14 October 2021
In light of the recent unprecedented demand for digital materials, we’ve decided to run a year-long series of monthly blogposts highlighting the extraordinarily rich Americas and Oceania-focused e-resources that are held at the British Library. Although most of these e-resources need to be consulted in-person in the Library’s Reading Rooms, some are accessible remotely to Reader’s Pass holders and we are hopeful that this number will continue to rise.
In terms of content, e-resources fall into two broad categories: full-text and bibliographic. The former will give you all or most of a particular item, be that a book, journal article, map, letter, playbill, diary, logbook, newspaper article, photo or minutes of a meeting. The latter will simply provide you with citations which you then need follow up elsewhere - in the Library’s Main Catalogue, for example, or a catalogue at another institution.
Over the coming year, these blogs will cover both types of e-resources (full-text and bibliographic) and will clearly flag the kind of access they offer (in-person or remote). Some will focus on particular subjects: for example, US politics, Oceania, or literature of the Americas. Others will focus on certain types of material. Next month, for example, we will look at newspapers, including historic newspapers from the Caribbean, Latin America and the US, American Indian newspapers, communist newspapers and service newspapers of World War II; many of these are accessible remotely.
All of the Americas and Oceania e-resources can be found in the Library’s Main Catalogue.
However, if you don’t have any titles or you want to get a sense of what the Library holds, please browse the holdings by subject. Currently, there are 130+ e-resources listed under History, for example, many of which have Americas and Oceania content. And more than 110 are listed under American Studies, a selection of which includes: America in World War Two; American Civil Liberties Union Papers; Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century; Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015; First World War Portal; Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange; History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988; History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1880-1990; The Nixon Years; North American Indian Thought and Culture; Slavery & Antislavery: A Transnational Archive; Trade Catalogues and the American Home; and Virginia Company Archives.
Finally, I’ll just say a few words about one of my personal favourites: Early American Imprints: Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Based on the 14-volume work by US bibliographer Charles Evans, this incredible database provides the full-text of almost every book, pamphlet and periodical published on American soil in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 And once you have a Reader’s Pass, you can access it whenever and wherever you wish! Among its many treasures are The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640) – the first work published in the American colonies (Fig 1, above). Anne Bradstreet’s self-revised and posthumously published Several Poems Completed with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678) – the first book by a woman to be published in North America (Fig.2, above). And An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World…(1784) by Hannah Adams – the first woman in the United States to make her living as a writer (Fig. 3, below).
Next month we will look at the Library's huge range of Americas-focused e-newspapers.
(And if you would like to learn more about the British Library's holdings of works by early American women writers, please take a look at 'For Myself, For My Children, For Money': A Bibliography of Early American Women's Writings at the British Library on the the Eccles Centre's website.)
Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America ... 14 vols. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 HRL 015.73
02 August 2021
This blog by Louise Siddons is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre’s awards, have undertaken across the Library’s Americas collections.
I first started working with the Mohawk-produced newspaper Akwesasne Notes while I was a Summer Scholar at the Eccles Centre in 2018. I was researching an article about intersectional visual politics and the representation of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in its sister publication, The Black Panther—now available in the Summer 2021 issue of American Art.i Along the way, I collected examples of Native assertions of cultural sovereignty from the newspaper, setting them aside for future consideration. I’ve been back at the Eccles Centre as a Fulbright scholar this spring, and have taken the opportunity to follow up on some of those notes from a new vantage point.
Recent news has turned mainstream attention to the horrific histories of Native American and First Nations children at boarding schools in Canada and the United States. Long seen as tools of colonial assimilation, we increasingly understand the part they played in North American genocide throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Enrollment in boarding schools peaked in the 1970s: in 1973 it was estimated that 60,000 Native American children were in boarding schools in the United States. The devaluation of Native lives and culture was systemic and diffuse: resistance to it had to be equally comprehensive in order to succeed. In the 1970s, self-fashioning became one way among many that Native activists called attention to the structural undermining of Native identity and cultural sovereignty in educational institutions.
The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 by young activists who had participated in a variety of earlier organizing. Although the most well-known AIM actions were the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan that led to the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, DC, and the 1973 defense of Wounded Knee, the organization was active across the country at every level. From their beginnings, AIM leaders celebrated the “outer, visible Indian.”ii The “outer Indian” was a politically engaged, educated Native person who understood their Indigeneity in racial/ethnic, as well as cultural, terms. It also had a literal meaning: AIM members celebrated their politicized self-fashioning as an act of resistance against a white assimilationist establishment, a tool for pan-Indian coalition-building, and a strategy for being seen by mainstream media and audiences.
AIM leaders defined a very specific look for Indian activism that began with long hair. They pointed to the ways in which Indian identity had been attacked by the federal government through the regulation of individual appearance, focusing particularly on the targeted assimilation of children in boarding schools throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a 1973 interview with Akwesasne Notes, Carter Camp (Ponca) summarized the history of American education of Native Americans.
