Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810

SheffieldSheffield:  Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 is an ever-growing digital anthology of protest poetry printed in Sheffield’s radical press at the end of the eighteenth century.

Directed by Dr. Hamish Mathison and researched by Dr. Adam James Smith, the anthology was born of an AHRC-funded cultural engagement project focusing on the full collections of The Sheffield Register (1787-1794) and The Sheffield Iris (1794-1825), newspapers held in University Library Special Collections.  The Register was edited by Joseph Gales, the Iris by Sheffield’s legendary poet and prolific champion of cause, James Montgomery.

Writing under the close scrutiny of suspicious local authorities both the Register and the Iris presented their most controversial material in a section referred to affectionately by readers as “Poetry Corner.”  This section saw the publication of a different poem each week (either written by a Sheffield resident or aggregated from elsewhere) but usually addressed to one of a series of recurrent themes:  religious integration, racial equality, worker’s rights, universal access to education, and political enfranchisement for all.

An overarching concern was that if the government could not legally be criticized, then there remained no safe-guard against tyranny.  As one reader’s poem warned in April 1793, this seemed to be increasingly the case:

We may speak (it is true) if we mind what we say;

But to speak all we think, will not suit in our day.

These lines proved prophetic, with the Register coming to an abrupt close a few months later.  Charged with “conspiracy against the government,” Gales was forced to abandon the paper to start a new life in America as a fugitive.

The Sheffield: Print, Protest Poetry, 1790-1810 project has been releasing a different poem every week, and online readers have been surprised and excited by how prescient they have proved.  One poem titled “On the Effects of Gold” warned that political reform was never likely whilst politicians were more interested in lining their own pockets.  This poem was made live on the Sheffield: Print, Protest Poetry, 1790-1810 website the day before the Panama Papers story broke.

The first installment of the anthology focuses on poems printed between 1794 and 1796, marking the transition from the Register to the Iris.  This transition was brought about when the editor of the Register was charged with conspiracy against the government and forced to flee to America.  There will also be a printed anthology titled Poetry, Conspiracy, Radical in Sheffield (Spirit Duplicator, 2016), and new recordings of some of these poems have already been released on Soundcloud.  We also have a Podcast, which seeks to situate these poems in broader national contexts.  You can follow Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry, 1790-1810 on Facebook and Twitter.

James Gillray: Caricaturist

James Gillray (1756-1815) was one of the greatest caricaturists of the 18th century.  From around 1775 until 1810, he produced nearly 1,000 prints—including brilliantly finished portrait caricatures of the rich, famous, or frivolous, wonderfully comic caricatures of people being awkward, and unquestionably the best satiric caricatures of British political and social life in the age of Napoleon.  His preeminence in graphic satire, especially in the 1790s made him both sought after and feared.  No sooner did a new Gillray print appear than it was sure to be plagiarized or imitated by contemporaries both in England and abroad.  And even today, there are few political cartoonists who would not admit to some debt to Gillray’s work.  For those interested in the development of English caricature and especially the prints of James Gillray, I have created a web site you can visit for a comprehensive overview of his work–James Gillray:  Caricaturist.

The site includes, first and foremost, a chronological listing of his known prints–both satiric and otherwise.  But it also contains a list of major museums and archives where his work can be seen, information about Gillray’s life, working methods, and techniques, and links to short biographical sketches of many of the people he caricatured.

Here is the background.  A couple of years ago, I decided to return to a book I had long since planned to write on the development of 18th-century caricature.  But, of course, anyone hoping to talk about caricature must confront the monumental presence of James Gillray.  So I began to look carefully at Gillray and his own development as a caricaturist.

I was soon frustrated, however, by the lack of a comprehensive and chronological catalog of his work.  Most of the books devoted to Gillray offer only a selection of his work, or, like Thomas Wright and Dorothy George, divide his work into political or satirical prints and social, personal, and miscellaneous prints.  And none of them include the prints Gillray created in his bid to be recognized as a “serious” artist and engraver.  I wanted to see Gillray’s work as he saw it, as a day by day effort at making a living and honing his craft.

