26 October 2023
On Monday 30 October the Dutch Centre hosts an event to mark the new translation by David McKay of a seminal work on the history of Suriname: We Slaves of Suriname, by Anton de Kom.
Anton de Kom. From: Wij slaven van Suriname 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001) YA.2002.a.34205.
Anton de Kom (1898-1945) tells the history of Suriname and how it was shaped by slavery from a Surinamese perspective. He adds a passionate attack on Dutch colonial rule, a system that keeps many of the structures of the past in place, thereby keeping the Surinamese people in poverty and powerlessness. His main aim in writing the book was to instil a sense of self-worth and pride into the Surinamese people. Thus he created both a historic account and a book of historic importance, according to Michiel van Kempen’s Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur.
The Dutch language edition, first published in 1934, is the first text about Dutch colonialism in Suriname, written from a Surinamese, anticolonial perspective. It stands at the beginning of a tradition of anti- and postcolonial writing, inspiring authors such as Tessa Leuwsha, Albert Helman and Astrid Roemer. De Kom himself took inspiration from Max Havelaar, written by Multatuli, pseudonym of Edward Douwes Dekker, a white Dutch civil servant based in the Dutch East Indies, in the 1860s.
De Kom had aligned himself with the communist community in the Netherlands, because they were the only political group that opposed colonialism. However, they were not free of racist prejudice. When De Kom offered the manuscript to a socialist publisher, they believed him to be illiterate, based on his appearance and accent. A Dutch publicist Cees de Dood was enlisted to review the manuscript. He regarded the language to be ‘bad Dutch’, dismissing the text wholesale. He should have known better, because De Kom had published articles in communist journals and magazines before (under the pen name Adek). De Kom agreed the manuscript needed improvement. De Dood asked Jef Last, a good friend of his and a well-known socialist publicist to help improve the manuscript. Last reviewed the manuscript together with De Kom putting more emphasis on the communist political message that slavery is exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist system. He even claimed to have written the book himself, but later retracted that claim. However, this falsehood remained in circulation for a long time, again reaffirming racist ideas prevalent at the time.
It would take far too long in this space to recount the full range of events that surrounded publication of Wij Slaven van Suriname, fascinating though it is. Instead I refer to the article by Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’. Central in their piece is the question what part Jef Last played in re-writing the text and the role of the CID, the Central Intelligence Service in censuring the text.
In the end Gilles Pieter de Neve, of the Contact publishing house agreed to publish the book. He and De Kom rewrote the entire manuscript, taking out the most strident communist passages that might fall foul of the CID, and finally, in 1934 the book was published. De Neve had added a subtle rebuke to the CID, not included in later editions: ‘In conjunction with the interest shown in this book from certain quarters, the publishers deem it necessary, in order to ensure the undisturbed circulation of the work and in agreement with the Author, to change a number of passages in the book, without diminishing the value of the book.’
Contact had only started as a publishing house the year before, when Hitler came to power in Germany, in order to warn the Dutch against the dangers of national-socialism and fascism.
It is therefore all the more tragic that De Kom would fall victim to the Nazis in 1944, when he was arrested for his activities in the Dutch resistance. He died in a concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. He is buried at Ereveld Loenen, the Field of Honour in Loenen.
It seems ironic that the ship that brought De Kom to Suriname and back again in exile to the Netherlands in 1933 would carry copies of Wij Slaven van Suriname to Suriname in 1934. This was reported in the Surinamese newspaper De banier van waarheid en recht (‘The banner of truth and justice’) of 7 March 1934.
For decades the book and its author remained relatively unknown. De Kom was shunned in the Netherlands as well as in Suriname because of his communist sympathies. So it wasn’t until 1971 that the book saw its second edition. From then on the only way was up, right to the top ten bestsellers in 2020, the year Anton de Kom was included in the Dutch Canon for History.
The latest Dutch edition, the 22nd, was published in 2021 by Atlas/Contact, with introductions by Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, and Duco van Oostrum. Atlas/Contact also published Rob Woortman’s and Alice Boots’ biography of Anton de Kom.
In 1987 an English translation was announced by Palgrave/Macmillan, but for unknown reasons was never realised. It took another 36 years before another attempt was made, this time successful. On Monday 30 October we are going to celebrate that event at the Dutch Centre in London. Writer Gabriel Gbadamosi will chair a discussion with guests Mitchell Esajas, Tessa Leuwsha and my colleague, curator and author Nicole-Rachelle Moore. The event is supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Embassy of The Kingdom of the Netherlands and programmed by Modern Culture as part of New Dutch Writing. Tickets are still available and can be booked via the Dutch Centre’s website.
Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections
Albert Helman, Zuid Zuidwest. 8th ed. ([s.n.], 1948) 010058.f.30.
Michiel van Kempen, Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur (Breda, 2003) YF.2005.b.2101
Michiel van Kempen, Anton de Kom. Boek ‘Wij slaven van Suriname’ at literatuurgeschiedenis.org
Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname. 8th ed. (Amsterdam, 1991) – with a preface by Anton’s daughter Judith de Kom. The verso of the title page mentions the publication year of the second edition as 1977, where it was 1971.
Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname; met een voorwoord van John Jansen van Galen. 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001). YA.2002.a.34205.
Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname, inleidingen Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, Duco van Oostrum. 22nd ed. (Amsterdam, 2021)
Tessa Leuwsha, Plantage Wildlust (Amsterdam, 2020) YF.2021.a.13192.
Tessa Leuwsha, Fansi’s Stilte : een Surinaamse grootmoeder en de slavernij. 4th ed. (Amsterdam, 2018). YF.2022.a.3364.
Nicole-Rachelle Moore, Sarah Garrod, & Sarah White, Dream to change the world: the life & legacy of John La Rose : the book of the exhibition. (London, 2018) YK.2019.b.783
Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’, OSO Tijdschrift for Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde en geschiedenis, Vol. 29, 2010 , pp 30-48. Available in full from the Databank Nederlandse Literatuur.
