January 23, 2011

Daily Life as a Slave

Below are some vivid paintings and engravings of enslaved peoples in the colonial Americas compiled by Professor Jerome S. Handler (his personal site) and Michael L. Tuite, Jr. in a joint project funded by the University of Virginia and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Contextual details for these images are scarce, but the pictures themselves speak eloquently of the manner in which the institution of slavery was embedded into the fabric of life in colonial societies stretching from Boston to Buenos Aires. I've added occasional captions to the images, but where the text is in quotes it comes direct from the online database assembled by Handler and Tuite, entitled The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas. Many thanks for this fantastic resource.
Extracting a jigger, scene in the Brazils. Watercolor by Augustus Earle (1793-1838). Original in National Library of Australia, Canberra.  "Shows a black woman extracting a chigger from the foot of a white man in what appears to be some sort of tavern; note pottery jug in left-hand corner. A tropical flea native to the Americas, the chigger (jigger, chigoe) was extremely troublesome to Europeans and Africans in many areas of the New World." William Dampier, the famed pirate and natural observer, recorded a similar removal of a chigger from his foot by an African slave in the 1690s, which he noted was accompanied by the sprinkling of tobacco leaves and the slave "mumbling some words to himself." See Dampier, A Voyage to New Holland, Vol. II, 93.
West India Washer Women, a painting by Agustino Brunias, 1760s. Courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica, Kingston. Brunias, "a painter born in Italy in 1730, came to England in 1758 where he became acquainted with William Young. Young had been appointed to a high governmental post in West Indian territories acquired by Britain from France, and in late 1764 Brunias accompanied Young to the Caribbean as his personal artist."
"Ile de France: Palanquin." Engraving from Louis de Freycinet, Voyage Autour du Monde... Atlas Historique. Plate 10. The Atlas Historique, a book of lavishly colored engravings documenting a French geographical expedition in the 1810s, offers a goldmine of information about enslaved peoples to historians. This image differs a bit from others I've seen from the Atlas in that it depicts daily life in Mauritius, an island near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, as opposed to the Americas. Note the barber-surgeon at right, an important medical practitioner among enslaved and free black populations throughout the colonial era.
An archival image of a mulatto house slave of Peru, 1780s. "This and hundreds of other drawings were done by unidentifed Indians during the 1780s and were commissioned by the Spanish Bishop Baltazar Jaime Martinez Companon during his pastoral visit to the region of Trujillo in northern Peru. The drawings, spread over nine volumes, are of Spaniards, Indians, plants and animals, as well plans and maps of the region." Source: Biblioteca del Palacio Real de Madrid.
A companion image from the same series, depicting a mulatta woman.
Painting by an unknown artist; from post card issued by the Virginia Museum of Fine
Arts, Richmond. "Unidentified black nurse with grandchildren of Virginia's Governor Spotswood, 1790-1800."
Collectible cards were often issued by British tobacconists - many featured depictions of African slaves smoking. This one was issued in Devon, England, and is courtesy of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia; image C1980-866.
 And finally, an evocative scene devoid of people, but with some vivid details of daily life in a colonial Jamaican village: "Watercolor, showing rural house yard. Drawn from life by William Berryman, an English artist who lived in Jamaica for eight years in the early 19th century. He produced over 300 pencil and watercolor drawings of the island's people, landscape, settlements, and flora, with the intention of producing a series of engravings--never realized because of his death." Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.
Taken together, the images from this site can tell you things that books never can. I recommend that interested readers peruse it themselves. Below are links to some subject areas:

