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8 posts from October 2020

27 October 2020

Wearing a face mask

With the coronavirus pandemic we are all getting used to wearing facemasks in a range of public spaces from shops to transport.  Yet whilst the wearing of masks feels very new to us it is not the first time that they have been employed as a form of protection during an epidemic.

Face masks have been worn as a form of protection from foul air, or miasma, since at least the early 17th century.  The miasma theory of infection, which was accepted by doctors from the 1st century BC until well into the 19th century, ventured that many diseases – such as plague and cholera – were caused and spread through populations inhaling bad air.  (Indeed, the disease malaria literally takes its name from bad (mal) air (aria) in medieval Italian.)  In order to be protected doctors, and the public alike, often carried posies of flowers to freshen the air around them or wore face coverings that both acted as a physical barrier against bad air and attempted to fragrance (and thus purify) the air that was breathed.

Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor wearing a mask- ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor entitled ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rome’, [trans. ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’], 1656. from Wikimedia Commons


One of the most striking and recognisable protective face masks from the past is the long beaked mask worn by plague doctors throughout the 17th century. The mask has been credited as being developed in 1619 by Charles de Lorme (1584-1678), the physician to the French kings Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.  The mask, which was a form of early respirator, covered the doctor’s full face with glass openings for the eyes and two air holes for the nostrils.  The long beak contained a cavity into which was stuffed a variety of aromatic items intended to purify the foul air that passed through the mask.  It would typically be filled with dried flowers, herbs, spices or a sponge soaked in vinegar.  The mask’s grotesque features made the plague doctor an instantly recognisable and feared figure and it eventually became a popular costume for revellers at the Carnival of Venice – an event made famous for its elaborate masks.

Kid skin face mask with silk ribbonsKid skin mask with silk ribbons, worn as a prophylactic against the plague, c. 1660. Add MS 78428 B Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Although not as dramatic as those worn by the plague doctors, the British Library holds a face covering from the mid-17th century that has some similar features to shield against the plague.  The Library’s covering is made from fine kidskin leather and comprises a pouch into which the wearer could place scented materials to protect the nose and mouth from foul air.  The Library’s intriguing face covering is found in the archive of the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) and was possibly worn by him as a form of protection during the London plague epidemic of 1665-1666; the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.

It is not clear how much protection these plague masks afforded, but both de Lorme and Evelyn lived through years of plague to survive well into old age.  Masks can clearly help support public health and though it feels strange at first, we should remember wearing them in an epidemic is nothing new.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives

 

22 October 2020

Eliza Armstrong – Another Piece of the Puzzle

This blog post provides a modest update to curator Margaret Makepeace’s 2012 and 2016 blog posts on Untold Lives - Whatever happened to Eliza Armstrong? and Eliza Armstrong – still elusive!  Readers are encouraged to refresh their memory of Margaret’s posts before reading on here.


A letter from Eliza West (formerly Armstrong) to W. T. Stead, dated 6 March 1906, and sent from 50 Gladstone Street, Hebburn, confirms Eliza’s marriage to Henry George West, and his death, which left Eliza struggling to support her family and searching for ways to generate the necessary income to keep her household afloat.

Gladstone Street in 1987 showing terraced housesGladstone Street in 1987. Copyright South Tyneside Libraries

That W. T. Stead and Eliza were still in touch may come as a surprise to those familiar with ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, Stead’s series of sensational, New Journalism articles, published in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, in an attempt to end the deadlock in Parliament over the Criminal Law Amendment Act.  Stead was vilified (and rightly so) for his part in the abduction of Eliza, in his overzealous campaign to prove that a child could be bought for £5 and sold into sex slavery on the streets of London.

In Eliza’s letter to Stead she thanks him for his ‘kind and welcome letter’ and the gift of a ‘butafull’ [sic] book.  There has clearly been some delay between Stead’s last missive and Eliza’s reply because she apologises for not responding sooner and tells Stead she has been ill.  The letter is familiar in tone, and in it Eliza informs Stead that she has made up her mind to take in lodgers: ‘for a liveing as I realy don’t know what else to do [sic]’.  She signs off ‘thanking you so much for all your kindness I never will forget nor cease to remember all your kindness to us'.

