Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

17 posts categorized "Mexico"

26 April 2013

A Cuban directory

 Cuban directory 2
  Public Domain Mark    Nomenclator Comercial, Agricola, Industrial, Artes y Oficios, Directorio General para Mexico, Isla de Cuba y Principal Comercio de Nueva York Havana: Molina Y Juli, 1884 Shelfmark, RB.23.b.7347

This recently acquired directory of businesses is a fascinating resource on the interwoven economic and cultural histories of Mexico, Cuba and New York. It was published in Havana in 1884 just after the end of the Guerra Chiquita (or the Little War) - the second of three wars that resulted in Cuba’s independence. Cuba was ravaged by war and the directory was no doubt part of an effort to support trade and investment with neighbours across the Gulf and to the North. With historical hindsight the introduction to the book, which reads, ‘We have not forgotten, in light of our important links to our neighbour the United States, to include a general commercial guide to New York […]’ strangely forebodes the new imperial economic presence the U.S. will have in Cuba by the end of the 19th century.

 It is also important to note that this book was published two years prior to abolition of slavery in Cuba and offers insight into the ways slavery and capitalism articulate during the late 19th century.

 The majority of the directory is comprised of advertisements for businesses and drawings of city street scenes intended to help people find businesses. While the statistics and advertisements are of great use to economic historians, they also tell us a great deal about technology, the organisation of work, social life, food consumption, fashion, public space, and leisure.

Cuban directory

Something that immediately strikes a reader is how utterly diverse and thorough the directory is, with detailed information on everything from fruit vendors, candy makers, wine importers, insurance companies, hotels, bookshops, sugar mills, cigars, pharmacies, and military equipment. The directory also reveals the ‘trans-national’ facets of Cuban and Mexican life at the time – including the strong presence of English insurance companies and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Here at the British Library you will also find maps and charts of the shipping routes of that company in the Americas. See for example, Add MS 31981 N : 1840 and 8805.df.25.(1.)


12 March 2013

New acquisitions: 2 early Mexican imprints

  Our colleague Dr Barry Taylor reports:

Although the British Library has important collections of books from colonial Latin America, including the earliest extant book printed in the Americas, Zumárraga’s Dotrina breve de las cosas que pertenecen a la fe catholica (Mexico, 1543/44, BL shelfmark C.37.e.8), such books are now all too often prohibitively expensive for us to acquire.  The recent acquisition of two seventeenth-century Mexican imprints is therefore particularly noteworthy.


Public Domain Mark Esteban García, El máximo limosnero, mayor padre de pobres, grande arçobispo de Valencia, provincial de la Andaluzia, Castilla, y Nueva-España, de la orden de san Augustin, S. Thomas de Villanueva…  (México: por la viuda de Bernardo Calderón, 1657).  [8], 95 leaves.  BL shelfmark  RB.23.a.35577. 

St Thomas of Vilanova (1487 or 88 – 1555) was beatified in 1618 and  canonised on 1 November 1658.  His hagiographer seems to have anticipated this by calling him ‘Saint’ in 1657.  It was not uncommon for the supporters of candidates for sainthood to anticipate the official canonisation: Duarte Pacheco’s Epitome da vida apostolica, e milagres de S. Thomas de Villa Nova appeared in 1629 (BL shelfmark: 1578/1091). 

St Thomas was a notable professor of theology and preacher in Spain.  He seems never to have visited America but sent friars of his order to evangelise in Mexico in 1533 and in 1547 he ordained Luis Beltrán, the future American missionary.

A further interest of both these new acquisitions is that it they are the work of  women printers.  Most women who became printers at this period, in Europe and in the Americas, did so by taking over their husband’s business on his death.  Paula de Benavides and her husband Bernardo Calderón founded a press in Mexico City in 1631; widowed with six children, she took over the business in 1641 and died in 1684.

García’s book was also read by women, as it once belonged to the ‘Convento Antiguo de Carmelitas Descalsa [sic]  de Nuestro Padre Señor San Joseph’ in Mexico City (inscription on reverse of title page).  Saints’ lives were the recommended reading of the godly, and were contrasted with the romances of chivalry.

If we might see García’s book as aimed at the reader at home, our second acquisition, like so many of the books printed in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is a reference work for clerics spreading the faith. 


Public Domain Mark Clemente de Ledesma, Compendio del Despertador de noticias de los Santos Sacramentos (México: por Doña María de Benavides, 1695).  [24], 368, 32 pages.  BL shelfmark  RB.23.a.35576.

