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.
23 July 2021
This blog by Timothy Peacock 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.
75 years ago in July 1946, Operation Crossroads involved the first postwar nuclear weapons tests, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. These consisted of two Bombs, codenamed Able, which was dropped from an aircraft, and Baker, positioned underwater, both targeting a fleet of over 90 decommissioned US and captured WW2 ships.i Further examination of the British Library’s holdings, which include the Official Pictorial Report on Crossroads, highlights not only the destructive force of the weapons and their multiple impacts, but also the ‘power’ and paradoxes of the images themselves. Such paradoxes vary from the photography and ways in which images were used, to scientific planning being accompanied by choices based on luck rituals, to the wide range of what was tested beyond the ships themselves.
Figure 1 is a stark example, a composite near the end of the book which superimposes New York’s skyline onto the Crossroads Baker nuclear cloud, to give readers some frame of reference as to the potential scale of the blast. This image echoed contemporary practices of newspapers, which printed maps of US cities with circles on them to indicate potential radii of atomic destruction.ii Nevertheless, while generating contemporary interest, this is one of the images which has, ironically, not been nearly as widely circulated in subsequent years as those of the unobscured originals (including, for instance, Figure 2). These pictures, which showed the growth of the cloud itself, whether from closeup or afar, seem to have had an even more powerful impact and reusability, possibly by not being tied to any skyline or context, and the even greater psychological visual disparity they display, engulfing the tiny dots at their base which were full-sized battleships.
A significant paradox is that Crossroads was, at the time, one of the most photographed events in history, but many of the pictures were not made public. The Record itself is a mere 200 still images out of over 50,000 taken. Half the world’s film footage was used to capture the event, leading to shortages in Hollywood and film studios elsewhere for months. However, much footage remained (and remains) classified, some material only released in recent years. Those images which are available illustrate a fraction of the different perspectives and cameras used, including the self-referential pictures of the camera equipment itself. A further paradox is that only a few thousand televisions existed in the US in 1946, so many people would have experienced Crossroads either via the shared ritual of watching on newsreels in cinemas or through pictures in newspapers or in this Record.
While Crossroads involved highly scientific and rigorous planning, it is interesting to see the extent to which photos also captured human rituals of betting and chance and how these shaped parts of the exercise. However, these rituals either echoed previous responses to such scientific uncertainties or were considered fair methods of selection. In some cases, this involved decisions prior to Crossroads: the former German battleship Prinz Eugen, for example, pictured in the Report and one of the three non-US target vessels, had originally been awarded as a war prize to the US by drawing lots with the British and Soviets for other vessels.iii At Bikini Atoll, there were informal pools among military personnel and scientists (Figure 4), betting on such aspects as “how many ships would be sunk [by Crossroads], or as to the exact time” of bomb detonation for the air-dropped weapon. Similarly, while those few journalists documenting Crossroads Able from the air were selected by their peers (Figure 5) “the radio commentator was chosen by lot”. That these latter details and images are even contained in the Record shows something of them being regarded as significant in the ‘human’ stories behind the tests, while also reminiscent of the very first nuclear bomb test ‘Trinity’ a year earlier, when scientists took bets, including on whether they were going to set the atmosphere on fire!iv
While Crossroads mainly involved testing atomic bombs against ships, the images also highlight, paradoxically, the wide variety of equipment loaded onto the decks of target vessels to assess how atomic bombs would impact these, from tanks and aircraft parts to clothing and rations.
75 years on, perhaps the greatest paradox from these images is that Crossroads’ story, which was foundational in the history of nuclear weapons development and was intended to have the widest possible photographic/filmic dissemination, remains relatively unknown. Its history is, ironically, overshadowed by its most visual legacy in popular culture, the mushroom cloud itself.
