The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: World History
This is the third and final part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
Equally important is the educational backstory leading up to Wheeler's Caribbean trip in 1924. How did he become interested in traveling to the American Tropics to study insects?
The line distinguishing culture from science is often nebulous. Every scientist (there are no exceptions) learned to value science and nature in culturally specific ways before he or she became a scientist. "All of culture and all of nature," as the sociologist Bruno Latour reminds us, "get churned up every day" [Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993)]. From the SI Archives, for example, we know that Dr. Alexander Wetmore, the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian (1945-1952), came to appreciate ornithology as a young boy after visiting his local library and after a particularly memorable family vacation to Florida in 1894. The birds and the places he came to value emerged from personal experience. How might the epistemological path—from youth to scientific professional—influence the ecological and social values of travel?
At the time George Wheeler left for the Tropics, he was a recently graduated Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard. At the University's Bussey Institution, he specialized in the morphology and taxonomy of ants, under the guidance of the famed entomologist William Morton Wheeler (of no familial relation). W. M. Wheeler's work has been fundamental to the development of tropical biology. His theorizing of how individual organisms can live and function collectively as a single "superorganism," such as in an ant colony or on a coral reef, is key to our contemporary understanding of biodiversity.
As a professor and scientist, W. M. Wheeler also embraced and spread the concept of "organicism," which he believed to be nature's principle of organization. Each living organism had a specific role in the organic world. Natural scientists and big game hunters, some of whom studied under W. M. Wheeler, used this concept to justify their collecting habits. Historian and biologist Donna Haraway explains, "there was a hierarchy of game according to species: lions, elephants, and giraffes far outranked wild asses or antelope. The gorilla was the supreme achievement, almost a definition of perfection in the heart of the garden at the moment of origin" [Donna Haraway, "Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-36." Social Text, no. 11 (Winter 1984/85), p. 19-64.]. This naturalized hierarchy, which also applied to the flora and fauna of the American tropics, not only structured how scientists understood non-human "nature," but also the way they interacted with the human world. The organization of society, they believed, followed the same principles. Race, gender, and class distinctions—defining social roles and privileges—were often understood in similar organicist terms in the first decades of the twentieth century.
George Wheeler, for example, would not have had the opportunity to study biology at Harvard and travel to the Caribbean as a scientific guest of the United Fruit Company and the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory, if he hadn't been a white man of particular social standing. At scientific clubs like the Cosmos and Explorer's Club if a woman or a man of color entered the organization's doors it was most likely as a servant, like the famous African-American author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s. "I learned things from holding the hands of men like that," Hurston would later comment [Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1942)].
George Wheeler benefited greatly from his association with W. M. Wheeler. When George started his graduate career at Harvard, he conferred with Dr. Wheeler about what to study. Initially he was unsure of what to do for his dissertation. Although W. M. Wheeler never explicitly suggested ants, their close relationship and the elder Wheeler's reputation in myrmecology, undoubtedly influenced the younger man's decision. George explains:
After I'd been there a few months, he [W. M. Wheeler] made me his graduate assistant and paid me $50 a month, which was in 1919 or 1920, which was big pay in those days … I worked in his office, did drawing, photography, all sorts of work on ants for him, in addition to research.
After George graduated from Harvard and became a young professor at Syracuse University, W. M. Wheeler continued to support his studies:
I'd never been to the Tropics, and he [W. M. Wheeler] wanted to give me a chance to go there, so he arranged for a fellowship with the United Fruit Company. I worked up the literature on cacao insects to pay for my expenses to Central America, which the United Fruit Company paid.
Dr. Wheeler made sure his student protégé could afford school. He also introduced him to fieldwork in the Tropics, arranging a deal with the Fruit Company.