Using the British Museum Catalog as a point of reference, I began doing searches of major Gillray archives online and visiting some of the non-digitized collections near my home in central New Jersey.  I will spare you the tales of my additional frustration while searching online for prints whose spelling and punctuation are highly idiosyncratic, and whose dates are sometimes difficult to decipher even up close.  Needless to say, I discovered that search results are only as good (or bad) as the very human process of cataloging the prints in the first place.  And I came away with a deep respect and appreciation for the heroic efforts of the staffs at the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Lewis Walpole Library, and other institutions who have made it immeasurably easier (though still challenging) for someone like me to come along and build upon their work.

The first result of my efforts, then, was a spreadsheet of over 900 rows containing a chronological listing of the prints and at least some of the collections where they could be found.  After months of labor, I realized I had only arrived at a starting point.  I could now begin to look at and think about Gillray’s development as an artist.  And that’s when I thought:  no one should have to go through this again.  And that’s when I also realized that I should make a website so that people could easily see what I was seeing–the wonderful artistry of James Gillray.

It was a natural enough thought for me.  I spent most of my life outside of academics at a major technology company, AT&T Labs (the successor of Bell Labs).  And the last part of my career there was managing a website design and development group.  Thinking in terms of web publishing, then, was almost second nature to me.  So I began to design a website around the idea:  what would I want to see and know if I were trying to get acquainted with Gillray and his work?  And that is still the guiding principle of James Gillray:  Caricaturist.  I launched the site on the 200th anniversary of Gillray’s death on June 1st, 2015, and its basic design has not changed.  But right now I have a goal of providing commentaries on at least a representative sample of the 900+ prints Gillray created over the course of his career.  About 50 are now up on the site, and I am continuing to add more.

If you wish to be alerted when I add more commentaries or make a substantive change to the site, I have included a form to subscribe to updates on my contact page.  I welcome feedback, corrections, and suggestions, and I have provided my email address on the same page.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

350 Years of Dangerous Women

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth.  By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth. By Paul van Somer, ca. 1576-1621, Flemish, active in Britain (from 1616); After: Peter Lely, 1618-1680, Dutch, active in Britain (from 1643). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

By the end of the first decade of Charles II‘s reign, the King had acquired a reputation for his many mistresses; his patronage of the theater; and his interest in natural philosophy and the new sciences [1]. These pursuits and those of his most prominent court mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland; Nell Gwyn; Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth; and Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin shaped two movements in England, libertinism and sensibility. Writers’ frequent depictions of these women gave new prominence to a remarkable figure in literature, the female libertine, that remains with us.

Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670-1730 (Ashgate 2011) rewrites the history of libertinism and sensibility and considers the female libertine in relation to cultural, philosophical, and literary contexts that contributed to her transformations from the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries in England.  I argue that there are five representative types across a diverse group of texts, including “Lady Lucretius” in John Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode (1671); “Lady Sensibility” in Aphra Behn’s The Luckey Chance, or an Alderman’s Bargain (1686) and novella, The History of the Nun (1689); “The Humane Libertine” in Catharine Trotter’s epistolary narrative, Olinda’s Adventures (1693), and only comedy, Love at a Loss, or the Most Votes Carries It (1700); “The Natural Libertine” in Delariviere Manley’s The History of Rivella (1714); and “The Amazonian Libertine” in Daniel Defoe’s novel, Roxana (1724) [2]. These authors created female libertines that made lasting contributions to later depictions of the figure, partially inspired by Epicurean ideas found in Lucretius‘s On the Nature of the Universe, which experienced a revival in late Stuart England. Behn and other libertine writers found its destabilizing proposal that all matter, including humans, is composed of free-floating, constantly moving atoms attractive. Thomas Creech’s multiple English translations of Lucretius’s text created a relationship between atomism and the emotions that reflected seventeenth-century natural philosophers’ interest in the connections between the soul and body. Early writers of sensibility were likewise concerned with the physiological effects of heartache made evident through their characters’ weeping, fainting, illness, or even death. Sensibility converged with libertinism in its attention to the senses in the late seventeenth century.

LinkerCharles II’s French mistresses, Portsmouth and Mazarin, who held salons in London during the 1670s, helped to transmit French ideas and culture to England, including characteristics of sensibilité that influenced Behn’s creation of “Lady Sensibility.” The court mistresses became the most influential women in England during the 1660s, 70s, and early 80s. Literary figures modeled after them persisted long after their “reigns” at court were over.

