Americas and Oceania Collections blog

25 posts categorized "Politics"

28 February 2013

Obama's Inauguration

Phil D and poster
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The route to the Americas curatorial team on floor 2 of the British Library is currently guarded by a 5 foot high sign indicating ‘Media Access’. A collection item on its way to accession, we’re lucky to have it. I wasn’t sure I would be able to haul it down the lamp-post on Constitution Avenue at all, and when I had it took a huge effort with my partner, Sarah’s pen-knife before it was fully liberated from its moorings. But Washington DC’s clean up team had been incredibly efficient, and a couple of days after the event we sighted only two from the hundreds of temporary President Obama second inaugural parade signs still languishing in place.

Parties of students swept past us in the gloomy evening light as they exited the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Federal office commuters headed for the Metro. We diligently sawed thick plastic straps with a wholly inadequate 1.5 inch blade, then joined the commuters on the subway, carrying the signs like a third presence between us. The following day the staff of United Airlines decided that it certainly could be classed as free hand baggage: “Did you really come over just for the inauguration? Would you have voted for him if you could have? We did.” High fives all round.

There had been a similar response at an Obama rally in Concord, New Hampshire on the Sunday before Election Day. A friend and I joined 14,000 other of the President’s closest acquaintances from the surrounding area and on a beautiful fall day the town’s central streets were filled. My friend, a supporter, but critical that Obama had not pursued a progressive agenda strongly enough, was chatting as we walked to the venue, ‘You have to be a bit disappointed, though,’ he said, ‘what makes you still sure that he has your vote?’ The woman he addressed stopped walking, locked eyes, gained his full attention, and said emphatically, ‘Love’. She was so emphatic I thought she might nut him.

The day before the inauguration Washington was a particularly happy and relaxed place. Inauguration-goers in their hundreds of thousands were arriving from all over the country and many of them wanted to scout the lie of the land before rising early to be in place for Monday’s ceremony. Eastern Market had more than its usual visitation of tourists for breakfast, and to browse the stalls. Around the Capitol we exchanged photograph taking opportunities with visitors from Illinois and Indiana. We had souvenirs pressed on us as gifts, “You are international? You must have this...’. Near the Washington Monument we were interviewed for a California schools project.

It was a crowd of enormous diversity, but with a common purpose, signed by many hats, shirts, buttons, balloons: to celebrate the second inauguration of the first African-American president of the USA. It may be that some in these crowds were very well aware that, regardless of policy outcomes, Obama’s second inauguration may be more important than his first.  If the first non-white president had lasted only one term, what would be the message to major parties about nominating candidates outside the orthodox tradition of white men?

These were different Washington streets to those I used to walk when I lived here in 1972-4, the time of Nixon, ‘benign neglect’ of racial poverty, and the mistrustful atmosphere of Watergate. The sense of one family on the Mall in 2012 could never have been predicted 40 years earlier. Inauguration Day fell this year on Martin Luther King Day, and Obama’s second term began as the nation was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. When we reached the Lincoln Memorial we found thousands of others were making the same journey.

After the exhilaration of inauguration day Washington returned quickly to its usual business of politics. The news media spent a few days discussing President Obama’s second inaugural address, agreeing that it was as forthright a statement of a political agenda as this president had ever made. As after election day, when many Republicans were shell-shocked at the degree of the Obama victory, there was some indication of potential co-operation across party political lines.

Other Republican voices wanted no capitulation, but instead a regrouping to take advantage of Republican election potential in the 2014 and 2016 elections. While one senior Democrat did mention to me the possibility of ‘twenty-five years of Democratic dominance’, and some Republicans were bemoaning a party failure that might last into the future, I certainly don’t see this being inevitable. The strategy for the Republicans to have single party control of the executive and the legislature in 2016 is every bit as plausible as that for the Democrats. There is all to fight for, campaign lines are already being drawn, and campaign funds already being raised.

Meanwhile the Library has a few inaugural pieces to add to its small collection of US campaign posters and other items, helping keep alive an event that within a few days seemed remembered most for the question of whether Beyonce Knowles lip-synched or sang live the national anthem.

- a guest post by Prof. Philip Davies of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

20 February 2013

Democratic Brazil at the British Library

Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlet 002
Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlets [BL shlefmark X.0520/785]

I recently had the privilege to attend a talk by the Brazilian Minister of External Relations at King’s College London. During his talk the Minister discussed among other things how the process of democratisation in Brazil has informed its domestic and foreign policy. In particular, how the transition from military dictatorship (Brazil’s current president Dilma Roussef was herself a victim of torture under the dictatorship) has shaped the country’s emphasis on multi-lateral and peaceful diplomacy, reduction of social inequality, and democratic reform of international organisations such as the UN security council.

