THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Americas studies blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

13 November 2014

Mark Twain and the SS Batavia

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HolbrookMudHouse

Last week, taking some time away from the redbrick and slate beehive that is the British Library, I headed to the Jeffersonian columns and crinkle crankle walls of Charlottesville, VA. Taken from the third best coffee shop in town, this cameraphone photograph shows – if you look hard enough – one of America’s best-loved actors, Hal Holbrook, in town for a performance of Mark Twain Tonight! at the Virginia Film Festival. Holbrook has been performing his one-man Twain play for over sixty years (and filmed in 1967). A documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, which explores his iconic portrait of the writer, was also screened during the festival.

Sadly, I didn’t catch any of it (although I did manage to do some work in the coffee shop). But there is never an excuse to miss a dose of Twain, thanks to The Mark Twain Papers & Project (MTP) at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. For the second of a possible series of posts on Atlantic crossings (see the first, Taking the Train to America), we can join Samuel Clemens on board the Cunard Steamer SS Batavia in November 1872. Twain had been touring Britain but was returning to his wife and surviving child. He had planned on publishing a book about his tour, and was looking forward to satirizing English ‘institutions and customs’, the MTP editors suggest, taking this quotation from an interview in the Chicago Evening Post in December 1871 as a harbinger of the tone he would take (on the Prince of Wale’s recovery from typhoid – see the medical bulletins and other materials in the Lowe-Elkington papers at Add MSS 78749, ff. 91-115; 78751 A & 78752 A).

I’m glad the boy’s going to get well; I’m glad, and not ashamed to own it. For he will probably make the worst King Great Britain has ever had. And that’s what the people need, exactly. They need a bad King. He’ll be a blessing in disguise. He’ll tax ’em, and disgrace ’em, and oppress ’em, and trouble ’em in a thousand ways, and they’ll go into training for resistance. The best King they can have is a bad King. He’ll cultivate their self-respect and self-reliance, and their muscle, and they’ll finally kick him out of office and set up for themselves. (“Brevities,” 21 Dec 71, 4)

But once in England, the writer instead ‘found himself reluctant to mock cherished beliefs or traditions for fear of offending his new English friends’, the editors note. As Twain put it, it did not want to cause a 'a violation of the courteous hospitality'.

During his stay, Twain travelled, met Henry Morton Stanley, inspected the London Zoological Gardens and the Brighton Aquarium, was startled by a cat in Westminster Abbey, made a meal of a Dover sole (or 'soul') and visited the Albert Memorial – on which a ‘group [of statuary] represents America—an Indian woman seated upon a buffalo which is careering through the long prairie grass; & about her are half a dozen figures representing the United States, Canada, South America &c…. One cannot convey, with words, the majesty of these stony creatures—the ease, the dignity, the grace, that sit upon them so royally.’ And, of course, he visited the British Museum:

I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me—nobody elbows me—all the room & all the light I want under this huge dome—no disturbing noises—& people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun—& if I choose to go wandering about the great long corridors & galleries of the great building, the secrets of all the Earth & all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum—it seems as if I do not know any but little words & weak ones.

This all achieved, he sailed back to the States from Liverpool on the SS Batavia after concluding ‘I do like these English people—they are perfectly splendid—& so says every American who has staid here any length of time.’

En route, some 1,500 miles from land, the SS Batavia caught sight of a foundering barque, the Charles Ward, after a night of howling gale. The barque had lost its sail and was in a pitiful state; the survivors were close to losing their minds. Twain watched on as the captain of the Batavia and her crew staged a daring rescue of nine souls, while offering as much assistance as he could (despite his lack of umbrella).

Twain may not have been a great deal on use on board deck, but he then did what he knew best, and took up his pen, writing to the newspapers from the ship, requesting recognition for the captain and crew by the Royal Humane Society:

If I have been of any service toward rescuing these nine ship-wrecked human beings by standing around the deck in a furious storm, without any umbrella, keeping an eye on things & seeing that they were done right, & yelling whenever a cheer seemed to be the important thing, I am glad, & I am satisfied. I ask no reward. I would do it again under the same circumstances. But what I do plead for, & earnestly & sincerely, is that the Royal Humane Society will remember our captain & our life-boat crew; &, in so remembering them, increase the high honor & esteem in which the society is held all over the civilized world.

The editors suggest that the letter to the Royal Humane Society is now lost, but you can read his account, and a good deal more besides, on the MTP site, as well as in several newspapers, for example, the Somerset Herald (Pennsylvania) (.pdf on the Library of Congress's site].

Twain was clearly quite struck by the event, and followed up on it, and enquired avidly about the medal and monies the men should have received (see his letter to the captain of the Batavia, 22 Jan 1873). He was also impressed by the work of the Royal Human Society, which he noted had no American equivalent, and aimed to donate the income from a lecture to them.

