British Library holds one of two remaining copies of Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root, or a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica (1817). An inexpensive weekly periodical for working-class readers, Axe Laid to the Root’s six issues disseminate a vision of abolition that opposes private property, both in people and land, because access to land for growing food is necessary for freedom from the plantation system. Wedderburn declares, “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing; for if you once give up the possession of your lands, your oppressors will have power to starve you to death.”3
When Wedderburn admonishes enslaved people in Jamaica to “keep possession of the land,” he is referring to the provision grounds, land distributed by enslavers for enslaved people to grow their own food. Access to this land allowed enslaved people to cultivate kinships and culture around growing and eating yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, and other vegetables. Sylvia Wynter argues, “Around the growing of yam, of food for survival” enslaved laborers in Jamaica “created on the plot a folk culture—the basis of a social order.”4
The provision grounds were not spectacular or immediately revolutionary, like other moments of Black self-emancipation, such as Tacky’s War or the Haitian Revolution. Yet the provision grounds not only nourished people, they also reterritorialized estates. For example, a survey of Edward Long’s Lucky Valley Estate (1769), demonstrates that a large part of the estate must be reserved for provision grounds. The map illustrates how the provision grounds were limited and hemmed by the plantation, yet the grounds were also located close to the mountains and away from the surveillance of enslavers and overseers. Growing food also allowed some self-determination in diet and provided subsistence for self-emancipated individuals who fled the plantations.
Guided by Wedderburn’s theory that abolition requires access to land and food, I explored other colonial texts at the British Library that describe the provision grounds. Matthew Lewis is best known as the author of the popular gothic novel The Monk (1796), yet while at the British Library I studied his Journal of a West India Proprietor, which was written from 1815 to 1818. The journal records two visits to inherited plantations in Jamaica. As Lewis attempts to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved people, the provision grounds become a point of contentious negotiation. By the middle of his first visit, the people that Lewis enslaved had negotiated increased freedom to visit their provision grounds: “I therefore granted them as a matter of right, and of which no person should deprive them on any account whatever, every Saturday to cultivate their grounds.”5 Throughout his journal, Lewis vacillates between his anxiety about the independence cultivated by the provision grounds and his desire to be a hero in facilitating access to them. Provision grounds finally provoke a crisis within the idea of the people as property: if people are property, how can they have rights to the land? Enslaved people bequeathed provision grounds to their kin and earned money from selling excess produce, but, legally, enslaved people were themselves property. By cultivating independent food production on the provision grounds, then, the seeds of freedom had been sown before Emancipation.
The radical nature of the provision grounds emerges even more clearly during Emancipation (1834), when the provision grounds became openly contested spaces. In the Holland House Papers, an estate manager, Thomas MacNeil, complained to Lord Holland that formerly enslaved people “have withheld so much labour from the estate” while at the same time “they have devoted much labour to improve their cottages, and increase the extent of their provision lands.” Holland wants formerly enslaved labourers to cultivate sugar cane and pay rent for their land, but MacNeil reports, “They declare they will not pay any rents whatever until they see ‘the Queen's Law’ to say they must do so, that their parents before them, had possession of the land and had houses where theirs now are, before Lady Holland was born and that they cannot think of paying any rent whatever and work for the estate also.”6 MacNeil’s letter indicates that formerly enslaved people “cannot think” of paying rent after emancipation because they understood freedom as the right to possess the provision grounds as an intergenerational inheritance. The formerly enslaved people on Holland’s estate struggle to retain African-Jamaican land and food-based freedoms nearly identical to those advocated by Wedderburn: “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, our freedom is not worth possessing.”
After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people in Jamaica resisted leaving or paying rent for their grounds. Both planters and antislavery activists wanted to detach African-Jamaicans from the land in order to force the formerly enslaved population into useful wage-labour for the British economy. Following Wedderburn’s argument that food and land are inseparable from freedom, I found evidence in planter journals and letters that African-Jamaican food systems challenged the plantation system during and after slavery.
For more information about African American foodways, see the interview with Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011; British Library shelfmark DRT.ELD.DS.70649), at the British Library’s Food Season 2022.
1. Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard: Harvard UP, 2020), 242.
2. I have made this argument in “Provision Grounds Against the Plantation: Robert Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root (1817),” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 25.1 (2021): 15-27.
3. Axe Laid to the Root; or, a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, no. 1 (London, 1817): 4.
4. “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou 5 (1971): 99. My reading of Wynter’s plot is influenced by Janae Davis, Alex Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crisis,” Geography Compass 13.5 (2019): 1-15.