The minister’s talk plus the upcoming conference ‘Democratic Brazil Ascendant’ and seminar on affirmative action in Brazilian universities inspired me to take another look at some of the Brazilian political pamphlets and ephemera that we hold from the 1980s onwards, when Brazil began its transition from military dictatorship to electoral democracy.

Taking a look at the collections we have here at the BL you immediately appreciate the popular groundswell that brought an end to the dictatorship in Brazil and the social goals that are still coming into fruition today.  The collection includes pamphlets promoting gay rights, affordable housing, agrarian reform, full employment, and an end to poverty and racial discrimination. The various collections of pamphlets and ephemera cover national and municipal elections as well as organising campaigns. They date from the early 1980s through the late 1990s.

Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlet 001
Partido dos Trabalhadores Election Pamphlets [BL shlefmark X.0520/785]

The collection also includes items from Lula’s 1982 campaign for governor of São Paulo, the work of the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (which Lula help to found) and the Direitas Já! campaign for direct popular presidential elections in Brazil. In addition to political ephemera we also hold fascinating publications by the Brazilian trade unions (Miscellaneous collection of publications on trade unions – BL shelfmark ZL.9.d.3). As well as a special microfilm collection of documents and ephemera on the origins and evolution of the PT that you will find at shelfmark SPR.Mic.A.287.


20 December 2012

Cold Comfort: Royalty and Polar sovereignty

Queen Elizabeth II (BAT 3d deep blue)

Artwork for the British Antarctic Territory: 1963-69 3d deep blue. From the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive held at the British Library [copyright restrictions apply] 

Wednesday was a busy news day but most will have seen the announcement that part of Antarctica is to be renamed Queen Elizabeth Land in order to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In a year where tributes have ranged from river pageants to daring entrances to the Olympic Opening Ceremony this perhaps seems an odd or remote decision, but its geopolitical significance is already being noted.

The naming of territory has always been an important part of underscoring sovereignty claims. The history of the Americas, for example, is populated with many instances of names being applied to places in order to stake or sure up colonial ambitions. Within the name game Royal monikers have always resembled top trumps, with the British and other nations using monarchic associations to back up claims.

Such a heritage means that areas of the Arctic and Antarctic named after British monarchs are fairly common. During the nineteenth century search for the Northwest Passage, Victoria Island was named by Dease and Simpson in 1839 and Prince of Wales Island was named in 1851 by Captain T. H. Austin during his search for Franklin. The etching of these names onto the map of the Arctic took place at a time when the geopolitics of the area were intense and the potential gains from locating a Northwest Passage thought to be huge. As a result you can also find many items from these expeditions in the Library’s collections; Simpson  writes about the work he and Dease conducted between 1836 and 1839 in a work held at Shelfmark 1424.h.2, and a map of Austin’s discoveries can be found at Maps.982.(48).

Continuing this theme, Queen Elizabeth II also has the honour of providing a name to an Arctic territory with the Queen Elizabeth Islands being re-named to mark the coronation in 1953. These islands had been noted by William Baffin in 1616 and were rediscovered in 1818 by Sir John Ross. Again, books and maps relating to these expeditions can be found in the collections. It is worth noting that the 1953 re-naming of these islands coincided not just with the coronation but with a resurgence of Canadian interest in the Arctic as a result of its status as a theatre of the Cold War.

Going back to the Antarctic, we should also note that Queen Elizabeth II is not the only British monarch to have part of the continent in her name. In 1841 Captain Ross took a break from splashing his name (and that of his ships) across the land and named a large part of the continent Victoria Land. Published works by Ross are also held here, with his 1847 ‘A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions’ [Shelfmark: 2374.f.6] and other works available for consultation in the reading rooms.

 Ross Frontispiece

 Public Domain Mark This work (Frontispiece from J. Ross, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, 1847) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 2374.f.6]

Needless to say, I will be trying to acquire anything relevant to the naming of Queen Elizabeth Land - and our new Broadcast News service in the reading rooms will have already picked up the news reports.  


06 November 2012

Down to the wire: the U.S. election

It appears that the 2012 U.S. election is going down to the wire.  There are obviously many reasons why the race is so close, but political commentators also always argue that a second term election is there to be lost by the incumbent.

 George Bush came a cropper in the 1992 election when his public approval ratings nose-dived due to (amongst other things) his apparent confusion over the pressing economic issues of the day. In 1980, the 39th President, Jimmy Carter, ran for a second term in what is often cited as the most disastrous campaign in US Presidential history. Carter had to fend off attacks from an effective campaign on the right by Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, whilst also defending his position against Edward (Ted) Kennedy, the Senator for Massachusetts, on the left of his own Democratic Party. Kennedy had refused to drop out of the Democratic Primary after the first vote, leading to a dirty and prolonged mud slinging match before Carter secured the nomination. Somewhat ironically Carter found himself running against his own economic record, with high inflation causing stagnation in economic growth and unemployment remaining stubbornly high.            

