Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

23 January 2020

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part One

Imagine you’d left your home in London to establish a new life on the island of St Helena.  You begin a trading partnership with your fiancée’s uncle, and the Governor writes to the East India Company’s Directors singing your praises.   As a result, you become the island’s schoolmaster, and later the Company’s naturalist. You send out to England for your fiancée to join you and eagerly await her arrival…. only to find that she has transferred her affections to the ship's Captain and no longer intends to marry you.

This unfortunate turn of events happened to the naturalist and explorer William John Burchell (1781-1863).  During his time on St Helena (1805-10), his travels across South Africa (1810-15), and his expedition to Brazil via Portugal, Madeira and Tenerife (1825-30), he collected tens of thousands of animal, plant, and insect specimens and a variety of ethnographic material.  A talented artist, he made many drawings and paintings, including landscapes, specimens, and the people he encountered.  Burchell has a zebra, several birds, a lizard, fish, butterflies, a plant genus, and even the army ant Eciton burchellii named after him, yet he is not generally well known.

Portrait of William John BurchellWilliam John Burchell by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), after John Sell Cotman etching (1816) NPG D7805 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

William was born in Fulham in 1781 to the nurseryman Matthew Burchell and his wife Jane.  His early life was surrounded by plants from all over the world, and he came into contact with many of the day's leading botanists.  He worked for a while at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and by 1803 had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society.  However in August 1805 we find Burchell signed up as 4th mate on the East India Company ship Northumberland.  What made Burchell leave his blossoming botanical career in London?  The answer seems to be a young woman named Lucia Green.  Burchell’s family objected to the match, presumably making him determined to succeed on his own terms.  He arranged a trading partnership with Lucia’s uncle William Balcombe, who had permission ‘to proceed to St Helena for the purpose of exercising the business of an Auctioneer and Appraiser, to the said Island’.

List of the ship's company on the NorthumberlandIOR/L/MAR/B/141 O List of the ship's company on the Northumberland Noc

How Burchell was able to join the Northumberland is not clear.  He did not have the required maritime experience, so perhaps there was a friendship with Captain George Raincock, or a connection with one of the ship’s principal managing owners, Henry Hounsom, William Masson or William Sims.  The ship arrived at St Helena on 13 December 1805.  The ship’s journal notes that Burchell “Left sick at St Helena 28 Jan 1806”, but the presumption is that he never intended to travel further.

 View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. from Burchell's Saint Helena Journal  View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810. Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Burchell was appointed schoolmaster in June 1806 and asked to focus on educating the young men of the island in the light of Company regulations for cadets.  In November 1806 it was proposed that Burchell develop and look after a botanic garden in James’s Valley.  In 1808 Burchell was appointed as the Company’s naturalist, to “ascertain and investigate the natural productions of the Island… in the hope that something valuable for the purposes of commerce or manufacture might be brought to light”.  He was asked to send back samples of “coloured earths” and “sea fowl guano”, to look after plants destined for England, and investigate the cultivation of cotton. 

Sketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles - St Helena JournalSketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles: Burchell - 'There's a famous big one down there Charles; Charles - Yes Sir, I'll soon have that down'. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810 – Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

And all the while, he awaited the arrival of his fiancée Lucia Green.

To be continued…

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/141 O: Journal of the Northumberland
IOR/L/MAR/B/181 F: Journal of the Walmer Castle
IOR/G/32/70-75: St Helena Consultations
IOR/G/32/136-138: St Helena: Original Letters &c from St Helena to the Court
IOR/B/141, 146 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors
Susan Buchanan, Burchell’s Travels. The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell, 1781-1863 (Cape Town, 2015)
William J. Burchell, Travels in the Interior of southern Africa  (London, 1822-1824)
Buchell’s St Helena drawings, and his manuscript notes on the flora and fauna of St Helena (together with other archival material) are held by the Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Burchell’s original St Helena diary, together with other papers and correspondence, is held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  It has been published by Robin Castell in William John Burchell (1781-1863) [on] St. Helena (1805-1810) (St Helena: Castell Collection, 2011). The diary is quoted in Buchanan, op. cit.
Other Burchell papers, and papers relating to Burchell can be found at the Linnean Society (Correspondence with William Swainston), and the William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand (including copies of material at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the papers of Helen Millar McKay in connection with her research on Burchell). Further drawings and paintings by Burchell can be found in the collections of Museum Africa in Johannesburg.

 

21 January 2020

George Orwell and the Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey

In 1945 George Orwell signed up as a sponsor of the Freedom Defence Committee in defence of three anarchists who had been jailed at the Old Bailey.

List of members of Freedom Defence CommitteeList of members of Freedom Defence Committee from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Noc

It was just before the end of the Second World War, and a small group of anarchists in Britain had been publishing anti-war articles in a publication called War Commentary since 1939. The anarchists believed that governments with a strict top-to-bottom hierarchy were to blame for war and that Britain’s mistreatment of colonies in the empire was unjust. They didn’t approve of borders, and thought that private property caused conflict.

The intelligence service MI5 had been aware of the anarchists’ subversive publications for many years, but it wasn’t until the end of the war neared in 1944 that MI5 began to be concerned.  They feared that returning soldiers might try to overthrow the British government, and that the anarchists were telling servicemen to hold on to their guns for the revolution!

