“Don’t Squeeze a South African Dry!”


“Each trade agreement, each product bought, each bank loan, each new investment is another brick in the wall of our continued existence.” (South African Prime Minister John Vorster in the Johannesburg Star 26.8.72)

The snow rolled up six feet on either side of the road. As the car swept into a cleared driveway it was as if a giant white blanket had dropped from the sky and feathered itself upon the land for as far as eyes could see. But the land, it seemed, would not be subdued. Timber, trunks, glass and tiles pushed their way upwards to emboss their form on the darning and rip vertical holes filled with colours, textures and reflections invisible to Google Earth. It was here, in one of these holes under the snow, that I began to learn some of the historical geographies of the above image. I wanted to understand how sun-drenched oranges from South Africa became anti-apartheid weapons in Europe. The story I’d heard was that from 1973 onwards, the South African Outspan citrus conglomerate did not sell a single orange in Holland until the fall of apartheid. It was the Swedish winter of 2011, and I was visiting the home of Esau and Ann-Marie du Plessis in the countryside not far from Malmö.

Their home, an old farmhouse, is also an anti-apartheid and transnational activist archive. Among the many things it houses are anti-apartheid books, artwork and speeches from the 1950s through to the 80s, anti-colonial volumes and Africanist histories, anti-apartheid campaign materials, letters, photographs and action-plans – but most importantly it homes Esau and Ann-Marie themselves. The son of farmers, Esau du Plessis was born in Maclear, the Eastern Cape in 1938.  He left South Africa to pursue a career in medicine in London in 1959. During this time he volunteered in the ANC London office alongside future African poet laureate Mazisi Kunene and was consequently banned from returning to South Africa.  He left for Holland in 1965 to study Non-Western Sociology at Leiden University. Once there, he worked for the African Studies Centre, and joined various Dutch anti-apartheid organizations. However he became increasingly frustrated by the lack of hard actions that these groups were willing to commit, and in 1970 he formed Boycott Outspan Action (BOA) alongside graphic designer Rob van der Aa, and the scholar and journalist Karel Roskam.

For the BOA the plantation of citrus fruit in South Africa was an expression of the environmental, structural and embodied violence of European capitalism. Oranges, the BOA argued, had always been a white crop. Imported from St Helena by Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck in 1656, they were intended for consumption by the Dutch elite and sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope. More contemporaneously, exposé’s by Ruth First and Rosalind Ainslie suggested that the abuse of black labour on citrus farms was widespread in 1970. Responding to calls to boycott South African commodities from the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), du Plessis and Roskam decided that the orange would be an apt vehicle for bringing Dutch-South African diplomatic relationships and “blood ties” into sharp focus. In drawing from the somatic rhetoric common across Dutch and English media reports of the famine in the resettlement areas of 1970, the orange export crop was described by the BOA as “soiled,” “infected” and “leaving a bad taste in the mouth.” With its fleshy water-drenched interior and hard exterior prone to rapid dehydration once separated from the flesh – the orange was an obvious contender to mimic the environmental conditioning of human bodies so explicitly depicted in media reports of the famines. As van der Aa’s image shows, metonymically, the skin and flesh of the orange become human. The essential quotidian violence of preparation to eat or drink an orange (squeezing, dissecting, peeling, segmenting, sucking, grating) is made allegorical to the social and spatial squeezing of the black labourer and the famine victim. The creation of a blood-citrus topos is pronounced in the slogan ‘Pers geen Zuid Afrikaan uit! (Don’t squeeze a South African dry!). Through the old humanitarian antislavery trick of mobilising white-on-black anthropophagy (a reversal of the Caribbean myth of black cannibalism), the BOA emoted racialised disgust for anti-apartheid ends.