Duco van Oostrom, ‘“Someone willing to listen to me”: Anton de Kom’s Wij Slaven van Suriname (1934) and the “We” of Dutch post-colonial literature in African American literary context’ Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, Volume 44: Number 1 (2020) pp 45-80, and available online via the White Rose University Consortium.
10 June 2022
Exploring five centuries of UK news through broadsheets, blogs and objects, the British Library’s current exhibition, Breaking the News, challenges and seeks to change the way we think about news.
A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. BL shelf mark Sol. 764
Looking beyond the UK focus of Breaking the News, on Thursday 23 June curators from the European, Americas and Oceania collections will be in conversation about items from their collection areas that speak to the themes of the exhibition and that they think deserve a spotlight. Join us for a friendly look behind the curating scenes as we discover unique collection items that illuminate news and the role it plays in our lives.
This free, online event will take place on Thursday 23 June 2022, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.
This session is run in partnership with the Library’s Asia and Africa department, whose parallel event takes place on Thursday 16th June 2022.
11 November 2021
Literary awards are given to authors for their work. Sometimes this leads to controversy, such as in the case of this year’s winning author of the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) Astrid Roemer. The prize is awarded every three years to a Dutch or Flemish or, since 2005, Surinamese author, and Roemer is the first black and Surinamese author to win it. She is known for being outspoken and an independent mind. The jury praised her work for being ‘unconventional, poetic and authentic’. These traits are bound to lead to controversy at some point. This is not the place to comment on the furore around the award and its winner. I have included some links to articles that discuss this in more detail at the end of the blog post.
Astrid Roemer, Over de Gekte van een Vrouw (Haarlem, 1982) X.958/16031.
I must admit that until recently I had never read any of Roemer’s work, but through research for this blog post I got the impression of a warm-hearted, compassionate woman, who has very nuanced views. ‘Identity’ plays a huge part in her work. Identity as an individual, or as a group, as a man or woman, as a black man or black woman, as a child or a parent, as a citizen in Suriname, or in the Netherlands, etc. She tells her stories usually through women who struggle to take their rightful place in society; who are keeping families together, no matter how fragmented these are.
It is as if she sees a parallel between individuals and families and Suriname itself. A young country still fighting for its place in the world, whilst at the same time different ethnic groups search for their place in the big Surinamese family within Suriname. And a country that struggles to find a relationship with its former ‘parent’, the colonial power that was the Netherlands and where many Surinamese people moved to study and work. Maybe that is why she is so good at presenting ‘big’ events and ‘big’ themes on a human scale.
The problems Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands face in adapting to Dutch life whilst trying to stay faithful to their Surinamese identity is very well described in Neem mij terug, Suriname, Roemer’s first novel. First published in 1974, it was reprinted in 1975 and 2005. In 1983 it was published as Nergens ergens (Nowhere Somewhere) and in 2015 a jubilee-edition appeared, in celebration of its 40 year anniversary and for being awarded the P.C. Hooftprijs for her whole prose oeuvre.
Astrid Roemer, Neem mij terug, Suriname (Schoorl, 2015) YF.2017.a.33 and Astrid Roemer, Nergens ergens (Amsterdam, 1983) YA.1990.a.18843.
When she says: ‘I am married to Suriname, the Netherlands is my lover, I am in a gay relationship with Africa and I am inclined to have one-night stands with every other country’, she conveys the complexity of ‘identity’, as well as a sense of being a ‘world citizen’, but she doesn’t want to be labelled as such. She has lived in many different countries, but feels most at home in Paramaribo, the place of her birth.
When her mother died in 2019 she moved there, partly as a way to process her loss. She finds comfort and solace there as well as space to write in her day-to-day routine. And write she does.
What is called her ‘Suriname trilogy’ Gewaagd Leven (Risky Life) from 1996, Lijken op Liefde (Resembling Love) from 1997, and Was Getekend (Was Signed) from 1998 will be re-issued as Onmogelijk moederland (Impossible Motherland) early next year. About this trilogy Roemers said: ‘On the rubbish heap of slavery, colonialism and the present I searched for irreducible remains to experience my identity as Suriname-Dutch woman anew.’
Astrid Roemer, Gewaagd Leven (Amsterdam, 1996) YA.1996.a.19238, Lijken op Liefde (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.10270 and Was Getekend (Amsterdam, 1998) YA.2000.a.36919.
She will publish a new novel in 2022: Dealers Daughter, set in Paramaribo about a young woman whose father gets involved in a murder. Roemer has also worked on a selection of poems by Maya Angelou for a Dutch audience: En Toch Heradem Ik : Haar 25 mooiste gedichten (Amsterdam, 2022). Her English-language debut, Off-White, translated by Jan Steyn, is due to be published next year.
I cannot wait to discover more of Roemer’s work.