“They first cut your hair off,” he began, “just like they do in the Marines—to make you lose your identity.” Carter’s military reference was no coincidence, as many AIM members were Vietnam veterans who condemned the war in Southeast Asia as another colonial enterprise, as driven by racism as it was by anti-communism. Camp continued: “These little kids had no protection from this monster that has them jailed. So we have our lost generation of Indian people—the guys who work for the BIA and try to be as white as they can.”iii As Camp’s statement implied, Native people, like all people, expressed community, cultural identity, and spiritual beliefs through clothing, hairstyle, and other elements of regalia and adornment. When the United States government (and other organizations, such as churches, which also ran boarding schools) forced young Indians to cut their hair and dress in school uniforms, they were fully cognizant of its negative impact on the children, their families, and communities. Nonetheless, they proudly published “before” and “after” photographs as evidence of their success in destroying Native cultures. When members of AIM and other youth activists let their hair grow long and adopted elements of traditional regalia in their dress, they were asserting individual and cultural sovereignty and also calling attention to the schools’ atrocities.
Long hair was a gendered issue—no one cut girls’ hair against their will—and so the fight over long hair was in part a fight over Native masculinity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AIM’s leadership was dominated by men, and the emergent trope of the Indian militant did not have much space for women, despite the fact that they were politically active across the continent. As activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) put it, the American Indian Movement offered its members “a new way to express our manhood,” in a statement that seemed to equate “Indianness” explicitly with masculinity.iv And yet coverage of AIM actions included many photographs of Native American women in bell-bottoms and other period fashion, as well as wearing Pendleton blankets, and framed with imagery that contextualizes and encourages an equally politicized reading of their long hair. Like many of the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in other words, the American Indian Movement struggled with gendered expectations for its members.v
Boarding schools were not their only targets. At its 1973 convention in Oklahoma, AIM called for a “national boycott of public schools which forbid native boys from wearing long hair”.
“Buddy Hatch, 11, an Oklahoma Arapaho lad, was chosen to symbolize the struggle. ... Hatch was expelled from school a year ago because his hair violated school regulations.”vi When an appeals court upheld the school’s regulations, AIM leader Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) deplored its refusal “to recognize Indian values. The courts are hostile to Indian heritage, and this hostility denies the Indian an opportunity to public education.”vii For Native people, regulations about hair length weren’t just about censoring individual self-expression. They represented centuries of colonial oppression, and therefore allowing one’s hair to grow long was a potent and highly visible symbol of political resistance. When he was recruited by AIM in 1969, Means “started growing his shoulder-length hair out so he could emulate others in AIM by wearing braids.”viii Similarly, an anonymous member described the moment in which he became involved with AIM: “I was assimilated into the mainstream of White America. And I was disenchanted. There was always an emptiness inside me. ... So I went up to Minnesota, and for about a week I visited with my brother and other people in the movement... Finally I got so involved I started letting my hair grow long, and I stopped wearing a tie and started to sort of deprogram myself, to become just a simple person, a simple man.”ix Although some participants later disavowed the stereotypical elements of AIM self-fashioning in this period, this desire to “deprogram” himself—today we might say decolonize— lends ideological weight to the self-transformation of AIM members across the board.
Louise Siddons is Professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture.
i American Art issues are available in print at British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 0810.395000. Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.
ii This intentionally contrasted with the “inner Indian” promoted by the Society of American Indians at the beginning of the century, which also ostensibly sought the betterment of Native Americans but argued that it would come about most effectively through outward assimilation. Hanson, Jeffery R. “Ethnicity and the Looking Glass: The Dialectics of National Indian Identity,” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Spring, 1997): 202 and 204. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.)
iii Carter Camp, “When in the course of human events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
iv Quoted in Gerald Vizenor, “Dennis of Wounded Knee,” in The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): 124-138: 126. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YA.1990.b.636.
v For more on gender in the American Indian Movement, see Susan Applegate Krouse, “What Came out of the Takeovers: Women’s Activism and the Indian Community School of Milwaukee,” American Indian Quarterly 27, no. 3/4, Urban American Indian Women’s Activism (Summer-Autumn 2003): 533-547, British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.); and Donna Hightower Langston, “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s,” Hypatia 18, no. 2, Indigenous Women in the Americas (Spring 2003): 114-132. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 4352.621500.
vi “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
viii Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1996): 133. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 96/26579.
ix “V.B.”, quoted in Rachel A. Bonney, “The Role of AIM Leaders in Indian Nationalism,” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 3 (Autumn, 1977): 209-224: 214. (Digital access to this issue of American Indian Quarterly is available in the British Library Reading Rooms.) The piece was originally published in Penthouse International Magazine for Men 1973: 59.
30 July 2021
This blog by JS Tennant is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not and like Columbus also it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.