Many factors will play a part in influencing the outcome of this election - money and ‘Obamacare’ to name just two. Enormous campaign contributions have been amassed by both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and this has been made possible the Supreme Court decision which states that Federal Government cannot curtail independent expenditure for political purposes by groups, corporations and committees. The primary purpose of these political action committees or Super PACs, is to influence elections via corporations, unions or wealthy individuals. There is no limit on the amount of money they can raise as long as it is spent independently of the candidate’s campaign.

Obamacare, or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been a particularly contentious and divisive piece of legislation. The Act became law in March 2010 and the Republicans have already raised no fewer than 33 Bills in an attempt to repeal it. Why would the Republicans continue to raise bills which seem doomed to failure? It could be argued that this strategy is less about having Obamacare repealed in the first instance (although that clearly is a goal), but more a case of using these continuous legislative attacks on the Act in order to keep the issue at the top of the political agenda (and thereby subvert the Democrats own campaign agenda).

I was planning to finish off this post with a few light-hearted remarks on much smaller factors which potentially could influence the vote  (- such as the latest incarnation of the Halo series computer game Halo: 4 which is due for release today). But following the devastation that Hurricane Sandy has inflicted on the eastern seaboard, it is clear that many Americans are now faced with huge issues which may well have an impact on a knife-edge election where every vote really does count.

Matt is still in Philadelphia, and our Eccles Centre Professor Davies is now in Boston for the election, so they will have front row seats. But I and the rest of Team Americas will be glued to our TVs tonight to see how things unfold. There will no doubt be a few sleepy curators in the office tomorrow.

And you might like to know that we have a number of databases relating to U.S. Official Publications.


31 August 2012

The radical life of Moncure Daniel Conway

Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, Sheila Rowbotham, writes,

I really should have known more about the life of the American anti-slavery  campaigner and freethinker, Moncure Daniel Conway. I have  been going to meetings in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London since the 1960s. I have the historian’s habit of wondering where the names of places and buildings come from, yet I failed to make the connection.

Because I am currently writing about two women who, in the 1880s, were members of Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , after all these years I started to investigate after finding a reference to him speaking in  the Victoria Rooms on ‘Women and Evolution’ on March 26th 1885.

The Bristol women were radical; they had links to the Garrisonian wing of  anti-slavery, inclined towards Irish Home Rule and were staunch supporters of women’s suffrage as well as being opposed to  the Contagious Diseases  Acts whereby women could be forcibly examined  for venereal diseases and confined in ‘lock’ hospitals. However as I read about Moncure Conway I wondered how much his audience knew of his extraordinary life.

From a wealthy Virginian slave-holding family, he began to ask questions after reading Emerson. In 1854, while he was studying at Harvard , a runaway slave was arrested in Boston and, after failing to obtain his release legally, abolitionists attacked the jail. A deputy sheriff was killed and with polite Boston reeling in shock, a defiant William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the U. S Constitution in protest. These startling events affected the young son of a slave-owner deeply. He turned against his father and brothers, siding with his mother and sisters who opposed slavery. In 1862, during the Civil War, he helped some of his father’s former slaves to escape to Ohio  where they  established the Conway Colony.

Breaking even with the broad and tolerant tenets of Unitarianism, he moved towards humanism and free thought. But Moncure Conway went  further.

When I read his Autobiography, Memories and Experiences in the British Library I was intrigued to find him embracing the dangerous French woman novelist George Sand who had supported the 1848 revolution and was associated with free love. Emerson had given him Sand’s Lelia to read when Moncure Conway went to lecture in Britain in 1863, but  it was not until several years later  that he met her, experiencing ‘awe’ at being in her presence..

His tribute is remarkable: ‘Margaret Fuller and Mrs Browning were both in this brain of George Sand; nay, all the aspiring and discontented women known to me in America – poets, orators, reformers – were all the offspring of George Sand, endeavouring to build in the New World a palace for Woman ..’

He admired the radical suffrage agitators Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose. In Britain he made contact with the Bright- Priestman  family nexus who were early campaigners for suffrage. Sandra Holton has written  with  scholarship and sensibility about their influence which was marked in Bristol.

An inveterate networker, friend of Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Emerson in the U.S., Moncure Conway recounts how he collected European dissidents of every hue. He knew the most diverse radicals; the Cambridge Republican mathematician, W.K. Clifford and the utopian Scot, Thomas Davidson who inspired  the Fellowship of the  New Life from which the Fabians grew.