Dr Timothy Peacock, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He is on Twitter @DrTimPeacock
i The source material for this blog is drawn from Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211. This item is also available digitally courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. For further information about the Operation, see Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994) British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 94/14429
ii Rosemary B. Mariner, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), p. 4.
iii Fritz-Otto Busch, Prinz Eugen (London: First Futura Publications, 1975), pp. 212-13. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.708/41193
iv US DOE, ‘The Manhattan Project’ - https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm
11 May 2021
This is the third in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
*** Please note that certain browsers do not support the audio clips - read and listen on Chrome or Internet Explorer to ensure that the clips play in full ***
This blog is about Charlie Phillips AKA Smokey, the Jamaican-born photographer and restaurateur, who arrived in Liverpool on-board the Reina del Pacifico in 1956 before settling in Notting Hill. This blog focuses on Charlie’s early years in Jamaica and his restaurant, Smokey Joe’s, in Wandsworth, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
The marriage of the Jewish classic, chicken soup, with the African, Caribbean and Latin American staple, cassava, all in a humble bowl of goodness, cooked by Charlie’s grandmother, captures traditions of blending and nourishment that are central to Caribbean cooking.1 As Smokey explains, this bowl of soup is part of Jamaica’s ‘hidden history.’ The earliest Jewish presence in Jamaica dates back to 1530, as it became a place of refuge for Jews that were fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. By 1720, 18% of the island’s population were Jewish.2 Whilst the Jewish presence has all but disappeared (there were less than 15 people at a Shabbat service that I attended at Shaare Shalom Synagogue in Kingston, in 2019) some culinary influences have survived. The parallels between Charlie’s description of his grandmother's cooking in the hills of St Mary, Jamaica, and the following excerpt from an interview with Jewish East-ender, Carol Matthews, are striking. From the salting of beef to the pickling of cucumbers, quintessential Jewish flavours and textures – which are themselves the product of multicultural diasporic culinary evolution – formed a nourishing cornerstone of Charlie’s childhood.
‘well … you’ve not had a real meal unless you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup. Now, they call it the penicillin, of the Jewish world, and trust me, you’ve not lived until you’ve ‘ad Jewish chicken soup and lokshen and kneidlach balls … also, I make new green cucumbers, which is basically cucumbers in acetic acid with some spices thrown in and some garlic, salt beef … fabulous fabulous, hot salt beef sandwiches with mustard’
Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis (Singer, Taxi Driver, Pub Compere) - Millennium Memory Bank British Library Shelfmark C900/04026
‘Matzo Kleis’, as they are called in this cookbook from 1895, are typically served in a broth – generally chicken soup – for the Jewish festival of Passover. This Jewish dumpling-of-sorts was just one of the many types that Charlie loved to eat as a boy (and still does), from Johnny Cakes to cartwheels. Blanche’s Jamaican twist on matzo balls made with grated cassava, also known as manioc, manihot, yuca and tapioca, points to the multiple roots and routes of Caribbean foodways.
A ‘country boy’, Charlie begrudgingly moved to Kingston aged 10. This is where Smokey’s enterprising character blossomed – he would run ‘last minute errands’ for emigrants leaving Jamaica onboard ships like the SS Ormonde and Reina Del Pacifico; help out higglers in Kingston’s famous Coronation Market; and carry stale bread from the bakery to a fishing village called Greenwich Farm. In these clips, Smokey remembers buying packets of Zephyr cigarettes and pickapeppa sauce for the hopeful voyagers who had learned from earlier sojourners to douse the bland food onboard in hot sauce.
The term ‘higgler’ or ‘higglering’ signifies the ‘informal economic activity of small-scale street vending dating back to the days of slavery, and is dominated by black, lower class Jamaican women.’3 Charlie fondly remembers one higgler in particular, Miss Gladys, who used to look out for him. Much like the higglers that Charlie ran errands for, he was creatively responding to the precarity and poverty that shaped the lives of working-class people in Jamaica. Recalling some of his favourite things to eat as a boy, Charlie describes picking up left over avocados when the market was finished and eating these with bulla – a spiced cake that was made with molasses – that he would get when he collected bread for the fishermen.