– Malcolm Lowry, 1937
It might seem like a truism to restate the importance of Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas. But recent theories around primacy - those jostling counter claims attributing first transatlantic landfall to Norsemen, Basque or Bristol cod-fishermen, or a Portuguese pilot - detract little from the hemispheric and historical significance of the Genoese navigator’s albeit unintended achievement.
Portugal was the pioneering nation of exploration in the late medieval period. Columbus had first sought sponsorship for his design from the kings of Portugal and England. He then spent seven long years petitioning Fernando and Isabel of Spain, trailing around after the regents’ itinerant court among their vast retinue of hand-wringing camp followers. Eventually, his doggedness won over the ‘Catholic Sovereigns’ whose union had brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and reached its apotheosis in the rout of Islam’s last stronghold on the peninsula at Granada.
Columbus failed to convince the regents during a debate with the country’s leading theologians and cosmographers at Salamanca in 1486, but a further audience near Granada in 1491 (under siege at the time) led Fernando and Isabel – buoyed no doubt by their imminent success – to grant his request. They urged him to set off quickly, in fact, perturbed by recent news that the Portuguese had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Spain needed to open a new, westward, maritime trade route into the lucrative spice markets of Asia.
Medieval European cartography can be generally categorised within three traditions: the mappaemundi, portolan charts and celestial maps. Mappaemundi were large, decorative circular maps of the known world, intended as much for spiritual instruction as locational accuracy. They were often beautifully illustrated with densely symbolic imagery, classical themes, placing Jerusalem at the nexus of all lands. Portolan charts, or sea charts, usually showed the Black Sea or Mediterranean and were deemed to be accurate, meant for active use by navigators. Although invented by the Phoenicians, these portable charts were perfected in late medieval times in the city states of Venice, Genoa, Florence as well as Ancona and Palma de Mallorca.
In the 1400s Europeans believed there were three continents, corresponding with those assigned to the sons of Noah: Asia, Europe and Africa. But both mappaemundi and portolan charts did signal the possibility of Terra incognita: most notably the existence of an Edenic terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, whose existence was a given for orthodox Christians in the Middle Ages. The few sea charts which have come down to us showing a portion of the Atlantic – such as that of Grazioso Benincasa (1470) [Figure 1] – often position mythical islands such as Antilia, Brasil, Saint Brendan's Isle and Salvaga out at the edge of the mar tenebroso, the shadowy sea. An entirely new continent, though – let alone two – would have been beyond the wildest imaginings (even to the highly susceptible medieval mind).
Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia – a mid-second century work of theoretical geography and manual for map-making – proved a sensation in clerical and courtly circles in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin in 1406. A manuscript of the Alexandrian scholar’s treatise had been copied out in the late thirteenth century the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and was preserved in the Monastery of Vatopedi [Figure 2]. Although not printed until the 1470s, the Cosmographia was widely circulated before then and, although it overestimated degrees of longitude (elongating the distance between west and east), confirmed the tripartite nature of the world. Having languished practically unknown – except by Arab astronomers – for 1,300 years before the time of Columbus, the eventual rediscovery of Ptolemy as a geographer became one of the major intellectual events of the fifteenth century.
Like many learned men of his age, Columbus was steeped in the work of Ptolemy and colourful travelogues such as Marco Polo’s Il milione and Mandeville’s Travels. Lumbered with such preconceptions it is hardly a surprise that, when he stumbled upon the myriad cays, atolls and islands of the West Indies, he assumed this was the same archipelago off the eastern end of Orbis terrarum where the Great Khan – Emperor of China (or Cathay) – went to capture slaves. Although Ptolemy never fully mapped the outer rim of East Asia, he did describe a cluster of islands numbering 1,378 which must have recalled, for Columbus – who jotted this in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi – Polo’s 1,300 cities in Mangi (South China) and the 7,448 islands in the Sea of Mangi, verdant with fragrant trees and a profusion of white and black pepper.
Ptolemy’s conjectural coastlines, and Polo’s fanciful writings, were of little use to him in the Caribbean, which he named ‘the Indies’: at that time a term often assigning the whole of South and East Asia, a hazily imagined space so characterised by islands that its easternmost confine was often labelled Insulindia. Encountering Cuba on his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus publicly declared it to be the fabled Golden Chersonese (the present-day Malay Peninsula), stating later it was the littoral of mainland Cathay.
Displaying their own doubts, perhaps, ahead of his second voyage, the Spanish sovereigns urged Columbus to explore Cuba, ‘known up till now as a continent [tierra firme]’, once more. In June, 1494, dismissing claims to the contrary from native inhabitants ‘so ignorant and provincial they think the whole world is composed of islands’ he made his crew sign an oath affirming the continental nature of Cuba which, if reneged upon, would entail a cutting out of tongues. Privately, he conceded the possibility it could be an island, which he initially called Juana, only later updating this to ‘Cuba’: the name used by its local peoples (which in any case may have signified Florida).
