The “Royal” Wedding: An Eighteenth-Century Invention?

In some senses, English subjects have always cared about whom their queens, kings, princes, and princesses chose to marry, and speculations about marriage agreements and relationships have long preoccupied courtiers, members of parliament, and the wider public. Despite popular anxieties about her authority and the perpetuation of the succession, for instance, Elizabeth I chose not to marry, although she engaged in delicate courtship rituals and marriage negotiations as tools of foreign and domestic policy. Charles I, when still Prince of Wales, undertook a disastrous trip to Madrid to negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful (and unpopular) match with the Infanta Maria, daughter of Philip III of Spain. Instead he wed the French Catholic Henrietta Maria by proxy in 1625, and despite their union getting off to a rocky start, by the late 1630s Parliamentarian critics satirized the king as an uxurious husband who put the interests of his papist wife above the welfare of the kingdom. During the Succession Crisis and debates about Exclusion in the later 1670s and early 1680s, some Whig-leaning writers insisted that Charles II had secretly married the Duke of Monmouth’s mother, Lucy Walter, in 1649, thereby establishing the Protestant Monmouth as the legitimate heir in place of the king’s Catholic brother James, Duke of York. Others urged Charles to divorce his Catholic, childless queen, Henrietta Maria, and remarry. Indeed, any list of royal matrimonial escapades must mention George I’s ill-fated marriage to Sophia Dorothea, whom he locked away in a castle in Ahlden in 1694 after he discovered she had been unfaithful (possibly also ordering her lover to be murdered and tossed into the Leine river). And who can forget George IV’s secret marriage to the widowed Catholic Maria Fitzherbert in 1785 when he was still Prince of Wales, or his public estrangement from Caroline of Ansbach and his infamous (and unsuccessful) attempt to divorce her amid widespread criticism and out-of-doors demonstrations of loyalty for the wronged queen? [1]

But when we search for historical antecedents to the rise of the “royal” wedding as a mediated cultural phenomenon that disseminates the spectacle of monarchy and the romance of regal conjugality to an increasingly mass audience, we usually look to the nineteenth century, especially the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. In the weeks prior to the ceremony, newspapers carried effusive stories about court preparations and the queen’s chosen bridal color—“Lily, or English Pure White,” of entirely British manufacture—which was predicted to become the “prevailing colour of the season.” [2] Victoria’s dress, stitched of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace, included a long train trimmed with orange blossoms, and journalists reported that the lace alone cost more than £1000. [3] Houses along the queen’s procession route between Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace were decorated with flags, banners, and illuminations. Despite the rainy February weather, throngs of anxious spectators lined the city streets or purchased tickets to watch the couple pass from windows, balconies, and the roofs. “Every eye was directed to the state carriage,” one newspaper reported, “and as soon as it was in motion, the sounds of loud huzzas, and the strains of the national anthem rent the air, while on every side the waving of hats and handkerchiefs greeted her Majesty.”[4] Those unable to witness the marriage in person, of course, purchased broadside renderings of the royal couple, delicate engravings of Victoria in her wedding clothes, and panoramas of the marriage procession. [5]

Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange and William Charles Henry Friso Prince of Orange.

I want to suggest, however, that the most promising place to look for the origins of the royal wedding as a celebrated event that also turned the royal family into quasi-celebrities is in the eighteenth century, and specifically the 1730s. This was a moment shaped by the continued maturation of London’s newspaper and periodical press after the expiry of print licensing in 1695, and the emergence of the patriotic opposition to Robert Walpole’s ministry, which overlapped with emerging divisions within the royal household. Although George II is still remembered as a rather frugal but staunchly Protestant ruler, adverse to large crowds and baroque spectacle, the Hanoverian court continued to function as a center of elite cultural life within London. [6] And a brief examination of the printed representations of the weddings of George II’s two eldest children—Princess Anne to William IV, Prince of Orange, in 1734, and Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736—reveals the ways in which the royal nuptials had become a space of popular longing, partisan criticism, commercial celebration, and affective political drama, especially as the events became the focus of new journalistic practices. Newspapers eagerly covered all aspects of each wedding, offering their readers vivid descriptions of the activities and engagements of the betrothed, the decoration of palace buildings and apartments, and the au courant fashions worn by courtiers and royals at each marriage ceremony.