Las Palmas to Smokey Joe's
Before Charlie’s family opened Las Palmas, a food ‘shack’ on Portobello Road, which was one of London’s earliest Caribbean eateries, they had an unlicensed cook shop where his stepmother would cook for 15-20 people a day. Cook shops were fairly common in the 1950s and 1960s, offering a slice of home for mostly single men that had settled in the UK. This blurring of private and public space was a pattern that characterised many post-war Caribbean leisure and commercial practices, from blues parties to hair salons. Charlie’s early introduction to the business of selling food, combined with cheffing experience at restaurants like the Grosvenor House Hotel and travelling around Europe, led him to set up his own food stall in the 1970s. He started selling barbequed corn on the cob and became known as liking to ‘smoke up the whole place’, which is how he got his nickname – Smokey Joe. After doing fairs and festivals for some years, Smokey decided to set up a diner in the 1980s.
A barbeque-style Jamaican fusion joint, Smokey Joe’s diner was a popular spot. In 1993, the New York Times praised its standout jerk chicken and pork. It was featured alongside the still standing Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (one of Charlie’s favourite spots) and Mangal Ocakbasi in what was then the ‘gritty East End’ where tourists were ‘unlikely’ to venture!4 Smokey Joe’s was a success in spite of the obstacles put up by bank managers that refused to loan Charlie money, who according to him had no understanding of what a Caribbean restaurant was or might become. While there are many more Caribbean food outlets, restaurants, supper clubs etc. across the UK today, there are still gaping inequalities and injustices in the food industry. From a lack of investment, to the whitewashing of recipes, names and décor, processes of racism, othering and exclusion are still very much present in the commercial British food landscape.5 This is why it is so important to highlight ongoing and historic stories of delicious defiance, like Smokey Joe’s!
Thank you Charlie Phillips for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the next blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Sandra Agard: An Ode to Ridley Road
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Joe Williams: 'the need for flavour'
References / further reading
- ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, New York Times, 18 January 1993. British Library Shelfmark MFM.MA3
- B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), British Library Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
- Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) British Library Shelfmark YK.2008.a.10168
- Carol Matthews interviewed by Anton Jarvis, Millennium Memory Bank, British Library Shelfmark C900/04026
- Charlie Phillips interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
- Charlie Phillips Heritage Archive
- Jean S. Ingram, Cassava processing: commercially available machinery (London: Tropical Products Institute [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], 1972) British Library Shelfmark 9056.510
- Harriet Sherwood, 'Revealed: how the Caribbean became a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny', Guardian, 7 December 2019
- Miss M. A. S. Tattersall, Jewish Cookery Book: Compiled for use in cookery centres under the School Board for London (London: Wertheimer, Lea & Co., 1895) British Library Shelfmark A.2003.a.43999
- Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021
- Steve Rose, 'Charlie Phillips: why did it take so long for one of Britain's greatest photographers to get his due?', Guardian, 25 March 2021
- 'Who the F*** is Charlie Phillips’, MrFeelGood
1. Taino peoples subsisted on, from B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), pp. 61-6
2. Rebecca Lambert, ‘Jews in Jamaica’, 13 October 2020, Jewish Museum
3. Brown-Glaude W.R. 'Spreading Like a Dis/ease?: Afro-Jamaican Higglers and the Dynamics of Race/Color, Class and Gender'. In: Cook D.T. (eds) Lived Experiences of Public Consumption. Consumption and Public Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
4. ‘A Week’s Worth of Budget Dining’, NYT, 18 January 1993
5. Riaz Phillips, ‘In The Food Industry, The Odds Have Always Been Stacked Against Black People’, Resy, 12 June 2021
01 October 2020
The Americas and Oceania collections are pleased to offer three new electronic resources on women's rights, Native American studies, and early settlers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The resources can be accessed by Readers in the British Library Reading Rooms which are currently open but in a restricted capacity. Our hard-working Reference Enquiry Team are also able to access these new resources in order to support your virtual enquiries. You can contact them on their Quick Chat service for short research enquiries from Monday to Friday: 09.30–17.00, or get in touch with individual Reading Room teams via the 'Ask the Reference Team' function.