This image is one of many that the BOA produced over the 1970s and 80s.  As common with iconic pictures, the BOA poster produced extreme reactions. The Outspan boycott did not receive full support from other Dutch anti-apartheid organizations. Connie Braam former leader of the AABN recently criticised the image as “unappetizing” and the boycott as too radical and misdirected. Her extended critique (published in recent doctoral thesis from the University of Amsterdam), seems to show that her sympathies lay more with Dutch working class rather than apartheid labourers. Furthermore, the image purportedly gave Dutch children nightmares, and was banned from publication across national print media by the Dutch advertising agency for alleged indecency. Ironically, the repression of the poster lent the squeezing trope and the BOA’s citrus boycott a wider audience. The Dutch liberal press championed their successful court battle to have the injunction overturned, and the BOA were able to bring anti-apartheid and antiracism to the broader social movement politics of the time. The image was fully endorsed by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), with their European delegate, James Phillips, declaring that the hand should “squeeze a bit harder, because that is in fact what I think is happening in South Africa…I believe that the hand itself should show how tense the muscles are as they squeeze the life out of our people”. (Translated from Dutch. BOA Dokumentatiemap II, 1973: 15)

 Hugh Crosfield is a visiting lecturer and teaching assistant at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Bateman’s: Reading a House


Kipling's study in Bateman's. (Photo courtesy tedesco 57 on Flickr)

Kipling’s study in Bateman’s. (Photo courtesy tedesco 57 on Flickr)

Not oak, ash, and thorn. But balsam poplar, Turkey oak, Brazilian gunnera, lysichiton americanus. There’s a “wriggly nut” tree hanging over the footbridge, and the at end of the streamside path a sundial engraved “It Is Later Than You Think”.

The compact Jacobean mansion standing across the lily pond, Rudyard Kipling’s home and refuge for thirty-five years, feels familiar and yet confounds expectations. The “very own house” tugged its owner in contradictory directions. Modern innovations run underfoot: the water-mill, known to Domesday, powered an electric dynamo communicating with the house via a length of deep-sea cable. The pond is lined with concrete, so that the children could bathe and boat on it. But within, comforts are fastened to a time of straight backs, thick walls, cold parlours: there was no sofa until the arrival of a seventeenth-century Knole like a box pew, and the mullion windows admit scant light. The taste is immaculate, as might be expected from a man who was as fascinated by interior as he was by mechanical design. But it is severe. As a boy, Kipling had sat on William Morris’s knee, and fingered the tools and brushes in the studio of his uncle, Edward Burne-Jones. In the year before his death he praised their generation for ridding England of horse-hair chairs and red lambrequins, but somehow also despised them for helping to fatten the national complacency typified by such bloated furniture. They were “purveyors of luxuries” to a decadent class, “utterly dependent on the fabric round them being kept safe”. If the rationale at Bateman’s is Arts & Crafts, then, the objects—especially the surfaces—tend to be of surer and more ancient craftsmanship. Dark wood panel and tabletop, Mortlake tapestry, Cordoba leather, iron firebacks, the Jacobean floor tiled like a chessboard: they are burnished and resilient; dull in colour but rich in tone. Nothing could be further from the pine, cherry and Tiffany glass of Naulakha, the elegant home that a younger Kipling had built for his wife on a hilltop in Vermont. That house, famously, had been served by its own post office. The most deliberate omission at Bateman’s is a telephone.

Some of the items, carefully displayed, have come out of the stories: a Chinese pen-case and Tibetan ghost-dagger complement Lockwood Kipling’s sculpted reliefs of scenes from Kim. A map of Norman Sussex hangs prominently in the stairwell, and a faience apothecary’s bowl evokes “A Doctor of Medicine” amidst deeply-recessed panels of a Charles I court-cupboard. It is a house of recesses— the door marked “Private” leads to Carrie Kipling’s study, from where an internal window afforded her the necessary, discriminating peek at unwanted callers. But other objects, or pairs of objects, don’t tell so straightforward a story. Asian mementos are plentiful, from Benares brassware and some Kashmiri ewers, to Chinese porcelain glazed with the East India Company crest. An Indian silver rose bowl sits alongside an English cheese cradle. Some provenances hint at the darker side of the Kiplings’ colonial transactions. Supposedly the property of Wajid Ali Shah prior to the poet-king’s deposition, the stout Chinese box in the hallway might be the very one slung over the redcoat’s shoulder in Lundgren’s sketch of the plundering of Lucknow. What gives greatest pause for thought is the juxtaposition of priceless Indian heirloom with the cheap and mass-produced. Acquired shortly after his death, a metal tray etched with the sleek profile of the destroyer HMS Kipling seems to represent its namesake’s commitment to machines and manufactures, while the neighbouring firescreen—fashioned from embroidered scenes of the life of Krishna—suggests the ambivalence in that commitment. The library is another medley of the sacred and profane: shelves of Bibles abutting manuals of engineering and agriculture, a romance about Robert Emmet beside a life of Edward Carson. Strange too that it is the exotic objects which speak best to the story the National Trust wants to tell, that Bateman’s is a house robbed of its children. The bridal chest of Punjabi lacquerwork was never aired; the prayer mat, from Central Asia, was knitted for six pairs of infant knees. Those who come for Kipling’s India therefore, or Kipling’s fairies, or Kipling’s private tragedy, find all his interests and obsessions interpenetrated.