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections
Other works by Astrid Roemer held by the British Library:
Levenslang Gedicht (Haarlem, 1987) YA.1990.a.23555
Waarom zou je huilen mijn lieve, lieve... (Schoorl, 1987) YA.1990.a.21044
De achtentwintigste dag (Breda, 1988) YA.1990.a.15920
Het Spoor van de Jakhals (Schoorl, 1988) YA.1990.a.8974
Niets wat pijn doet (Amsterdam, 1993) YA.1993.a.24646
Suriname : een gids voor vrienden (Amsterdam, 1997) YA.1999.a.9861
‘Miauw’ (Breda, 2001) YA.2002.a.35999
Liefde in Tijden van Gebrek (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2016.a.26486
Olga en haar driekwartsmaten (Amsterdam, 2017) YF.2017.a.3034
Gebroken Wit (Amsterdam, 2019) YF.2019.a.17264
Hugo Pos, ‘Inleiding tot de Surinaamse literatuur’. In: Tirade 17 (1973), p. 396-409
Hilde Neus, ‘Roemer in redeloos redeneren’, Neerlandistiek, 15 August 2021
Tessa Leuwsha, ‘Astrid H. Roemer: ‘Dutch Will Slowly but Surely Disappear From Suriname’’ (interview with Astrid Roemer, translated by Anna Asbury)
20 February 2020
Travelling through the British Library’s Dutch-Surinamese Collections via Johan Fretz’s ‘Onder de Paramariboom’
“Mummy comes from the Paramaribo-tree – that’s a tree on the other side of the ocean, and black people like mummy and Ruud Gullit grow on it.” – Johan Fretz, Onder de Paramariboom
Paramari-what? Sometimes it takes a child’s perspective to make you realise how little you really know about something; when you find you’re unable to correct what they’re saying with any degree of accuracy. Of course, when my coursemates and I were given the opportunity to work with the Dutch-Surinamese author Johan Fretz and translate part of his semi-autobiographical novel Onder de Paramariboom, I could have told you that Surinamese people don’t grow on a big tree named after the country’s capital, Pamaribo, but I couldn’t have told you much else about Suriname or its people.
The British Library’s vast collection of maps, texts and images from and related to the former Dutch colony provides a pretty good impression of Suriname, but nowhere could I find mention of the ‘Paramaribo-tree’. The reason, of course, is that it has been invented by Johannes, the narrator of Fretz’s novel (the wordplay in the original title with the Dutch word ‘boom’ (‘tree’) is lost in English) who, despite having a Surinamese mother, has never really felt in touch with his Surinamese roots. It’s not until he visits Suriname that he realises how much he has been shaped by this part of his identity. As a fellow lover of a good pun, I adopted Johannes as my guide through the British Library’s collection.
Suriname, once known as Dutch Guiana, is located on the north-east coast of South America and is just over twice the size of Scotland. Although British planters were the first Europeans to permanently settle there, Suriname was largely under Dutch rule from 1667 until its independence in 1975.
Johannes’ mother, Virginia, was born and raised in Paramaribo, where Fretz’s novel is mainly set. The historical inner city, on the left bank of the Suriname River, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
The oldest and most important street in Paramaribo is Waterkant (‘waterside’). Many of its buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1821, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Housing, which was rebuilt and now looks, according to Johannes, “like it has been blown up and then put back together again, all higgeldy-piggeldy.” (Fretz, p.29)
The photograph below is taken from a collection of wonderful pictures taken by Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll during the 1955 state visit of the Dutch Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard.
A map in King George III’s Topographical Collection lying on the desk before me tells me that Virginia’s favourite district in Fretz’s novel is Commewijne, named after the river that flows through it. Commewijne lies on the opposite side of the Suriname river to Paramaribo and is a former plantation district: the map shows plantations tightly packed along the rivers Commewijne and Suriname.
Many Dutch families owned plantations in Suriname, and family members would sometimes visit them. A journal by Gaspar van Breugel records one such visit in 1823 to inspect two plantations partially owned by his family. In his journal he calls these plantations ‘Carolinenburg’ and ‘Schoonwoud’, but a little bit of research provided me with their real names and details: the 500-acre Cliffort Kokshoven a coffee and cotton plantation in Commewijne, and Kocqswoud was a 163-acre coffee plantation in the Marrowijne district.
“It was one of those subjects – just like slavery – that was not to be talked about, which of course meant that it was talked about as often as possible”. (Fretz, p.53). The picture shows the title-page of G. P. C. van Breugel, Dagverhaal van eene reis naar Paramaribo en verdere omstreken in de Kolonie Suriname (Amsterdam, 1842) 10055.cc.6
Slaves were shipped to Suriname from the west coast of Africa. While the majority worked the plantations, some were domestic slaves. A major and unique publication in Dutch colonial history was Wij Slaven van Suriname (‘We Slaves of Suriname)’, by Anton de Kom. Born in Suriname to a former slave and having received an education which neglected to tell the narrative of the slaves who had been forced to work there, De Kom wrote his book to draw attention to the history of slavery in Suriname. The British Library houses a copy of the first edition of this important text.
“Uncle Jimmy. He’s black, much darker than the rest of my family.
‘That’s because uncle Jimmy is a maroon,’ says my mother. ‘But of course, you should never say that.’
He came from the inland to Paramaribo when he was fifteen years old. (Fretz, p.54)
Slaves that managed to flee their masters tended to make their way into the rainforests of the Surinamese interior. Here, they formed groups with other runaway slaves, known as maroons, and established communities which still exist today. Johannes’ uncle Jimmy is a descendant of one such community. Often maroons would return to their former plantations and attack them, “both from a Spirit of revenge for the barbarous and inhuman treatment … they had received … & from a view of carrying away plunder … in order to provide for their subsistence and defense.” This quote is taken from John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname. Stedman was a British-Dutch colonial soldier who volunteered to assist local troops fighting maroons in Suriname.
Stedman began writing his Narrative once back in Holland in 1778, based on the diaries he kept during his time in Suriname between 1773 and 1777. The book details the Dutch colony at the time as seen by an ‘outsider’ – Stedman documented most of what he witnessed, from military campaigns to flora and fauna to relationships between slaves and their masters. His editor, however, made significant alterations (unbeknownst to Stedman) to remove the text’s anti-slavery undertones. Indeed, extracts from later uncensored versions of the text proved valuable to those involved in anti-slavery efforts. The Narrative contains 80 etchings based on Stedman’s drawings, some made by William Blake, a close friend of Stedman during the mid-1700’s.