This digital collection is comprised of records of three important women's rights organizations in the US: the National Woman's Party, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's Action Alliance. Material included shows the organisations’ concerns with issues such as employment and employment discrimination, childcare, health care, and education and U.S. politics from 1920 to 1974. Types of content include party papers, correspondence, minutes, legal papers, financial records, printed material and photos. It’s an absolutely fascinating range of documents; lots of correspondence letters, offering a very different kind of approach to historical research on the topic of women’s rights
The collection provides a good primary resource for the study of first and second wave feminism. It includes the records of three important women's rights organizations in the US for the period 1913-1996, with additional material dating back to the 1850s. This resource complements existing areas of the British Library’s collections, particularly in regard to printed material around women’s suffrage movements in America. Later this month, the Library will be highlighting its collection around women’s rights with its major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, taking place, and this resource will provide researchers with further ways to investigate the stories and issues touched upon in the exhibition.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers looking at Indigenous Studies, American Studies and Canadian Studies, North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, First Nations publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an important resource for all those interested in research into the history of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples. It includes an archive of key texts about and by Indigenous peoples, including biographies, oral histories (audio and transcript), and photographs.
This resource complements existing collection strengths on North American Indigenous peoples at the British Library. Covering several centuries, its value particularly lies in the numerous accounts by Indigenous people (written and oral) which add a much needed dimension to the collections. Many of the materials it provides access to are otherwise unavailable in the UK. Autobiographies by Black Hawk and Okah Tubbee can be accessed, and rare books included represent Sequoyah and Standing Bear. Twenty prominent Native Americans have been selected for special emphasis, with multiple biographies presented, including Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Plenty Coups.
Virtually all North American groups are represented—nearly 500 in all. Some nations are covered in great depth, including the Eskimos and Inuit of the Arctic; the sub-Arctic Cree; the Pacific Coastal Salish; the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the Plains. Biographies have been collected from more than 100 Native American publications, such as The Arrow, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the Chickasaw Intelligencer. The collection includes 2,000 oral histories presented in audio and transcript form and at least 20,000 photographs including from the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other rare collections.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers in settler colonial studies, history, area studies, migration studies, Indigenous studies, and more, this collection of first-person accounts provide a unique and personal view of events in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Through letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, we are able to hear the voices of the time and explore the experiences of women and men, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts, explorers, soldiers, and officials . Thousands of unique documents have been drawn from the archives of the State Library of Victoria; State Library of New South Wales; State Library of Queensland; Flinders University; University of Melbourne; and University of Waikato.
A key feature of this resource is the extensive indexing of material which allows the sources to be browsed and cross-searched in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. Content can be explored by writer, region, audience, personal and historical event, environmental features including fauna and flora, and more. Supporting material such as images, maps, and photographs supplement the first-person narratives and provide additional context. The resource builds on the legacy of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in providing first-hand accounts of those who settled in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific following Cook’s exploration in the region.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections
07 April 2020
My former colleague and Head of the Eccles Centre for North American Studies, Professor Philip Davies, would always start his remarks of welcome to Eccles Centre events by saying that the North American collections and resources of the British Library were the best in the world, outside of the Americas.
Professor Davies was most likely right on that count based on the pure size of the North American collections which have been systematically developed for around two centuries. Nevertheless, these collections housed in the Library’s cavernous basements and storage buildings are now inaccessible due to the to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for the scholar, reader, or anyone who’s interested, there is a rich collection of North American digital resources available from the British Library website which are free to access.
One of these is the collection of the United States Government Printing Office publications available through Explore the British Library. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is the printer to the US Government and since 1861 it has played a pivotal role in keeping Americans informed about the business of government. Being official publications are meant for public circulation, a portion of these works are freely available to access via the catalogue.
To access the collection simply use the search term “Government Printing Office” in the British Library catalogue. Under Access Options select “Online” where it will list in excess of 15,000 records. By selecting the “I Want This” option on any of these records it will direct the user to a view online option and from there select US Federal Government Document by clicking “Go”. This will take you directly to the digital version of the publication.
The breadth of what is published by the GPO is quite bewildering, so where would one start? In normal circumstances a suggestion might be to visit the forthcoming British Library exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which explores the complex history and battles for women’s rights.
