American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


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

14 October 2016

Shakespeare, Montaigne and Rio de Janeiro.

On the heals of the recent Shakespear exhibit here at the British Library and just before the opening of our new exhibit on maps, this week’s blog is from a guest blogger: Ricardo Cardoso. Ricardo Cardoso is a Brazilian Historian that studies international diplomacy in Shakespeare’s works, his research studies in the University of São Paulo (USP) and Shakespeare Institute/ University of Birmingham were funded by FAPESP.


Shakespeare’s character Caliban, from “The Tempest”, has been the focus of critical discussion, by presumably representing partly the Modern Age colonization process. In this debate, the character has been considered as an allegory for different people, such as the North African, Caribbean Indians, Irish, and even the British. Without ruling out any of these interpretative possibilities, an element can help to illuminate an important and quite likely layer of meaning in its writing. Regarding the source used by Shakespeare for his creation, we can agree that it would have been a well-known essay wrote by Montaigne entitled "Of the Cannibals". From the French text, even the name Caliban could have emerged as a possible anagram for "cannibal". This possibility brings us to formulate an important question: Who are these cannibals that Montaigne had in mind? The Brazilian’s Tupinambás. More specifically, those natives that lived in the Guanabara Bay, where it was later established the city known as Rio de Janeiro.

Montaigne wrote this essay by 1580, using as a starting point his conversations with his servant, a former member of the attempt of French colonization at the Guanabara Bay, called France Antarctique. At that time the Brazilian Tupinambás was becoming famous by narrations and engravings as the travel reports of André Thevet and Jean de Lery, illustrations of Théodore de Bry, Hans Staden’s report, and, of course, later by Montaigne’s essay.

De Bry Brasil


Chorographia nobilis & opulentæ Peruanæ Provinciæ, atque Brasiliæ, Theodor de Bry, 1593 (British Library shelfmark: 10003.e.18).

Another intriguing question, referring to the use that the playwright did of the French essayist’s text is related to the description of an ideal government made by the character Gonzalo in relation to the island in which Caliban live. Gonzalo says that He would collonize that island without: “kind of traffic”; “magistrates”; “letters”; “riches”, “poverty”, “use of service”; “contract”; “gun”; “sword”; “bound of land”; “tilth”; “use of metal”; “wine”; “occupation”; “sovereignty” etc. All things would be “in common nature”. What intrigues us is the fact that Shakespeare for this passage adapted another from "Of the Cannibals" in which an amazed Montaigne describes exactly what he thought as the real – not an imaginary or fictional – Tupinambá’s social system at the Guanabara Bay, for purposes of comparison to early modern French system, predicting that the settlers would destroy such an ideal society.

Therefore, the transposition of the French text to Gonzalo’s speech can reveal more about Shakespeare's thoughts on colonization process. It is like that The Tempest is speculating about Montaigne essay, because if the French text ends comparing the Tupinambá society with French society, greatly in favour of the Brazilians, then Shakespeare shows that European contact with that so-called "Cannibal" could turn it into "Caliban", a disillusioned primitive man robbed from his own government in his ideal island. Shakespeare takes Montaigne’s description and transforms it into an ideal far from realization in the Gonzalo’s verses. Thus, we see that the Tupinambá social system becomes a properly colonizing utopia, possible only existent in the speech of a dreamy character in a play. Not only the cannibal becomes Caliban, but its social system, according to Montaigne, was about to disappear thanks to colonization, also becomes an ideal aimed at the occupation and government of the fictional island.

The public theatre built by Shakespeare's company, The Globe, had at one entrance Hercules’ badge carrying the globe, it could symbolize the diversity of cultures that populated the world. In this indirect representation, it remains curious that the rising Brazil has been contemplated by the poet through one of its most interesting characters. Caliban may be an oblique reference to a specific group of Brazilian natives and an indirect reference – drawn from Montaigne and recalling aspects of European imaginary about ‘Americans indians’ and the ‘discussion on colonization’ – to Guanabara Bay in the city of Rio de Janeiro, a place recently hosted the whole world - or Globe.