Slavery was not abolished in Suriname until 1863, although the slave trade had been illegal since 1814. To help prevent illegal slave trading, Dutch navy ships patrolled routes between Freetown in Sierra Leone and Paramaribo. Sierra Leone was then a British colony and, following the British Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807), there was a one-sided ban on the slave trade between Africa and Suriname. The British pressured other countries to ban the trade out of ‘economic necessity’, since while others continued to import plantation workers, they themselves faced labour shortages. After the British threatened not to return confiscated Dutch colonies, the Netherlands banned the slave trade in 1814. In a treaty of 1818 the British and Dutch agreed to work together to prevent illegal slave trading between their colonies. Both could search each other’s vessels, and two mixed commission courts, in Freetown and Paramaribo, were established with the power to sentence slavers.
Gerard Van Lennep Coster was a Dutch naval officer who served on one such ship from 1819 to 1821. I discovered this in his travel memoir Herinneringen mijner reizen naar onderscheidene Werelddeelen (‘Memories of my travels to different continents’), which I also find on my reading room desk alongside his Aanteekeningen, gehouden gedurende mijn verblijf in de West-Indiën... (‘Annotations kept during my stay in the West-Indies...’), a journal documenting his time in Suriname.
Above: Title page of Gerard van Lennep Coster, Herinneringen mijner reizen naar onderscheidene Werelddeelen (Amsterdam, 1836) 10027.e.7. Below: Title page from Gerard van Lennep Coster, Aanteekeningen, gehouden gedurende mijn verblijf in de West-Indiën, in dejaren 1837-1840 …(Amsterdam, 1842) 10470.d.3.
In Fretz’s novel, Johannes’ trip to Suriname took him on a journey of self-discovery which also led me through the collections of the British Library. I may not have covered the distance that he did, but Fretz’s narrative certainly made me feel closer to Suriname. Suddenly, Suriname’s history doesn’t seem so distant, and I’m pretty sure that I could hold a conversation about the country that stretches a little further than quashing a child’s notion of the roots of the Surinamese.
Megan Strutt, University of Sheffield
Written as part of the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) scheme, working in collaboration with Marja Kingma (Curator Germanic Collections BL) and Filip De Ceuster (University of Sheffield).
05 September 2019
The Library has recently acquired Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s first novel, Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale, translated into Swedish by Sven Johan Collin in 1802 as Adonis, eller den förträfflige negern. It tells the story of the slave revolt on Saint-Domingue, what is now known as the Haitian Revolution, through a ‘colonial anecdote’ that follows the capture of the enlightened plantation owner d’Hérouville and his loyal slave Adonis by Biassou, the leader of the revolt. Victor Hugo was inspired to write his first novel Bug-Jargal (1826) after reading Adonis.
Map of Saint-Domingue by Guillaume de L’Isle (Amsterdam, 1722) Maps K.Top.123.35
The book is an extremely rare copy of a work that was not translated into many languages. Swedish interest was not simply due to some residual francophilia around the Enlightenment but also due to the reading public’s own Caribbean imaginary, sparked by Sweden’s ownership of the island of Saint Barthèlmy since 1784. The copy once belonged to the library at Östanå Castle, which points to the ownership of once director of the Swedish East India Company, Simon Bernhard Hebbe.
Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis (Strengnäs, 1802) RB.23.a.38783
As Chris Bongie has discovered, Picquenard was intimately involved in ‘the revolutionary violence that accompanied the successful imposition of egalitarian principles in France’s most prosperous colony’. He was deputy secretary to the French Civil Commissioners Légér-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who aimed to take over power from the white Saint-Domingue population on behalf of the new republican government. Picquenard voiced the revolutionary ideas of the commission in his newspaper L’Ami de l’Égalité, frequently defending the use of violence.
Yet, none of this is necessarily apparent when you read Adonis, which avows broad humanist principles that both support the abolition of slavery and admonish the violence that enabled it. The first paragraph sets out the position:
I will not start by deciding whether or not the sudden abolition of slavery in the French colonies has been of real benefit to humanity. It will be nice, undoubtedly, for the philosopher to see the fertile plains of Saint Domingue cultivated by free hands soon – but the terrible tremor that the Antilles felt in order to reach this happy outcome has caused the ruin of so many European families, and the deaths of many others, such that I would not dare even pronounce myself in favour of such principles without fear of being accused of injustice and inhumanity.
Title page of the original French version of Adonis by Jean-Baptiste Picquenard (Paris, 1798) RB.23.a.37666
With the archival knowledge of Picquenard’s early engaged and violent writings on the island, Bongie can reread Adonis as not simply exemplary of the active forgetting of the Terror that typified the turn of the 19th century in France, but as an agonized site of friction between Terror and Enlightenment. Picquenard’s authorship demands that we read what has been ‘written over’, that is, ‘the entanglement of revolutionary violence and the humanist projects of Enlightenment’.
S. J. Collin’s translation stays faithful to the French original, in other words staying faithful to a certain ambivalence and infidelity in the authorial voice. It would be worth investigating the extent of French slave narratives – a significant genre in the slim period when France first temporarily abolished slavery (1792-1802) – translated into Swedish. Adonis is at the very least a curious book that reveals a shared anxiety between colonial powers.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool, 2008) YC.2009.a.4169
Youmna Charara, Fictions coloniales du XVIIIème siècle: Ziméo; Lettres africaines; Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale (Paris, 2005) YF.2011.a.12978
08 January 2019
On 24 September 2018, the British Library welcomed a galaxy of leading specialists to a study day addressing the history, literature and arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.
The day kicked off with a comparative overview of Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean colonisation and post-war migrations by keynote speaker Professor H. Adlai Murdoch. French colonisation of the Caribbean was such that by the late 18th century Haiti, an island of 600,000 slaves, produced 60% of the world’s coffee. Despite the abolition of slavery, France retained political power over les Antilles and the legacies of colonisation remain to this day. In 1946 the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe were given the status of départements, i.e. officially part of France. However, when Martiniquans and Guadeloupeans were invited to join the French workforce in the 1960s, they were met with racial prejudice and unfairly treated as immigrants, when they were only moving from the periphery to the centre of their own country. (A finalized version of Professor Murdoch’s presentation is available on the website of the French Studies Library Group).