At the moment, it might be appropriate to suggest a collection of 150 plus digital publications relating to Women’s Bureau between the 1918 -1963, which can be accessed via Explore the British Library. These publications include the Women’s Bureau Bulletin and their annual reports, along with a range of reports, legislation and studies on a Federal and State level proving rich research resources for range of disciplines. By way of an example:
“Women's Employment in Aircraft Assembly Plants in 194”: Women's Bureau Bulletin, No. 192-1.
The United States Women’s Bureau was set up in 1920, as part of the Department of Labor to create parity for women in the labour force through research and policy analysis. Its role was to educate and promote policy change, and to increase public awareness. The Women’s Bureau is still in existence and is celebrating its centenary this year.
Furthermore, the collection contains a wide range of contemporary titles published by the Government Printing Office including:
A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy / Richard A. Hulver; Peter C. Luebke, associate editor.
The Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission
Women in Congress, 1917-2017
Keeping America informed: the U.S. Government Printing Office: 150 years of service to the nation.
All the above titles can be accessed via Explore by searching the title. Bear in mind that if you are searching for a specific document, or report, this item may be part of a larger series.
For a more in-depth insight in to the Library’s collection, there is a downloadable guide on the US Federal Government publications collection page.
[blog post by Jerry Jenkins. Curator, Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media]
10 February 2020
Edward Kamau Brathwaite, poet, activist and historian, was one of the towering figures of modern Caribbean literary and intellectual history, and a writer whose versatility and vigour was quite awe-inspiring. I first encountered Brathwaite the historian, reading his path-breaking study of The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Shelfmark: X.809/11084.) when I was writing my PhD on a not completely dissimilar topic. It is a brilliant book, blending richly textured social history with a conceptually vigorous approach to the specificities of Caribbean (in this case, Jamaican) cultural formations. The Preface revealed that this was a lightly revised version of his own Sussex University doctoral thesis. “I’ll never write anything this good,” I thought. And looking at his original dissertation in EThoS, it’s very clear to me that I didn’t.
Eventually I connected Edward Brathwaite the historian with Kamau Brathwaite, a poet I’d heard of but didn’t know much about, and as I learned more about his life, it became clear why I’d found his work so humbling and impressive. Brathwaite is part of a tradition of academically trained historians from and of the colonial West Indies, whose energy and intelligence exploded beyond the confines of the dusty scholarship in which they were trained. Indeed, such historians as C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Elsa Goveia and Walter Rodney, reframed historical research and writing as an urgent political and artistic act, as each not only made a substantial intellectual impact outside their discipline, but also enduring social, cultural and political legacies far beyond the academy.
In Brathwaite’s case, he was a cultural organiser and poet of the first importance. In 1966, whilst studying at Sussex, he founded the Caribbean Artists Movement with John La Rose and Andrew Salkey in London. As artist Errol Lloyd recalls, CAM was important for being “the first organised collaboration of artists from the Caribbean with the aim of celebrating a new sense of shared Caribbean ‘nationhood’.” Brathwaite was already a published poet at this time, Rights of Passage (Shelfmark: X.909/8978.) having appeared with Oxford University Press in 1967. He went on to publish dozens of volumes of his own poetry over the next fifty years, as well as championing other poets through anthologies, essays and teaching.
The British Library is a great place to learn more about Kamau Brathwaite, and Anglo-Caribbean writing more generally. For instance, there are over a dozen recordings of Brathwaite reading his own poetry in our Sound Archive, as well as interviews and collaborations with other poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. In our Manuscripts and Archives department, there are uncorrected proofs of some of his early volumes of poetry and publicity photographs in the Poetry Book Society archive. More significantly, in the archive of Andrew Salkey there are many letters and photographs illuminating their artistic and personal friendship, including the setting up of CAM. Those interested more broadly in Anglo-Caribbean writing will also find much of interest in the archives of James Berry and the recently acquired archive of Andrea Levy, which will be available to consult in late 2021.