In the same year a letter on Salvation-Army-Headquarters-headed-paper and dated 31 October begins with the subject line:

MRS WEST = ELIZA ARMSTRONG

The letter is from Commissioner Adelaide Cox and begins ‘My dear Chief’ (presumably, therefore, it is addressed to Bramwell Booth).  Commissioner Cox informs Booth that she has ‘instructed Staff-Captain Salt to continue to visit this woman [Eliza West] once a week until she has really turned her present difficult corner’.

The letter goes on to say: ‘We are taking up the question of the children at our Headquarters here.  There are five; and the idea is to find Homes for the three middle children.  Mrs West is willing for this.  At present, there are two lodgers in the house, who pay weekly, and all would be well in this direction, but for the fact that Mrs West has something the matter with her leg, and is obliged to attend the Infirmary'.

Those five children were Alice Maud May (born 1896), and referred to as her eldest ‘May’ in Eliza’s letter to Stead, William Frederick (born 1898), Sybil Primrose (born 1900), Phyllis Irene (born 1902) and Henry George (born 1904).

Between March and October Eliza must have moved quickly to bring in the lodgers mentioned both in her letter to Stead and that of Adelaide Cox’s letter to Bramwell Booth.  And by 1911 it would seem that the Army had succeeded also, in placing those ‘three middle children’ elsewhere, because William Frederick, Sybil Primrose and Phyllis Irene are not listed as members of Eliza’s new household with partner Samuel O’Donnell in the 1911 census return.

Table based on census returns for the West and O'Donnell families in 1901 and 1911

* The 1911 census records ‘children born alive to present marriage’, and sub-divides that information between ‘total children born alive’, ‘children still living’ and ‘children who have died’.  Tellingly, and indeed poignantly, in Eliza’s column, under total children born alive the number 9 is written; children still living 8; children who have died 1; and then each number is struck-through as the realisation is made that only O’Donnell’s children count here, and so the numbers 3, 2, 1 are placed above the original numbers recorded.  This however, again, is not quite accurate, as Eliza’s dead child is Reginald Ladas West (born 1894, died 1897).  Nevertheless, this semi-legible, deleted information tells us that Eliza lost at least 1 child in her lifetime, and at the time of the 1911 census was survived by at least 8.  A recent search of the General Register Office birth index adds two more children born to Eliza and Samuel, Minnie and Norman O’Donnell.

Dr Helena Goodwyn
Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Northumbria University

 

20 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.5 Colonial New England from the 1640s onwards

During the 1630s up to 20,000 people emigrated from England to New England.  This period is known as the Great Migration and many of the emigrés were separatists or puritans.  However, colonial life wasn’t for everyone.  During the 1640s, more puritans returned to England than left.  Many returned to fight in the English Civil War.

In the latter half of the 17th century, English colonies expanded throughout the territories of several Algonquian-speaking tribes.  The English established praying towns to convert local people to Christianity.  Relations between Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag tribe broke down, increasing tensions further.

The war that followed, known as King Philip’s War (1675-1678), was the deadliest conflict seen in North America.  The colonists won; thousands of Native Americans were killed or sold into slavery. It was a huge blow for their resistance to colonisation.

Anxieties about the English Civil War by an early female poet

Open copy of Anne Bradstreet's Several Poems…by a Gentlewoman in New-EnglandAnne Bradstreet, Several Poems…by a Gentlewoman in New-England, 1678. C.39.b.48 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was an English poet and one of the first female writers to be published in North America.  She emigrated on the Arbella in 1630 and settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony with her family.  Her 1642 poem A Dialogue Between Old England and New is about the English Civil War.  Young America asks Mother England what is troubling her, to which she replies 'a new conflict' and laments her ‘plundered townes’ and her ‘young men slaine’.


Translating the Bible for Algonquian Native Americans

Title page of the first translation of the Bible into the Massachusett languageWusku Wuttestamentum nul-lordumun Jesus Christ nuppoquohwussuaeneumun. Cambridge: Printed by Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1661. C.51.b.3 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the first translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, printed at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1661. It was produced for so-called ‘Praying Indians’ – native people who had been converted to Christianity.

It was jointly translated by John Eliot, a Christian missionary, and Cockenoe, a Native American captured and enslaved during the Pequot War in 1637. Cockenoe taught Eliot the language and acted as his interpreter. This book is known as the Eliot Indian Bible, underplaying Cockenoe’s vital involvement in the work.


