Sunday, 17 July 2016

General Colonial History, Explorations and Voyages, and Richard Hakluyt: A Visit to the Institute of Historical Research Library



This week I’ve been at a course at the Institute of Historical Research, and I wish I had done something like earlier – because prior to this, it was as if I had been hitting a nail into a plank with a smartphone and going about the historical portion of my research quite randomly and inefficiently. So I have decided that for documentation purposes (as a process blog!), I shall make short summaries of the trips to each of the the library/archive that I've visited this week (and separately on my own), including:

  • Institute of Historical Research Library
  • London Metropolitan Archives
  • Bishopsgate's Institute
  • The National Archive
  • Clothworkers' Company Archive
  • House of Lords Archive
  • Lambeth Palace Archive
  • London Archaeological Archive and Resource Centre
  • British Library
  • Wellcome Trust Library
  • …and more to come!

Beginning with... the IHR library itself!



Institute of Historical Research Library




Excuse me, for the massive gaps in my historical/geographical knowledge shall soon be showing! Is there a term for this kind of bias where you end up mainly reading first about the things which are seemingly more closely related to yourself, rather than reading EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD indiscriminately? I rather like the free-associating browsing of a physical library rather than a direct automatic search of a digital catalogue, but one does tend to gravitate to familiar territory for starters. And actually, I really shouldn't apologise for not knowing every single thing, but maybe this is some weird workaholic guilt at work here... but then, perhaps it would be great to exercise my right to have incomplete knowledge if I should want to, perhaps.. even as a political statement or as affirmation of one's position? Right! SORRY BUT NOT SORRY! (Sorry)

At junior college, which was the last time I actually studied history in school - what we were taught in schools in Singapore was local and regional history (Singapore History and Southeast Asian History) and as for that extra something to give us a bigger picture of historical context, the 'earliest' era we would have looked in the syllabus was Cold War, ie: 1945 onwards. ie: what I would call Modern History. I regret to say that I never took a History module in my undergrad years either. So... basically in all my life I've never attended a medieval history class.

An ex from many many years ago had specialised in Middle English poetry and once painstakingly wrote out a poem for me in Middle English. The unappreciative early-20something-year-old me at the time looked at it as some oddity but never tried to read it. I didn't quite concern myself about historical variations of Englishes since the main remit of my studies seemed to have nothing to do with it. Simply thought of the translation process as an fruitless endeavour to which there would be no point, just wanted to read the version I could read. And so the poem just went out of mind, undeciphered. I never really knew what the poem meant because I didn't read it. In fact, I don't even have the foggiest idea what it was about now! I guess I failed to appreciate the amount of hard work and scholarship that goes into studying MIDDLE ENGLISH - and the value of being able to personally read it! To be able to access the original text before translation!



At the end of the first day of the course I had time to explore the IHR's Wohl Library. Having no prior experience of studying European History, one might even ask - what is an uneducated philistine like me doing at the Institute of Historical Research then? Greeted by tall shelves of "Low Countries" (apparently one of the central collection priorities of the IHR!) I belatedly realised that all I knew of the “Low Countries” was that it was some kind of archaic term for some bits of Western Europe which were lower-lying but my spatial knowledge of European geography and topography was too embarrassingly fuzzy to be able to pinpoint or recall the countries encompassed by this term! [I went home in shame to read up about it properly and now know that the Low Countries refers to the coastal reason of western Europe including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Ironically I also found out that I had indeed written this down in my wiki/notebook several years ago but clean forgotten it since. Oh forgive me Benelux, I have entirely failed at historical geographing!]

Grasping at straws for something I would be a bit more familiar with, I blithely went to investigate the COLONIES: GENERAL area.



Oh no! Dialed too far back on the time machine!!

Apparently the IHR’s collection of sources on British North America is “one of the best in the UK”. (And I’ve definitely never encountered a physical collection of books on British North America until this point in my life... so having the chance to grab random books off the shelf to read was a delightful first)

And actually, I realise I've never really read up about East India Company’s earlier history; certainly my (generalised) knowledge of its ministrations is largely from the period after the expansion of the opium trade and establishment of Straits Settlements.



Here, I found a copy of Hakluyt’s well-known The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. Famous early chronicler of maritime adventures! Early colonial ideologue, economic opportunist and promoter of proselytising... [Also the adopted namesake (no direct but only symbolic links) of the rather secretive business intelligence company “Hakluyt & Company” (which incidentally also has a base in Singapore)]



And there were entire shelves of the Hakluyt Society’s publications – who have been printing editions of first hand accounts of historic voyages and travels.



Anyway, so here this is the massive volume that constitutes The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation - such an historic piece of English travel-writing! - and I can’t believe I can walk up to it and just pick this massive copy off a shelf!







....And naturally, it is either in Latin or Middle English. Its like a TRIAL BY FIRE WAIT THIS IS NOT EVEN CALLED "MEDIEVAL" IS IT? IS THIS WHAT YOU CALL EARLY MODERN TYPOGRAPHY? HELP! WHAT AM I DOING? WHAT DO I DO?


Yeah this is more like the level I'm at:
"What do you mean Lorem Ipsum is not Latin, but just Latin gibberish...??"

It must have been a translation into English I had seen in the past, or maybe was it secondary material through which I had first encountered Hakluyt? I don’t even know! Up to this point everything I’ve touched has arguably been secondary source material. Contemporary books, journals, newspapers mediated through the eyes of the reporter and the witnesses, government reports arguably evaluated through the viewpoint of the administrator… all of these facsimiles! Reproductions! Digital surrogates!

If there's one thing I’m comforted by is in this tale is that – actually, despite Hakluyt being known for his publications on voyages – actually he himself was not actually an explorer. Instead, he had begun as a university scholar who set out to read about all the voyages he could - and then specialised in writing, translating, contextualising them. And yet the writer wields such powers in the process of writing or record of the journey. How else would I know of these journeys today?



On an aside, here are two mad bookbinding covers for speeches/addresses of the Hakluyt Society, one of which is for the tercentenary or 300-year anniversary of Hakluyt's death in 1916. (This means that this year will be the 400-year anniversary, or quatercentenary... Yes I had to google for the right word for it... it is not a common term which is quite rolling off the tip of my tongue)



IN THE NEXT EPISODES: WE VISIT MORE ARCHIVES INCLUDING THAT OF HAKLUYT'S BENEFACTOR THE WORSHIPFUL CLOTHWORKERS' COMPANY (WHO GAVE HAKLUYT A PENSION), WHICH BY THEIR ADMISSION HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED "PRETTY LATE" IN 1528. COS YEAH... YOU KNOW... SOME OF THE OTHER LIVERY COMPANIES EVEN STARTED A FEW HUNDRED YEARS BEFORE THAT IN THE... ELEVENTIES #backtothe1100s #nobigdeal

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