And then there are the books themselves. From Rights of Passage in 1967 to the Lazarus poems (Shelfmark: YKL.2018.a.19802) in 2017, his full poetic career can be surveyed in the British Library’s collections, as well as his historical and literary writings (1974’s Contradictory Omens [Shelfmark: X:519/30919] is another must-read) and many books about him. One of the distinguishing aspects of Brathwaite’s later poetry is its embrace of the visuality of digital culture as a poetic strategy, creating some highly complex, experimental, and vibrantly contemporary work. It is thus fitting that a writer of Brathwaite’s versatility and imagination should have inhabited a career that was both deeply immersed in the past, and so keenly attuned to the forms and practices that are transforming today into tomorrow.
Stuart B. Schwarz (ed.), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) (Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.16834) – a guide to the milieu of the Caribbean intelligentsia in mid-twentieth century Britain, which did much to shape Brathwaite’s early intellectual and poetic achievements
Verene A. Shepherd and Glen L. Richards (eds.), Questioning Creole: Creolisation Discourses in Caribbean Culture (Kingston, JA: Ian Randle Publishers, 2002) (Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.6565) – a stimulating collection of essays taking Brathwaite’s historical and conceptual investigations of ‘creole’ as their starting point
Annie Paul (ed.), Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite (Kingston, Jamaica University of the West Indies Press, 2007) (Shelfmark: YD.2008.a.8461) – another collection of essays on the author’s poetic and cultural leagacy
22 January 2020
My first day in the UK saw me meeting with some individuals at the British Library who are integral parts of my one-year journey. I met with Jody Butterworth, curator for Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), Phil Hatfield (Head Eccles Centre for American Studies), James Perkins (Former Research & PG Development Manager British Library), Kola Tubosun (Chevening Fellow from Nigeria) and Mark Ashe (Chevening Programme officer). I was given a detailed programme overview and a warm welcome to both the British Library and the UK by everyone.
My current role
My journey in libraries began over four year ago. I entered the Library world somewhat by chance. I can safely say that this profession chose me. When I graduated from the University of the West Indies Mona, I was given my first Job at the National Library of Jamaica. I worked as a cataloguer for a year, where I managed serials and legal deposit publications. I later moved up to Special Collections.
Since working in Special Collections, I have had the great pleasure of expanding my skillsets. I not only catalogue but do reference and research work as well. My daily tasks involves me working with manuscripts, maps, photographs, postcards and newspapers. I also help to interface with researchers from all walks of life, which is the very best part of my job.
Why I applied?
I was always looking for ways to make progress both personally and professionally. During a general staff meeting at the NLJ our CEO, Miss Beverly Lashley spoke about the Chevening British Library Fellowship. She spoke briefly on the requirements and stated that the Library would give support to any staff member who applied. After the announcement I logged into my Chevening application portal and looked on the Fellowship option that was in my profile. Prior to Miss Lashley’s announcement I was well on my way in applying for a Chevening scholarship to study in the UK. Ever since I graduated from the UWI I aspired to continue my studies aboard. I had researched many opportunities for studies, however none was as comprehensive as the Chevening awards.
After many weeks of perfecting my essays I submitted two applications one for a Chevening Scholarship and the other for a Chevening Fellowship. Months passed and my anxiety was high, I was however mindful that whatever was for me would always be at the right time. After receiving numerous emails, meetings and interviews I got the life changing news. I was selected as one of 19 Chevening awardees from Jamaica and was the only Fellow.
After receiving the good news I began my preparations to live and work in one of the world’s most diverse countries.
My Fellowship involves working with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and EAP departments. I will be doing research on digitized archives from Latin America and the Caribbean, engaging with local and international archival partners, organising, and promoting the activities of both departments.
Additionally towards the end or immediately after my fellowship I will Identify and liaise with a local partner institution in the Latin America and or Caribbean region to manage an Eccles funded conference.
EAP and Eccles centre Energetic Synergy
One of the most gratifying experiences about my fellowship is that I get the unique opportunity to work with two of the British Library’s best departments. The Endangered Archives programme (EAP) facilitates the digitisation of archives around the world that are in danger of destruction, neglect or physical deterioration. Funding comes from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Since its inception, EAP has provided grants to more than 400 projects in 90 countries worldwide, in over 100 languages and scripts (Endangered Archives Programme).