5. Journal of a West India Proprietor (London, 1834): 191-2.
6. Letter from Thomas MacNeil to Lord Holland, 15 February 1839, Holland House Papers, Add Ms. 51816, ff. 169-70. I originally found reference to these letters in Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications, 1988), 108.
23 May 2022
John G. McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan State University, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
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.
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.
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
Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Centre 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.
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.
1. A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down).
07 February 2022
This fourth instalment of our Americas e-resources blog series focuses on women in the US, both historic and contemporary, but may also prove a useful starting point for exploring women’s lives and experiences in other parts of the Americas and Oceania.1
Having recently curated a large exhibition on women’s rights in the UK at the British Library, we are well aware of the challenges involved in organising a topic as varied, contested and capacious as ‘women.’ It has been interesting to see, therefore, how some of the major digital recourses have been organised into different thematic strands.
On Adams Matthews's Gender: Identity and Social Change, for instance, themes include women’s suffrage, feminism and the men’s movement as well as employment and labour, education and the body.
Drawing from collections in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, the resource offers full text access to monographs, periodicals and archives from the early nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. Among other riches is the archive of Betty Friedan, feminist activist and co-founder of both the National Organisation for Women and the National Abortion Rights League (digitised from the Schlesinger Library). The archive includes Friedan's survey and accompanying notes about the satisfaction of female graduates in 1957, a piece of work which informed her seminal 1963 publication The Feminine Mystique. As letters sent to Freidan shortly after the book’s publication reveal, some readers objected strongly to the notion of ‘the problem which has no name’, the existence of women’s malaise which The Feminine Mystique identified.
For an analysis of women and popular, commercial culture, Proquest’s Vogue Archive is hugely illuminating. With full of coverage of American Vogue from the magazine’s first issue in 1892 to the current month, the archive showcases evolving fashions, photography and design as well as being a record of culture, society and aspiration over more than a century. The subject search engine allows for close analysis and the outline statistics for coverage across years provides both a snapshot of topics and their popularity at any given time. A search for ‘abortion', for instance, reveals a peak of 158 mentions between 1990 and 1999, compared to 74 between 1970 and 1979, and 9 from 1960 to 1969. Careful indexing and high-resolution colour page images render the magazine accurately and allow for detailed searches as well as providing evidence of the frequency fashion, style, photography.
Everyday Life & Women in America is published by Adam Matthews and supports the study of American social, cultural and popular history. Offering access to rare primary source material from both the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History at Duke University and The New York Public Library, it includes fully searchable monographs, pamphlets, periodicals and broadsides addressing 19th and early 20th century political, social and gender issues, religion, race, education, employment, marriage, sexuality, home and family life, health, and pastimes. One of the periodicals on offer is Town Topics: The Journal of Society (1887 – 1923). In its day, this was an essential source of articles and commentary on art, music, literature, society, gossip and scandal not only for the socially ambitious, but also for established families like the Vanderbilts and Astors. Today, this full-run of issues provides a unique insight into the Gilded Age.
Everyday Life & Women in America is also rich in guides to social conduct and domestic management literature. One example from a vast selection is American Ladies' Memorial; an indispensable home-book for the wife, mother, sister; In fact, useful to every lady throughout the Unites States (1850). This covers topics such as embroidery and painting as well as etiquette and behavioural advice. In ‘A few Rules for the Wise’ the author advises ‘ladies’ should ‘Control the temper’ as well as ‘use but little ceremony, else your guests will not feel at ease.’
For the records pertaining to suffrage and women’s rights organisations as well as women at work during the World War II, a good place to start is the History Vault women’s study module Struggle for Women's Rights: 1880-1990, Organizational Records. This includes financial records, letters, papers, diaries and scrapbooks and more taken from the University Publications of America Collections. Records include those from the National Women’s Party, League of Women Voters and the Women’s Action Alliance, the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor and the correspondence of the director of the Women’s Army Corps. A recent addition are the birth control campaigner, sex educator and nurse Margaret Sanger’s papers.
Three platforms worth exploring, despite being somewhat challenging to navigate, are The Gerritsen Collection, Travel Writing, Spectacle and World History, and North American Women’s Letters and Diaries. The latter contains the first-person experiences of 1,325 women through 150,000 pages of diaries and letters, while Travel Writing, Spectacle and World History brings together hundreds of accounts by women of their travels across the globe from the early 19th century to the late 20th century. A wide variety of forms of travel writing are included, from unique manuscripts, diaries and correspondence to drawings, guidebooks and photographs. The resource includes a slideshow with hundreds of items of visual material, including postcards, sketches and photographs.
