19 August 2013
As a historian I’m spending much of my time in archives and libraries. Carrying huge folios or maps is the only physical activity involved in that – but sometimes my research takes me to other (maybe slightly more exotic) places.
I’ve just come back from an extraordinary trip to Ecuador and Venezuela where I followed the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt for my new book ‘The Invention of Nature’. Armed with transcriptions of Humboldt’s letters and diaries – which were of course mostly done in the British Library – I climbed in the Andes, paddled down the Orinoco and got soaking wet in the Llanos.
From 1799, for almost five years Humboldt travelled through South America, Mexico and Cuba – I had only 15 days (and I skipped Mexico and Cuba). I went to the archives in Quito where I saw Humboldt’s passport from the Spanish king and many of the drawings he did while in South America. I saw river dolphins swimming in the Orinoco and capybaras playing in the flooded plains of the Llanos. Tarantulas were our breakfast, lunch and dinner companions – not quite what I’m used to in the Rare Books Reading Room in the British Library.
Most exciting of all, however, were the Andes. Humboldt spent months and months climbing along the mountain chains and valleys, gathering material for his new vision of nature. When he reached Quito in early 1802, he systematically climbed every volcano nearby. He crouched on a precariously small rock ledge on the Pichincha to stare into the deep crater, on the Antisana he encountered rain and wind so vicious and cold that it felt like ice–needles piecing his face, he tried (but failed) to reach the perfectly cone–shaped summit of the Cotopaxi and then went up the Chimborazo (then believed to be the highest mountain in the world).
I tried to do some of this – I got to the crater rim of the Pichincha, but no way I was going to hang over that ledge! On the Cotopaxi we were enveloped in thick fog and didn’t see a thing. My fabulous guide Juan Fernando Duran Cassola found the hut on the Antisana at 4000m where Humboldt spent a miserable night before climbing the volcano. Standing there last month on a clear sunny day with the glorious snow–capped peak of the Antisana behind us and four majestic condors circling above, we were suddenly surrounded by a herd of wild horses. Research can’t get better than that – or, so I thought … until we went up the Chimborazo.
It was on the Chimborazo that Humboldt’s vision of nature as a unified whole came to a conclusion – a web of life in which everything was connected. For Humboldt, climbing the Andes was like a botanical journey which moved up from the equator to the poles – the whole plant world seemed to be stacked up on top of each other. The zones of vegetation ranged from tropical plants to the snow line near the peak. There were palms and humid bamboo forests in the valleys, and further up conifers, oaks, alders and shrub-like berberis similar to those in the European and northern Asian climates. Higher still, Humboldt encountered Andean zones with alpine plants, many of which were similar to those he had seen in Europe. With ‘a single glance’, he said, he suddenly saw the whole of nature laid out before him.
As we scrambled up the barren slopes of the Chimborazo with the air getting thinner and every step getting harder, I couldn’t imagine how it must have been for Humboldt. At least I had seen photographs of the Andes before I went there, but here was Humboldt, a former Prussian mining inspector, dressed very inappropriately for such a climb and carrying his instruments up the volcano. Every few hundred feet, for example, he would measure the boiling point of water, he measured the blueness of the sky and bottled air to investigate the chemical components. Madness. I was wearing proper hiking boots and only a little rucksack with some food, extra clothes and water (and didn’t have to camp outside) but still every step was exhausting.
When we reached 5000m (the highest base camp today on the Chimborazo) we stopped – less than 1000m below where Humboldt went. The clouds came rolling in while we were bathed in sunshine. This really felt like being at the top of the world – and very close to Humboldt.
Andrea Wulf is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013.
12 December 2012
This work (Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán, Paris, 1838) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 650.c.4.)
Matt’s blog post on the aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and a recent piece on 'Yucatan cool' in the New York Times, along with all the recent buzz about the Mayan calendar, has left me lost in thoughts about the shifts in political power and Mayan culture in the mid-nineteenth century and today.
As Matt’s blog showed, the early to mid-nineteenth century was a crucial period in the history of Mexico and the United States. Mexico had only recently gained its independence from Spain in 1821 when tensions and violence surrounding the annexation of Texas heated up in the north – leading to the eventual U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At the same time, Mexico, in general, and Mayan society in particular, attracted the attention of anthropologists and naturalists from the U.S. and Europe. The most important Mayan sites that fixated their imaginations were Uxmal, Copan, Palenque and Chichen Itza.