This is one of a series of manuals by the Franciscan Ledesma.  He published his Despertador de noticias de los Santos Sacramentos in 1695.  The present work was published in the same year.  The Despertador de noticias theologicas morales followed in 1698; and in 1699 the Despertador republicano, que por las letras del A.B.C. compendia los dos compendios del primero, y segundo tomo del despertador de noticias theologicas morales.  (The BL has the second edition: Mexico: por Doña Maria de Benavides Viuda de Juan de Ribera, 1700; BL, 4402.n.32).  Each of these works claims to be a compendium of its predecessors.

Heiress of  Paula Benavides and widow of the printer Juan de Ribera, María de Benavides began her printing career in 1685 and is recorded as late as 1700. 

See: Barry Taylor and Geoffrey West, ‘Libros religiosos coloniales de la British Library: libros impresos en México, Perú, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador y Guatemala, 1543/4-1800’, Redial, 8-9 (1997-98 [2001]), 69-92. Also available on the British Library’s website here.


11 February 2013

Posada’s ‘Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano’

Hernan Cortes
'Hernan Cortes' by Jose Guadalupe Posada [awaiting shelfmark]

Public Domain Mark
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Jose Guadalupe Posada, one of Mexico’s most important and influential visual artists. Posada is best known for his political and satirical illustrations and engravings from the late 19th and early 20th century.

Hundreds of cultural events have been organised across Mexico throughout the year in honour of Posada. Here at the British Library we hold a rather unusual collection of Posada’s work, a set of booklets called the ‘Biblioteca del Niño Mexicano’ or ‘Mexican Children’s Library.’ Illustrated by Posada, the booklets are thought to be the only mechanically produced chromolithographs that Posada ever created. 

Las Infamias de la Ambicion
'Las Infamias de la Ambicion' by Jose Guadalupe Posada [awaiting shelfmark]

The booklets tell the history of Mexico through short fable like stories that include, Moctezuma and Aztec society before the arrival of the Spanish, the Spanish conquest and the role of the Catholic Church, the struggle for Mexican independence. The series was written by Heriberto Frías a journalist and novelist who, like Posada, was known for his scathing critique of the late 19th century oligarchy, and Porfirio Diaz in particular.

Violence, love, religion, passion, dreams, and the gods all come into play in the creation of a freedom struggle narrative. But there is no ‘grand finale’ to this story. Rather, these tales of struggles against colonial injustice and oligarchic corruption leave a question mark around the future of Mexico. Created at the turn of the 20th century the reader is inevitably left with the question, what next?  At a time of political and social turmoil, that eventually erupted in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, these children’s booklets offered a vision not only of the Mexican past, but also strived to inspire young people to think of its future.


12 December 2012

Exploring the Yucatán and Mayan Culture


 Public Domain Mark This work (Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán, Paris, 1838) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 650.c.4.)

Matt’s blog post on the aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and a recent piece on 'Yucatan cool' in the New York Times, along with all the recent buzz about the Mayan calendar, has left me lost in thoughts about the shifts in political power and Mayan culture in the mid-nineteenth century and today.  

As Matt’s blog showed, the early to mid-nineteenth century was a crucial period in the history of Mexico and the United States. Mexico had only recently gained its independence from Spain in 1821 when tensions and violence surrounding the annexation of Texas heated up in the north – leading to the eventual U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At the same time, Mexico, in general, and Mayan society in particular, attracted the attention of anthropologists and naturalists from the U.S. and Europe. The most important Mayan sites that fixated their imaginations were Uxmal, Copan, Palenque and Chichen Itza.

This milieu of anthropologists, naturalists, and artists – such as John Lloyd Stephens, Frederick Catherwood, Jean Louis Berlandier, Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, and Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay – are well represented in the British Library’s collections. Many of these men were financially supported by rich industrialists or on missions for their respective governments. And often the lines between their scholarship and politics were blurry at best.

In our historical manuscripts you will find a collection of philological and ethnographic papers by Jean Louis Berlandier relating to his work in Mexico from the late 1820s through the late 1850s, including an examination of the Mayan language and descriptions of his travels through the Yucatán (BL shelfmark: Add MS 41684). Alongside his ethnographic work, Berlandier served as a captain at the outbreak of the war between the United States and Mexico in the spring of 1846. Berlandier was also part of the ‘Comision de Limites’ or the Mexican boundary commission, a special Mexican government commission set up to study and report on the northern border with the U.S. prior to and after the war. We hold a copy of the commission’s report, authored in part by Berlandier and published in Mexico City in 1850 (BL shelfmark:10481.g.28). Though the report’s explicit focus was the physical and natural features of northern Mexico, it is filled with detailed observations regarding the local economies and cultures.

