THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections 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

24 November 2017

Martha Gellhorn: The Reporter as a Young Poet

What makes juvenilia so fascinating? When reading the works written by an author in their youth one often looks for glimpses of the ideas and obsessions they would later develop in their works. But it sometimes also feels like a small betrayal, to read these raw texts written before authors have developed their voice, or met the red pen of an editor. There is something about teenage poetry that makes it particularly excruciating – perhaps because it awakens a dormant fear that one day someone may find our own ring-bound poetry notebook in the bottom of a drawer. It is hard however to resist the temptation to see what war reporter Martha Gellhorn was like when she was 17.

759px-Martha_Gellhorn_stamp (1)
Martha Gellhorn postage stamp. Part of the 2008 American Journalists stamp series (Source: US Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

As a star correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s Weekly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Martha Gellhorn became well known for her first-person chronicles of the Second World War. Gellhorn covered the principal fronts during the conflict, and wrote a memorable report on the liberation of the Dachau camp for Collier’s in 1945. Gellhorn had started her career as a war reporter in Spain during the civil war, and went on to cover most major twentieth century conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Her best journalistic writing is collected in The Face of War (1959) [9104.d.10.].

Gellhorn’s life, and especially her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, has been fictionalised in different genres, from our Eccles Writers in Residence Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to the less successful HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Before she became well known for her reporting and ruthless commentary however, Gellhorn was writing poetry. From 1923 she attended the newly founded John Burroughs School in her native St Louis, Missouri. The school was a coeducational and progressive institution for the time. The British Library holds an issue of the John Burroughs Review [ZD.9.a.2618], the school magazine where Gellhorn published her first works. The magazine was published five times a year by the students of the school and Gellhorn was part of the board of editors.

JBReview

The John Burroughs School Review is an impressive publication for a high school magazine, with a modernist cover designed by Clark Smith.  The November 1925 issue contained poems, short stories and book reviews, as well as adverts for local businesses.  Gellhorn was 17 when the magazine printed a sequence of six poems titled ‘Bits of Glass’, three of which are reproduced below:

Bitsofglass1
The John Burroughs Review, November 1925 (extract from page 16)

Gellhorn was fiercely protective of her reputation. She banned the reprinting of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical work What Mad Pursuit, published in 1934 (the Library holds a copy at YD.2012.a.2572 - read more about it in Naomi Wood's blog post). But despite Gellhorn’s and many other writers’ anxiety about their early attempts at writing, these texts will always remain fascinating for readers who want to find out how and when they became the writers they admire.

Now remember to hide that notebook the next time you visit your parents’ house.

 

Mercedes Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

05 October 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin

The British Library has an outstanding collection of scientific literature, and the richness of its early American scientific material is illuminated in the Eccles Centre’s Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library by Jean Petrovic. The books, journals, papers and letters of all of the leading figures are listed here. And while Benjamin Rush, ‘Father of American Psychiatry’, will be the subject of next month’s blog, this first one must surely focus upon Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin and others like him, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry; indeed, the generic term for scientists at this time was ‘natural philosophers’. That the American Declaration of Independence was based on 'natural law', rather than divine sanction, stemmed from preceding century's increasing reluctance to define natural phenomena as purely 'Acts of God'.

Volcano

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 1794. (British Library: Maps K.Top.83.61.i) 

Initially, the natural philosophers living in the American colonies worked collaboratively on a local and inter-colonial basis. Yet as the eighteenth century progressed they increasingly communicated with fellow spirits in Britain and Continental Europe. 

From the mid-century onward, Franklin was at the centre of this exchange of information. In 1753 he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal – the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for his ground-breaking work in the field of electricity. This he had communicated by letter to Peter Collinson, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who subsequently arranged for its publication as Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6))

Franklin Experiments

Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity. London: E. Cave, 1751. (Shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6.))   

The book established Franklin’s reputation in Britain and Europe, with Immanuel Kant in 1755 describing him as ‘The Prometheus of Modern Times’. Thus, when Franklin arrived in London in 1757, ostensibly as a political representative, this supposedly unfashionable colonial found immediate acceptance at the centre of Britain’s scientific community. As he expanded his own network, he increased the international acceptance of his American contemporaries. Even the American War of Independence did not totally disrupt transatlantic communication. In 1779, Franklin, as the United States Minister Plenipotentiary in France, instructed ‘All Captains and Commanders of American Armed Ships’ to grant Captain Cook a safe passage in 1779 for his voyage of exploration ‘for the Increase of Geographical Knowledge’. [1]   

Frankin portrait

Benjamin Franklin, by David Martin (1767). Wikimedia Commons, provided by The White House Historical Association. The bust on Franklin's desk is of Sir Isaac Newton.

The extraordinary number and depth of Franklin’s connections can be traced by linking the correspondence in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959- ) to the publications of his American contemporaries in Early American Science. In so doing, we see how Franklin is associated with the biologist Cotton Mather from his Boston boyhood and linked to a great number of his fellow Philadelphian scientists, including the botanist John Bartram, physician Thomas Bond, scientific patron James Logan, astronomer David Rittenhouse, physician Benjamin Rush (the subject of next month's blog) and collector Charles Willson Peale. Franklin was also a long-time correspondent of two highly distinguished academics – the Yale climatologist Ezra Stiles and John Winthrop, Professor of Mathematics and Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Harvard.