This milieu of anthropologists, naturalists, and artists – such as John Lloyd Stephens, Frederick Catherwood, Jean Louis Berlandier, Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, and Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay – are well represented in the British Library’s collections. Many of these men were financially supported by rich industrialists or on missions for their respective governments. And often the lines between their scholarship and politics were blurry at best.
In our historical manuscripts you will find a collection of philological and ethnographic papers by Jean Louis Berlandier relating to his work in Mexico from the late 1820s through the late 1850s, including an examination of the Mayan language and descriptions of his travels through the Yucatán (BL shelfmark: Add MS 41684). Alongside his ethnographic work, Berlandier served as a captain at the outbreak of the war between the United States and Mexico in the spring of 1846. Berlandier was also part of the ‘Comision de Limites’ or the Mexican boundary commission, a special Mexican government commission set up to study and report on the northern border with the U.S. prior to and after the war. We hold a copy of the commission’s report, authored in part by Berlandier and published in Mexico City in 1850 (BL shelfmark:10481.g.28). Though the report’s explicit focus was the physical and natural features of northern Mexico, it is filled with detailed observations regarding the local economies and cultures.
You will also find in our historical manuscripts the journal of Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck (Add MS 38720). The journal is a piece of personal writing on his research and travels that makes an interesting companion to his 1838 publication: Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán (BL shelfmark: 650.c.4.) a compendium of vocabularies of indigenous languages, images of local people and detailed drawings of Mayan archaeological sites. Many of Waldeck’s early lithographs were used in an 1827 publication by the Mexican National Museum on their collections (BL shelfmark: 557*.h.23)
Among our rare books collections are several works by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, including the latter's Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán (BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68). Stephens was sent from the U.S. as the Special Ambassador to Central America in 1839. His writing on Mayan Central America and Mexico was central to the so called ‘rediscovery’ of Mayan society. Stephens was accompanied on most of his travels by the British architect and artist Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood’s drawings and lithographs of Mayan archaeological sites are still considered some of the best studies of Mayan society. Stephens became an official in the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, which led him to meet Alexander von Humboldt. And as president of the Panama Railroad Company, he oversaw the construction of the railroad across the isthmus until his death in 1852.
This work (Frederick Catherwood, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, London, 1844) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68]
The French photographer Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay, famous for his photographs of the Yucatán, was strongly influenced by the work of Stephens and Catherwood. He was commissioned to travel in Mexico by the French Ministry of Education between 1857-1861 – just before the invasion of Mexico by Napolean III. We have a significant collection of Désiré Charnay’s photographs of Mayan and Zapotec archaeological sites taken during this time. Needless to say, our collection of works on Mayan culture, and Mexico, doesn’t stop there.
The refashioning of American and European power in the middle of the 19th century coincided, and often went hand in hand, with a new fascination with Mayan culture. I'm not sure what this tells us about current day interest in the Mayans, but I have a feeling we have a few books that may shed some light on the subject.
15 November 2012
‘A View of the Habitations in Nootka Sound’ plate held at BL: 456.h.24
This work (A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean...,London: W & A Strahan, etc., 1784), identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.
Once again I’ve been calling up some of the many works of Captain James Cook from the Library's storage areas, this time to look at his notes and illustrations relating to his searches for the fabled 'great southern land' and the North-West Passage. While my reason for calling the items up was more concerned with the frozen seas of the Arctic and the Antarctic, as usual I was waylaid by some other writings and illustrations that I came across.
In October I was able to take something off my long ‘to-do’ list when I visited UBC's Museum of Anthropology. The collections held there, together with the various economic and political issues affecting today’s inhabitants of British Columbia made me think of the dramatic changes that have happened subsequent to Cook’s contact with the area. With this in mind I let myself wander to a series of plates dedicated to the people and material culture of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth.
The illustrations of the area (I think done around Yuquot), its people and material culture, are both interesting and useful records. But, as with many travel accounts of the period, they (together with the notes and images which document all of Cook’s three voyages), are indicative of an imperial way of seeing the various peoples encountered, an emphasis being placed on their 'Otherness' to European eyes.
The materials relating to Cook’s voyages have been published in many forms, including the exhaustive ‘A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean…’ [BL Shelfmark: 454.h.9 -11], with which these plates are associated [but stored separately at BL Shelfmark: 456.h.24]. The Library also holds various accounts of Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture and post-contact history, although many of these need to be searched for using the term Nootka (as used in the works’ titles).