And Puck’s trees were there after all, but in the wood: “England shall bide till judgment tide in oak and ash and thorn”, is carved along a wooden box on his desk. The inscription must have come later, but the oak and ash leaves were there already: done in gesso, in 1879, by Johair Singh at the Lahore Museum.

Alexander Bubb is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at King’s College, London.

How a Giraffe made its way to Ming China, via Bengal


Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Photo Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art

It’s in lots of the books about early Ming China, the picture of a giraffe presented to the Yongle emperor on 20 September 1414 by Saif al-Din Hamzah Shah, Sultan of Bengal. One or other of the surviving versions of the image of this marvel (and there were surely once lots more of them) was always a dead cert for inclusion in the exhibition Ming: 50 Years that Changed China, shown at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015, exactly six hundred years later. My co-curator (Jessica Harrison-Hall and I) discussed and argued our original enormous want-list down to something more feasible in terms of space and budget over several years, but the inclusion of the giraffe painting was never in doubt. We even fantasized at one point about installing a full-scale stuffed giraffe in the BM forecourt; there was after all just such a zoological rarity in the nineteenth-century British Museum, before the naturalia and artificialia were split between two different institutions, as the category of Natural History claimed its own “scientific” space in South Kensington.  This didn’t happen, but you were able to buy a cuddly giraffe toy in the exhibition shop.  I didn’t look at the label, but it’s pretty much a certainty that, along with most of the Ming tea towels, Ming USB sticks, Ming phone covers, Ming fridge magnets, Ming T-shirts, Ming umbrellas, Ming coffee mugs and Ming tin plates (if not the Ming stem ginger biscuits), the cuddly giraffes were made in China.  Today so much stuff moves around the world in giant ships that the idea of a marvel, a thing not seen before, becomes hard to capture.

The giraffe painting was a big hit with the exhibition audience, and I often stopped in front of it when doing tours and introductions. Someone said to me that they knew about giraffes and that the artist had definitely seen one, that the animal’s physiology was right (not like Albrecht Dürer’s rhino), but its markings were obviously wrong, substituting regular chevrons for the lion-confusing blotches a real giraffe would have.  I said I thought the attempt was being made to give it scales, to match the description in the Confucian classics of the marvellous beast called the qilin, token of the rule of a paragon emperor. It must have been a brief marvel.  No record survives of this, but my guess is the poor creature would in reality have suffered mightily in Beijing’s frigid winter climate, which probably was enough to carry it off exactly six hundred years before the exhibition’s closure. The arrival of a qilin is worthy of note, but its passing goes unremarked.

The painting commemorates an act of gift giving, and I was suddenly moved to check out the name “John T. Dorrance”, who himself gave this work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It turns out he was the son of the man who invented condensed soup, and was himself chairman of the Campbell Soup Co, as well as a generous patron of the Museum and Chairman of its board for many years, dying at the age of 70 in 1989. My mind could not but fly at once to Andy Warhol, whose relationship with the Campbell Soup Company and its products was not a simple one. The giraffe was painted in multiples because it was a wonder, a thing never seen before; Warhol’s soup cans were painted in multiples precisely to underscore their ordinariness. The beast was famous for a little over (not much over) the canonical fifteen minutes; I like to think it was occasionally thought about after it was gone.

Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. He was the co-curator of the recent exhibition, Ming: 50 years that changed China held at the British Museum. Details regarding the exhibition can be found here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2014/ming.aspx?fromShortUrl

The last Westland Wapiti


A Westland Wapiti aeroplane (Photo courtesy Aashique Iqbal)

A Westland Wapiti aeroplane (Photo courtesy Aashique Iqbal)

The Indian Air Force museum situated at Palam, New Delhi is the resting place of the last surviving airframe of the Westland Wapiti aeroplane. This is apt given that the Westland Wapiti occupies a place of great importance in Indian aviation history since it served as the first plane flown by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Today the IAF is one of the world’s largest air forces and features some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the world. Nevertheless its beginnings can be traced back to the humble Westland Wapiti.