There is a current spate of historical biographies and romances about Charles II’s mistresses in the literary marketplace [3]. Next year will mark seventy years since the publication of the first bestselling modern historical romance set during the first decade of the Restoration, Kathleen Winsor‘s Forever Amber (1944). Published during the Second World War, the novel was banned in Boston and several other cities when it first appeared, mainly for its questionable morality and highly suggestive scenes involving the heroine, Amber St. Clare, a female libertine modeled after several of the real-life and fictional women I examine in Dangerous Women. Current books about female libertines owe a debt to Forever Amber, as bestselling novelists Philippa Gregory and Barbara Taylor Bradford, among others, have admitted. Readers still consistently place Forever Amber at the top of their “Historical Romance” lists, and the novel was re-released in 2000.

In 2002, Elaine Showalter reviewed the 2000 edition of Forever Amber for The Guardian, confessing to having been, as a young girl, “awed by Amber’s courage, daring and strength. Rereading the novel now is no disappointment, and I am also impressed by Winsor’s subversive feminism and the scope and ambition of her historical imagination.” Most of the characters in the novel, including Amber, reflect Hobbesian tendencies, vying with each other to achieve precedence at Charles II’s court in the 1660s. The novel demonstrates Winsor’s command of the historical and literary figures she re-imagines from the Restoration. Her characters’ vanity, plotting, and cruelty resonate with historical records of figures Amber encounters at the Carolean court, Newgate prison, and Alsatia in Whitefriars, the London “sanctuary” for criminals. Winsor drew the characters from the hundreds of accounts, poems, plots, and textbooks she claimed to have read before writing the novel.

Amber’s many marriages and romantic relationships certainly read like an early amatory plot. Born on a dark and stormy night, Amber is the long-lost child of two ill-fated aristocrats separated by the English Civil Wars. Her parents die, and she is raised by villagers of Marygreen, where she is a misfit. Like French seventeenth-century romances by Madame de Scudéry, who influenced Behn and other early English novelists, the story relies on remarkable coincidences. The novel signals that Amber is of noble, not peasant, stock, evident also in her captivating looks, a quality she shares with early romance heroines. One of Amber’s most generous lovers, Captain Rex Morgan, describes her in language we find in Restoration comedy about heroines: “I see you have wit as well as beauty, madame. That makes you perfect” (181). Winsor blends qualities of female libertines in her depiction of Amber, who rises through every class position in the novel to achieve greater autonomy and power through varied performances.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).  © The British Library Board.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). © The British Library Board.

Part of Forever Amber‘s continuing appeal remains in its sweeping survey of 1660s London and the meticulous attention to historical detail. Winsor used Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as a source for Amber’s experience of plague in London in 1665, and her novel blends elements of other plots by Restoration and early eighteenth-century writers. Like Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Amber makes an early career out of trickster-ism and thievery, landing in Newgate prison after her trial. As an actress in the Restoration theater and then a court mistress of Charles II, Amber resembles Nell Gwyn. Defoe’s Roxana, also modeled on Gwyn and Mazarin, is perhaps Amber’s closest literary antecedent. As Amber rises higher in her liaisons with powerful aristocrats, her one consistent relationship is with her maid, Nan, who gives her advice and rises with her, much as Amy counsels Roxana through relationships and crises about the discovery of her “real” identity. Both Roxana and Amber have husbands who desert them early in the narratives, leaving them penniless. Disgraced when she dances for the court in a sheer costume, Amber becomes the “Amazonian Libertine” at court, and the scene parallels Roxana’s dance in her exotic costume. Both women experience a vague punishment at the end, and there is no narrative closure in either text.

Amber experiences disillusionment from her lover, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their relationship echoes plots by Manley, Behn, and Trotter, whose heroines are mistreated or left by cruel and faithless lovers. Carlton sees Amber as a lower-class village girl, even when she becomes a wealthy Duchess. Midway through Winsor’s novel, Amber, now the mother of Carlton’s son, tearfully pleads with him to marry her, but he refuses, arguing that “love has nothing to do with it” (426), a concise description of upper class marital relations frequently examined in Restoration and eighteenth-century comedy and fiction.