Freedom is it a crime? Header from pamphlet about trial of anarchists at Old Bailey 1945Freedom - Is it a Crime? Header from pamphlet 1899.ss.4.(29.) Noc

Eventually, four anarchists—Marie Louise Berneri, Vernon Richards, John Hewetson, and Philip Sansom—were charged on 22 February 1945 with dissemination of seditious materials.  Only three anarchists were prosecuted, however, as Marie Louise Berneri was married to Vernon Richards and technically could not conspire with her husband.  Outside their trial, art historian Herbert Read gave speeches in support of their cause: ‘I speak to you as an Englishman, as one proud to follow in the tradition of Milton and Shelley –the tradition of all those poets and philosophers who have given us the proud right to claim freedom of speech and the liberty of unlicensed printing’.

In addition to Herbert Read’s speeches, the Freedom Press Defence Committee was set up to help raise funds for legal fees.  George Orwell was a part of this committee which stated its aims as existing as a ‘vigilance’ against cases ‘concerning the infringement of civil liberties’.  While MI5 were worried about revolutions, many well-known writers and politicians were worried about the British government keeping military law after the war was over.  Famous sponsors of the committee included Aneurin Bevan (who would go on to establish the NHS) and Alex Comfort (who would go on to write The Joy of Sex).

A copy of the speeches was kept by Orwell in his collection of political pamphlets which is now held at the British Library.  He himself would go on to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, a novel about a government suppressing the free speech of citizens in England.

Claudia Treacher
University of Brighton PhD candidate on conscientious objection during WWII
@ClaudiaTreacher

Further Reading:
Read, Herbert. Freedom, Is It a Crime?: The Strange Case of the Three Anarchists Jailed at the Old Bailey, April 1945. London: Freedom Press Defence Committee, 1945.
Honeywell, Carissa. ‘Anarchism and the British Warfare State: The Prosecution of the War Commentary Anarchists, 1945’. International Review of Social History 60, no. 2 (2015): 257–84.
George Orwell 
Collection of pamphlets, mainly political, formed by George Orwell 
Pamphlet literature by George Orwell

 

17 January 2020

William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place

2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.  To commemorate this the British Library is hosting a free exhibition on the poet that opens today in our Treasures Gallery.  Entitled ‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ this exhibition tells the story of Wordsworth’s life and explores the role place played in his poetry.  Visitors will be able to see original documents from the British Library’s collections including early drafts of Wordsworth’s verse, his notebooks, his annotated books, correspondence and more.  The earliest surviving draft of Wordsworth’s poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ can be seen alongside books bound in one of Mary Wordsworth’s old dresses.

Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’Manuscript draft of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Noc

Wordsworth was born on the edge of the Lake District in Cockermouth, Cumberland, on 7 April 1770.  Throughout his life he found solace and inspiration in the natural world and expressed this in his poetry which was often closely connected with specific locations.

‘Place’ is more than a geographic area but a host of associations.  As a concept it encompasses the, often highly personal, emotional, cultural, political, and religious responses an individual – or group – attaches to a territory.  Wordsworth fully understand this concept of ‘place’ and his poem ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ is a landmark in this regard.  The poem invokes personal memory, experience and feeling to convey the private meaning the abbey has for the poet.

The South East View of Tintern AbbeyFrederick Calvert, The South East View of Tintern Abbey (London: Burkitt & Hudson, 1815). Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. Noc

Wordsworth first saw the abbey as a troubled, ‘thoughtless youth’ in 1793, having just made his French mistress, Annette Vallon, pregnant in Revolutionary France before becoming separated from her by the French Revolutionary Wars.  Upon ‘revisiting’ the abbey, five years later, in 1798 the tranquillity of the site and his hope for a better future inspired the poem.  By expressing the personal emotional connotations the abbey held for him, Wordsworth establishes ‘Tintern Abbey’ as poem of ‘place’ rather than ‘landscape’. By reflecting upon his current and former self within a powerful and unchanging landscape the poem marks an important divergence in the genre of topographical poetry which had traditionally simply praised an estate or particular view.  ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ was published shortly after Wordsworth’s visit in Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ in Lyrical Ballads (Bristol, 1798). Ashley 2250. Noc

Many of Wordsworth’s poems contain in their titles claims that they were ‘composed’ in the places they describe.  This is the case with several poems on display in the British Library’s exhibition, including the poems ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend.  Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres’.  The titles consciously convey Wordsworth’s understanding of ‘place’ and that poetry can express the emotional responses that a particular location can elicit.

‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ ‘To a Friend. Composed near Calais on the road leading to Ardres, August 1802’ prepared for the printers, 1806. Add MS 47864. Noc

Both poems, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘To a Friend’ were originally written by Wordsworth as he travelled to meet his illegitimate daughter, Caroline, in France for the first time.  As such, the places Wordsworth passed through on his journey attained a new importance that he expresses in these powerful poems.

‘William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place’ is open in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery from 17 January –31 May 2020.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Stephen Gill, Wordsworth’s Revisitings (Oxford: OUP, 2011)
David McCracken, Wordsworth and the Lake District: A Guide to the Poems and their Places (Oxford: OUP, 1985)
Fiona Stafford, ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry of Place’ in The Oxford Handbook of William Wordsworth, ed. by Richard Gravil & Daniel Robinson (Oxford: OUP, 2015), PP.309-324