The Wapiti was commissioned by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1927 to serve as a multi-role combat aircraft and served in the air forces of a number of countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia. Reliable but not remarkable, the Wapiti appeared destined to pass into obscurity as many of its contemporaries have. However, aeroplanes like people sometimes have destinies that are difficult to anticipate. The Westland Wapiti’s fate was to serve as the first aeroplane of the Indian Air Force.

The Indian Air Force was established on 8th October 1932 as a sop to Indian political opinion. Indian legislators in the Central Legislative Assembly had long demanded greater Indian control of the armed forces. They argued that having more Indians in positions of power in the armed forces would both reduce costs as well as put India onto the road to self-government. To pacify Indian demands the British Government of India had conceded control of token units in the Indian army. Now as demands for the admission of Indians into the RAF grew louder the decision was taken to set up a tiny Indian Air Force. The air force so created was kept very small and equipped with aeroplanes passed down from its better equipped and larger British counterpart.

The Westland Wapiti had been dubbed the “What-a-pity” by RAF pilots. It often had to be manhandled by large groups of airmen into take-off position. Its air gunner was chained to his seat to prevent him from flying out of the plane. It threw up great plumes of dust as its rotors came on and went off and it often flew carrying a caged carrier pigeon to be used when radio communication was not possible. It was handed to the first, and for a very long time only, squadron of the Indian Air Force on the 1st of April 1933.

The Indian Air Force which was never conceived of as much more than a token was confined to glorified policing or “Air Control” operations on India’s rough Northwest Frontier province from 1937 onwards. Air control involved the bombardment of recalcitrant Pathan tribes such as the Hurs and the Waziris into submission to British Imperial will, something that bears curious similarities to the present. Here Indian pilots learnt to navigate rugged terrain and to perform photo reconnaissance. Equally importantly Indian Airmen or “Hawai Sepoys” (air soldiers) on the ground learnt to repair and maintain the aircraft on the ground in tough conditions.

The imminence of war in 1939 led to the steady replacement of the Wapiti by the Hawker Hart even, in the IAF. However the Wapiti remained in service well into the Second World War and was responsible in addition to its old air control duties for the patrolling of India’s coastline where it helped in the timely spotting of a great Japanese fleet in the Bay of Bengal in 1942.

The Second World War saw a flood of new kinds of aeroplanes enter the service of the Indian Air Force as well as the expansion of the force itself from one to ten squadrons by 1946. The Wapiti went quickly from mainstay to memory. To dismiss the Wapiti at this point however is a mistake since it was the experience gained from flying and repairing the Wapiti that enabled the Indian Air Force to gain the success it did. Indian pilots had developed a distinct style of flying low and slow in the Wapiti to avoid detection that served them well in the jungles of Burma even as Indian air men won praise for keeping planes running in tough conditions.It is thus perhaps as a tribute to this that the Indian Air Force has preserved the last airframe of its first plane.


Select Bibliography

A. M. Chaturvedi,History of the Indian Air Force,Vikas Publishing House, 1978

B. Prasad, The Official History of the Indian Air Force in World War II, History Section, Orient Longman 1961

B. Prasad, Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation, Orient Longman, 1956

D. E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control; The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, Manchester University Press, 1990

H. Singh, Birth of an Air Force, Palit and Palit, 1977

J. Singh ,Defence from the Skies, Centre for Air Power Studies, 2007

P. Singh, History of Aviation in India, Society for Aerospace Studies, 2007

P. Satia, The defense of inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia, AHR, 111, 1, February 2006

T.S. Rana Chinna,The Eagle Strikes,   Centre for Armed forces historical research, 2006

Aashique Ahmed Iqbal is a DPhil candidate in History at the University of Oxford.


Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 2: An Eighteenth-century ceremonial club from Vancouver Island


[This is Ruth’s second post on material culture in the 18th century]

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

Holophusikon club (photo courtesy Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia)

In March 2012, a mid-eighteenth-century ceremonial club, made by the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, was donated to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. The club was carved from a single piece of yew wood, in the shape of a hand clasping a sphere. It is beautiful and extremely rare, a hawilmis, or “chiefly treasure” of Canadian Aboriginal people. As the Musqueam First Nation artist Debra Sparrow told reporters at the time of the donation, the club, “was carved with a purpose,” and is thus “not an object, it is a reflection of a people’s history.”[1]

For UBC’s press department, the primary significance – or at least one of the most interesting aspects – of the club was the brief role in its life of a famous British individual, Captain James Cook. The title of the UBC media release describes it as “the last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection.”[2] Almost every national and international news report of the story followed this lead by headlining the name of the explorer, who was presented with the club during his third Pacific voyage in 1778, a year before he died. The Vancouver Sun opened their report in 2012 with an account of the donor, Michael Audain, and his fan-like relationship with Cook. This began when “as a child, [he] was fascinated with the story of Capt. James Cook,” and seems to culminate in his emotional response to seeing and handling the club, which offers a kind of physical connection to the long-dead explorer. Audain, the report details, felt “a tremor of excitement” and asked “Can I touch it? Can I hold something in my hand that James Cook must have held?”[3]

The information board which now accompanies the club continues to quietly emphasise this link across the centuries to Cook, referring to the object’s presence in Hawaii at the time of his death, as though it somehow acts as an inanimate witness to the event.[4] The Nuu-chah-nulth club’s status as an emotional conduit to Cook, then, may be, for many visitors to the museum, a key part of their experience of the object. For some cultural theorists, such extraordinary revaluations by collectors and museums of objects linked to Cook, and especially his death, resemble the processes of “celebrity endorsement” or even “the status of sacred relics.”[5]

A form of this celebrity effect was already central to the early acquisition and exhibition of Pacific artefacts in eighteenth-century London, where the club was displayed between 1780 and 1806 at the Holophusikon in Leicester Square. Visitors to this museum were expected to be thrilled by the opportunity “to see several of the identical articles which were once the property of the celebrated Captain Cook.” An encounter with Cook’s collection could not “fail to excite a melancholy pleasure, while we reflect on his eminent abilities, and his unhappy fate.”[6] This “unhappy fate,” a mysterious and violent death in Hawaii, created an aura of tragic celebrity around Hawaiian artefacts. This might explain why the Nuu-chah-nulth club seems to have been mislabelled in the museum catalogue as a “curious war instrument” from Hawaii.[7] Such objects had a more personal association with Cook, and so would be more likely to appeal to visitors. The club was probably displayed in the Hawaiian room, one of the Holophusikon’s most heavily advertised attractions. This room displayed a portrait of Cook, and an inscription “To The Immortal Memory of Captain Cook.”[8] Most visitors seem to have understood the display as “devoted to the memory of Captain Cook, which is here effectually preserved by a collection of arms, dresses, utensils, idols, &c.”[9]

In the 1780s and 1790s, a sensational version of Cook’s death, sometimes including unfounded allegations of Hawaiian cannibalism, spread in British popular culture. As a result, the club (like many genuinely Hawaiian artefacts such as the feather ‘ahu ‘ula discussed in the last post) was stripped of its original meanings and made to fit into a highly emotionally-charged, somewhat Gothic story in which Cook, an Enlightenment hero, was sacrificed to a glamorous but barbaric Hawaiian society. It made sense to Lever to label the ceremonial Nuu-chah-nulth club a Hawaiian “war instrument” when, for many of his visitors, Hawaii was the most warlike setting imaginable. A bestselling elegy, for example, compared Cook to Jesus and Orpheus. It dramatised his death as a gruesome confrontation between good and evil “On a far distant, and remorseless shore”:

Where treachery, hov’ring o’er the blasted heath,

Poises with ghastly smile the darts of death,

Pierc’d by their venom’d points, your favorite bleeds,

And on his limbs the lust of hunger feeds![10]

The horror of fictionalised scenes like these became a filter through which the objects in Cook’s former collections were often viewed by metropolitan tourists. While they added a sensational edge to the exotic wonders of the Holophusikon, they also worsened British perceptions of Pacific island cultures, and created the myth of Cook’s heroic status, which continues to guide many responses to artefacts around the world today.