January 19, 2011

Image of the Week: The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

This painting, by an anonymous English artist, depicts in remarkable detail the Spanish Armada's confrontation with English vessels, probably at the momentous Battle of Gravelines. From Wikipedia:
         English losses stood at 50-100 dead and 400 wounded, and none of their ships had been sunk. But after the victory, typhus, dysentery and hunger killed many sailors and troops (estimated at 6,000–8,000) as they were discharged without pay: a demoralising dispute occasioned by the government's fiscal shortfalls left many of the English defenders unpaid for months, which was in contrast to the assistance given by the Spanish government to its surviving men.
         Although the English fleet was unable to prevent the regrouping of the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines, requiring it to remain on duty even as thousands of its sailors died, the outcome vindicated the strategy adopted, resulting in a revolution in naval warfare with the promotion of gunnery, which until then had played a supporting role to the tasks of ramming and boarding. The battle of Gravelines is regarded by some specialists in military history as reflecting a lasting shift in the naval balance in favour of the English, in part because of the gap in naval technology and armament it confirmed between the two nations, which continued into the next century. In the words of Geoffrey Parker, by 1588 'the capital ships of the Elizabethan navy constituted the most powerful battlefleet afloat anywhere in the world.'[22]
As with many early modern paintings, the charm of this one is in the details: note the tiny figure (painted in red) clinging to the broken mast of the sinking vessel in the detail I've picked out above. Below is the full painting, along with two more details of direct cannon fire.

January 16, 2011

The Baron and the 'Savages': Lahontan in North America

An early French edition of Lahontan's travelogue.
I've spent the last week in UT Austin's Harry Ransom Center reading a book that was once sensationally famous but has since fallen into obscurity: the Baron de Lahontan's Nouveux Voyages dans L'Amerique Septentrionale, published in English as New Voyages to North America (London, 1703). After reading less than half, I can safely say that this is an extraordinary book, sparkling with unusual details, spectacular engraved illustrations and a unique narrative voice. Indeed, there's almost something post-modern about the moral ambiguity of Lahontan as narrator - on the surface he appears to scorn the "silly" ways of the "Savages," but the work is also suffused with concealed admiration for what Lahontan calls the "most Natural of Natural Philosophers" who populated the vast North American forests, and the book concludes with a dialogue between the Baron and a semi-imaginary Huron Indian chief (Lahontan calls him 'the Rat') which paints European Christians and their money-driven ethos in a distinctly unfavorable light.

The English title page.
A bit more information about the somewhat mysterious Loius Armand, Baron of Lahontan (9 June 1666 – c. 1716) can be garnered from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, where an informative entry by David M. Hayne tells us that he was born to a noble French family in the environs of the town of Pau, on the border near the Pyrenes. Lahontan came to French Canada at a young age, around 17, and moved throughout New France for ten years as a soldier, translator and traveler. Upon return to France he seems to have been deprived of his large inheritance, but he won fame for his writings and maintained a friendship with the great Liebniz (and also, it would seem, with Sir Hans Sloane, the botanist, founder of the British Museum and co-inventor of hot chocolate -- on whom more in a later post). Lahontan's Voyages, Hayne notes,
were based on personal observation of events and practices in New France, of Indian customs, and of flora and fauna. They included an impressive wealth of detail and, except for some exaggeration in the numbers of persons involved, were remarkably accurate in their information. The infrequent occasions on which Lahontan retailed hearsay – for example in his jesting page on the marriageable girls sent out to New France, or in his tale of the Long River – have drawn refutations which by their violence bear witness to his relative veracity elsewhere.
The cartographer Hermann Mole's depiction of the mythical 'Longue River' linking the Great Lakes with the Pacific, seemingly invented by Lahontan along with details of cultures and ecosystems that lay along it.
 Hayne continues:
Quite apart from the information and opinions they communicated about North America, moreover, Lahontan’s works were a compendium of early 18th-century “philosophic” ideas about the folly of superstitions, the vices of European society, the illogicalities of Christian dogma and the virtues of the “noble savage.” The same ideas, better expressed, would be found in the writings of major 18th-century authors: in the fourth book of Swift’s Gullivers Travels (1726), in Rousseau’s Discours sur les origines de linégalité . . . (1755), in Voltaire’s LIngénu (1767), or in Diderot’s posthumously published Supplément au voyage de Bougainville...
 Below are a random sampling of quotations from the English translation of Lahontan's Voyages, with two engraved plates from the French edition. These are some of the earliest written accounts of the native tribes -- Ottawa, Huron, Iroquois, Illinois, and many more -- that populated New France, and the haunting sense of a vanished world and culture is palpable here.