Mapping King Philip’s War

First printed map produced in North America  cut by John Foster and orientated to the west instead of the northWilliam Hubbard, A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England, Boston: Printed by John Foster, 1677, G.7146 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the first printed map produced in North America.  It was cut by John Foster and is orientated to the west instead of the north.  The map conveys a political message, illustrating the English settlements attacked by Native Americans during King Philip’s War (marked by a number next to the place name).  This was meant to emphasise the violence of the Native Americans.  The map does not reflect Native American lands or the devastating impact of the war on tribal populations in any way.


Enslaved people in colonial America

Transatlantic slave voyages to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America began in the mid-16th century.  The traders of enslaved people were not only Spanish.  The first recorded transatlantic slave voyage that departed from an English port was in 1563.   This was bound for Hispaniola.

The first transatlantic slave voyage from an English port to an English colony via the African coast was to Barbados in 1641.  However, enslaved African people were bought at South American and Caribbean ports and transported to New England from the 1630s.  English involvement in slavery increased in frequency from the 1640s onwards.  Some colonists in Plymouth Colony owned enslaved people.

Front page of Boston Gazette 11 December 1721 Extract from Boston Gazette with news of inward and outward bound ships and an advertisement for the sale of two women slavesBoston Gazette, 11 December 1721 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


This is an issue from 1721 of the Boston Gazette, one of the earliest newspapers printed in colonial North America.  In the left-hand column, you can see the news of inward and outward bound ships.  Many of these were slave ships.  In the right-hand column, there is an advertisement for the sale of ‘two very likely Negroe Women for either Town or Country Business, to be sold by Mr. John Powell Merchant in Boston’.


Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

15 October 2020

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in April 1775, the British Army soon realised that it lacked the manpower it needed to prosecute the war.  One action taken was the issuing of the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 which decreed that slaves who joined the British to fight against the American revolutionaries would be freed from slavery.  Thousands of slaves joined the British forces in response where they became known as the Black Loyalists and were formed into a number of military units such as the Black Pioneers and the Ethiopians.   The Black Pioneers accompanied General Henry Clinton to Rhode Island when he was tasked with taking Newport in 1776.

Map of Rhode Island in 1776 marked with the positions of British RegimentsMap of Rhode Island in 1776, Add MS 57715, f.3. The map is marked with the positions of British Regiments. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With the conclusion of hostilities, the future of the Black Loyalists remained uncertain and they were under threat of re-enslavement.  General Washington demanded that the British obey the Treaty of Paris (1783) which had specified that all American property, including slaves, be returned.  The British instead attempted to keep their original promise by relocating thousands of ex-slaves outside of the United States.  Sir Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in North America, oversaw the evacuation of Black Loyalists and many other black individuals living behind British lines – some runaway slaves, some born free men, as well as their families - to British territory including Jamaica, London (where many became known as London Black Poor), and Nova Scotia.

A manuscript record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of IndependenceA record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of Independence. Add MS 21743, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Nova Scotia the Black Loyalists were promised land and freedom, but Nova Scotia proved to be hostile both environmentally and socially.  A description of the relocation to Nova Scotia is given in a report commissioned by Sir Carleton.

Title page of the manuscript report on Nova ScotiaTitle page of the report on Nova Scotia, Kings MS 208, f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Page from manuscript report showing increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arriveThis page traces the increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arrive. Kings MS 208, 24 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report made direct reference to the Black Loyalists settling in Nova Scotia and stated that they numbered around 3000 at the point of writing in 1784.

The following page of the report explains the difficulties that have arisen already with lack of land to cultivate and insists that provisions be made for the new settlers lest they ‘perish – they have no other country to go to – no other asylum'.

Manuscript document giving description of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova ScotiaDescription of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova Scotia. Kings MS 208, f.32 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With many of the black settlers feeling betrayed, an unusual and challenging plan was devised: to relocate these families from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, to form a new colony of free people, who would govern themselves.  The decision to relocate the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia developed upon an earlier project that had relocated a number of the ‘black poor’ of London to Sierra Leone.  Granville Sharp, philanthropist and abolitionist was a seminal figure in the original plan.  The recently formed Sierra Leone Company would orchestrate the new project and instigated John Clarkson - the younger brother of abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson - as the agent in charge of the mission.  However, the figure who was instrumental in devising the plan was the former slave and Black Pioneer, Thomas Peters.