At the turn of the century Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist in the service of the Spanish court, had written of reports from men who claimed to have rounded the island. Given that he sailed under Columbus’s command on both the first and second voyages (as mate of the flagship Marigalante, which he also owned), and that first recorded circumnavigation of Cuba was by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, it is surprising that the Castilian cartographer Juan de la Cosa dared to depict Cuba as an island on his map of 1500. Beautifully executed on ox-hide [Figure 3], it also shows a putative channel cleaving the isthmus of Central America, through which wades a cartouche of St Christopher (who Columbus openly associated himself with) ferrying a cherubic Christ child on his shoulders. Was this to salve his admiral’s potential misgivings about the depiction of Cuba?
The beautiful Cantino planisphere of 1502 [Figure 4, below] is coloured and adorned like a mappamundi but studded by compass roses radiating rhumb lines and strongly accented coastlines in the portolan fashion. It shows a half-figured, spectral presence of the South and North American continents, but likewise a breach in Central America, hoping against hope for a seaward passage there towards Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Cantino planisphere also carries the prominent legend The King of Castile’s Antillies, named of course after Antilia, the island or (sometimes) archipelago of legend: the place – often associated with Cuba – some of Columbus’s many detractors felt he had really reached.
Columbus seems to have been afflicted with a sort of Insulindia of the senses, an archipelagic delirium derived from antiquity, the bible, and books of travel. Writing to the Pope in February, 1502, he claims that, among the hundreds of islands he discovered were Tarshish, Cethia, Ophaz, and Cipangu [Japan]; Ophir, the biblical region from where King Solomon received regular tributes of gold, ivory, peacocks and apes; as well as ‘vastly infinite lands’: it is ‘in that vicinity the Terrestrial Paradise is to be found’. Publicly, perhaps for fear of having duped the Catholic Sovereigns, Columbus maintained the unwavering conviction that he’d reached Asia – one professed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until the day he died in 1506.
The first printed map to show the ‘New World’ is the Contarini-Rosselli that same year, the only copy of which is held at the British Library [Figure 5, above]. Ptolemy, although writing in Greek, owed much of his knowledge to the expansion of the Roman empire; Columbus’s discovery of the Americas for Europe, and Portuguese advances across Asia, made it clear to cartographers that the old Jerusalem-centred manner of depiction no longer held. But such was the Alexandrine’s influence that, well into the sixteenth century, attempts were made to fit the Americas and Asia into a Ptolemaic framework, such as can be seen in the Contarini-Rosselli Map the Ruysch World Map of 1507 [Figure 6].
Confusion, sparked by Columbus’s equivocations over the nature of Cuba, are evidenced here in analysis which has shown that Ruysch painted over his original inscription Terra de Cuba, on the large island in its place, leaving it unnamed. The 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller maps mislabel Cuba as ‘Isabella’, while the latter goes as far as to categorise an area of mainland Mexico as Terra de Cuba, Asie Partis. Similarly, the 1520 Schöner Globe marks Terra de Cuba on a landmass floating where North America should be, with Japan hovering tantalisingly nearby through an open sea channel [Figure 7]. In the end, Columbus’s characteristic intransigence had a devastating effect on the posterity and status he so craved. His false idea of Cuba contributed to the two continents being named instead for his friend, a Florentine also in the service of Spain: the explorer Américo Vespucio.
JS Tennant’s work Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba is forthcoming from William Collins. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award.
26 July 2021
This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections.
In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.
I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.
And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.
Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research.
Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.
Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.
I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art. I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it.
This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.
Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.
Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.
Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.
My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.
I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.
So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.
It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.
Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.
There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.
It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle. They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).
I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.
Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.
19 May 2021
As the days turn to dusk over the next week across north east United States, billions of Magicicada nymphs will burrow their way to the surface after spending seventeen years underground. Having already been delayed by cooler than average temperatures, some have already begun to appear in geographic patches where the soil has reached a critical temperature. You can follow this on the Cicada Safari app which uses photographs and data provided by citizen scientists to create a live map of their emergence.
This particular group of periodical cicadas are known as Brood X, or the Great Eastern Brood. The brood is endemic to fifteen states in the eastern United States. Up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre, totalling in the billions, emerge and climb nearby vegetation where they molt their nymph exoskeletons and emerge in their imago form.
The males proceed to group together and ‘sing’ to attract females. Once mated, the female cicadas lay their eggs. Within a few weeks, the adult cicadas pass away. Soon thereafter, the newly hatched nymphs emerge and return to the soil where they will remain until the next cycle in 2038.
Cicadas are endemic to most countries with warmer climates (there is only one species in the UK which is under threat of extinction and unique to the New Forest). Unsurprisingly then, cicadas’ presence in print is scattered across the natural history record, and they also regularly appear as a motif in literature. While there are over three hundred species of cicadas, periodical cicadas are unique to the United States.