The Eccles Centre connects users to the British Library’s Americas collections. They facilitate a wide range of programmes and events. Some of which include visiting Fellowships, Writer’s Award and Congress to Campus programme. The centre also compiles study resources designed to help exploration of the British Library's Canadian, American and Caribbean collections.
Both teams have ensured I have the best experience to date. They have facilitated meetings, talks, internal and external events which add to my personal and professional development. For the first time both departments have a common synergy, me.
My work so far
Currently I have two major projects I’m working on. My main project involves an in depth data visualisation of past and present projects in Latin America and the Caribbean undertaken by EAP. I have so far completed the data compilation and will continue to work on the project in the coming year.
The second major project I am working is a Bibliography of Latin America and Caribbean non-book sources before 1950 at the British Library for the centre. This project is enabling me to explore the vast Latin American collections held at the British Library.
While working on the main projects I have also learnt about other gems in the collections. The Cartonera: Latin American cardboard books, the proposition to establish the West India Company in the Stowe manuscript collection and manuscripts related to Texcoco in Mexico are just a few interesting collection items I have explored.
Undoubtedly none of this would be possible without the Chevening secretariat. The Chevening team namely my programme office Mark Ashe, have been my constant guide. One of the most memorable moments on my fellowship so far was at the recent Chevening Orientation. The session had 1,750 scholars from 141 countries and territories around the world. It was truly a remarkable event.
Chevening also facilitates smaller networking sessions through its tailored events. I had the privilege of attending one such event in Manchester under the theme Cottonpolis: Fashioning the Future. Myself and over 20 scholars received a guided tour of the city of Manchester and had a very engaging session on sustainable fashion at the University of Manchester
Hopes for 2020
It is my hope that throughout the rest of my fellowship I will produce blog posts, articles and multimedia content that will track and highlight the work I am doing. I am also looking forward to the many people I will meet and new places I will visit.
Chevening Fellowship Awardee - Jamaica 2019/2020
23 May 2018
After reading Luke Pearson’s blog post on Indigenous X about Indigenous Australian characters in comic books, I decided to see what comics the British Library held that represented Indigenous Australasian characters. Instead of reiterating Pearson’s existing article, which I recommend reading, I have simply listed the comics I was able to find and their shelfmarks at the end of the post. The Condoman poster for a sexual health campaign is a great example of how comic characters can appeal to and educate children and teenagers. By making Condoman an Indigenous man there is a clear relatability for the Indigenous teens that this poster was aimed at.
It is clear that creating characters that readers or viewers can identify with is important; it provides a role model that one can recognise themselves in. Ryan Griffen, creator of the television show Cleverman – a program centred on Indigenous Australian characters and inspired by Indigenous culture, explained how he had created Cleverman so his son had Indigenous superheroes he could be as excited by as he was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
‘I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that he could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.’
As Pearson points out, the majority of the Indigenous characters he lists were created by non-Indigenous people. I was interested in how some of these Indigenous characters were depicted so decided to focus on one of them, a DC character named Betty Clawman. She appears in the Millennium comic, the compilation of which is in the British Library collections.
Betty does not appear until week two of the series, where she is found squatting by ‘the aptly named Ayres Rock, near Alice Springs, Australia.’ The comic series was produced three years after custodianship of Uluru was returned to the Anangu traditional owners so it seems likely this event caught the international imagination and resulted in Indigenous Australians being associated with Uluru. Ayres Rock was the name that colonisers gave the rock, it was named after a South Australian Premier called Sir Henry Ayres, I am unsure how this makes it ‘aptly named’ and I assume it underlines how little research the comic writers had undertaken into Indigenous Australian history and culture. Betty has been selected as one of a group of people to become immortal guardians of earth, a fact she already knew before she was approached as she foresaw it in the ‘Dreamtime.’ While Betty seems to impress the existing Guardians, she is rather passive throughout the encounter and makes multiple references to dreaming and the land – ‘while I, rather than dreaming on the land, learn how to wake from its embrace!’ These vague references around dreamings and land could also be reference to a half-formed understanding of Indigenous culture through the debates surrounding the return of Uluru. It seems no coincidence, however, that this comic was produced in 1988, the same year Australia celebrated the Bicentennial of its ‘founding’. On 26th January 1988 (Australia Day) Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike took to the streets to protest the celebration of two-hundred years of history that tried to rewrite the 40,000 years of history Indigenous Australia had prior to British conquest. The protests sought to highlight ongoing denial of land rights along with the integral structural racism Indigenous Australians often experienced. It would be interesting to know how much of this political background Englehart, Staton and Gibson were aware of when they conceived Betty Clawman.