The next blog is this series will examine Thomas Peters’ role in the establishment of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the letters in the British Library that were composed by him.

A view from the sea of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone 1790 with a sailing ship in the foregroundA View of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone by Cornelis Apostool. 1790, before the re-settlement of the Nova Scotian Black Loyalists. British Library Maps.K.Top.117.100 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

13 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.4 The first 20 years of Plymouth Colony continued

A massacre by Plymouth Colony militia

This is a journal chronicling events that occurred between 1622 and 1623 in and around the Plymouth Colony, obviously from a colonialist perspective.  One event in particular stands out.

Title page of Edward Winslow's Good Newes from New EnglandEdward Winslow, Good Newes from New England, C.132.h.20(2) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

During these early years of the colony there was a growing threat from the Narragansett and Massachusett tribes.  At the same time, more badly provisioned men were arriving at the colony amidst a shortage of food.  They settled at nearby Wessagusset and stole corn from the Massachusett tribe.  Tensions grew and rumours reached Plymouth of an oncoming attack.

To purportedly pre-empt this, the Plymouth militia massacred a group of Massachusett visitors in Wessagusset.  This atrocity is described by Winslow in this book as 'the just judgment of God upon [the Native American’s] guilty consciences' for plotting against the English.

A different perspective

Page from Thomas Morton's New English CanaanThomas Morton, New English Canaan, 1637. C.33.c.27 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The majority of contemporary printed sources about the Plymouth Colony were written by the colonists themselves or to promote further settlement in North America.  Thomas Morton, however, wrote from a different perspective.

His book is a harsh critique of the Plymouth Colony’s treatment of the native people, who Morton describe as more 'civilised and humanitarian' than the colonists.  Morton claims that Massasoit only made peace with the colonists because they claimed to keep the plague in their powder store and said they could unleash it at any time.   He also recounts the atrocity at Wessagusset, describing how the colonists 'pretended to feast the savages' before stabbing them with their own knives.


The Mystic Massacre

Engraving depicting the Mystic Massacre in 1637, a brutal attack by militia by colonists and their allies on a Pequot fortified villageJohn Underhill, Newes from America; or, a New and Experimentall Discoverie of New England; containing, a True Relation of their War-Like Proceedings, 1638. C.33.c.25 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This engraving depicts the Mystic Massacre in 1637, a brutal attack by colonists and their allies on a Pequot fortified village during the Pequot War (1636-1638).

The war against the Pequot tribe was fought by an alliance of the colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Saybrook colonies and their allies from the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes.  It was ostensibly caused by tribal competition for political dominance and control of the fur trade, however this power vacuum only existed as a result of European involvement in the region and the spread of epidemics that reduced native populations.

The violence at Mystic horrified the colonists’ tribal allies.  Over 500 Pequots died, including women and children, as the village was torched. By the end of the war, the tribe was effectively extinct.

The loss of tribal lands

Deed showing the purchase and transfer of lands from Sachem Uncas, of the Mohegan tribe, to English colonists.Collection of Sundry Original Deeds of Conveyance of Lands ceded by Indian Sachems to English settlers in New England, from 1659 to 1711. Lansdowne MS 1052 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These are original manuscript deeds showing the purchase and transfer of lands from Sachem Uncas, of the Mohegan tribe, to English colonists. The Mohegans allied with the English colonists during the Pequot War and later conflicts such as King Philip’s War. This was to defend themselves against the Narragansetts.

By 1676 Uncas had suffered heavy losses and, in this weakened position, he ceded all Mohegan lands apart from a reserve of farms and hunting grounds to the colonists in exchange for protection.  Tract by tract, field by field, Native American lands were slowly lost to the English colonists during the 17th and 18th centuries.


Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

08 October 2020

The Law of Forfeiture: Applying English Traditions in India?

In a delicate case from 1864 the Privy Council considered whether the English practice of forfeiture following a suicide should apply to a subject of the British Raj.

Following the death of Rajah Christenauth Roy Bayadoor in Calcutta on 31 October 1844, a second will was discovered, written by him that morning, which left a portion of his estate to the East India Company (EIC).  Since his death was by his own hand, Bayadoor’s widow, Ranee Surnomoyee, disputed the validity of this will on the grounds that it was not written in sound mind.  The court found in favour of Ranee Surnomoyee, declaring the second will to be invalid.