Amber’s downfall results partly because of her class aspirations, mirrored by Winsor’s depiction of the Duchess of Cleveland, still Barbara Palmer when she first arrived to Charles II’s court as his mistress. On June 24 1667, Samuel Pepys complained of Cleveland’s influence (she was then called Lady Castlemaine) in his Diary because it produced “the horrid effeminacy of the King,” who “hath taken ten times more care and pains in making friends between my Lady Castlemayne and Mrs. Stewart, when they have fallen out, than ever he did to save his kingdom.”  Though powerful, Cleveland never received a true marriage proposal from the King. She fell from power after he lost patience with her tantrums and ambition. So too with Amber and Carlton.

Single-minded in her social-climbing, Amber seems unaware that she lives in an exciting decade of scientific discovery. She never engages philosophical debates about atomism or Descartes’s mechanical theories of the body, ongoing discussions that we find the most interesting female libertine figures examining in literature. Despite a brief liaison with a student early in the novel, Amber does not question him about his studies or read his books. She lacks associations with any leading thinkers at the Carolean court and does not debate the merits of Epicurean pleasure, the existence of animal spirits, or the theological assertions of “right reason” with theologians or members of the Royal Society she would certainly have met at Whitehall. Perhaps, had Winsor continued writing the sequel she originally planned, she would have featured a more complex female libertine and a more mature Amber, a figure styled after the Duchess of Mazarin, who developed  an intellectual life as interesting as her adventures [4].  But that is another story for another time.

Works Cited

Churchill, Winston. Marlborough, His Life and Times. 4 vols. London: George G. Harrop & Company, 1949. Print.

Winsor, Kathleen. Forever Amber. New York: Macmillan, 1944. Print.

Notes

[1] Charles II cultivated this image. Tim Harris’s excellent article, “Charles II: The Reality Behind the Merry Monarchy,” concisely summarizes historical scholarship on Charles’s reign and the man behind the throne.

[2] Manley was considered a “dangerous woman,” even in the twentieth century. Winston Churchill, descendent of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, describes Manley, who satirized his ancestors, as “a woman of disreputable character paid by the Tories to take part in a detraction which in the intense political passion of the time, was organized against Marlborough” (2: 53-4).

[3] The list of popular novels or biographies continues to grow. Among others, they include Elizabeth C. Goldsmith’s The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin (2012); Penelope Sullivan’s Rose Scarlet (2011); and Susan Holloway Scott‘s Royal Harlot: A Novel of the Countess Castlemaine and King Charles II (2007),  The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II (2008), and The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth and King Charles II (2009).

The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama

Edward L. Mooney. “The Hero of Lake Erie.” 1839. Portrait in oils after John Wesley Jarvis (1839). U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection.

The non-Western world was the “common” of 18th-century Europe, territory to be gradually colonized—fenced off, walled off, or hedged off—by powers looking to raise the value (and the rents) of their respective empires.  For modern nations forcibly melded and forged within this ruthless cauldron, imperial legacy offers a bitter, but seemingly indispensable path to identity.

In Port of Spain you will find—if lost—a cemetery gate ordained with the British Imperial Coat of Arms, iron corroding from the relentless force of West Indian rains, an eroding misnomer amidst the rising steel towers of the Caribbean’s most dynamic economy.  A freshly-placed bronze plaque, a recent gift to Trinidad & Tobago from the U.S. Embassy in honor of the country’s 50th anniversary of independence, denotes its significance.

Here an “illustrious hero and Christian gentleman”—U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry—was once interred following a gracious ceremony by the British governor of Trinidad, Sir Ralph James Woodford.  The Commodore succumbed to yellow fever in 1819 on his 34th birthday, but not before becoming a well-known naval hero during America’s first international campaigns—the Barbary Wars and War of 1812.  (Commodore Oliver Perry is not to be mistaken with his younger brother, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, the catalyst for prying open Japan to the West in 1853 and the resulting Meiji Restoration.  Has a bloodline of American sea-farers ever had a greater impact on history?)

 

Roncevert Almond. “Perry Gateway at Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain, Trinidad.” 2012.

Wandering the streets of Trinidad, I was struck that the true character of a modern nation is not found in the rusting cemetery of empire, but in the living commons—the intellectual and physical space animated by the human spirit.  Merely a half-kilometer away, but ages apart, is the birthplace of modern Trinidad & Tobago, Woodford Square.  Seated before the country’s Parliament, the Red House, and courts of justice, this public space serves as the beating heart of Port of Spain.

When Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, the nation’s founding father and first prime minister, applied his Oxford education to challenge the British imperial system in Trinidad & Tobago, he did so from Woodford Square.  Ever the history professor, Dr. Williams held a series of lectures at the “University of Woodford Square” (as the park became known) that provided the intellectual basis for national sovereignty.  Forewarning the struggle of constructing a post-colonial identity, Dr. Williams remarked:

There can be no Mother India, for those whose ancestors came from India.  There can be no Mother Africa, for those of African origin. There can be no Mother England and no dual loyalties.  There can be no Mother China, even if one could agree as to which China is the Mother; and there can be no Mother Syria and no Mother Lebanon.  A nation, like an individual, can have only one Mother.  The only Mother we recognize is Mother Trinidad & Tobago, and Mother cannot discriminate between her children.  (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962).

As a result of this political dialogue, Woodford Square was no longer the inert namesake of a former imperial overseer, but a reclaimed center of learning, a breathing manifestation of budding national identity.

Upon the lowering of the Union Jack and the tolling of the Anglican Cathedral’s bells, a new nation was born on August 31, 1962.  Addressing the new citizens via radio, the Prime Minister reminded his audience that “democracy means freedom of worship for all and the subordination of the right of any race to the overriding right of the human race.”  A contemporary of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Dr. Williams laid the pathway to a Rainbow Nation in the Americas.  The journey began long ago.

It was on behalf of the Spanish in 1498 that Columbus first spotted the three pinnacles of the Trinity Hills (hence “Trinidad”), but Madrid largely ignored the new colony due to its lack of gold or silver.  Lima and Bogota were more enticing jewels during the mercantile economy of the time.  Even Sir Walter Raleigh, in search of El Dorado, was disappointed by the lack of spoils and in 1592 sacked the lonely Spanish settlement.  In order to populate the island, the Spanish finally resorted in 1783 to issuing land grants to Roman Catholic Frenchmen fleeing pre-revolutionary turmoil at home.

Adam Smith’s industrializing Britain, however, envisioned for its possessions a more complex division of labor.  Following Spanish capitulation in 1797, British sugar barons and shipments of African slaves, cogs in the triangle trade of Europe-Africa-America, soon arrived.  Amerindian natives were already in steep decline—the exchange of cocoa production for soul salvation from the Catholic Church had resulted in a decidedly one-sided bargain.

In a unique and bemusing act of irony, in 1845 the British began “importing” indentured South Asians to the islands in order to fill the labor shortage at sugar plantations caused by earlier black emancipation.  They were supplemented by Chinese, Syrians, and Lebanese workers.  The artificial arrival of these “Oriental” exiles, equipped with their Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist upbringing, forced an early debate on multi-racial and multi-religious nation-building.

(Even its current political geography, as a member of the Caribbean states, is more historical accident than natural reality.  Trinidad is actually an extension of the Paria Peninsula, an outcrop of the South American continental shelf—as opposed to an independent island arc like the rest of the Lesser Antilles.  On a clear day one can spy Venezuela from the capital city; the distance between the countries is only seven miles.)

Consequently, via the formation of Trinidad & Tobago, the journey of Columbus was complete.  Europe did not arrive in Asia through the Americas.  Instead, the Orient, the tale of Azeri poets and Silk Road travelers, had arrived in the Americas through Europe.  On the pleasant banks of this Caribbean island, on the volcanic cliffs of this South American mountain, humankind advanced a peculiar experiment.  The West—Indies indeed!

Dr. Williams noted that with independence the people of Trinidad & Tobago faced the “fiercest test in their history—whether they can invest with flesh and blood the bare skeleton of their National Anthem, ‘Here, every creed and race find an equal place.’”  (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962).  It is a work in progress, much like the United States.

At the conclusion of my project in Port of Spain, I ventured to Woodford Square and reflected upon the young Commodore, the end of empire, and the continuous journey of a nation.  The park remains a lively space for debate and learning.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, I came across the latest lesson offered at the University of Woodford Square—an observation on the meaning of “The Age of Obama” and the power of the “changing course of time.”  Given the influence of demography upon national identity, as made evident by the U.S. presidential election, it was a fitting stop on the way home.

Roncevert Almond. “University of Woodford Square.” 2012