On property and inequality: "They think it unnaccountable that one Man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more Respect than the Poor. In short, they say, the name of Savages which we bestow upon them would fit our selves better, since there is nothing in our Actions that bears an Appearance of Wisdom... They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alledging, That we degrade our selves in Subjecting our selves to one Man who possesses the whole Power..." (421).
On food: "Their Victuals are either Boild or roasted, and they lap great quantities of the Broath, both of Meat and of Fish: They cannot bear the taste of Salt or Spices, and wonder that we are able to live so long as Thirty Years, considering our Wines, our Spices, and our Immoderate Use of Women." (422)
"The Ceremony of Marriage": a bride and groom prepare to marry, and lovers courting by visiting one another's houses, "accompanied by parents" and without. In the detail at lower right, a suitor visits a young woman bearing a candle - if she blows the candle out, they will sleep together.
A similar illustration from the English edition, with more details.
On widows: "When the Husband or Wife comes to dye, the Widowhood does not last above six Months ; and if in that space of time the Widow or Widower dreams of their deceas'd Bedfellow, they Poyson themselves in cold Blood with all the Contentment imaginable ; and at the same time sing a sort of tune that one may safely say proceeds from the Heart." (459)
On men who 'go in a Woman's Habit': "Among the Illinese there are several Hermaphrodites, who go in a Woman's Habit, but frequent the Company of both Sexes. These Illinese are strangely given to Sodomy, as well as the other Savages that live near the River Missisipi." (462)
"Savages going to the hunt," an "infant attached to a branch of a tree," and a "female savage carrying her child."
And one of my favorite passages, on 'Hunting Women' who 'will not hear of a Husband': "To justify their Conduct, they alledge that they find themselves to be of too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak, to be too careless for the bringing up of Children, and too impatient to bear the passing of the whole Winter in the Villages... Their Parents or Relations dare not censure their Vicious Conduct; on the contrary they seem to approve of it, in declaring, as I said before, that their Daughters have the command of their own Bodies and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit... The Jesuits do their utmost to prevent the Lewd Practices of these Whores, by preaching to their parents that their Indulgence is very disagreeable to the Great Spirit, that they must answer before God for not confineing their Children to the measures of Continency and Chastity, and that a Fire is Kindled in the other World to Torment 'em for ever, unless they take more care to correct Vice. To such Remonstances the Men reply, That's Admirable; and the Woman usually tell the Good Fathers in a deriding way, That if their Threats be well grounded, the Mountains of the other World must consist of the Ashes of souls." (464)

An excellent answer from the women, in my opinion! (And we must be careful not to take Lahontan too much at his word in his own censure of these practices - the Baron seems often to tacitly approve of the un-Christian yet spirited and clever responses of his native interlocutors, though he can never admit it outright.) These passage raise some profound questions about gender in North American indigenous societies -- Lahontan's 'Hunting Women' and 'Hermaphrodites' are fascinating and almost entirely unstudied, based on what I've read -- but sadly the documentation for these practices is so fragmentary that they may never be fully understood by historians.
A detail from the 1707 French edition showing what is probably the earliest European depiction of the bison hunts of the Plains Indians - early French travelers like Lahontan called them 'boeufs sauvages,' or wild cows.
Lahonta's Voyages are on Amazon and can also be found on Archive.org. Those interested in the larger context of Indian, French and British interaction in the colonial American frontier would be wise to start with Richard White's famous work The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region (1991), which is the authoritative work on the subject and an amazing piece of scholarship, if at times a bit daunting. Maps and engravings from Lahontan's works, which by and large were extremely well-illustrated, can be found on auction sites throughout the web, but the best site to browse is probably Early Images of Canada, which has over one hundred images from different editions of Lahontan's travels online in a searchable database.