The morning panel focused on history, heritage and migration. Sophie Fuggle spoke about the legacy of the ‘bagne’ (penal colonies) in French Guiana and ‘dark tourism’, and Antonia Wimbush discussed the French Caribbean’s contribution to the Second World War, events that are left out of official French narratives. Emily Zobel Marshall, the granddaughter of writer Joseph Zobel, movingly read excerpts from letters he wrote to his wife describing his experience as a Martiniquan in Paris in 1946.
Beth Cooper closed the morning’s proceedings with a presentation of the British Library’s exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’.
The afternoon opened with a panel on Francophone Caribbean literature. Jason Allen-Paisant gave a presentation on French Caribbean theatre and showed us a fascinating video of the first production of Aimé Césaire’s Le roi Christophe at the Salzburg festival in 1964. Vanessa Lee talked about Suzanne Césaire’s plays, and Kathryn Batchelor looked at how Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth was disseminated worldwide: the English translation was written in much more accessible language than the original French, which explains its impact in the Anglophone world.
The state agency in charge of organizing the migration flows from the Antilles to France between 1963 and 1981 was the BUMIDOM (Bureau pour le développement des migrations dans les départements d'outre-mer). Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau, the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Peyi an nou, told us about their research into the small histories of families who came to France. The book originated in Jessica’s desire to record her terminally ill grandfather’s life for a family scrapbook. It rapidly became clear to her that the story of his move to Paris was about much more than one individual, and reflected the destinies of a wider community. The graphic novel thus shows the author’s research process using archives and interviews, “pour relier petite histoire et grande Histoire” (to connect the story with History).
The event concluded with a presentation from Jean-François Manicom on curation and visual arts in the French Caribbean.
The study day was rounded off by an evening with Canadian-Haitian writer Dany Laferrière at the Institut français focusing on his book The Enigma of the Return. He reluctantly but jokingly read an excerpt he was not proud of, and talked about his election to the Académie française. Describing Québecois as humble and Haitians as “megalomaniac”, he affirmed that the award was both “beyond him” and “simply not enough”. He is, after all, in his own words, “le plus modeste poète du monde” (the most modest poet in the world).
The study day was organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut français.
Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers.
17 September 2018
On Monday 24 September 2018 we will be holding a French Caribbean study day in the British Library Knowledge Centre.
This event accompanies the British Library’s current free Entrance Hall Exhibition, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’, and celebrates the rich history, heritage, literature and visual arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.
Our keynote speaker, H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts University), introduces the multifaceted cultures and histories of the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Panels of leading specialists will explore the fascinating history and heritage of the French Caribbean as well as its rich literature. Our panellists will also discuss migration and its impact on postwar immigrants and their descendants. There will be presentations on the graphic novel Peyi An Nou and on the British Library’s Windrush exhibition.
The programme for the study day is as follows:
10.15-10.45 - Registration. Tea/Coffee (Dickens Room)
10.45-10.55 - Welcome: Janet Zmroczek (Head of European and Americas Collections, British Library)
10.55-11.40 - Keynote: H. Adlai Murdoch (Tufts), ‘Introduction to the Francophone Caribbean: a comparative perspective’
11.40-11.45 - Break
11.45-12.35 - Panel 1: History, heritage and migration
With Sophie Fuggle (Nottingham Trent), Antonia Wimbush (Birmingham), Emily Zobel Marshall (Leeds Beckett) (Chair: Gitanjali Pyndiah)
12.35-13.05 - Elizabeth Cooper (British Library) ‘Introduction to the British Library’s current Entrance Hall exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’’ (Chair: Phil Hatfield, Eccles Centre, British Library)
13.05-14.00 - Lunch. A sandwich lunch will be provided.
14.00-15.00 - Panel 2: Francophone Caribbean Literature
With Jason Allen-Paisant (Leeds), Vanessa Lee (Oxford), Kathryn Batchelor (Nottingham)
15.00-15.30 - Tea/Coffee
15.30-16.30 - Jessica Oublié (Author) and Marie-Ange Rousseau (Illustrator): Presentation of the graphic novel Peyi An Nou (‘Our Country’) (Chair: Charles Forsdick)
The presentation will be in French and an English version will be supplied.
16.30-17.00 - Jean-François Manicom (Acting Curator, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) ‘Visual arts in the Caribbean’ (TBC)
17.00-18.00 - Wine reception sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies
The study day has been organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut français.
The study day will be followed by a French Caribbean evening at the Institut français in South Kensington, organised in partnership with Festival America, the AHRC and the British Library, beginning at 19.00. This will be an exceptional opportunity to hear acclaimed Montreal-based Haitian writer Dany Laferrière talk about his writing and in particular his L’énigme du retour (The Enigma of the Return). The talk will be followed by a music session with Guadeloupean drummer Arnaud Dolmen, after an introduction to ‘jazz creole’ from journalist Kevin Le Gendre.
Booking is open for both events. Please note that separate ticket are required for each. You can book for the study day online at https://www.bl.uk/events/translating-cultures-french-caribbean-history-literature-and-migration, or by contacting the British Library Box Office (+44 (0)1937 546546; box [email protected]). Bookings of for the evening event can be made at https://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/dany-laferriere/
Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator Romance Language Collections
16 August 2018
Colonial history rarely makes us think about the Nordic region. That omission, it has been said, allows these nations to ignore their connections to the global imperial system. As Gunlög Fur writes with regard to Sweden’s self-understanding in the 20th century, ‘there was no decolonising moment, during which Sweden had to rethink its position. Instead this left room for reformulating a Swedish strategy for non-alliance and mediation’ (p. 24).