The SS Batavia continued to plough the seas, and some thirty years later set a record for the number of passengers to arrive in New York City – 2,584 (8 June 1903).  And, closer to home, albeit slightly further north than in Twain's day, people still stand ready to bring you pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun – and more besides.

[Matthew Shaw]

14 October 2014

Baseball in the Library

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As mentioned in the Babe Ruth blog back in July, the Library was recently pleased to acquire the extensive baseball collection of Mike Ross.  

Of its 300+ items, about two thirds were published in the 1980s and 90s – with the rest dating between the late 1940s and 2000s. In subject matter they span the panoply of baseball publishing. There are biographies and autobiographies of players such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax, to name but a few; team histories include the Red Sox, the Phillies, the Dodgers and the Yankees; there are books about the Minor Leagues, the Negro League, the American League, the 1919 World Series, the dead ball era and baseball during World War II; and there are works by those associated with the game as managers, owners, umpires, scouts, sports writers and broadcasters. 

Not surprisingly, given its vital role in summarizing performance and evaluating players, numerous works incorporate or are devoted to statistical analysis. In addition to annual editions of the American League Red Book, the National League Green Book and team media and information guides, there are also numerous works by Bill James whose innovative statistical approach – ‘sabermetrics’ – earned him a place on Time’s 2006 guide to the 100 most influential people in the world. 

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Finally, the collection includes literary works that take baseball as their theme, runs of  baseball journals including National Pastime and The Baseball Research Journal and – in addition to numerous works highlighting best player, moment, decade or season – there are a few that take a slightly more circumspect approach to the national game. 

Baseball (2)

The collection is now on its way to Boston Spa where it will be catalogued by our colleagues – we will keep you posted on its progress!

[J.P.]

09 October 2014

Olaudah Equiano and the draw of the Arctic

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Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: frontispiece portrait from, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' [BL: 1489.g.50]

When I started planning 'Lines in the Ice' there were certain stories I already had in my mind, events from history I thought would surprise the viewer and grab attention in the exhibition space. Alas, not all of these pieces of the narrative make it into the final cut for various reasons including space, the shape of the narrative or because another item tells a similar story better. One such event I wanted to discuss but has recently fallen victim to the hard decisions of exhibition planning is the Arctic expedition on which Olaudah Equiano travelled.

I must confess, before starting work as a curator, at no point had I ever sat down and read all of Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative'. Previously I'd read and discussed key sections but had never made time to digest the account cover to cover. That was until I held the Library's first edition copy and its details began to jump out, the portrait at the front, the extensive list of subscribers (filled with names sure to catch any historian's eye), etc. From then on I was hooked and Equiano's narrative has been one of my favourite items to talk to visitors about (the BL holds quite a few copies).

Equiano is well known to many as the author of 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' and, as a result, prominent figure in the campaign against the slave trade. Fewer people realise that Equiano's life was underpinned by travel across the British Empire and beyond, as a slave, an indentured person and an independent businessman at different times. Indeed Equiano's travels were long, complex and varied - as evidenced by his presence on the 1773 journey of Captain Constantine John Phipps to Spitzbergen, part of an attempt to find a passage to Asia via the North Pole.

The connection between Equiano and this particular attempt on the North Pole was Dr Charles Irving, a scientist renowned for his work on water purification to whom Equiano was contracted. Equiano's opinion of the voyage is a wonderful critique of the deluded idea a passage existed via the Pole, stating the journey was, 'to find, towards the north pole, what our Creator never intended we should, a passage to India'. 

Nelson in conflict with a bear

Above: a dramatised depiction of Nelson's encounter with a bear. From, 'The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson' [BL: 1859.c.5]

It is a shame Equiano's role in this journey is little known today, especially given the frank opinions he expresses in his Narrative. Instead the journey is more often remembered for the presence of one Horatio Nelson, who attracted considerable attention with his ill-conceived hunting trip. That being said, the presence of both individuals underlines a point I made in a recent post about Franklin, which is how important these potential routes have been at various points in the histoy of the British Empire and Europe in general. Indeed, so notable were these journeys of exploration that they drew some of the greatest writers, thinkers and explorers of the time.

That Equiano did not make it into 'Lines in the Ice' is the fault of Phipps's destination; British attempts on the North Pole and Northeast Passage are not a focus of the early part of the exhibition. That being said, given the restricted length of exhibition labels, maybe Equiano's interesting journey is better suited to the extended space of a blog post. For those of you who'd like to read more about Equiano you can find copies of 'The Interesting Narrative' as well as Vincent Carreta's biography, 'Equiano, the African' [BL: m05/39533] here at the British Library.

[PJH]