Jungle Laboratory, Barro Colorado Island
W. M. Wheeler had his reasons for sending students to the American Tropics. The year before George's trip, Dr. Wheeler, along with a group of elite scientists and wealthy patrons, opened the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) Laboratory in Panama. Dr. Wheeler and his colleagues believed that the future of biology in the U.S. depended on having an accessible research station in Tropical, Latin America. They wanted to make it possible, as fellow BCI founder and Harvard Professor Dr. Thomas Barbour explains:
For the teacher of biology with a small salary to have the thrill of Wallace, Bates, and Spruce when they first set foot in the Amazon Jungle… To see these trees (the great espave trees) and to walk our carefully marked trails provide all the illusion of exploration, but with this great difference: we have pure drinking water. [Thomas Barbour, Naturalist at Large (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1943)]
The same year BCI was established, 1923, W. M. Wheeler wrote a biting article, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology." In it, Wheeler expressed his disgust with the conservatism of some U.S. academics:
Not only do many of us wear out our most valuable tissues converting the graduate students into mere vehicles of our own interests, prepossessions and specialties but nearly all of us fail to excite in them that spirit of adventure which has in the past yielded such remarkable results in the development of our science. The finest example of this lack of vision is seen in the stolid indifference, especially in our eastern universities, to exploration and research in the remote portions of our own country, in foreign lands and especially in the tropics. We have in the Philippines and at our very doors in the West Indies, Mexico, Central and South America the most marvelous faunas and floras in the world, but we still persuade our traveling fellows to cut more sections in the laboratories of Professor Rindskopf of Berlin or Professor Himmelschwanz of Leipzig, because thirty or forty years ago we were sent to the same bemooste Haupter. [William Morton Wheeler, "The Dry-Rot of Our Academic Biology," Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, Vol. 9, No. 3 (March 1923), p. 8-10.]
Wheeler not only envisioned, but helped to enact his own dream for the future of biology. The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory—a man-made island in the middle of the Panama Canal—has had a huge role in how scientists, students, and the U.S. public understand the tropical environment. From museum exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York to popular books, BCI has been a vital source for the production and diffusion of knowledge (The Barro Colorado Island Laboratory has had a prominent place in travel literature throughout the twentieth century. There have also been thousands of scientific publications generated from research on BCI. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute lists 461 publications in their formal bibliography. It does not include a full listing, however.).
This spread of knowledge is an important task, but we must ask ourselves 'whose' knowledge did scientists diffuse? How did they obtain and organize their information? What do those processes, in turn, reflect about society? Who decided what was most important to study and exhibit? And consequently, how might the character of this diffusion influence the way U.S. Americans think about and travel to the American Tropics?
During a recent visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was surprised to see that Asian Peoples, African peoples, South American Peoples, Northwest Coast Indians, and almost everyone else except for "white" people, were seamlessly mixed with non-human exhibits. White Europeans and Euro-Americans were presented as ostensibly apart from the natural world.
George C. Wheeler in Texas
Returning to Wheeler's education, we should also note that before BCI or even Harvard, he studied biology as an undergraduate student. At the Rice Institute in Texas (1915-1918):
I had my beginning course in biology with [Julian Huxley] … I used to go on field trips with a biology club. Then some of the advanced students had a conference with him an hour a week, to talk about anything we wanted to. This was the course.
Huxley was responsible for my going into biology … My German professor at Rice was urging me to go into German. I went to Huxley and told him, and he said, 'I think you’ll do all right in biology.' So that was the deciding factor, Julian Huxley's statement.
That "statement" meant a lot to an impressionable undergraduate. Julian Huxley was an evolutionary biologist and eugenicist, who came from a distinguished family of British intellectuals. Julian's brother was the author, Aldous Huxley, and their grandfather, Thomas Huxley, famously defended the theory of evolution in the 1860s. He was known as "Darwin's Bulldog." Julian Huxley's own scientific contributions shaped the "evolutionary synthesis" of Mendelian genetics and the evolutionary theory of natural selection. The organizations he supported have also been extremely important to the modern development of cultural and eco-tourism. He was the first Director of UNESCO (1946), and a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (1961). Huxley introduced young George Wheeler to the field of biology.