The current BL exhibition ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ encourages us to look closer. The discovery of three 18th-century Swedish legal documents in the British Library collections (to add to the many others received and purchased over the centuries) reminds us of Sweden’s continuous intention to compete with the superior European powers at the colonial table, a table at which their neighbours Denmark had already managed to establish themselves.
But first, a quick sketch of Sweden’s Atlantic exploration. 1637 saw Sweden establish a colony on the banks of the Delaware River, with the help of Dutch merchants. ‘New Sweden’ was short-lived (it collapsed in 1656) but it still ‘became a home for generations of colonists’ (Ekengren et al., p. 169). In 1702 Thomas Campanius Holm wrote a comprehensive account of the geography, the colonists, the native Indians and, perhaps most interestingly, included chapters of phrases in the Lenape language.
While the two decades of official Swedish occupation in Delaware have often been viewed, in early histories of the period, as either ultimately unsuccessful and therefore harmless, or successful in Sweden’s cultivation of wild forest into fertile land (and therefore harmless), the episode might be seen in parallel to the establishment of West African forts at the same time. Seafaring expertise and a thirst for trade opportunities led the Swedes simultaneously to America and Africa (with the Sápmi, arguably also part of the ‘colonial’ conversation), tying the search for land and goods and the accompanying Christian missionary activities, together with the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade.
Sweden had to wait 130 years for their next American colony, the island of St Barthélemy in the Caribbean, given by France in return for trading rights in Gothenburg. However, modern scholarship does not consider the intervening period a hiatus, rather ‘Sweden’s interest in the American world continued unabated, as evidenced by several plans to found colonies in the Caribbean or on the South American continent. At the same time, economic ties, both direct and indirect, were growing between Sweden and the Americas’ (Schnakenbourg, p. 229).
Map of St Barthélemy (Stockholm, ). (Image from the John Carter Brown Library, via Wikimedia Commons.)
It is the latter idea of economic ties across the Atlantic, which is in evidence in the British Library collections recently found. The importance of Swedish iron to triangular trade is one example of how Sweden fitted into the global network (Evans and Rydén) but Sweden was not content simply to export domestic products. Rather, they were consistently engaged in establishing a colony in the Caribbean, since the premature end of earlier ventures (Schnakenbourg). The Library holds both the 14 June 1731 privilege for ‘Hindrich [Henrik] König & compagnie angående en fart och handel på Ost-Indien’, which inaugurated the Swedish East India Company, as well as the 2 December 1745 privilege ‘på en handels och siö-farts inrättande på America, för handelsmännerne Abraham och Jacob Arwedson & Compagnie’, which preceded the founding of the Swedish West India Company.
While engaged in triangular trade in the mid-18th century, supplying slaves to Caribbean colonies owned by other powers and directly selling Swedish commodities—herring as well as iron—to the new markets, the ambition remained to possess somewhere in the Caribbean to begin their own trade in sugar and other products. Therefore, the 1745 privilege was also intended to explore the possibility of taking first Tobago and later Barima, but Spanish and Dutch suspicion would prevent any serious attempts by Sweden. Their goal was secured in 1784 with the exchange for St Barthélemy, an island the French had struggled (and the Swedish would struggle) to cultivate. The harshness of the land led to the declaration ‘som förklarar ön St. Barthelemy i Westindien för en fri hamn eller porto franco’, in other words the island became a free port in an attempt to maximize trade activity.
Eight months later the Swedish crown was obliged to publish a sort of corrective to the free port announcement, as it had seemingly encouraged too much interest among Swedes in making the switch to the Caribbean. The notification ‘Til hämmande af obetänkte utflyttningar til Ön St Barthelemy’ of 2 May 1786 suggests that the previous year’s announcement was intended to encourage traders and not settlers. It highlights the tough conditions on the island, the lack of resources and the resistance to cultivation, as well as the limited space. Farmers, instead, should think more about working the fatherland!
From the beginning of Swedish administration of the island and aided by the official establishment of Swedish West India Company on 31 October 1786, ‘a commercially-oriented infrastructure was erected with the development of the island’s natural harbour, le Carénage, as well as the edification of its capital city, Gustavia, with warehouses, supply depots, and public buildings surrounding the port’ (Lavoie et al., p. 381).
To conclude this survey of some of the documentation regarding the Swedish colony of St Barthélemy, it is worth reiterating the complicated position contemporary Swedish historians are in. Fur describes the awkwardness as follows: ‘popular understanding has gone from no colonialism to post-colonialism without stopping in-between, without having to confront the challenges and ambiguities of decolonization’ (p. 26). The problem remains that St Barthélemy, in comparison to the sugar island colonies of other powers, was always a site of temporary and fugitive wealth as an entrepôt, and therefore Sweden ‘cannot be considered as a colonial power in the full sense’ (Schnakenbourg, p. 240). At the same time, by avoiding the overestimation of colonial achievements you risk the oblivion of the Sweden’s role in the global matrix of exploitation. ‘[N]owhere, and no one, was untouched by the forces of colonialism in the early modern world.’ (Horning, p. 297).
Pardaad Chamsaz. Curator, Germanic Collections
Yolande Lavoie, Carolyn Fick and Francine-M. Mayer, ‘A Particular Study of Slavery in the Caribbean Island of Saint Barthelemy: 1648-1846’, Caribbean Studies 28:2 (1995), pp. 369-403. 3053.130000
Gunlög Fur, ‘Colonialism and Swedish History: Unthinkable Connections?’, in Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena (New York, 2013) m13/.14914, pp. 17-36
Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, ‘From Gammelbo Bruk to Calabar: Swedish Iron in an Expanding Atlantic’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 53-67
Fredrik Ekengren, Magdalena Naum, Ulla Isabel Zagal-Mach Wolfe, ‘Sweden in the Delaware Valley: Everyday Life and Material Culture in New Sweden’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 169-187
Eric Schnakenbourg, ‘Sweden and the Atlantic: The Dynamism of Sweden’s Colonial Projects in the Eighteenth Century’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 229-242
Audrey Horning, ‘Insinuations: Framing a New Understanding of Colonialism’, in Scandinavian Colonialism…, pp. 297-305
22 July 2017
Linguists are undecided about Esperanto: is it closer to the Asian or the European languages? Its vocabulary is certainly more European, but its structure is similar to that of some Asian languages. In any case, Esperanto started to be known in Asia at almost the same time that it appeared in Europe.