30 October 2012
Thankfully my fellow Fellows' predictions didn't come to pass, and we kept power during the storm (although some in south Philly lost theirs). The cops came out to check some jerry cans left in a truck opposite the repository of some of the nation's most precious books and manuscripts, but deemed them safe. A chunk of metal got blown down from somewhere, and then clattered about the street for the night. The merlot was disappointing. But, that, thankfully was it. We were lucky.
It was another story for pretty much everything east of the Delaware (and, indeed, elsewhere). You will have seen the reports from New York that look like a slide from an Al Gore presentation. Several million are still without power. People have died. The governor of New Jersey has proposed delaying Halloween, and absentee ballots have been extended in several of the worst-hit counties. Long Island will have some tales as bad as 1938, if not worse.
Twitter, I think, told the most telling story, as the snark drained from people's timelines as news from the several feeds reporting on police scanners spread across the internet (the NYTimes's David Carr called it right). Earnest debunking of rumours and hoaxes (a shark in New Jersey, anyone?), along with expressions of concern, verified reports, and official updates instead filled up the timeline. Usually active friends and colleagues fell silent as power outages, server fails and iPhone batteries drained. They'll be back soon enough; that's the American way, as politicians and governors have been keen to say. And they are right.
Here's just one tweet from the night. I like the screen grab.
The eye of Sandy is over Philadelphia. twitter.com/KathyOrrCBS3/s…
— Kathy Orr (@KathyOrrCBS3) October 30, 2012And, the last word from Joshua Lyman.
20 August 2012
I’ve been doing further reading on Australian history this week and you can’t cover early nineteenth- century Australia without coming across William Bligh. Bligh became Governor of New South Wales in 1806 but prior to this he had already undertaken a number of missions for the British Government in European, Caribbean, Atlantic and Pacific waters. One of these missions provides Team Americas with another blog on the links between Australasia and the Americas.
While in Tahiti as part of Cook’s first Pacific voyage, Joseph Banks noted that the local Uru, or breadfruit, had potential as a source of cheap, high energy food that could be cultivated in British colonies. Banks successfully promoted his idea after returning to London, and Bligh was dispatched with HMS Bounty to acquire plants for use in the Caribbean. After one mutiny, a trip back to London (via Koupang) and two trips to Tahiti for specimens, Bligh finally delivered the breadfruit plants to Jamaica.
Following success as a Naval captain in Europe, and having earned Nelson’s favour at the Battle of Copenhagen, Bligh was appointed Governor of New South Wales. Arriving in 1806 Bligh immediately had to deal with the New South Wales Corps, the standing regiment for the colony which had set up a decent sideline in profiteering illegal trade items – namely, rum. Eventually this led to the 'Rum Rebellion' of 1808 and Bligh was forced to take another ignominious trip on the sea (this time to Hobart).
While mutinies grab popular attention, Bligh's career offers a good example of the way in which many individuals in the British Navy helped to developed global networks of exchange and control which underpinned the British Empire. He’s also a case study of what binds Team Americas and Australasia together.
I’ve noted in an earlier blog the Library’s collections on Cook and his expedition, and there is also a significant collection on the expeditions of Bligh; for starters see, A Voyage to the South Sea, 1792 [BL Shelfmark: RB.31.c.503(1)] and A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, 1790 [BL Shelfmark: G.3066].
24 May 2012
A small chart of Nouvelle-France, printed in; 'Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain' (1613) [BL Shelfmark: C.32.h.9]
One of the perks of curating is occasionally having the time to put on displays of materials for visitors to the Library. Ahead of yesterday's Eccle's Lecture on Quebec, travel and the Jardins de Métis, I had one such opportunity and it would be a shame not to share some of the items displayed more widely. The selection looked at materials in the Library which relate to exploration and travel in Quebec from 1545 - 1900.
The Library holds a number of important works relating to the early history of Quebec, the most significant of which is Jacques Cartier's Brief recit & succincte narration de la navigation faicte es ysles de Canada [BL Shelfmark: G.7082]. Published in Paris in 1545, this rare work recounts the earliest exploration of North America. It also inspired the endeavours and accounts of Samuel de Champlain, the man who would later be known as the 'father' of New France.
Chart of Quebec's location, with notes on geographical surrounds and neighbouring settlements. Printed in; 'Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain' (1613) [BL Shelfmark: C.32.h.9]
Of particular interest for this post, not least because of its incredible level of illustration, is de Champlain's Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain, a two volume work published in Paris in 1613 and 1632 [BL Shelfmark: C.32.h.9]. The work provides details on the geography of New France, the indigenous cultures encountered, as well as the economic possibilities and hazards to be found. All of this is recounted in great detail, both in text and maps. The work also includes detailed illustrations of Algonquin and Huron groups friendly to the French colonial project.