The final Franklin/British Library connection highlighted in Early American Science is the Library's holdings of almost two hundred and fifty years of the Transactions (1771 - ) of the American Philosophical Society - the organisation founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 and modeled on the Royal Society. [2] 

George Goodwin

George is a 2017 Eccles Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).

Notes

[1] The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 29 (March 1 through June 30, 1779), p. 86. Edited by Barbara B. Oberg, et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. (Shelfmark: 10924.h.1.)

[2] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, 1771 - present. (Shelfmark: Ac.1830/3) 

 

 

 

            

 

28 September 2017

George Pilkington and abolitionism in Brazil

George Pilkington’s An Address to the English Residents of the Brazilian Empire was published in 1841 at the culmination of the author’s fact-finding mission on behalf of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The pamphlet outlines the Irish abolitionist’s grave concerns about what he had witnessed during visits to the Brazilian provinces of Pernambuco, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. Not only was he horrified by the cruelties of the illegal slave-trade which continued to flourish, despite British pressure, until 1850; Pilkington was also appalled by the complicity of British residents in Brazil in promoting the contraband trade and its corollary, slavery.

Discursos de John Scoble
Extractos Dos Discursos de John Scoble, shelfmark 8180.b.34.(1.)

Pilkington vehemently believed that given Britain’s global stand against the slave-trade since 1807 and slavery since 1833, the interests of British slaveholders in Brazil were ‘in direct opposition to English principle.’ The Address, then, was an impassioned plea to all British residents who had ‘breathed the miasma of slavery’ to act promptly to extricate themselves from the precarious moral and, as he saw it, legal position in which they found themselves.[1]

This pamphlet and a series of related letters authored by Pilkington in the same period are important sources for my own research exploring the entanglement of British commercial interests with slavery in Brazil until its abolition in 1888.[2] While there have been some excellent studies concerning the gold mines of Minas Gerais, other areas of British investment in Brazil’s slave economy remain relatively unexplored.[3] Pilkington’s own estimations from 1841 that half of all British-held slaves were employed in non-mining contexts encouraged me to investigate further.[4]

Through archival research across Brazil and the UK, I have been able to quantify the extent and map the diversity of slaveholding in the small but affluent British communities from Pará in the north to Rio Grande do Sul in the south.

Arquivo%20Nacional%2c%20RJ%2c%20Brasil
Arquivo Nacional, Brasil

The picture that emerges - at the mid-century at least - is one of slave-ownership across all levels of the community, from bakers and stable-keepers to the well-to-do merchant class and even a significant minority of large-scale plantation owners, including Britain’s own Vice-Consul in the province of São Paulo. The ‘English principle’ which Pilkington stressed, or Victorian Britain’s anti-slavery identity, was seemingly not the primary concern of those British subjects faced with the both the realities of living in a slave-society and the opportunities for profit-making in a slave-economy.

These traditional forms of slaveholding are only part of the story. Other chapters of my research project focus on the kind of entanglement which appeared less readily in abolitionist critiques of British complicity in Brazilian slavery. Using overlooked sources of the British in Brazil, such as legal and notary records, my research has traced the flows of British credit to slave-owners in the form of mortgages guaranteed by human collateral. Whilst not challenging the predominance of native capital in the expansion of Brazilian slavery, British actors were important sources of international credit and it has been possible to trace flows which had until now remained largely invisible. For example, one of my chapters studies the establishment of the London and Brazilian Bank and its mortgage portfolio containing many hundreds of enslaved people and the São Paulo coffee plantations they worked.

Britain’s relationship with slavery did not end with abolition in its own colonies. Recent scholarship such as UCL’s Legacy of British Slave-Ownership project has shown that to be the case. British entanglement with Brazilian slavery is part of the same conversation and I hope that my research can contribute to helping us understand more about this complex and challenging legacy.

 

Joe Mulhern is a current PhD candidate on a CDP at the University of Durham and the British Library, where he is supervised by Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

 

[1]G. Pilkington, An Address to English Residents in the Brazilian Empire, (Rio de Janeiro: Laemmert, 1841) p.17

[2] see British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter nos. 2.15 (Jul 1841); 2.16 (Aug 1841); 2.17 (Aug 1841); 2.18 (Sep 1841); 2.18 (Sep 1841); 2.21 (Oct 1841); 2.22 (Nov 1841).

[3] Examples of important works held in the British Library include M.Eakin, British enterprise in Brazil: The St. John Del Rey Mining Company and the Morro Velho Gold Mine,1830-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989); D.C. Libby, Trabalho escravo e capital estrangeiro no Brasil: o caso de Morro Velho (Belo Horizonte: Ed. Itatiaia, 1984); F.C.da Silva, Barões de ouro e aventureiros britânicos no Brasil (São Paulo: EDUSP, 2012).

[4] G. Pilkington, An Address p.13