[1] “A West Coast icon comes home after round the world journey”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012)

[2] “Last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection donated to UBC Museum of Anthropology.” University of British Columbia media release (20 March 2012).

[3] “A West Coast icon”, Vancouver Sun (21 March 2012).

[4] “Ḥaẃilmis: a chiefly treasure.” Information board at UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver (2012)

[5] Lissant Bolton, “Brushed with Fame: Museological investments in the Cook voyage collections” in Discovering Cook’s Collections, edited by Michelle Hetherington and Howard Morphy (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2009), pp. 78-91, p. 79; Amiria Henare, Museums, Anthropology and Imperial Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2005), p. 43.

[6] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), footnote to p. 7.

[7] The UBC media release (2012) quotes (unattributed) Catalogue of the Leverian Museum, Part I. Including the First Eight Days’ Sale (London: Hayden, 1806), p. 278.

[8] Companion to the Museum, p. 6

[9] Benjamin Silliman, A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland (New York: D. and G. Bruce, 1810), vol. 1 of 2, p. 208

[10] Anna Seward, Elegy on Captain Cook (London: J. Dodsley, 1780), pp. 14-15


Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .

Captain Cook in the Holophusikon 1: ‘Ahu ‘ula (eighteenth-century feather cloak from Hawaii)


(This is the first of a two-part post on material objects  in the 18th century.)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Holophusikon Cloak (Photo courtesy Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand)

Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum […] has a whole Room ornamented with instruments and articles of dress, of the Inhabitants of those Countries alone, which were discovered in the last voyage of the unfortunate Captain Cook. The dress is entirely made of birds feathers, and their warlike instruments, of stone, besides some necklaces, and a kind of Coat of mail, of dogs teeth.[1]

As an American tourist in England in the 1780s, John Quincy Adams wrote letters home describing his London sightseeing trips. He was especially enthused about Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum or “Holophusikon,” an exhibition of curiosities housed in a large, cluttered house in what is now Leicester Square. One of the Holophusikon’s most popular collections, as Adams noted, had been brought to England in James Cook’s ships Resolution and Discovery when they returned in 1780 from Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. This voyage had seen two especially newsworthy events: the first European encounter with Hawaii (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands), and the violent death of Cook in those islands in 1779. By buying up Hawaiian artefacts, Lever capitalised on the popular European fascination with these two events, and with the mysterious new land of “Owhyhee.”

Featherwork items – including mahiole (helmets), ‘ahu ‘ula (cloaks)and akua hulu manu (sculptural images of gods) – were piled on the floor of the Holophusikon, arranged in glass and mahogany cases, and hung on the walls. They were made from a plant fibre mesh, into which craftsmen had painstakingly woven thousands of tiny bundles of red and yellow feathers. The feathers came from honeycreeper birds, each individually trapped and plucked. The scarcity and sacred power of their materials, and the extraordinary labour intensity of their production, made featherwork objects powerful symbols of chiefly status in Hawaii. The Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u had presented Cook with a magnificent ‘ahu ‘ula at a ceremony a few weeks before he was killed. This cloak was acquired by Lever for his museum. At the break up of the Holophusikon in 1806, it was sold. It is now held by Te Papa Tongarewa/ Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.

Detached from its original political and religious context, in the Holophusikon the cloak became an embodiment of the glamour of Hawaii in the eighteenth-century London imagination. Its dazzling colours and soft texture were alien and exotic in this damp, somewhat grubby city. Contemporary British accounts struggle to compare Hawaiian featherwork to more familiar materials, or, like Adams, simply give up and declare it “curious.” One guide to the museum instructed its readers to admire “the colours of the feathers – red, yellow, and brown, and with […] much art disposed” – the cloaks must be, it concluded, a Hawaiian version of European coronation robes and crown jewels.[2] Another speculated that the “curious manufacture” of this “superb cloak” (and the other “elegant and singularly beautiful cloaks” displayed around it) “would no doubt be found a work of considerable time and expence in the hands of the most ingenious European artist.” Its “delicate softness and glossy appearance” could only be likened to “the thickest and richest velvets.”[3]