Spanning four centuries, The Gerritson Collection draws together content from Europe, the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. This archive of books, pamphlets and periodicals on suffrage, women’s consciousness and feminism was originally collected by the nineteenth century Dutch physician and feminist Aletta Jacobs Gerritsen and her husband. Today, the collection contains more than 4,700 publications including a substantive body of material pertaining to anti-suffrage, for example Carrie Chapman Catt's Ought Women to Have Votes for Members of Parliament? (1879) and Anti-Suffrage Essays by Massachusetts Women (1916).
This is the tiniest snapshot of the material available via the Library’s electronic resources pertaining to women in the US, but hopefully it demonstrates the wealth of primary and secondary source material that have been collated from archives and libraries around the world and made available through single-access platforms.
Later this month, we will look at the Library's Americas literary e-resources!
Polly Russell, Head, The Eccles Centre
1. All of the databases referred to here are full-text and need to be consulted on-site at the Library.
20 January 2022
N.B. This article may contain descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive
Slave sugar sweetened the British economy for over three hundred years. As abolitionist discourse grew over the course of the 18th century, the operations of British-owned Caribbean sugar plantations became a contentious subject. Even after abolition, the economics of the post-emancipation sugar trade remained a bitter question in British politics. In 1848, amidst revolutions and financial crises, it was sugar that dominated debate in the Commons, as Disraeli noted in his biography of Bentinck:
“Singular article of produce! What is the reason of this influence? It is that all considerations mingle in it; not merely commercial, but imperial, philanthropic, religious; confounding the legislature and the nation lost in a maze of conflicting interests and contending emotions”.
The library has recently acquired five bills of lading dating from 1714-1800. They are printed forms recording the receipt of goods transported by sea, with gaps for the addition of specific information by hand. In their printed contents alone, they are unassuming pieces of administrative ephemera. However, the devil is in the details. Three of the bills were completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an organisation that lobbied for the greater influence of the Church of England within Britain’s burgeoning empire. The Society spanned the Atlantic, including Barbados, where it operated a slave-worked sugar plantation. It is from this plantation that these bills originate.
They detail three separate shipments of sugar from Barbados to England from May 1714 to April 1715. Though all three are penned by Woodbridge, each bill lists a different ship and captain. More can be learned of these ships when cross-referenced with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. For instance, one bill details a shipment transported upon the ship ‘Smith Frigate’, captained by John Riding, and signed in Barbados, 29th April 1715. When searching the database for ‘Smith Frigate’, one finds a detailed entry which tells the story of a 200 ton ship, responsible for carrying 287 enslaved people from Cape Coast Castle to Barbados in 1714. Fourteen people died during middle passage of this voyage. The ship returned to England in 1715, taking the sugar with it. By presenting this information side-by-side, we can contextualise the sugar trade and its inextricable relationship with slavery in the 18th century.
Another bill details the transport of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Kingston to London in April 1778. It is signed by the carrier, Captain James Moore, and the form has been completed by the agent, Malcolm Laing. Once again, this document is enriched when compared against databases. Laing appears on the UCL Legacies of British Slavery database as a resident slave-owner from Kingston. During probate of his estate in 1782, he owned 93 enslaved persons, 44 of which were male and 49 female. 30 were children. Unlike the other bills, this one survived with its original paper envelope. The envelope is addressed to William Philip Perrin, owner of five estates in Jamaica, inherited from his father. Further archival evidence attests to the scale of Perrin’s operations in Jamaica, where enslaved persons were forced to labour on sugar plantations, further engorging Perrin’s healthy capital. The sale of sugar from these plantations turned a profit of £4,500 per annum, equivalent to approximately £400,000 today. Perrin never visited Jamaica.
Careful consideration has been given to how these items are catalogued. It was important to contextualise these items, using supporting information drawn from databases such as those mentioned above. Unsurprisingly, none of these refers to the individuals who were kidnapped, sold, and enslaved for the production of sugar. Yet, sugar and slavery are inextricably related, and to describe such resources without any indication of this association would be reductive. Subject headings related to slavery have been included alongside those of shipping and trade. Summary notes have been added to enhance the historical context of the documents, and citations refer to the databases where this information is collated. One inescapable tragedy is that the enslaved individuals from these plantations cannot be named, but their slavers can. For named individuals, such as William Philip Perrin and Malcolm Laing, authorised name entries have been created, with adequate biographical information detailing who they were and how they made their money. By linking our catalogue records with data from other sources, we are able to enrich our metadata to contextualise these documents, and provide a valuable description of what they are and what they represent.
 Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck, (London, 1852), page 530.
 The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in obo in Atlantic History (Accessed December 2021).