The Court House, Calcutta - a hand-coloured print by Frederick Fiebig in 1851, showing people in the foreground, with a cart and a palanquin.The Court House, Calcutta, where the case would first have been heard.  A hand-coloured print from the Fiebig Collection: Views of Calcutta and Surrounding Districts, by Frederick Fiebig in 1851. British Library Online Gallery

An appeal was then made to the Privy Council against this verdict on behalf of the EIC, citing the law of forfeiture in cases of suicide.  A digitised copy of the response of the Council is available to view on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII).

Known as felo-de-se within English common law, meaning 'crime of his-, or herself', suicide in England was associated with restless souls.  Confirmed victims were historically buried at crossroads with a stake through their heart, possibly in an effort to stop the soul from wandering.  The law was only changed to allow burials within churchyards following the tragic death of Foreign Secretary Viscount Castlereagh in 1822.   Even then, restrictions still applied.   In her book on Victorian attitudes to suicide, Barbara Gates states that churchyard burials were allowed without Christian rites and restricted to 'at night, between the hours of nine and midnight, and his/her goods and chattels must still be turned over to the Crown'.

Robert Stewart  Viscount CastlereaghRobert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, took his own life in 1822, probably due to stress and depression caused by the strain of his political career and public unpopularity. The suicide of such a public figure inspired the re-examination of related English laws. Image from Jonah Barrington, Historic Memoirs of Ireland (London, 1833) BL flickr

Intended as a deterrent to criminals, the law of forfeiture passed the deceased’s property to the Crown and away from inheritors.  It also applied to suicides, which were considered a crime against the individual, God and the Crown.  Abolished by the Forfeiture Act 1870, the practice was applied infrequently, even at the time of our case.

In the appeal the representative of the EIC did not further contest the second will.  Instead he argued that English law, including forfeiture, applied in the colonies.  The privy councillors therefore had to consider the application of these laws in India.

They examined cultural differences between Britons and Indians to find examples of where British law did not fit with Indian traditions.  The main examples given by the Council were polygamy and child marriage.  Although shocking to Victorian sensibilities, these were part of the culture and beliefs of Indians at the time and so the EIC had allowed them to continue.  Therefore, by adapting English law to suit Indian culture, the EIC had set a precedent.

In conclusion, the Privy Councillors expressed their surprise at an effort to enforce forfeiture following a suicide as late as 1844 and their confusion at its application to an Indian Hindu.  They found in favour of the descendants of Rajah Christenauth Roy Bayadoor and allowed them to retain possession of his property.

Matthew Waters
Cataloguer, Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Barbara T Gates, Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories, 2nd edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - Stewart, Robert, Viscount Castlereagh and second Marquess of Londonderry

 

06 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.3 The first 20 years of Plymouth Colony

The colonists signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, before they disembarked the ship.  This was to establish legal order and quell dissenting views between the separatists and the other passengers on how the colony should be run.

The colonists settled at an abandoned settlement of the Patuxet people in Wampanoag territory.  They had raided this settlement shortly after their arrival, desecrating graves in their search for corn stores.  It became Plymouth Colony.  Construction began in December but most people stayed on the ship.  Many succumbed to disease and, by the spring, only 47 survived.  Local people made contact in March 1621 and it was only because of the help of Tisquantum, the sole survivor of the Patuxet people, that the colonists survived.

The arrival of the Plymouth colonists put Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags, in a vulnerable position.  He had already witnessed the devastating effects of disease and colonisation on his people and the neighbouring Narragansetts were threatening.  He had little choice but to sign a peace treaty and ally with the English colonists, which he did at the end of March 1621.

That is not to say, however, that the Plymouth colonists maintained peace with other local Native American tribes in the years that followed.  Tensions in the region heightened as the English founded more colonies, encroaching on native territories.  The Plymouth colonists were perpetrators of violence and brutality towards some communities, namely the Massachusetts at Wessagusset in 1623 and the Pequots in the 1630s.

The first printed account of Plymouth Colony

 Title page of 'Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth'  1622Edward Winslow and William Bradford, Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth, 1622, C.33.c.7 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, this is the earliest printed account of the establishment of Plymouth Colony.  It functioned as a promotional tract, an appeal for investment and an attempt to gloss over the hardships and uncertainties facing the colony in its first two years.