- Ricardo Cardoso

12 October 2016

Dorothy Livesay: Canada, the Spanish Civil War and the 1930s

My dear, it’s years between; we’ve grown up fast

Each differently, each striving by itself.

I see you now a grey man without dreams

Without a living, or an overcoat:

But sealed in struggle now, we are more close

Than if our bodies still were sealed in love.

                              Dorothy Livesay, “Comrade”


Dorothy Livesay’s 1977 book Right Hand Left Hand is best described as a collage of Canada during the 1930s. It is at once a memoir, a scrapbook, and an anthology that includes personal letters, visual art, poetry, short stories, articles and photographs—all framed by Livesay’s reminiscences. As co-editor of the new scholarly edition of Right Hand Left Hand, I’ve been working closely with the book for more than four years, but still I can hardly grasp it. It is ambitious and scattered, compelling and confusing. Its flawed form attempts to do justice to the chaos, excitement, and adversity of Canada during the Great Depression.



Dorothy Livesay. Right Hand Left Hand (Erin, Ont. : Press Porcepic, 1977) [X.950/20211]

Right Hand Left Hand offers countless paths into Canada’s social, political, and cultural history. The Spanish Civil War claims its own chapter, disrupting the pattern of chapters themed around Livesay’s own travels (Montreal, New Jersey, the West). This chapter does not provide a historical account of the war. Instead, it offers a series of voices, representing the Canadians involved in the Republican Front during the conflict. Volunteers, medical staff, poets, fundraisers, and journalists all speak to the urgency of the Spanish conflict and why it resonated across the ocean: famous Dr. Norman Bethune describes the innovative process of blood transfusion; La Pasionaria cries out Spain’s needs to eager Canadian advocates; poets speak of Spain as a metaphor for Canada’s depressed and oppressed. For those new to the subject matter, Canadians’ engagement with the war raises questions. Faced with the economic crisis and the impending Second World War, what would compel Canadians to commit themselves to Spain? Livesay argues for the Spanish Civil War’s significance in Canadian history, first through the textual space of the chapter, and then through the polyvocality of its contents.

Cary Nelson uses the term “poetry chorus” to emphasize “community and continuity in the collective enterprise of progressive poetry” (3). In Right Hand Left Hand, Livesay curates a similar chorus—a collection of fiercely political voices, real or fictional, who bring their energy and passion to their communities. Livesay offers many versions of what resistance and community building look like. Livesay catalogues hundreds of political gestures that interfere in the status quo and that work towards a better world: a woman reaches across class divides to comfort a neighbour; labourers contribute their meagre income to support striking comrades; artists craft narratives that expose state violence. People resist locally and internationally, with their money, their time, their imaginations, and sometimes their lives. Solidarity is made visible, is questioned, doubted, and ultimately, affirmed. The end result is that the war in Spain doesn’t seem so remote or futile. Is there a difference between supporting your neighbour down the street, across the mountains, or across the sea? Is it worthwhile to make these distinctions?

Right Hand Left Hand ends with a photograph of Jean Watts, one of Livesay’s closest friends. The photo, captioned “Jean Watts Lawson marching off to war,” shows Watts in uniform—she enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War. It wasn’t her first war; Watts participated in the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, radio broadcaster, censor, ambulance driver, and with Norman Bethune’s blood transfusion unit. Before the war, she was an active member of Canada’s Workers’ Theatre, and funded New Frontier, the leftist magazine where much of the poetry of the Spanish Civil War first appeared. Her image sums up this ambitious book: she was central in Livesay’s personal life, in Canada’s cultural scene, in leftist politics, and in the Canadian war effort. She fought fascism on so many fronts. She built communities and cultural infrastructure.


Her determined figure provides a hopeful counterpoint to Livesay’s text, which ends on a heart-wrenching reminiscence of the bombing of Hiroshima. In recovering Right Hand Left Hand, I strive to recover the Canada that cared so deeply about the people of Spain, and the Canada that worked and wrote and fought towards alternatives to capitalism and fascism. I strive to recover Livesay and Watts together—two fierce women who contributed to their communities in very different but equally necessary ways.