Language like this easily slipped into the baroque flourishes of contemporary advertisements, which sold luxuries like silks and feathers through elaborate hyperbole and name-dropping. Unlike the British Museum – which also held a collection of Pacific artefacts – the Holophusikon was a thoroughly commercial institution. It attracted visitors through intensive newspaper campaigns, and prioritised consumer amusement over education (one of its other popular exhibits was a room of taxidermied monkeys dressed up and posed in tableaux). Its publicity materials emphasise an comfortable and elegant building appropriate for “people of the first fashion.”[4] Other establishments turned similar Pacific artefacts into Western commodities. At Daniel Boulter’s shop-museum in Yarmouth, for example, a “Beautiful Feathered Cloak, worn by the Chiefs of Owhyhee,” cost 1l.1s.[5] Imitations were available: Mr Berrow’s Feather and Flower Manufactory on Pall Mall offered ladies “a pleasing variety of his new invented Feather Hats,” copying the techniques of Lever’s “feather dresses.”[6] Other versions appeared in paintings at the Royal Academy, at masquerade balls, and as stage costumes at Covent Garden. When Elizabeth Montagu wanted to demonstrate her wealth and taste in 1781, she designed a set of huge featherwork wall panels for her London townhouse.[7]

The Holophusikon’s exhibition of Hawaiian artefacts reinforced existing associations in the British imagination between Pacific islands and luxury, urban entertainment and exotic glamour. As an evangelical movement hostile to these forms of metropolitan pleasure emerged in the 1790s, this kind of appeal was often reframed as mere decadence and barbarity, making Hawaii a particular target for missionary discourse. The craftsmanship and beauty of the featherwork in the Holophusikon, for the Baptist writer John Evans, in 1798, suggested only the wasteful extravagance of “the ingenuity of savages” when misdirected towards the worship of “hideous monsters” instead of the Christian god. “In the contemplation […] of these exhibitions,” he concluded, “we cannot help pitying the ignorance of those deluded creatures.” Both pagan Hawaiians, and British pleasure-seekers, he argued, were equally diverted from real virtue by the pursuit of the sensual luxury represented by the cloak.[8] These attacks were intensified by the other association which made Lever’s Pacific artefacts a metropolitan sensation in the 1780s: their links (real or imagined) with the famous Captain Cook, increasingly regarded as a reforming colonial hero, and particularly with his violent death. This, and the continuing celebrity status of Cook in museums today, will be explored in my next post.



[1] John Quincy Adams, in letter to Elizabeth Cranch (18 April 1784), Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, edited by C. James Taylor (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007).

[2] The School-Room Party, Out of School Hours (London: T. Hurst, 1800), pp. 11-12.

[3] A Companion to the Museum, (Late Sir Ashton Lever’s) (London: n.p., 1790), pp. 18-19

[4] London Courant (11 February 1782)

[5] Daniel Boulter, Museum Boulterianum (Yarmouth: n.p., c. 1794), p. 77

[6] Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser (6 November 1781)

[7] See Ruth Scobie, “To dress a room for Montagu”: Pacific cosmopolitanism and Elizabeth Montagu’s feather hangings” in Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 33 (forthcoming).

[8] John Evans, “A Visit to Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum, near Black Friars Bridge” in Monthly Visitor and Pocket Companion 5 (September 1798): 53-62.

Ruth Scobie is an Early Career Research Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is also a member of the Celebrity Research Network .


William Godwin’s Wet-Transfer Copies and James Watt’s Copying Machine  


An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)

An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)

For the literary historian, archives may be said to represent the ultimate source of authority concerning a writer’s private and creative life. Yet archival research often raises as many questions as it answers. The fragmentary, inscrutable nature of some manuscript evidence highlights the inherent fragility and unpredictability of archives.

Among the 1800 or so items of William Godwin’s correspondence in the Abinger papers at the Bodleian Library is a group of flimsy machine-made duplicates of outgoing letters. The group comprises 189 single leaves of thin, translucent, wove paper, unsized or lightly sized (i.e. treated with a gelatinous wash). Each leaf carries sideways along one edge a watermark, reading either “J WATT & Co PATENT COPYING” or “sold by J WOODMASON | LONDON”, and measures 246-7 x 202-5 mm.

The copies were made on one of the world’s first successful letter copying machines, invented by the Scottish engineer and instrument-maker James Watt. James Woodmason, a stationer in Leadenhall Street, was the leading London supplier of Watt’s machines, copying paper, and ink.