You will also find in our historical manuscripts the journal of Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck (Add MS 38720). The journal is a piece of personal writing on his research and travels that makes an interesting companion to his 1838 publication: Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán (BL shelfmark: 650.c.4.) a compendium of vocabularies of indigenous languages, images of local people and detailed drawings of Mayan archaeological sites. Many of Waldeck’s early lithographs were used in an 1827 publication by the Mexican National Museum on their collections (BL shelfmark: 557*.h.23)

Among our rare books collections are several works by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, including the latter's Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán (BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68). Stephens was sent from the U.S. as the Special Ambassador to Central America in 1839. His writing on Mayan Central America and Mexico was central to the so called ‘rediscovery’ of Mayan society. Stephens was accompanied on most of his travels by the British architect and artist Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood’s drawings and lithographs of Mayan archaeological sites are still considered some of the best studies of Mayan society.  Stephens became an official in the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, which led him to meet Alexander von Humboldt. And as president of the Panama Railroad Company, he oversaw the construction of the railroad across the isthmus until his death in 1852.


 Public Domain Mark This work (Frederick Catherwood, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, London, 1844) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68]

The French photographer Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay, famous for his photographs of the Yucatán, was strongly influenced by the work of Stephens and Catherwood. He was commissioned to travel in Mexico by the French Ministry of Education between 1857-1861 – just before the invasion of Mexico by Napolean III. We have a significant collection of Désiré Charnay’s photographs of Mayan and Zapotec archaeological sites taken during this time. Needless to say, our collection of works on Mayan culture, and Mexico, doesn’t stop there. 

The refashioning of American and European power in the middle of the 19th century coincided, and often went hand in hand, with a new fascination with Mayan culture. I'm not sure what this tells us about current day interest in the Mayans, but I have a feeling we have a few books that may shed some light on the subject.


27 November 2012

A Disputed Boundary: mapping the Gadsden Purchase Treaty


Map illustrating the disputed Boundary between the United States and Mexico (New York, 1853) Maps 71495.(25)

Public Domain Mark
This work (Map illustrating the disputed Boundary between the United States and Mexico, by creator: G. Schroeter; producer: British Library), identified by The British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.

This map is being digitized as part of the US Civil War project.  It predates the war, of course, but is a record of the western expansion that helped to spark it.  It shows the disputed territory between New Mexico and Mexico following the Treaty of Gaudaloupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexico-American War of 1846-48.  The Mesilla Valley offered an important potential railroad route to the West via a Southern route (important to the slave states), but the treaty was based on an out-of-date map favoured by the United States.  New surveys demanded by the treaty revealed the error.

In 1847, a British bank had brought rights to the land, leading to fears of British influence in the American hemisphere (the fears of which Mexico used to good effect with its negotiations with the States), while the Gold Rush of 1848 gave the potential route even more importance. In 1853, the newly elected Pierce administration, which included the future Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, favoured a more bullish policy towards southern expansion and, taking advantage of economic and political turmoil within Mexico and the New Mexico governor's claim to the disputed territories, James Gadsden purchased six packages of lands for $15 million.  Mexico unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Britain to become involved in the negotiations, and the treaty was ratified in 1854.  The US Army took possession of the lands, and became responsible for suppressing the Apache tribes noted on the map (under the terms of the Guadalup-Hidalgo treaty, the US was responsible for protecting Mexican citizens from Apache raiding parties; for their part, the Apaches had been resisting Mexican intrusion into their lands for the best part of three centuries).

The Southern Pacific Railroad, which headed west from Los Angeles, was completed in December 1881.

(Detail of Maps.71495(25) above)

22 May 2012

My dear Harold: discovering Carlos Fuentes in our archives

Wikimedia commons

When I first heard of the death of Carlos Fuentes last week I was filled with memories of the first time I read La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962). Fuentes’ astute and scathing critique of Mexican politics, and his masterful way of weaving stories through time and space left a huge impression on me as an adolescent. As I read the obituaries that came out over the course of the week, and watched the crowds gather around the world to honour Fuentes I began to wonder about his life and his relationships.

What might I find out digging around our collections here at the BL? It turns out Fuentes was a translator and friend of Harold Pinter.  And the British Library holds the Pinter archive, including correspondences between Pinter and Fuentes. It was one of those discoveries that surprises you but really shouldn’t. Their letters reveal shared creative and political commitments. Topics of discussion between the two included the translation of Party Time and Mountain Language for production in Mexico in 1992 (Add MS 88880/6/10), a speech by Pinter at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid on the effects of the cold war in the Americas that Fuentes wanted to publish in Mexico (Add MS 88880/6/60), and Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech given in 2005 in which he profoundly condemns the last 60 years of US foreign policy. Fuentes ended his admiring letter of Pinter’s speech with these words: “Believe me, my dear Harold, you have spoken for many, many, many of us. You were not alone that night.” (Add MS 88880/11/10).