His autobiography enables us to glimpse how individuals transcend assumed  boundaries. After the defeat of the French Commune, the anarchist anthropologist, Elie Reclus, took him ‘to a room in Bloomsbury where the Communards were wont to gather – a poor place; but I was impressed by their intelligent and benevolent countenances’.

Conway Hall, of course, would not be accepting any spirits into its rationalist premises, but still I can imagine how those Communards might well waft discretely through the gallery from time to time, hob-nobbing with George Sand, Margaret Fuller, Tom Paine, the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association , and, the sociable Moncure Daniel Conway himself.


14 August 2012

Team Americas looks forward to a great Fall events programme

We've been feeling decidedly down in the mouth after the Olympics - we’ve all enjoyed the last couple of weeks so much that it was inevitable that things would suddenly feel a bit flat. But we’ve now perked up considerably since we find ourselves not only very busy but with a lot to look forward to over the next couple of months. Matt and Carole are wearing their Beat hats as they prepare for the arrival of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript scroll in early October - how exciting is that! And then there is the accompanying programme of events, featuring a preview screening of Walter Salles’ new film of On the Road, and an evening with Amiri Baraka to mention just two. The full programme can be found on the BL’s website under events (check under each month), and details of the exhibition will be up very soon.

In addition to supporting some of the On the Road events/exhibition, our wonderful Eccles Centre for American Studies is sponsoring a fantastic range of autumn talks, including our Summer Scholars series (featuring e.g. Naomi Wood and Sheila Rowbotham, our 2 Eccles Writers in Residence), as well as events with Liza Klaussman (who, incidentally, happens to be Herman Melville’s great-great-great granddaughter!), Andrea Wulf, and Lord Putnam to pick out just a few. And how could we forget that there happens to be a big election coming up in the U.S. in November, and we of course have that covered too. For the full range of Eccles events see

And as if that wasn’t enough, we’ll be showcasing some of our artists’ books on 4 September at Inspired by Artists' Books, we have David H.Treece speaking about The Meanings of Music in Brazilian Culture for Brazil World Music Day on September 7, and we'll be celebrating Jamaican Independence on October 5th . Finally, the Olympics are still in our thoughts as we look forward not only to Rio, but to our conference Social Change and the Sporting Mega-event on November 5, organised in collaboration with our Brazilian colleagues.

Whew! Hopefully, you’ll find at least some of these events of interest and we hope to see you at the Library in the near future.

25 June 2012

Politics, Plantations and Camels: early publishing about Barbados

Barbados (Lingon Map)
'A Topographical Description and Measurement of the Island of Barbados', in Richard Ligon's (1657) 'A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados' [Shelfmark: 455.a.18]

The British Library holds a significant collection of published material relating to the history of Barbados, some of it dating back to the mid-seventeenth century, and the above map inspired me to post about some of it here. Ligon's 'A True and Exact History' is one of the earliest publications the Library holds relating to Barbados (there are a couple of earlier works about English Civil War related strife in the 1650s) and it contains a number of interesting details about an island which was only settled by the English in 1627.

Ligon's account places a significant emphasis on the flora and fauna of Barbados as well as the fish and mammals encountered on his journey to the island. Of particular interest here is the long section given to the description of sharks and the animosity felt towards them by the ship's crew, who reserved gruesome fates for any of these predators that they caught (pp. 5-6). The other thing that jumps out to the reader from amongst the wealth of botanical and zoological information is a note on p. 58 about the presence and use of camels on the island. It would seem they were highly valued for their durability and use for carrying heavy loads, it also illustrates how quickly Barbados became part of a global exchange mechanism.

Barbados (Sloane Map)
Late 17th Century map of Barbados from a volume of ink wash on paper maps [Shelfmark: Sloane 2441]

Within these notes on the bounty of Barbados is the ever-present detail of the darker side of the island, its economy and politics. That slavery quickly became a brutal part of the island economy is illustrated by the two hunted runaways seen on the top map, as well as extensive notes found in the text. While Ligon makes little direct mention of the effects the English Civil War had on the island shortly before his work was published the tensions which existed are hinted at by the informal punishment allotted to the mention of the words 'Roundhead' or 'Cavalier' (p. 57).

While Ligon skirts around most details of the conflict in Barbados other writers see it as a significant incident related to wider problems with the island's administration. As such, one of the first books printed on the island, 'Some Memoirs of the First Settlement of Barbados' [published in 1741. Shelfmark: G.14967], notes the events that led to the Civil War playing out in Barbados and highlights key events in this conflict. It also concludes with a lengthy treatise on fairer government and the benefits this would bring to the island, a hot topic in the Americas at the time and one that would be debated in various forms during the history of the colonial Caribbean.


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.

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