The first known written record of a Magicicada brood was in a 1633 report by the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. He notes the brood’s appearance in relation to a disease that killed many of the local Indigenous populations as well as the Plymouth settler colonists. His description illustrates how reliant the relatively recent settlers were on Indigenous knowledge to help them to navigate their unfamiliar natural environment, and how this 17-year event was both familiar to and held significance for the local tribes.
The following century, Swedish naturist Pehr Kalm wrote a lengthy essay on his witnessing of the emergence of what we now know as Brood X in 1749. His Description of a type of Grasshopper in North America, published in 1756, is an incredibly evocative and richly detailed account that gives a sense of how it must have felt to experience this phenomenon for the first time:
Among the many flying insects in North America there is a species of grass-hopper which seems to merit special discussion because of its extraordinary characteristics… Later, when I travelled through the Land of the Iroquois to the large waterfall Niagara, I heard its squall in the woods daily, for no matter where it is it does not remain silent for long…
These insects are extraordinary. They appear in astounding numbers with indescribable suddenness on certain years… In 1749, on the 22 of May, new style, these locusts or grasshoppers appeared in dreadful quantities in Pennsylvania. They had been lying in holes in the ground throughout the winter and spring like Eurcae, but on this day they crept out of their winter coats and came forth in summer dress. A tree could scarcely be found, in either forest or orchard, whose trunk was not entirely covered with them. Some had emerged from their pupal cases, others were emerging so they were half in and half out. Some had begun to try their wings. It was remarkable that on the previous day, that is the 21st of May, there were none… For seventeen years these insects had not been seen, now they appeared in fantastic quantities throughout the land…
...On the 25th day of May the insects were heard in the trees…They now made such a roar and din in the woods they could be heard for great distances. If two persons happened to meet they would have to shout in order to hear each other. If they were any distance apart it would be necessary to strain the voice to capacity in order to determine what was being said…
The handiwork of the Almighty Creator is easily recognized in the lives of these small creatures.
Kalm was clearly emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually moved by his meeting with Brood X.
A separate account of the 1749 emergence was also documented by Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and self-educated polymath. Banneker is well known for his Almanacs which detailed daily life on his farm as well as astronomical observations, and his correspondence with George Washington on slavery and racial equality. His observations on natural science are less familiar, but remain noteworthy.
The first great Locust year that I can Remember was 1749. I was then about Seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes... Again in the year 1766, which is Seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a Second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first… Again in the year 1783 which was Seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800,which is Seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture So to express it, their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us…
Written in 1800, these observations make Banneker “among the first American scientists to document and record chronological information of the seventeen-year cycle of the periodic Magiciada – Brood X".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unusual life cycle of the Magicicada also catches the literary imagination and they make periodic appearances in biography, poetry, prose, and graphic novels. Across these works, two themes particularly stand out. The first is aural – the din, hum, buzz, drone, whirr, roar, squall – these little creatures cannot be ignored, particularly when in full throes of their communal love song. The second theme speaks of loss, re-emergence, and transformation.
Perhaps the most striking literary homage to the cicadas’ song is a poem in Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Magically illustrated by Eric Beddow, this collection designed for children celebrates insect life in all its joyous forms.
Each poem is intended to be read aloud simultaneously by two people. This has the effect of partially recreating the sound of the insects buzz, and eventual pairing-off. The dual voice also acts as an affirmation of the childhood experience of encountering and describing a newly discovered insect: the curiosity, wonder, and perplexity they inspire is best when shared (much like books being read aloud by parent to child).
Mộng-Lan’s Song of the Cicadas also foregrounds sound. In contrast to Fleischman, she uses cicadas as a motif for exploring a coupling between two people. It should be noted that Mộng-Lan is Vietnamese and she moved to America with her family following the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and has subsequently lived in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. These experiences are alluded to through references to foreign lands, encounters in airports after long journeys, seasonal transformations, and the unpredictability of ‘fate’. She thus weaves through the poem allusions to the brooding and mating habits of periodical cicadas in order to evoke how this particular encounter resonated with the emotional experience of being an immigrant. This experience is signaled as transformative through its use of the visual imagery of an imago cicada emerging from its nymph exoskeleton at the molting phase:
skins subtle as persimmons
where the skin breaks at the fullest
Another work that also makes use of cicadas in reference to the immigrant experience is Canadian author Elfreida Read’s A Time of Cicadas. This is the first in a series of memoirs about her childhood in Shanghai, her internment during the war, and her family’s subsequent emigration to Canada (Vancouver). It opens with a description of Shanghai, “my city, my Camelot”. A city, she says, that “was lost in time… you will never be able to go there yourself, any more than you can step at will into the substance and memories of those who lived there for that short enchanted time.” She then skillfully brings to life on the page a vision of summer in pre-war Shanghai accompanied by the soundtrack of “cicadas sawing in the treetops”. Here, the sounds of the cicadas evokes a nostalgia for a youth and a city lost to war and emigration.