The first mention of Esperanto in Japan was in the late 1880s in relation to a brief flurry of interest in another artificial language, Volapük. It really arrived in 1906 in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. A body of learners, advocates, and users emerged which was notably diverse right from the outset. A sample of some of the early participants serves to illustrate this: Futabatei Shimei, the Russophile and novelist, encountered Esperanto in Vladivostok. His textbook, translated from Russian, was one of the most popular of the early ways to learn. Osugi Sakae, one of the most significant Japanese anarchists, was in prison in 1906 when the first Esperanto meetings were being held, but while there he began to study the language and on release was a very active participant, writing the first Japanese to Esperanto translation, setting up an Esperanto night school, and introducing the language to a number of expatriate Chinese students who went on to form the foundation of the Esperanto (and Anarchist) movement in China.
Cover of: Victor Garcia. Three Japanese Anarchists: Kotoku, Osugi and Yamaga (London. 2000). YC.2000.a.4780
In 1907 a Chinese-language magazine was published in Paris with the title Hinshi-gi (New Century), in which anarchist Chinese students called for Esperanto to come into general use in China. The first Esperanto courses in China began in 1906 in Shanghai.
And then there was Ho Chi Minh, a young revolutionary who was travelling the world. In 1915 he was living in Crouch End, London, and he learned Esperanto at around this time. He would go on to make use of it in 1945 when the Vietnamese radio service informed the world of the state’s declaration of independence.
Title page of the collection of poems of Ho Chi Min Tagkajero en prizono (Prison Diary) in Esperanto translation (Hanoi, 1966). YF.2016a.7793.
Esperanto was introduced into Korea by students who had learnt it in Japan. However, it would take too long to describe Esperanto’s fortunes in every country in Asia.
Just after the First World War, one of Esperanto’s early heroes was the Japanese Nitobe Inazo. When the League of Nations was established in 1920, Nitobe became one of the Under-Secretaries General of the League. He became a founding director of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (which later became UNESCO).
In August 1921, Nitobe took part in the 13th World Congress of Esperanto in Prague as the official delegate of the League of Nations. His report to the General Assembly of the League was the first objective report on Esperanto by a high-ranking official representative of an intergovernmental organization. Although the proposal for the League to accept Esperanto as their working language was accepted by ten delegates, mainly from Asian countries, the French delegate used his power of veto to block the issue.
In honour of Nitobe, a regular feature of World Esperanto Congresses over the last twenty years has been the Nitobe Symposium, in which well-known linguists discuss global language problems.
Esperanto also prospered in China during the same period. Among its supporters was the famous writer Lu Xun. The Chinese Esperanto movement soon became linked to other progressive cultural movements, and the language was learned by numerous intellectuals and revolutionaries.
Esperanto speakers accompanied Mao Zedong on the Long March, and after visiting an exhibition about Esperanto, Mao wrote, “If Esperanto is used as a means for presenting ideas which are truly internationalist and truly revolutionary, then Esperanto can and should be studied.” Mao’s comment opened the way for Esperanto in China.
Covers of: Prezidanto Mau Zedong. Pri popola milito (Pekino, 1968) YF.2014.a.16361 and Vortoj de Prezidanto Mau Zedong (Pekino, 1967) YP.2011.a.378
In the meantime Esperanto had found adepts in most other Asian countries. Some phenomena are difficult to explain. Iran is one of the Asian countries where the movement has done well from the early 20th century onwards throughout all political upheavals and revolutions. Both the Shah and the Ayatollahs approved its use, and the national movement celebrated its centenary in 2016. And what about Pakistan? The national Esperanto association formally joined the World Esperanto Association in 1978, and continues to hold conferences and publish textbooks in Urdu. For more detailed information about the movement in other Asian countries the best source is Gvidlibro pri Esperanto-movado en Azio (Guidbook to the Esperanto movement in Asia) by Chieko Doi (Yokohama, 1995; YF.2009.a.6158; Cover below).
There is no country in Asia without its Esperanto speakers, from Mongolia to Myanmar, including Kazakhstan, Indonesia, the Philippines and others. An Asian congress of Esperanto takes place every three years. The 8th Asian Congress took place in the Chinese city of Quanzhou in November 2016 with participants from 20 countries. The 9th Congress will be in the Vietnamese city of Da-Nang in 2019. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese are the most prolific publishers of books in Esperanto. The Chinese Esperanto magazine El Popola Ĉinio (From People’s China; ZF.9.a.6337) is produced by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing which has also published almost 200 books in Esperanto. China Radio International broadcasts regularly in Esperanto and recently has also started producing films for distribution on the Internet.
Considering the strength of the Esperanto movement in Asia, on the day when the 102nd World Esperanto Congress is opening in Seoul we can certainly claim that Esperanto is as much an Asian as a European language.
Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.
Inumaru Fumio, Vice President of the Commission for the Asian Esperanto Movement of the World Esperanto Association.
27 June 2016
On Friday 10 June, the British Library welcomed a host of expert speakers to discuss the global understanding of our ‘national’ poet. And it turns out Shakespeare is the poet of many nations. It would be impossible to do justice to the richness of the presentations in a blog post, yet all of our panels shared the fundamental idea that Shakespeare’s writing is at the heart of every culture. Adaptations and translations are not so much secondary to the original but offer a radically different entry into, and a potentially much more direct access to, a Shakespeare play that will always signify something particular to different nations in different social and temporal contexts.