My initial investigation into the traces of Fuentes’ life at the BL took me to Harold Pinter’s deep involvement in the political struggles of the Americas in the last half of the 20th century: from the Sandinistas in Central America, to the US trade embargo of Cuba, to the US invasion of Iraq. I can’t think of a better way to have marked the passing of Carlos Fuentes – whose own work never shied from the unknown or the unpredictable in the quest for the truth.

Wikimedia commons


25 May 2011

President O'Bama and the Pacific (I)

I sometimes manage to drag myself out of bed to ride some laps of the Outer Circle of Regent's Park before work; indeed, I managed it yesterday.  However, an Icelandic ash cloud had other ideas, and the route was blocked.

The reason, of course, is that Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador's residence, is located behind a thick yew hedge.  Fears of flight disruptions from the ash cloud meant that President Obama and his entourage arrived a day early for the London leg of their European tour, and stayed the night there rather than crashing at Buckingham Palace.  The Metropolitan Police augmented the SO16 presence with a full roadblock; my fellow-rider was an American, so he repaid the cops' actually very polite and apologetic notice to turn around with a full-throated rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

As you know, Obama had just arrived from Ireland, where he delighted the crowds with his search for the missing apostrophe.  Expert commentators (including the Eccles Centre's Director, Phil Davies, who is presently sat on stage in Westminster Hall, listening to the main speech of the day) have been asked their views on what this all means for the Special Relationship and the administration's views on Europe.  Several have noted that Obama begin his presidency as America's 'First Pacific President', and that this visit, as well as having electoral appeal with an Irish stop-over, is also about making sure the traditional North Atlantic alliance is given a comforting dose of mood music (as well as securing more European men and matériel in various military actions).

Meanwhile, I was doing a little bit of research into the 1892 Samoan celebration of the Fourth of July.  Islanders were also given the chance to sing the Star Spangled Banner over two days, as the islands moved from Antipodean time to 'American Time', gaining an extra day as a result of their manoeuvringson the international date line (it was recently announced that they will be shifting back to be more aligned with Australia and New Zealand on 28 December 2011).  The usual reason given for the 1892 change was the influence of American merchants; was this true, I wondered, and if so, did it make anything more than a symbolic difference?  A cable for telegrams was proposed in the 1870s, but it appears that this was never laid.

Some more research may turn up the answers, but in the meantime, it was a reminder of the importance of the Samoan question in the late nineteenth century, when the islands became a nexus for a strategic, diplomatic and commercial battle between Britain, Germany and the United States, all of which contributed to a series of civil wars on the islands.  As it happens, we have the papers of Sir Charles Stuart Scott, who attended the Berlin Convention; among them are a series of photographs (including the perforated waistcoat of the executed Maximilian I of Mexico), and two of the 'King of Samoa' and a 'claimant to the throne'.  But who were these two men?

More, and a bibliography, to follow.

02 March 2011

California doodling: Figueroa, Zamorano and the Manifesto

Yesterday was a day of odd jobs.  One of them was checking a sales catalogue, which drew my attention to Jose Figueroa's defense of his explusion of the leaders of the Mexican Californian colony: his Manifesto (1835).   This title also has the distinction of being the first book-length item to emerge from the pioneer press of Agustin Zamorano (his sixteen-page pamphlet, Reglamento Provicional of 1834 also lays claim to this title).


Our catalogue revealed a copy of this extremely rare title at (only 9 institutional copies are listed on OCLC).  Up it came from the basements, and down I went to collect it from the Rare Books and Music reading room.  Sadly, the catalogue entry was not quite complete: the imprint was the San Francisco Herald Office, 1855, and the Manifesto, which we acquired in 1872, was moved from the pile marked 'North American Treasures' and added to the day's catalogue corrections (this record has now been amended).  I will also request some conservation work. 

In reality, I wasn't too surprised: the catalogue entry did note that the item had been 'translated from the Spanish', and this pointed to the 1855 edition.  And, truth be told, the San Francisco Herald is scarce enough.  This, the first English translation, is the only copy held in the UK, according to; and only five copies are listed in the U.S.  It also has this delightful doodle on one of the pages at the back.  Optimistically, perhaps a Californian reader's imagining of Figueroa?


Meanwhile, no discussion of Californian printing would be complete without a visit to The Zamorano Club.

On the Manifesto, see C. Alan Hutchinson, trans. and introduced by, Manifesto..., University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, London, 1978, [X.802/10681].  As well as a balanced account of what Figueroa was about and a better translation than the 1855 version, this also includes a facsimile of the copy held at the Bancroft Library, University of California.  A copy of a letter from Figueroa is held at Add. MS.


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