January 12, 2011

The Domestic Life of Alchemists

Philadelphia's Chemical Heritage Foundation maintains a wonderful Flickr page of images relating to the history of chemistry, pharmacy and alchemy. While perusing their image banks, I came across this collection of 17th and 18th-century paintings of alchemists practicing their occult art -- paintings which include some revealing glimpses into the private life of those who searched for the fabled lapis philosophorum. Credit for the images and quoted text below goes to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, "a non-profit library, museum, and center for scholars that's dedicated to the history of chemistry." Some of these images are very large - I highly encourage readers to click to see the fabulous details (I've picked out a few below).
Alchemist. Thomas Wijck (Beverwijck 1616–1677 Haarlem), Holland, 17th Century, Oil on panel. From the CHF: "A dark study illuminated by single leaded glass window at left; in middle ground a seated man behind cluttered desk faces slightly left; open and closed books, papers, jars and jugs scattered on floor; at right a seated woman in white cap, collar and cuff, bends over a lacemaker; at left a glowing furnace, above that on wall a portrait of a man."  Fisher Collection; Gift of Fisher Scientific International. Photo by Will Brown.
The Alchemist. Francois-Marius Granet. Oil on canvas, 18th century. A bit more spare on detail, but this painting captures the moody contemplation of early modern occultists very well, I think. Also a great use of shadow.
An Alchemist in His Study. Egbert van Heemskerk I. Oil on canvas, 17th century. Fisher Collection, CHF Collections. Photo by Will Brown. 
Note the birdcages in both this painting and the Thomas Wijck.
Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. David Teniers II. Oil on canvas, 17th Century  Eddleman Collection, CHF.
 And my favorite of all, a painting which has been wrongly attributed as a depiction of an alchemist, but which actually depicts an unlucky physician:
Trouble Comes to the Alchemist. Dutch School, 17th-century. Oil on canvas mounted on board. From the CHF: "Although the title suggests this is an image of an alchemist, the scene is one of a physician conducting a uroscopy for a female patient. The confusion may be due to the similarity in objects used in both relative practices. These include a mortar and pestle, a variety of flasks and containers, a human skull, an hourglass, a celestial globe, and books.  The overt hilarity of the old woman deliberately emptying her piss pot on the physician's head would have been instantly appreciated by any contemporary viewer of this work. Musical motifs, such as the cello in this painting, were traditionally a symbol of love and warning about sexual promiscuity. The poem on the table, attributed to Socrates, implies that the furious woman above is like Xanthippe, the Greek philosopher's famously shrewish wife. It reads: I knew well woman, it's no wonder, it would rain, after this thunder."
What's most interesting to me about all these paintings is the insight they give into the domestic spaces in which alchemy took place -- science was still, in the early modern era, practiced in spare rooms or 'closets' of houses rather than in institutions, so it is little wonder to find sleeping cats and dogs, servants, wives and lovers, tobacco pipes and other signs of domesticity in these paintings. Yet when we compare these charming vignettes to the forbidding and rather pretentious tone that alchemical texts of the 17th century assumed, it makes for a revealing contrast: sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. Some details:
A pipe and birdcage, apparent mainstays of the alchemist's quarters. This is a painting of the Dutch Golden Age, so that blurry image in the background could potentially be a woodblock print from China or Japan.
The detritus of a scholarly life.

A surreal flourish in the Tenier painting: crocodilians were commonly hung in the shops of apothecaries and other early modern drug-makers. They represented the natural wonders of the tropics, or 'Indies,' from which many such drugs hailed.
A sleeping dog, blissfully unaware of the pot of urine being poured on his master's head.
Those interested in alchemy and the occult might want to start with the works of Frances Yates, the doyenne of early modern magic and alchemical studies, and go from there. Personally, though, I've always found Yates to be a bit too speculative. A personal favorite work on alchemy and the occult in the early modern era is Deborah Harkness' masterful John Dee's Conversations with Angelswhich contains some great details about Dee's home life and his relationship with his wife. For readers with JSTOR access, Harkness' journal article "Managing an Experimental Household: the Dees of Mortlake and the Practice of Natural Philosophy" contains further insights. Finally, The Alchemy Website has been an internet mainstay for primary source texts and images relating to alchemy for many years.