Blog post by
02 November 2021
Seynabou Thiam-Pereira was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library in September 2021, I was interested in material from late eighteenth-century British North America relating to American Loyalists and race issues in Atlantic Canada. The economic, political, military and social consequences of the American War of Independence had been major for the British empire. However, my focus was on the exiles from America and the relocation of thousands of Loyalists and disbanded soldiers within the empire.
After the outbreak of the war in 1776, 'Tories' - Loyalist inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies - together with their slaves, Black and Native Loyalists, as well as disbanded soldiers, migrated to Atlantic Canada, the British West Indies, Great Britain and Botany Bay to seek refuge. The first evacuation took place in 1776 when Loyalists from Boston chose to settle in Nova Scotia. Formerly called Acadia, it had been a British territory since the end of French and Indian War when many New Englanders migrated there after the expulsion of the French Acadians. The largest evacuations occurred years later from Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1782, from New York City in 1783 and from St-Augustine, in East Florida until 1785.
Propaganda promoting the reception of Loyalists within the empire spread rapidly in pamphlets and newspapers. The image below, for example - 'The reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain, in the year 1783' by H. Moses - details the variety of social status and ethnicities of the Loyalists. We can see Britannia opening her arms to American loyal subjects, to Natives and to Blacks.
A wide range of documents illuminating these massive departures still exist, including petitions, muster rolls, letters, handbills, maps, and official registers either written by British officials or civilians. At the British Library, the Clarkson Papers and the miscellaneous letters and papers relating to American affairs, contain several petitions from disbanded soldiers and Loyalists to obtain land in order to settle in British American colonies.
Unsurprisingly, the question of land seems to have preoccupied the British government and the settlers throughout the War; not owning property meant being excluded from the shareholder status and its ensuing political rights. In 1782 a strong push began in Britain to offer land in Jamaica, Bermuda, St-Lucie, Barbados and the Bahamas islands to Loyalist planters from the southern colonies. The main arguments used were the possibility of bringing the slaves to the British West Indies which offered the accustomed warm climate and agricultural system. The opportunity to bring thousands of new planters or white settlers with slaves to the British Caribbean was essential in order to maintain the slave societies on these islands. But how could Free Black and Native Loyalists be integrated into this slaveholding system with their liberated, manumitted or free-born status?
In order to accommodate this massive arrival of Loyalist settlers, towns were founded or extended and provisioned. Land had to be quickly divided into lots in order to be distributed to about 10,000 people in Jamaica, 5,000 in the Bahamas and hundreds in St-Lucie, Bermuda and Barbados. In some cases these Loyalists doubled or tripled the black and white population of the territories. One must bear in mind the challenge of rapidly organising the evacuation and resettlement of so many refugees while dealing with the peace treaty and trade regulations between Great Britain, France and the United States of America. If we take the example of Canada, muster rolls indicate the large number of disbanded troops, Loyalists and slaves who arrived in Upper/Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia. In 1784, while the province of Quebec was receiving more than 5,500 new settlers, Nova Scotia had more than 28,000 Loyalists including about a thousand slaves and 3,000 Black Loyalists (Native Loyalists were excluded from general musters).
Beyond the British empire, land acquisition was also a huge issue in the settlement of the Black Loyalists and the Black Poor out of Britain and Atlantic Canada to Sierra Leone, Africa, in 1787 and 1792. Promises of land - between five and twenty acres - were given by the Sierra Leone Company to the 1,190 coloured men, women and children from the Black Loyalists community in Canada willing to participate in the British project 'Back to Africa'.
Land was also very much linked to economic concerns, since each Loyalist and their descendants were allowed to request financial compensation from the British government for any loss in the Thirteen Colonies. In the 1784 Land Claim Commission register extending to 1815, 47 Black Loyalists out of thousands of claimants gave lists of their lost properties in America. Consequently, the massive arrivals of new settlers shaped a Loyalist mosaic and participated in creating multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-linguistic societies in the late eighteenth-century British empire.
These documents unquestionably permit a more detailed research of the Loyalist diaspora and the under-studied question of land distribution. Social studies of Loyalists can also encompass these records in order to examine a broader cultural outcome in modern British societies.
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- Food and Freedom in 19th-Century Jamaica
- The Revolution Will Be Sexualized
- Cross-media Research: Searching for Poets, Painters and Photographers
- E-resources for Women in the United States
- Slavery and the Sugar Trade: cataloguing five bills of lading
- Loyalists, Race and Atlantic Canada
- The Masters of Margarita – Anglo-Spanish rivalry, treason and the slave trade
- The Black and Indigenous presence in the story of how Breadfruit came to the Caribbean