Watt’s invention is said to have been prompted by the boredom he experienced in making scribal copies of his business correspondence. In July 1779 he wrote to Joseph Black: “I have lately discovered a method of copying [writing] instantaneously, provided it has been written [the same day] or within 24 hours, I send you a specimen [and will] Impart the secret if it will be of any use to you. [It enables] me to copy all my business letters—” (Robinson and McKie, 67).

In February 1780 Watt took out a patent specification for his new copying method, which included formulae for special paper and ink. A month later he formed a partnership with Matthew Boulton and James Keir to exploit the commercial potential of the machine, trading under the name of James Watt & Co. By the end of the first year of business, 630 of the original stationary models had been sold.

The portable model was developed by James Watt, Jun., in 1795. In November of that year Godwin received a machine like this as a gift from his friend Thomas Wedgwood. For the next ten years he used the machine to make duplicates of many letters, personal as well as business. (It is not known why he stopped—perhaps it was too expensive—but he continued to keep scribal copies of his letters for the rest of his life.) Other notable users of the Watt firm’s copying machines included William Cullen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (who also invented his own copying devices), and Joseph Priestley.

Watt’s copying method involved a wet ink-transfer process. The letter to be copied was written in special copying ink. A damp sheet of copying paper was placed over the letter, and a clean sheet of oiled backing paper laid on top. Then the package was placed between two felt covered boards and pressed by a brass roller. This created a mirror image of the original that soaked right through the thin copying paper, so it could be read the right way round on the “verso” side.

Copies resulting from this mechanical process are by definition accurate. Unlike scribal duplicates, in which the text may be changed, they are identical to the original letter, as prepared for dispatch, and provide a guarantor of the authenticity of its text (unless authorial changes were made after copying).

Godwin’s wet-transfer copies present a number of interpretative challenges. In some examples, words have faded because of the degradation of the copying ink over time. In others, words are obliterated at the edge of the leaf, where the copying paper and the original letter have not been correctly aligned. In others, the entire text is blurred as a consequence of pressing wet documents. In addition, there are puzzles involving identification and dating: the address leaf is often missing. Experiments with ultra-violet light and high-resolution scanning have afforded little help with machine-made textual irregularities.

Nonetheless it has been possible, through painstaking analysis, to recover full texts of nearly all the wet-transfer copies and to identify the dates and correspondents of the vast majority. They provide the sole surviving texts for many important letters. The texts are among those being made available in The Letters of William Godwin, under the general editorship of Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-).

The wet-transfer copies remind us that archives often involve an element of construction by their originators. Godwin’s education in English Protestant Dissent had given him a keen understanding of the value of written records. His archival activities were not confined to his formal works of historiography, such as Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton  (1815) and History of the Commonwealth of England  (1824-8). He recognized the importance of keeping copies of his letters.

Archives also bear witness to the realities of time, distance, and loss. Not all of Godwin’s wet-transfer copies have survived. The Abinger papers include a small number of autograph sent letters which reveal the physical signs of having been copied, but of which the wet-transfer copy is lost. A few single leaves of multi-page wet-transfer copies have gone missing since 1948, after they were microfilmed by Duke University (1948-52).

The value of these fragile, faded, and semi-legible documents, both as sources for texts, and as rare examples of wet-transfer technology, has been recognized by the Bodleian. They were among the first items to be stabilized in the conservation programme begun after the University purchased the Abinger papers in 2004 (see: http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/theconveyor/2012/05/01/affectionately-yours-william-godwin-the-abinger-papers-conservation-project-phase-one/).

The first page of William Godwin's letter to Samuel Parr, 4 Dec. 1795, the earliest surviving wet-transfer copy. Bod. MS Abinger c. 22, fo. 1r. (Image courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.)

The first page of William Godwin’s letter to Samuel Parr, 4 Dec. 1795, the earliest surviving wet-transfer copy. Bod. MS Abinger c. 22, fo. 1r. (Image courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.)



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Clemit, Pamela, “William Godwin and James Watt’s Copying Machine: Wet-Transfer Copies in the Abinger Papers”, Bodleian Library Record, 28/5 (April 2005), 532-60.

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Robinson, Eric, and Douglas McKie, ed., Partners in Science: Letters of James Watt and Joseph Black  (London: Constable, 1970).

Pamela Clemit is Professor of English Studies at Durham University and a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.