Prof. Jerzy Limon (photo below) opened proceedings with a view into the establishment of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, designed by Renato Rizzi, at once a huge black modernist edifice in stark contrast to the red brick Northern European architecture (its 90 tonne retractable roof opens fully in 3 minutes), and a gothic castle-like structure, alluding to the city’s mediaeval Bazylika Mariacka. We saw videos of the theatre’s opening ceremony and of varied productions, showing how the space can be adapted to both traditional Elizabethan stage design and experimental avant-garde interpretations.
Stuart Gillespie and Graham Holderness offered us insights into the sources and settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Dr Gillespie explained how French and Italian were the languages of culture and how European (mainly Italian) sources – epics, essays (Montaigne’s predominantly), romances and novellas – were in the atmosphere around Shakespeare’s time and were inevitably absorbed and adapted in his works. Professor Holderness spoke of the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between Shakespeare and Venice and how the playwright had already created much of the myth around the city before it was (re-)created in 19th and 20th century literature.
The British Library’s Julian Harrison gave us a glimpse of the ‘Our Shakespeare’ exhibition currently at the Library of Birmingham, home to the second largest Shakespeare collection in the world. The collection was resurrected after a fire destroyed the old library building in 1879 and the collection was soon expanded thanks to donations from around the world. Julian highlighted the beautifully produced photo album of German Shakespeare scholars (1878), the photo album donated by Laurence Olivier, and a Russian edition of Romeo and Juliet presented by a Soviet delegation at the height of the Cold War. Julian also managed to show the importance of Warwickshire to the bard, just before the study day moved to more tropical climes.
Philip Crispin opened the afternoon’s proceedings with a rousing presentation on Une tempête (‘A Tempest’). In this ‘adaptation for a black theatre’, Aimé Césaire, one of the founders of négritude, recasts Ariel as a mulatto slave and Caliban as an articulate black slave in revolt, reflecting the racial politics of his native Martinique. Michael Walling, Artistic Director of intercultural, multimedia theatre company Border Crossings, presented an insider perspective of staging Shakespeare in India, and translating and staging Dev Virahsawmy’s Toufann, a Mauritian adaptation of The Tempest, in London. The linguistic choices made by both writer and translator in the case of Toufann were fascinating: the play is written in Mauritian creole, but the title is in Hindi – Prospero is from the dominant Indian diaspora community in Mauritius, and seeks to impose this new word into the play. Philip and Michael showed how these two postcolonial adaptations of The Tempest epitomise translation as creative interpretation.
Charles Forsdick introducing Philip Crispin and Michael Walling (Photo by Ben Schofield)
From considering just three performances, Paul Prescott encouraged us to look at hundreds in his whirlwind road trip presentation across the United States. The phenomenon of the Shakespeare festival was plain to see in the sheer spread and eclectic formats of these festivals. The bard’s work is not just made for the Globe Theatre but is at home anywhere and perhaps more at home in the small and distant communities of the American West. The day’s underlying theme again: Shakespeare is accessible universally. The idea was explored further by Mark Burnett, who showed how a constant industry of Shakespeare adaptation in film across Europe and South America sees in the plays stories that apply to a vast array of national settings, from gypsy versions of Hamlet (Aleksandar Rajkovic, Serbia, 2007) and King Lear (Romani Kris – Cigánytörvény, Bence Gyöngyössy, Hungary, 1997), to a Brazilian Romeo and Juliet set in the favelas of Rio (Maré, Nosse Historia de Amor, Lucia Murat, Brazil, 1997).
The day concluded with a round table on the ‘cultural politics of European Shakespeare’. Aleksandra Sakowska talked about the long history of interaction between Poland and Shakespeare, a presentation which touched on the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, Ira Aldridge. Nicole Fayard drew our attention to Shakespeare’s relevance in modern French society from the Vichy regime to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, showing how even in the latter situation Shakespeare managed to force his way into public consciousness. Keith Gregor described how Shakespeare productions in Spain still far outnumber those of the Spanish Golden Age playwrights, and how, after Franco’s reign, Shakespeare began to be appropriated by Spain’s autonomous communities in overtly political avant-garde productions. Emily Oliver presented a view of Shakespeare around the time of German reunification, particularly through the challenging production of Hamlet/Machine in 1990, directed by Heiner Müller (photo above by Ben Schofield). Hamlet could be seen building and jumping over a wall on stage in a not-so-subtle allegory of the political context. Erica Sheen chaired the discussion that followed which situated Shakespeare as the most significant figure of international cultural exchange and at the heart of every nation’s self-expression. Shakespeare gives voice to political counter-currents and his work is continually adapted to inhabit alternative, minority, and simply ‘foreign’ positions.
Final panel of the seminar. Photo by Ben Schofield
‘All the world is a stage’ begins Jacques’s monologue in As You Like It, and this study day left no doubt that will always be true for Shakespeare’s work.
This study day, organised by the European and Americas Collections department of the British Library, was supported by the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ Theme, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library/University of Bristol
European studies blog recent posts
- Repairing the Past: on We Slaves of Suriname
- Meet the Curators: A News-themed Session – 23 June 2022
- Astrid Roemer - unconventional, poetic and authentic
- Travelling through the British Library’s Dutch-Surinamese Collections via Johan Fretz’s ‘Onder de Paramariboom’
- A ‘Colonial Anecdote’ in Translation: Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s Adonis in Swedish
- Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration
- Translating Cultures: French Caribbean History, Literature and Migration
- Failing Colonizers or Failing Memory: Sweden in the Americas
- Esperanto as an Asian language
- All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare in Europe and the Americas