Just as we’ve been waiting for the cicadas to emerge, readers spent five years eagerly anticipating the arrival of this children’s book from Australian author/illustrator, Shaun Tan. Cicada, follows a green insect office clerk (the eponymous Cicada); a lone splash of colour trapped deep in the grey drudgery of an office job.
Underappreciated and mistreated, the cicada works harder and longer than the others, yet has less rights and lower pay than his human colleagues. Tan acknowledges the parallels here with the retirement of his architect father, a frustrated Chinese immigrant from Malaysia who felt undervalued by his Australian colleagues. Upon Cicada’s unremarked retirement after 17 years (the life cycle of a cicada), we follow as he winds his way up the stairs of the office block, finally emerging on to the roof. His drab outer shell of suit and tie is shed to reveal a luminous winged body which takes flight; joining thousands of others in the lush, bright forest for a brief, but explosive finale.
- Written by Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland
02 February 2021
Riaz Phillips on Caribbean takeaways, foodways and politics
When people ask me for intel on the best jerk chicken or Trini roti in London or where to visit for some Caribbean goodness when they are in a number of other cities across the country, while I do of course have some small personal favourites, the question for me always misses the point. For me the importance of Caribbean food institutions in the UK has never been about the food but rather their importance as a community hub.
The particular plight of the post-war Caribbean community in the UK and the treacherousness of everyday life has been wonderfully depicted in all manner of media. Favourites include Samuel Selvin’s 1956 book The Lonely Londoners to films like Horace Ove’s 1975 film Pressure. While much of focus of the Caribbean community in the UK, like in other diaspora regions such as the USA and Canada, is placed on the globally renowned subculture of Reggae, I struggled to find much, if anything, about the places and spaces outside one’s home where people congregated to eat.
In books and magazine clippings, mostly found researching at the British Library, I rejoiced whenever a restaurant or eatery was mentioned in passing. Early instances of particularly Caribbean food and drink establishments - cafés, bars and social clubs selling Caribbean food and cooked meals - date back to the late 1920s. This handful included the likes of the Caribbean Café at 185a Bute Road in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, which was the locale of the 1919 South Wales riots, and 50 Carnaby Street in Central London.1 The latter, founded by Sam Manning and Amy Ashwood, a political activist and first wife of famed Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, was described as an intellectual hub, “guests were attracted to the rice n peas West Indian Cuisine.”2 The fact that many of these food-related histories are hard to find is why the British Library is a launching a Caribbean foodways project which seeks to amplify food stories and memories.
From their inception, these institutions went beyond simply being buildings at which to summon a takeaway box of curry goat to being places at which to politically rally, to be merry and more importantly to be free from persecution. All this - the banter, the arguments over the hottest latest musician, the comedic tiffs between nuances of the different Caribbean islands and, when necessary, the planning of political upheaval - were pleasingly depicted in 2020’s Mangrove feature film directed by Steve McQueen. However, years before this, I felt that the breadth of these spaces hadn’t truly been given the documentation they deserved in the wider story of this vivid group of people in the UK.
I like to use the word "vivid" because one thing I feel that outsiders don’t realise about the Caribbean is the great diversity of its people - from African-descendant Rastafari and generational Chinese in the west of the Island group, to Muslim southeast Asians at the other reach of the Caribbean. Be it the Ital vegan spots, the Guyanese roti shops, Jamaican jerk huts or even home cooking, foodways are the perfect route in convoying stories and memories of the Caribbean and any project encompassing this will always reveal some gems.
Riaz Phillips is a writer, videomaker and photographer. His book Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK was published in 2017 and a second edition was published in 2020.
If you would like to read more about 'Caribbean Foodways at the British Library', please read We're calling for your Caribbean food stories to find out more about the project, including information on how you can participate. We look forward to hearing from you.
1. Cardiff Migration Stories. London: Runnymede Trust, 2012.
2. C. Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and His Dream of Mother Africa. London: Vintage, 2009., p. 437. British Library shelfmark YC.2010.a.1521; S. Okokon, Black Londoners, 1880-1990. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub., 1998. British Library shelfmark YC.1999.b.664
Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK. London: Tezeta Press, 2017. British Libary shelfmark YKL.2017.b.4909
08 January 2021
Did you know it's the 25th anniversary of the @whalingmuseum's Moby-Dick Marathon this weekend? Dig out your favourite edition of Herman Melville's sprawling epic and join the New Bedford Whaling Museum for a live-stream of this collaborative reading beginning Saturday at 11.30am EST (16.30 GMT), and partake in the conversation on the @britishlibrary twitter feed using #mobydickmarathon.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon.
To celebrate this anniversary, we will be posting a series of Moby-Dick related blogs over the weekend. Pulling together these posts has proven to be an endeavour that is worthy of the book itself, bringing in a wide assortment of characters, thematic deviations, and book histories: basement staff who went delving through our holdings of Moby-Dick editions (during which a “missing” Poe edition was rediscovered!); language cataloguers who spent time digging into interesting translated editions with their own unique histories; publishers, academics and Moby-Dick aficionados whose lives have been irrevocably influenced by Melville’s words and ideas.