--Kaarina Mikalson

Kaarina Mikalson is Project Manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War and a PhD student in English in Dalhousie University



Livesay, Dorothy. Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977.

 ---. “Comrade.” Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977. 262.

Nelson, Cary. Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. New York: Routledge, 2003.


07 October 2016

Goodbye, and stay tuned for the Cold War symposium!

The last three months of my PhD placement at the Eccles Centre here at the British Library have flown by. There is much I will miss about being here on a daily basis – and not just the very good, helpfully subsidised, staff canteen! Hopefully this blog post will shed some light on what I have been doing and prompt others to apply for the placement scheme in the future.

In all honesty, probably the greatest benefit of the placement has been working so closely with the Americas collections. Before coming to the British Library, I had what I thought was a good understanding of the collections. Having used them daily for three months, I now realise that I was only aware of a fraction of what exists. In particular, whilst I knew that there would be some useful American foreign policy documents available, it was only when I explored the Social Sciences Reading Room that I began to realise just how vast an archival collection was available. From Presidential papers through to specific primary collections on everything from Civil Rights to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there is a treasure trove of material for researchers and it’s all available without those costly flights to the United States!

Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans

 [General Reference Collection OPL 973.0076]    

Index to the GW Papers

                  [General Reference Collection OPL 973.03]

Aside from archival collections, there wasn’t one secondary text which I searched for that I couldn’t gain access to in under 48 hours. Finally, the digital collections which the Library has access to are unparalleled compared to any of the university libraries’ I have used. In particular, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and Readex Congressional Records are invaluable resources and well worth a trip to the Library to access.

The vastness of the collections led to the first project I undertook during the placement. Realising that, like me, most researchers only knew of a few of the Americas collections available, I compiled two guides to make the collections more accessible for future researchers. The first guide is on the political archival collections the Library holds, such as Presidential papers, whilst the second is a guide dedicated to the Congressional documents available. As well as telling readers how to access the collections, the guides provide examples of what materials can be found in each collection to illustrate the utility of said collection. Hopefully these guides will help fellow researchers take as much from the collections as I have.

A second project I have undertaken involved the organisation of an academic symposium. One of the Eccles Centre’s key roles is to promote the Americas collections to the academic community; often this is done through the hosting of specific events, which are sometimes linked to the Library’s public exhibitions. The British Library’s next major exhibition, which opens on 4 November, is titled ‘Maps of the Twentieth Century: Drawing the Line.’ As the American-Soviet Cold War dominated the geography of the twentieth century, this offers an excellent opportunity to host an event focusing on the geography of the Cold War. The ‘Cold War Geographies’ symposium in January 2017 will bring together international academics to explore and assess how the Cold War changed boundaries, restructured terrain and redefined concepts of space and place.


The placement at the British Library also exposed me to the practicalities of working in a large cultural institution. In particular, this occurred with a planned digital exhibition I was hoping to curate. The Library is going through some significant changes to improve its website and digital exhibitions. This meant that the three short months I was at the Library was not enough time to implement the project. The matter was also complicated by my desire to focus on twentieth century materials which brought in a whole raft of issues relating to copyright! Whilst the project did not materialise in the way I envisioned, I was able to gain access to excellent research material and develop a more practical understanding of the processes involved in curating an online exhibition within a large cultural institution

That said, I feel that the three month placement at the British Library has been an unqualified success. I have developed a far greater understanding of the collections, both for my own research and produced materials to assist others with their future research. Unexpected benefits also emerged in the form of using these blog pages to further disseminate my work, as well as taking part in Eccles Centre events which have greatly enhanced my academic networks. These new connections look likely to lead to positive future collaborations. Fortunately, the end of this placement is not the end of my affiliation with the Library. The symposium in January means that I will remain in contact for the foreseeable future, providing longer-term benefits of undertaking the placement.

From both a research and experience perspective, the PhD placement has been a highly rewarding and beneficial one. I hope that the outputs produced during this placement will be as beneficial to my fellow researchers.

Mark Eastwood