From the Caribbean Tropics to U.S. classrooms
By bringing the material practice of George Wheeler's 1924 trip to the Caribbean (Part I and II) into dialogue with his formal education (Part III), we can begin to trace the long genealogy of thought and action that shaped "Western" perceptions of tropical nature. There were myriad people and places—from the ships, and cities and forests of the Caribbean to the scientific labs and classrooms of Great Britain, Texas, and Harvard—that helped to produce U.S. traveler experiences. Through George Wheeler's story, for example, we can imagine how the ideas of scientists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley passed from professors like William Morton Wheeler and Julian Huxley to the next generation of students and travelers. As one of his former students reminisced, "for me, a myrmecologist at heart since childhood, George Wheeler is a living and personal link to the 'Classical Period' of North American myrmecology" [James C. Trager, "George C. Wheeler – An Appreciation," Advances in Myrmecology (New York: E. J. Brill, 1988): p. xvii-xxvii].
Wheeler was a living point of connection between a scientific establishment of professors and museum researchers and an American public eager to learn about and experience seemingly exotic locales. He lived "in-the-middle" between science and tourism. But of course he wasn't alone in this role. The Smithsonian Institution organized dozens of expeditions to Central America and the Caribbean during the first half of the twentieth century. As part of the Smithsonian's mission to increase and diffuse knowledge, scientists and collectors traveled south and returned home to tell their stories. They became admired experts sought after by museums, classrooms, popular magazines like National Geographic, and news and radio programs like "The World is Yours." Their travel stories became part of a modern age of exotic parables.
Yet in their retelling, many of their social dependencies and everyday interactions disappeared from the narrative. Far from entering a 'pristine' tropical nature, natural scientists depended on a highly-mitigated and hierarchical network of social and ecological relationships to create their travel experiences. George Wheeler's trip, instead of being a unique adventure, is exemplary of a complex and interconnected history linking imperialism, science and tourism in the Caribbean.
How many students and future travelers did scientists like George Wheeler influence during their long careers as scientists, community leaders, and teachers? With what hopes and expectations did tourists travel to the Caribbean?
- The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama - Part II, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The History of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This is the second part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
After visiting Cuba, Wheeler sailed to Costa Rica. As soon as his ship docked in Puerto Limón, on June 12, 1924, he became a visiting employee of the United Fruit Company (UFCO). He would live and work with the company's white community of managers and 'skilled' workers. At the time, UFCO controlled vast tracts of land on the Caribbean coast of Central America, inspiring the now infamous phrase "banana republic." The circum-Caribbean, as historian John Soluri documents, had become synonymous with bananas in the minds of U.S. consumers. By the 1920s, the only fresh fruit eaten in greater quantities in the U.S. than the banana was the American apple. [John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)]
Each morning Wheeler set out with his guide and colleague, Siggers, to collect termites and other "pests." UFCO depended on a legion of full-time and visiting scientists to protect its agricultural investments. Plant diseases and insects constantly threatened the Company's monoculture plantations. It was Wheeler's job, in particular, to study insects that damaged cacao trees and their fruit.
When Wheeler wasn't working in the field, however, he found time for recreation in Costa Rica's urban and rural environment:
June 22, Afternoon: Siggers, three Costa Ricans, and I tried digging into Indian graves – little success. Found a few fragments of pottery – one the head of a parrot, which I have kept. Later – Siggers and I collected in a cacao plantation behind the house.
June 26, Left Siguirres [Plantation] at 11:55 for San José. Beautiful ride. Railroad follows the Reventazón River. San José an attractive city. Cool. Stayed at Hotel Francés – very good, $5.00 per day including meals. Evening – Teatro América (2 colones) – Compania Cómica de Argentina – 'Mustafá' and 'Los Dientes del Perro.' The actors talk too fast; I could understand very little.
Although Wheeler was officially in Costa Rica as a scientist specializing in entomology, leisure activities were still part of his experience. He found time to rob Indian graves and attend risqué vaudeville shows. Depending on the moment, he could wear the hat of natural scientist, agronomist, tourist or adventurer.