We hope that you enjoy these posts, and revel in the range of stories and resources that they introduce you to. Opening the series is a post from Pablo George-Nascimento, director of Editorial Nascimento. Pablo follows the multiple threads between the publishing company established by his great grandfather, New Bedford, whaling, Moby-Dick, and the British Library.
“What surprised me the most, as I relaunched my old family publishing house more than a century after my great grandfather (Manuel Carlos George-Nascimento - a.k.a. Don Carlos) had opened it in Santiago de Chile, was just how well known the Nascimento name still was, and not only among bibliophiles.
Our presentation in the auditorium of the British Library went amazingly well, lasting nearly eight hours with interest bubbling until the end. Something special engaged the audience's attention. It was hard to know whether that was the famous authors in the Nascimento back catalogue or the story of the publisher himself, whose journey to publishing stardom was both a novel and a poem in itself. Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that having Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra, two Nobel Prize winners and one nominee, on the list of your ‘discoveries' will never be bad for your legacy.
Don Carlos was born on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, half way between Europe and America, He had dreamed of going to Chile since he was a young boy, to work with an uncle who had emigrated there and opened a famous bookshop in 1873: the Libreria Nascimento. His love for books was fostered by his brother, a parish priest, who had built a substantial library in the house. But the thing that stoked the young man's ambition most was his father's adventures alongside another famous whaler, Herman Melville. Throughout his life, Don Carlos often called this his greatest source of inspiration for his love of books.
Of eleven siblings, nine left the Portuguese Azores for the USA from the mid-1800s onwards. All of them arrived first in New Bedford. Don Carlos’ priestly brother, Francisco Lourenço, became the parish priest of the Azorean whalers in the city.
Don Carlos was the only one to head to South America. After adventures and disappointments, eventually, in 1917, he opened the first publishing house in Latin America, in Santiago de Chile. He kept the book manufacturing process in house by building a printing factory. Some of the most beautiful and innovative designs worldwide came out of Nascimento.
The greatest artists of the period worked at Nascimento and, during his lifetime, Don Carlos built a catalogue of more than 6,500 titles, which included the first women authors at a time when women were still unable to vote. Gabriela Mistral, Marta Brunet, Maria Luisa Bombal, Teresa Wilms Montt and Maria Monvel are but a few of them.
Don Carlos surpassed his wildest ambitions. When he died in 1966, Nascimento had 35 of the 37 National Literature Awards on its catalogue, and had published Neruda's Twenty Love Poems, which has been the best selling poetry book in the history of the Spanish language.
Who would have ever imagined that this young Portuguese immigrant, born of a whaling and navy family going back more than 500 years, could have become such an important figure in world publishing? His vision was such that, every month, he would pack boxes with his latest publications and post them to the world's leading libraries, including the British Museum library. These went on to have a home in the British Library following its formation in 1973.
Today we are proud to knit this story together again. Nascimento was reborn in Chile and now in the UK with a series of innovative projects encompassing books, art books, performing arts and digital creations. With the imminent centenary celebrations of Neruda's and Mistral's first books, from 2023 we will be hosting a series of events and publishing a number of carefully selected limited artistic editions from our original back catalogue.
We start by bringing you a celebration of the most famous book of that period: the Moby-Dick Marathon. The New Bedford Whaling Museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of this 24-hour-long annual event held in the museum. Editorial Nascimento have previously worked with the Museum to produce a simultaneous Portuguese language version of the marathon.
This year, in these unique circumstances, the Moby-Dick Marathon moves online, giving many thousands the chance to share this intimate occasion. In association with the British Library we bring you this unique opportunity to take part in this non-stop reading.”
Join the Americas blog again tomorrow to hear from more people about how Moby Dick has influenced them, and join in watching the livestream of the Moby-Dick Marathon.
Prodcued by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.
18 December 2020
Given there is no canteen Christmas lunch on offer this year, I thought I would ‘cook up’ a Caribbean Christmas meal out of the collections.
“Koo-Koo, Koo-Koo” an attendant chorus repeated, imitating the ‘rumbling sound of the bowels, when in a hungry state.’1 This was the origin of the ‘Koo-Koo’ chant according to Isaac Medes Belisario, the Jamaican Jewish painter, engraver and lithographer. The calling of Koo-Koos would sound the streets of Kingston during Junkanoo – the carnivalesque celebration that occurs around Christmas time in parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean. Rooted in the era of slavery, Junkanoo festivities were performed during the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. While the concept of Christmas was a colonial imposition in the Caribbean, the short break that this Christian holiday instigated became an opportunity for the creation of independent, creolized, defiant and delicious traditions. From the rumbling stomach of Junkanoo to the ceremonial soaking of fruit in rum, Christmas through the mouth of the Caribbean collections is a varied and delectable affair.