The Prince of Orange was small of stature with a misshapen spine and slumped right shoulder, and when he arrived in England in November of 1733, he immediately contracted a fever, delaying his marriage with Anne until the following spring. London newspapers eagerly reported on William’s recovery, though, and his subsequent travels through Bristol, Bath, Oxford, and Windsor the following February, with some writers intending their glowing coverage of the prince’s popular acclaim as a dig at the king’s seeming inaccessibility and frequent trips to Hanover. Upon his arrival in Bristol, the Daily Journal and the Penny London Post, among other newspapers, reprinted lengthy extracts from a letter detailing the prince’s entry and entertainment in that city of pleasure. Met on the main road into town by two sheriffs in a chariot and six, over eight hundred horsemen, and gentlemen and merchants in private coaches, the procession marched to the common led by the Company of Wool-Combers dressed in white shirts and “Orange-Coloured Wool-Perriwigs.” “The Streets and Houses being so thronged with Spectators,” the correspondent reported, “that the City appeared as one great living Body bespangled with Eyes.” [8]

Anne and William’s wedding was held in March at St. James’s Chapel, which had been richly decorated for the occasion by the celebrated architect and painter William Kent. A contemporary engraving of the ceremony captures the prince and princess with hands clasped in the act of exchanging vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury, while ostentatiously dressed courtiers fill the chapel, gossiping and fanning themselves flirtatiously. [9] The wedding was thoroughly documented in almost every London newspaper, and writers emphasized the size of the crowds at the palace, the rich appearance of the nobility, and the voluntary festivities of London’s citizenry, which included the illumination of the Monument and Ludgate with glass lamps, plentiful bonfires, and fireworks. The Daily Journal published a laboriously detailed narrative of the entire wedding procession to and from the chapel, concluding with a public dinner in the State Ballroom, before the nobility filed through the prince and princess’s bedchamber to view them sitting up in their marriage bed “in rich undress.” The London Evening Post and the Penny London Post offered rambling descriptions of the wedding costumes and other finery observed at court. The bride wore diaphanous “Virgin Robes of Silver Tissue, having a train six Yards long, laced around with a massy Lace, adorn’ed with Fringe and Tassels; on the Sleeves were several Bars of Diamonds of great value; the Habit was likewise enrich’d with several Rows of oriental Pearl.” The women of the beau monde donned “fine laced Heads, dress’d English,” and their dresses featured “treble Ruffles, one tack’d up to their Shifts in quil’d Pleats and two hanging down; the newest fashion’d Silkes were white Paduasoys, with large Flowers of Tulips, Peonies, Emmonies, Carnations, &c. in their proper Colours, some wove in Silk, and some embroidered.” Other papers claimed that the “Embroidery and Beauty” of the princess’s wedding clothes “exceed any thing that has been ever seen here, tho’ all of Manufactures of this Kingdom.” [10] These lengthy and exacting descriptions of fashionable and fine court costume as reproduced in metropolitan newspapers broadcast important political messages. Expensive and newly purchased court attire was used to demonstrate allegiance to the crown and respect for the person of the monarch, while careful accounts of hairstyles, dress cuts, and fabric patterns portrayed the court and royal family as taste leaders who followed fashion trends and encouraged native industry. [11] At the same time, the wedding inspired the production of a whole range of commemorative commercial objects for consumers in Britain and the Netherlands, including medals, highly ornamental engraved paper fans, and enameled porcelain bowls decorated with the portraits of Anne and William, who seem to gaze into each other’s eyes. [12]

The broad journal coverage of Anne and William’s wedding evinces both desire for accessible royal figures and readers’ fascination with the theatrical spectacle of British court culture. Although newspaper coverage did not spotlight individual personalities or the intimate side of the royal family in the same way that later eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century journalists and periodical authors would, this reportage, nonetheless, opened the royal palace to the public gaze, inviting spectators and entire cities “bespangled with Eyes” to take part in the drama of royal romance.