Illustration of Algonquin dress, printed in; 'Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain' (1632) [BL Shelfmark: C.32.h.9]
In many ways Cartier and de Champlain's texts can be seen as beginning a significant vein of publishing regarding exploration and travel in Quebec, one which would be well developed in the centuries to come. Other notable early texts in the Library's collection include, to name a very few: Francois Du Creux's Historiae Canadensis [1664, BL Shelfmark: C.125.de.2], which is an illustrated translation into Latin of Paul Le Jeune's Brieve relation du voyage de la Nouvelle France [1632, BL Shelfmark: 867.c.1] and Lewis Hennepin's A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America… between New France and New Mexico [1699, BL Shelfmark: 979.l.23.].
13 March 2012
A couple of weeks ago I spent a Sunday afternoon at Down House, where Charles Darwin lived and wrote his famous works. Many things struck me that afternoon but the map of the Beagle's voyage reminded me that Darwin's journey is a piece of history which provides a link between all of us here in the Americas and Australasian Studies department. Duly motivated, I decided to do a short blog on the Beagle's presence in the Library's collections.
The British Library holds a lot of material which refers to or resulted from the work conducted by Darwin and others during the voyage of HMS Beagle. Not only are there many copies of, 'On the Origin of Species' but there are also less popularly know publications, such as Darwin's paper, 'The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, etc.' (shelfmark: 07109.i.13). Amongst all of this, my favourite publication related to the expedition is, 'The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle' (which I also saw on display at Down House).
'Zoology' is a detailed account of the animals and fossils encountered and collected during the voyage of the Beagle with each volume being drawn together by various authorities of the time. Between them, the five volumes provide accounts of the various specimens collected and are richly illustrated with examples from various parts of the voyage (although the lithographs of Galapagos finches are understandably the most eye catching).
The account also underlines the scope and scale of the Beagle's voyage and Darwin's collecting, neither of which were necessarily unique to the time but they do illustrate a globalised scientific process. Unfortunately, it's becoming something of a trend for me to blog about restricted items and once again the library's original 'Zoology' (shelfmark: 791.I.17,18) is on this list. However, there are also some very good reproductions available in the reading rooms, not least the Royal Geographical Society's 1994 commemorative edition (shelfmark: Cup.410.g.500).
07 March 2012
Front cover from William Bradford's, 'The Arctic Regions'. Shelfmark: 1785.d.7 (restricted item)
Here at Team Americas and Australasian Studies we've been poring over a few acquisition catalogues recently, not to buy anything but to see what is happening on the antiquarian book market. During this process some items that we already hold jump out and make you think, 'I'd like to have a look at that'.
One such item can be seen above, William Bradford's publication, 'The Arctic Regions'. I was intrigued as I had not heard of the work before, so I thought I'd have a look at what makes it so special. Bradford was an artist who assembled an expedition to Greenland in order to photograph the area (although he actually used two Boston photographers, George Crichterson and John L. Dunmore) and produce a photographically illustrated book upon their return.
Bradford's publication idea was novel for the time and the end product is still stunning, the volume is very large and contains over 100 mounted photographs of various scenes from Arctic Greenland and North America. The depiction of the Arctic presented is romantic in tone and sometimes patronising to the people who were photographed (there is at least one disparaging comment regarding the appearance of local Inuit) but it is a notable early photographic view of the Arctic regions.
Unfortunately, due to the size of the item and the delicate nature of the mounted photographs the item is on the Library's restricted list and not easy to view. However, if you would like to know more and see more of the book's contents there are a couple of useful galleries online. There is a short selection on this wider gallery on the North West Passage while this gallery from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute provides a more detailed look and context.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- Tracing Italian Opera Performers in the Nineteenth Century Americas
- Commemorating Roberta Bondar's voyage into space
- Following Sarah Royce
- Have you tried the Electroburger? A 1962 menu for the North Shore Line’s Electroliner dining car
- The Kingdom of Flying Men
- Mark Twain and the SS Batavia
- Lakeland Meetings: the Crafts and Harriet Martineau
- Federal Writers' Project publications
- Andrea Wulf: Out of Archives and Libraries
- Exploring the Yucatán and Mayan Culture