The Main Event
Deviating from the oft-dry Turkey, the centrepiece of a Caribbean Christmas meal might be a ‘Christmas Goat’ or a pig. As contributors to the community-published cookbook, Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole explain, Christmas in St. Lucia is a big celebration, where pigs are fattened up to be eaten on Christmas day and there are lots of dances and parties that ‘carry on through Christmas and New Year’.
Much more efficient to rear than cows and easier to farm on smallholdings, the goat has consistently been one of the most consumed meats in Jamaica since the nineteenth century. Goat was ‘also the most commonly eaten mammal in India, after the sheep,’ which made it appealing to Jamaica’s East Indian community.2 The curry goat, a classic of Jamaican cuisine, is a product of East Indian and African creolization in Jamaica.
As Carly Lewis-Oduntan writes in her article, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas,’ a British and Caribbean Christmas food fusion might encompass roast turkey accompanied with rice and peas. Derived from Akan cuisine, variations of rice and bean dishes have been a staple of Caribbean diets for centuries. During the era of slavery, enslaved peoples in the English-Speaking Caribbean subsisted on their provision ground harvests (small plots of land where anything from yams to beans were grown), which have profoundly shaped the ingredients, processes and tastes that remain central to Caribbean cuisine. Ripening just in time for Christmas, the perennial Gungo pea is an ‘essential part of the Christmas Day menu’, replacing the often-used kidney bean in rice and peas.
The Proof is in the Pudding
The Caribbean Christmas cake or pudding is the product of months (or even years) of rum soaking. Atop of kitchen cupboards you might spot dried fruit soaking in deep amber jars of rum, in preparation for baking the spiced, boozy and dense Christmas cake. From the sugar grown and harvested on plantations, to the by-product of sugar (rum is made from molasses which is produced when sugarcane is refined) and regionally grown spices like nutmeg, Christmas pudding is an example of the region’s history melding together.
A drink with that?
How about a deep red glass of tart, sweet and cool sorrel drink, made from an infusion of fresh or dried sorrel. The Jamaican name for hibiscus, B. W. Higman cites sorrel as arriving during in the eighteenth century, from Africa. Planted in August, the sorrel plant is harvested in December and January, hence, its Christmas association. The refreshing drink is made by steeping sorrel in water for two days with ginger, cloves, orange peel, rum or wine. These classic Christmas flavours encompass Britain’s colonial history and the far-reaching impact of the Spice Trade.
I hope this has whet your appetite for a Merry Christmas and has maybe even inspired you to test out one of these recipes – please get in touch if you do!
In 2021, we will be launching an exciting project that seeks to re-interpret, locate and co-create more sources on the history of Caribbean food, spanning from colonial materials, to post-independence and contemporary sources. We will need your input and participation … so watch this space and have a relaxing winter break.
Naomi Oppenheim, community engagement and Caribbean Collections intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and CDP student researching Caribbean publishing and activism. @naomioppenheim
1. Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008), p.250.
2. B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), p.387-9.
* B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), BL Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
* Carly Lewis-Oduntan, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas’, VICE, 14 December 2018
* Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain (London: Mantra Publishing, 1988) BL Shelfmark YK.1989.b.1722
* Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008). BL Shelfmark LD.31.b.1989
* Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamacian Flowering Plants (Kingston: The Mill Press, 1999)
* P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes, BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.5048
* Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica run-dung: over 100 recipes (Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973) BL Shelfmark YA.1989.a.11640
* ‘14th Day of Christmas – Gungo Peas & Christmas’, Jamaica Information Service
* B. W. Higman, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D’Oeurve’, New West Indian Guide, 72 (1998).
* Catherine Hall, ‘Whose Memories? Edward Long and the Work of Re-Remembering’ in K. Donington, R. Hanley, & J. Moody (Eds.), Britain's History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a 'National Sin'’ (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), pp. 129-149.
* Chanté Joseph, ‘Confronting the Colonial Past of Jamaica’s Hard Dough Bread’, VICE, 25 April 2019
* Colleen Taylor Sen, Curry: A Global History (London: Reaktion, 2009) BL Shelmark YK.2010.a.31951
* Edward Long, A History of Jamaica (London: T. Lowndes, 1774), 981.f.19-21. [Version available online]
* Malini Roy, ‘Reopening and reinterpretation – our Front Hall Busts’, Living Knowledge Blog, 28 August 2020
* Naomi Oppenheim, ‘A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas’, American Collections blog, 7 January 2019
* Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2017) YKL.2017.b.4909
American Collections blog recent posts
- Americas and Oceania e-Resources: An Introduction
- “We Must Speak with Our Bodies”
- Columbus and the Idea of Cuba
- Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'
- Reading Brood X
- Curry goat to political rallying
- 25 Years of the Moby-Dick Marathon
- Cooking a Christmas Meal in the Caribbean Collections
- New additions to our electronic resources
- The Centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment and US women's right to vote