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales

Frederick’s 1736 marriage follows these same journalistic patterns, with newspapers offering glowing coverage of Augusta’s arrival at Greenwich in late April. “Several thousand people” were reported to have flocked to glimpse Britain’s new princess at the Queen’s House—the editor of Read’s Weekly Journal estimated that the crowds numbered no less than 10,000 persons—and Augusta was described as having “very beautiful features, a fine complexion” and “a very Majestick and becoming Air.” The press circulated rumors that the wedding would take place not at the chapel at St. James’s Palace, but at the much larger St. Paul’s Cathedral, which could accommodate additional spectators and would allow a state procession through the City in full regalia and coronation robes. [13] Ultimately, this story proved false, a mere reflection of public desire for access to the pageantry of royal romance that would have represented a far-reaching departure from the precedents governing state marriages. Newspapers printed encomiastic verses about the princess’s august Protestant pedigree, plays were performed in honor of the royal couple, and the wedding gave enterprising churchmen an excuse to publish sermons on virtuous love and conjugal duty. Church bells rang, bonfires were lit, and toasts were given throughout cities and villages in England, Scotland, and Ireland, all of which was reported in the metropolitan press. And again journalists offered tedious descriptions of court dresses, stockings, shoes, jewels, and hairstyles worn for the wedding celebrations, with entire pages dedicated to reproducing the lavish spectacle of the British crown and the beau monde. [14] The bride’s dress and the court costumes of her ladies in attendance were embroidered by a Mrs. Ganderoon, Her Majesty Queen Caroline’s appointed embroideress, requiring “above 120 persons at work in making the rich cloaths.” “There’s the greatest Demand at this Time for Gold and Silver Stuffs (against the Prince of Wales’s Wedding) that ever was known,” the London Daily Post announced, “and those that are now made, are reckon’d the richest Patterns ever seen.” Indeed, individuals of rank were invited to view Augusta and Frederick’s wedding clothes displayed in their newly renovated apartments at Kensington Palace in the week prior to their betrothal. [15] Charles Philips also painted a three-quarter-length portrait of England’s newest princess in her heavily embroidered couture silver dress, topped with ermine-lined state robes, and the acclaimed engraver John Faber Jr. soon after produced a mezzotint copy of the picture for consumers. [16]

By the 1730s, then, the royal wedding was invented as a theatrical and theatricalized spectacle of statecraft and romance, fostered through the commercialized newspaper and periodical press and a growing marketplace in regal pictures and objects. The eighteenth century was the great age of celebrity, Joseph Roach has argued, engendered through media representations, especially the circulation of charismatic stage icons and cultural luminaries who stoked desire by offering spectators the illusion of intimacy despite the reality of physical inaccessibility. [17] Whereas we are quick to recognize the theatricality and affective appeal of Victorian monarchy, which permitted consumers to imagine personal attachments to individuals whom they would never meet in real life, I want to draw attention to the ways in which the early Hanoverian royal family was adapting to and adopting the characteristics of celebrity culture (whether they were entirely reluctant to do so, like George II, or eager to chase popularity, like Prince Frederick). Newspapers offered new possibilities of royal publicity, allowing spectators access to exclusive palace rooms, court finery, and the nuptial bed in completely novel ways that mark an abrupt departure from discussions of state weddings in the later Stuart period. At the very least, we should recognize that our contemporary fascination with royal engagements and the extravagant wedding dresses worn by English princesses has an eighteenth-century origin—for better, (or) for worse.

Notes

[1] For further reading, see Carole Levin, Heart and Stomach of a Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), chapter 3; Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity: From Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), chapter 1; Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money, & Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Thomas Lacquer, “The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV,” Journal of Modern History 54 (1982): 417-66.

[2] “Queen Victoria’s Bridal Colour,” Woomer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 11 January 1840, 2504. On the tension between domesticity and sovereignty in representations of Victoria as bride, wife, and mother, see John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 29-35; Margaret Homans, Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837-1876 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 17-32.

[3] “Marriage of Queen Victoria,” The Bradford Observer, 13 February 1840, Issue 314.

[4] “Royal Marriage,” The Blackburn Standard, 12 February 1840, Issue 265. See also “Marriage of the Queen,” The Morning Post, 11 February 1840, 21542.

[5] See, for instance, British Museum: 2006,U.2079; 1902,1011.886; 1894.0516.59; and 1902,1011.8909.

[6] See Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture, 1714-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Hannah Greig, The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 99-130.

[7] For excellent discussions of William’s recovery and his wedding to Princess Anne, see Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money and Personal Character, 103-09, and Thompson, George II, 108-13.