January 8, 2011

Thanks, Readers!

Having reached the milestone of 50,000 visitors today, I thought I'd write to say thank you to all who have read, commented on and shared this site. Its been rewarding for me to find that members of the general public are actually interested in the arcane oddities of historical research -- the nature of the historical discipline means that its sometimes easy to forget this. RES OBSCURA is still only around seven months old and is thus very much a work in progress, so I welcome any comments, suggestions and criticisms. Please comment on this post to let me know what you think and what might be improved! Also, here are my two most-viewed posts of 2010: Waterboarding in the Seventeenth Century and Color Photographs of Vanished Russia. One of my favorites, despite not getting many views, is Scurvy, Shipwreck and Spaniards in the Indies, which was based on some archival research I did in London this summer. These cropped images, by the way, come from an beautiful painting by Lorenzo Lotto which is usually called 'The Allegory of Virtue and Vice.' Look for a post on Lotto's enigmatic works in the near future!

January 5, 2011

Cabinets of Curiosities in the Seventeenth Century

"There is no man alone, because every man is a Microcosm, and carries the whole world about him... There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us."- Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1642

Early modern Europeans envisioned their own bodies as miniature worlds which echoed God's Creation in every detail. And in the expansionist, acquisitive and globalizing era of the seventeenth century, the wonders of Creation frequently became conflated with the treasures of the tropical world that Europeans were busy exploiting. The physician and mystic philosopher (and favorite author of Virginia Woolf) Sir Thomas Browne opined that we all carry the "prodigies" of Africa within ourselves, while the poet John Donne famously wrote that "both th' Indias of spice and mine...lie here with me." The early modern curiosity cabinet (often called Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer, "Wonder-rooms") stood at the intersection of this dual preoccupation with microcosms and the treasures of Africa and "the Indies." A great deal has been written on cabinets of curiosities and wunderkammeren (here are some Kunstkammer whose contents have been digitized and here's a good essay on the subject by a curator at the Met; see the end of the post for some book recommendations), so I'm not going to elaborate too much on their history here. Instead, here are some beautiful paintings and engravings of curiosity cabinets, most from Wikimedia Commons.
The Danish naturalist Ole Worm's cabinet of curiosities was a famous early wunderkammer containing many creatures and shells drawn from Arctic waters. This is the frontispiece
to Worm's 1655 Museum Wormianium.

This engraving from Vincent Levinus's 1715 Wondertooneel der Nature almost seems to function as a companion piece to Worm's cabinet - as if one of his drawers of marine
specimen had been pulled upon and meticulously recorded.

Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1690s. Note the paintings of Dutch
shipping vessels - the mechanism by which most of these eclectic objects
reached the Flemish-Italian painter's studio.
Kunstkammer, a similar but somewhat older work by the Flemish artist
Frans Francken II, 1636.
A panoramic view of a vast Dutch hall of curiosities (fanciful, I assume), again from
Levinus Vincent, 1715.
One of my favorite things about visual depictions of curiosity cabinets is the immense amount of detail that painters and engravers lavished upon their contents. Here are some cropped details that I picked out from the images above:
A seahorse from Francken's painting.
Shells, precious gems, a perfume or medicine bottle and a notebook - all of which would not have been out of place in the treasurebox of an East India merchant. Again from Francken.
 A mean-looking tropical fish lurks above.
 And in the far background, some virtuosi inspect printed reference works.
A macabre detail of preserved animals (embryos?) from Levinus Vincent.
A 2008 BibliOddysey post on Levinus Vincent's amazing illustrations of curiosity cabinets contains some more images and some good details on Dutch collecting. Another very interesting site I came across is the King's Kunstkammer, a virtual exhibit of the Danish Royal Kunstkammer from 1674. Finally, for those interested in scholarly treatments, I can recommend Paula Findlen's Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Lorraine Daston's Wonders and the Order of Nature, the edited volume Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe by Benjamin Schmidt and Pamela H. Smith and the works of Anthony Grafton are also great guides to the cultures of collecting and curiosity in pre-modern times.