The Mayflower Compact is printed, for the first time, in this account.  This was to give the impression of law and order within the colony and to emphasise that there was a unified mind-set across the colonists, separatist or otherwise.

This account also emphasises the devout nature of Plymouth Colony.  However, a mention of the whaling opportunities in the area lets slip the economic factors behind its establishment.  The colony quickly got involved with the profitable fur trade.  These things tend to be glossed over in the Pilgrim tradition.

This account also emphasises that relations between the local people and the English were cordial, ignoring any tension and conflict caused by their invasion of Wampanoag land.  Indeed, this relation’s description of the sharing of food between the Wampanoags and the English has become celebrated as the First Thanksgiving, but this is a mythologised 19th century reinterpretation of events.

Winslow and Bradford’s account also introduces us to Tisquantum of the Patuxet people.  Tisquantum had been abducted by English explorer Thomas Hunt and sold into slavery.  He escaped, returning to America to find his tribe wiped out by disease.  He worked ceaselessly to establish peace between the colonists and the local people, living in the colony for 20 months and acting as a translator, advisor and diplomat for Massasoit.  Tisquantum is often depicted as a ‘noble savage’ but he should be remembered as a practical advisor and skilled diplomat.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

01 October 2020

‘Can you sign this for me?’ Collecting the autographs of famous 17th century figures

As part of our major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital, the British Library have recently digitised and made available a collection of our world-class Tudor and Stuart manuscripts.  For an introduction to this valuable resource, see our blog post Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts go online.  To view these manuscripts, visit our Digitised Manuscripts webpage.

 
There are many treasures in among these new digital acquisitions, but in particular we would like to introduce two curious albums full of signatures.  Their shelfmarks are Add MS 15736 and Add MS 17083.  These manuscripts may not appear at first to be the most illuminating of manuscripts as their pages contain sparse annotations rather than full, descriptive text.  They serve a completely different purpose to those manuscript formats that we are accustomed to, those of letters, diaries, transcripts, drafts and official accounts, but regardless, they offer a fascinating insight into 17th century society, fame and friendship.

Cover  of friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew- red leather with gold fleur de lys decorations Folio showing owner of friendship book was George Andrew
Friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew - Add MS 15736, front and f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

This is the friendship album or ‘stammbuch’ of George Andrew.  In this book, George Andrew collected the autographs and drawings of the arms of well-known individuals during the years 1612 – 1623.  These autographs were principally collected at Strasbourg and Stier.   Autograph albums such as this one emerged in the German and Dutch linguistic regions and were used by students as a form of memorabilia and a way of recording contacts one had made.  Their initial purpose was decidedly sentimental and they would function in a similar way to the high school yearbook does today.  However, the tradition of collecting signatures grew in popularity and moved out from the immediate vicinity of early modern universities into wider life.  People would carry them on their person during their travels and during their academic life, using them to record dedications from friends, but likewise as a compendium of significant contacts.
 

George Andrew’s book contains some very famous signatures which he would have been proud to hold and show off to his friends.

Autograph of Charles, Prince of Wales)  Autograph of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia.
Add MS 15736, ff.4-5. The autographs of Charles I (then Prince of Wales) and Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These manuscripts can show us who was of importance in the 17th century. Aside from the autographs of princes, kings and queens that these books contain, there are also many bishops, scholars and other members of the aristocracy.

The tradition of collecting autographs and dedications also involved collecting visual representations of significant figures.  The friendship album of Sir Thomas Cuming (Add MS 17083) includes a large number of coats of arms that have been painted onto the pages.  These beautiful and delicate paintings would often have been commissioned by the new acquaintance by an artist on their behalf.   One can see how these volumes full of tens of careful paintings would have become quite precious items to their owners.

The Arms of Frederick V,  Elector Palatine of the Rhine  Coat of arms of George William Margrave.
Add MS 17083, f.3v. The Arms of Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine and f.7v. coat of arms of George William Margrave. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These volumes are also illustrative of a particular power structure in place in the 17th century.  The volumes belonged to men because these were part of the traditions of the university arena to which women were not admitted.  They were supposed to present an image of their owners as well-known, connected and cosmopolitan men.  The signatures in these books shows us a network of powerful individuals as only the privileged would have been able to write in this era.  The books are a who’s who of 17th century Europe, an index of the influential, and an equivalent contemporary autograph collection like this would be hard to come by.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

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