The other future Guardians set to join Betty suggests that the writers were keen to create an inclusive and diverse range of characters, yet they fell into the trap of easy cultural stereotypes (another future Guardian is Xiang Po, a Chinese woman who seizes the opportunity because ‘it never would have happened before the reforms). While I understand that the pages of comic books do not lend themselves to nuance and subtlety, it is a shame that the characters are so stereotyped. Betty’s willingness to follow the existing Guardians could at first be taken as passivity, but she often shows that she is confident and intelligent, such as questioning the teachings that the universe is logical. She is fore fronted in the cartoon frames and praised for her readiness to become a Guardian. I was very excited about the empowering depiction of Betty until the selected new Guardians transitioned into their new forms – the stereotyping became almost comical again: Xiang Po becomes incredibly sexy and her whole appearance is Westernised. Betty quite simply disappears! She becomes an invisible spirit that is simultaneously part of the earth and the other Guardians but no longer visible or audible; she informs others and perhaps shapes their actions but can no longer take actions herself.
This characterisation of the spiritual silent Indigenous person is reminiscent of Gateway, the Indigenous character Marvel created the same year the DC created Betty Clawman. Like Betty in her Guardian form, Gateway is silent and only communicates through telepathy. He simply sits and watches the actions of the X-Men, opening portals for them on request. From my close reading of these two comics and looking at the Indigenous characters on Pearson’s list, it does seem that if writers want a mysterious character that is imbued with spirituality, they make that character Indigenous. While there is perhaps nothing necessarily wrong with depicting an Indigenous person as deeply wise and spiritual, it becomes problematic when that is all they are shown as. It firmly places Indigenous Australians in a position of ‘other’, making it difficult for Indigenous people to identify with those characters, let alone other comic book fans.
Joanne Pilcher is currently carrying out a PhD placement project at the British Library, exploring contemporary publishing in Australia. If you would like to know more about placement opportunities at the Library for doctoral students please click here.
In my placement at the Library I have suggested the purchase of comic books that show a wide variety of Indigenous characters and complex personalities. If you have any other good suggestions do tweet me: @JoannePilcher1
Comic books/graphic novels in the British Library Collections that feature Indigenous Australian characters:
Grant Morrison et al, The Multiversity: the deluxe edition, New York: DC Comics, 2015, [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.559]
Hugh Dolan, Adrian Threlfall, Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, Sydney, NSW, Australia: NewSouth, 2015 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.766]
Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; London : Diamond, distributor, 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]
Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]
 Luke Pearson, ‘The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal Representation in Comic Books and Capes,’ Indigenous X, 13th June 2017, https://indigenousx.com.au/luke-pearson-the-wombat-to-kaptn-koori-aboriginal-representation-in-comic-books-and-capes/#.Wm8DF1hLHcs, [last accessed 29/01/18]
 Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27th may 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/27/i-created-cleverman-for-my-son-because-we-need-more-aboriginal-superheroes, [last accessed 29/01/18]
 Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. Originally published as an eight part magazine series in 1988. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]
 Millennium, DC Comics, p32
 ibid p33
 ibid p40
 Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; [London : Diamond, distributor], 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]. Originally printed as serial magazines in 1988.
American Collections blog recent posts
- Columbus and the Idea of Cuba
- The Paradoxes of Power: Photographic records and postwar nuclear testing
- Charlie Phillips: The Story Behind Smokey Joe's Diner
- New additions to our electronic resources
- Online Access to United States Government Printing Office Publications
- Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020) – a mind of many talents
- One more step along the road I go: Tracking the first three months of my Chevening Fellowship
- Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library
- Black Power: Reading, Roots, and Rhythm in the British Library
- American Pamphlets 1920-1945: Call for academic partners