[8] The Daily Journal, 26 February 1734, Issue 4091; Penny London Post, 27 February 1734, Issue 80.

[9] Jacques Rigaud after William Kent, The Wedding of Princess Anne and William of Orange in the Chapel of St. James’s as Decorated by William Kent, 1734. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D32900.

[10] Daily Journal, 16 March 1734, Issue 4107, and 18 March 1734, Issue 4108; London Evening Post, 14-16 March 1734, Issue 986; Penny London Post, 18 March 1734, Issue 88; and Penny London Post, 19 October 1733, Issue 24.

[11] Greig, The Beau Monde, 119-25; Hannah Smith, “The Court in England: 1714-1760: A Declining Political Institution?” History: The Journal of the Historical Association 90.297 (January 2005): 23-41.

[12] See British Museum: Anonymous unmounted engraved paper fan, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.375; Martha Gamble, Unmounted fan-leaf with orange tree, rose bush, and poem celebrating the marriage of Princess Anne, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.426; Qing Dynasty Porcelain Bowl, c. 1734, Franks.1447.

[13] Daily Gazetteer, 27 April 1736, Issue 260; Reads Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal 28 February 1736, issue 386. See also 20 March 1736, issue 389.

[14] For instance, see Reed’s Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; London Evening Post, 27-29 April 1736, Issue 1318.

[15] London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 2 April 1736, Issue 443, and 17 April 1736, Issue 456; London Evening Post, 13-15 April 1736, Issue 1312.

[16] Charles Philips, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales, c. 1736, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2093; John Faber Jr, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, after Charles Philips, c. 1750, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D10778.

[17] Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007).

Jane Austen, the Prince of Wales, and Mr. Trump

What would Jane Austen say about Donald Trump? Easy to answer, because she had seen it all before. A Regency girl in a golden age of satire, she attacked the Prince of Wales for his much-lampooned appearance, his lewdness, his licentiousness, his instability, his outrageous spending, his fondness for over-the-top building ventures, his implicit treason, his desire for absolute power, his vanity, his braggadocio, and his love of holidays and sport. Throughout her entire writing career, she kept close watch on the extravagant, dancing prince. At a time when most people were poor, and black lives didn’t matter, she satirized the vulgarian whose wish to become a second Sun King was bringing the country down. In 1813, she would write that she hated him.

Austen was never more than a few degrees of separation away from Prince George. When she was young, he lodged at Kempshot Manor, only three miles from Steventon, and her brother James went hunting with him. At the Wheatsheaf Inn, Basingstoke, where Jane and Cassandra collected the mail, the prince held riotous Hunt Club dinners. As they walked back through those green and leafy lanes, they must have marvelled at the latest excesses of the boorish young man.

At Kempshot, Prince George entertained Mrs. Fitzherbert, and appalled the county with his wild parties; at Kempshot, on honeymoon with Princess Caroline, he reluctantly sired Princess Charlotte. His cohort of “very blackguard companions” were “constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofa,” said the Earl of Minto, so that the whole scene “resembled a bad brothel much more than a Palace.” Austen was not prudish, but patriotic, and the prince’s behaviour threatened the nation. She would satirize him through avatars: John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Tom Bertram and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, and both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

Like the prince, Thorpe is a “stout young man of middling height,” with a “plain face and ungraceful form.” Like the holiday prince, he lies, boasts, swears, hunts, and talks of nothing but his horses and his rides; like the royal voyeur, he utters “a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met”; like the prince jeering at his parents, he asks his mother, “where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?” Austen’s lacerating portrait suggests close knowledge of the prince’s vulgar ways.

Even palace insiders said that the heir was unfit to rule. In 1811, just as Austen was revising Pride and Prejudice, he was widely mocked for spraining his ankle while teaching a courtier the Highland Fling. If Austen found that as funny as I do, she may have inserted Mr. Bennet’s exclamation about Mr. Darcy, “For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance.”

The matter was not trivial. Overweight and overwrought, the regent had gone to bed for ten days. Some said he was avoiding hard political decisions, others that he was going mad like his father. In George Cruikshank’s Princely Agility or the Sprained Ancle (1812), doctors prepare a strait waistcoat; in his Merry Making on the Regents Birthday (August 1812), the regent prances on a petition for the poor. As Austen once wrote, “How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed,” and in 1811, at a time of severe economic hardship, he had celebrated the inauguration of his regency in ludicrously opulent style. As Percy Shelley wrote wearily, this entertainment would not be “the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency.” When the prince became regent, Austen anticipated the king’s death by buying mourning clothes instead.

