“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.


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

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.)



Andrew, James H., “The Copying of Engineering Drawings and Documents”, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 53 (1981-2), 1-15.

Bedini, Silvio A., Thomas Jefferson and his Copying Machines  (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984).

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.

Dallas, J., “The Cullen Consultation Letters”, Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 31 (2001), 66-8.

Hills, Richard, “James Watt and his Copying Machine”, The Oxford Papers: Proceedings of the British Association of Paper Historians Fourth Annual Conference, ed. Peter Bower (Oxford: British Association of Paper Historians, 1996), 81-8.

Muirhead, James Patrick, The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt, Illustrated by his Correspondence with his Friends and the Specifications of his Patents, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1854).

Proudfoot, W. D., The Origin of Stencil Duplicating  (London: Hutchinson, 1972).

Rhodes, Barbara, and William Walls Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, and Northampton, Mass.: Heraldry Bindery, 1999).

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.