The prince spent staggering amounts of money on Brighton Pavilion and the Royal Lodge at Windsor. With instability at home and peril abroad, he supported dead Bourbons, hosted exiled French royalty and nobility, bought up their gilded furniture for Carlton House, and planned a second Versailles at Buckingham Palace. Many called his obsession with all things French treasonable; others accused him of coveting the absolute power of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In newspapers, journals, and cartoons, “the rising sun” went viral as code for the king’s son/sun. Even the title of a scurrilous magazine, The Rising Sun, signalled his obvious impatience for power, and in Persuasion, Charles Musgrove refuses to meet with Sir Walter Elliot’s heir, William Walter, crying out, “Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives.” As he says to Anne, “I am not one who neglects the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir.”

Like Thorpe, William Walter resembles the prince, for he is all too keen to claim the titles and privileges he once despised. The sick king was pitied and loved, but not his impatient son. In a bitter jest about her brother James inheriting many beloved possessions before the family left Steventon for Bath, Austen wrote, “My father’s old Ministers are already deserting them to pay their court to his son: the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James on our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane.” In Persuasion, Austen would explode the patriarchal hierarchy that privileged her oldest brother and the prince. Snubbed by powerful but ridiculous others, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth simply walk away from society’s toxic obsession with “rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank.”

To judge from Persuasion, Austen was alarmed that the prince, now regent, was spending a large proportion of the national income on high living and ostentatious parade. Beau Brummel had taught him the importance of elegance, just as in Persuasion, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” Surrounded, like Prince George, by mirrors, he finds it not possible to spend less, “given what Sir Walter Elliott was imperiously called on to do.” His failure to economize gestures to the regent, whose refusal to retrench was threatening the nation.

“Retrench” became another code word for the regent. In Cruikshank’s Economy of 1816, Lord Chancellor Brougham warns him, in an obvious allusion to the French Revolution, “Retrench! Retrench, reflect on the distressed state of your country, & remember the Security of the Throne rests on the happiness of ye People.” In Persuasion, however, Anne and Lady Russell are on “the side of honesty against importance.” To clear Sir Walter’s debts, they urge “a scheme of retrenchment,” and Lady Russell sheets Austen’s satire home by asking, “What will he be doing, in fact, but what very many of our first families have done––or ought to do?”

Personal as well as patriotic reasons fuelled Austen’s loathing of the prince, for he borrowed from the Earl of Moira, who borrowed £6000 from Jane’s brother Henry. Moira defaulted on his debts by becoming Governor-General of India. Thus the regent was partly responsible for Henry’s bankruptcy and consequent heavy losses for other family members, as E. J. Clery explains in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. No wonder that Austen hated him.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence in Antigua, like the absence of the sick king, allows his pleasure-loving son to take charge. Like the regent, Tom Bertram wastes both his health and his wealth, and occupies himself mainly with the theatricalities of his position, such as miniature battles in the Serpentine. Henry Crawford provides yet another proxy for the regent, for his “freaks of a cold-blooded vanity” never receive the punishment they deserve, while in Emma, the light-minded Churchill rids himself of his money and his leisure “at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.” The prince’s beloved Brighton, perhaps.

Three days before she died in Winchester on July 17, 1817, Austen wrote an odd little poem about Winchester races. The regent attended them every July. Here St. Swithin accuses “the Lord & the Ladies” all “sattin’d & ermin’d” of being his “rebellious subjects,” rebukes them as “depraved,” and announces that “By vice you’re enslaved/ You have sinn’d & must suffer.” To punish them, he vows to bring down regular rain showers on “these races & revels & dissolute measures/ With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain.” It was the satirist’s last fling at a regent who was dissolute, depraved, and a danger to the nation.

Jane Austen’s in-jokes demonstrate her worldliness, her fascination with celebrities, and her relish of rumor. She criticized the Prince of Wales in the only way she could, through her characters and plots. In her resistance to corruption and perversions of power, this savvy, brave, and thoroughly modern woman would have had plenty to say about Mr. Donald Trump.

 

 

 

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