Just shy of a month after leaving New York, Wheeler boarded another UFCO ship. He was headed for the main and final destination of his trip, the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory (BCI) in the Panama Canal Zone. The BCI Lab, built in the middle of the man-made Gatun Lake, was and still remains one the most important biological research stations in the Americas. When U.S. engineers flooded the lands, which would become the main waterway of the Panama Canal (1914), a small mountain of 476 ft. became an island sanctuary for nearby flora and fauna. The "natural" environment that Wheeler and hundreds of other scientists would study at BCI was the product of human engineering. The U.S. government's intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, beginning in 1903, created an outpost in Latin America not only for U.S. military and business interests, but also for U.S. scientists and leisure travelers.
In 1923, the governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Jay Johnson Morrow, evicted the few remaining Panamanian residents from the island-hill and decreed Barro Colorado a biological reserve for U.S. scientists. Wheeler visited the island the following year:
June 29, The Calimares [UFCO ship] docked early at Cristóbal [the Caribbean port of the Panama Canal Zone]. I went to the United Fruit Company office and tried to get Mr. Zetek on the telephone [BCI's manager]. He was in New York. Nor could I get Mr. Molino, his assistant. I took the [Panama Railroad] train to Cristóbal at 9:10, reached Frijoles at 9:54. Fare (first class) $1.05 - 21 miles - five cents per mile. Found John English the factotum of Frijoles, a very intelligent and friendly negro. He got a big cayuco (canoe hollowed out of log) for me with two men (Lindo, a negro, and Ernesto, a Panamanian) to row me with my baggage (two small trunks and a suitcase) across to the island for $1.50.
All the scientists were away, the laboratory in charge of an Indian (Leonardo or 'Chico' [boy]) of the Chiriqui tribe - friendly, intelligent, exceedingly strong. The laboratory is in a clearing some distance above the landing. It is reached by a long flight of 186 steps (wooden). The house is screened. Rain water to drink. Shower under the house. From the rear of the house, a trail leads back into a forest. I followed it for some distance in the afternoon. Captured a monstrous spider wasp (Pepsis).
As Wheeler points out, it was men of color who looked after U.S. visitors. They rowed the boats, constructed the houses, cut the trails, cooked the meals, and built and fixed the machines that allowed scientists and tourists to visit the island. This of course was the natural order of things according to most white-male scientists and colonial officials in the first decades of the twentieth century. The organization of the Barro Colorado Island Lab was predicated on a naturalized social hierarchy of race, class, and gender distinctions. Women were not allowed to spend the night on the island. Workers of color were assigned the most rigorous manual labor and segregated to the "Boy’s House," apart from the main sleeping and dining quarters. Educated white men, like Wheeler, sat on top of this social order. Leonardo, for example, the friendly and intelligent Chiriqui Indian he mentions in his journal, is repeatedly described as "chico," that is boy, in need of specific direction. "Since he speaks no English, I had to tell him in Spanish what to cook and how to cook it."
But workers often saw the situation differently. Fausto Bocanegra, a BCI employee in the 1940s and 1950s, explains that "when they got here, because of my knowledge, I was their teacher." Bocanegra and his "unskilled" colleagues, who lived in the island’s "Boy’s House," sometimes knew more about the tropical environment than their scientific guests. He remembered, one time, collecting specimens with a U.S. scientist. "I worked here almost a month with a hunter... [but] I was the hunter and he was my helper, because I caught the animals and he took what he wanted, with… permission from the Smithsonian."
Despite claims of racial, national, and educational superiority, U.S. scientists depended on local expertise. When we read about the history of U.S. scientists or explorers abroad, however, we normally learn about "Indiana Jones" or Roosevelt-type individuals roughing it in the jungles of Latin America to seek truth and knowledge. Rarely do we hear about these people's ordinary attributes and social dependencies. We learn even less about the social and ecological context that made the adventures of these white-male Americans possible.
Without UFCO transportation and funding, U.S. military intervention and engineering, and local knowledge and labor, George Wheeler would not have been able to reach his destinations and conduct scientific research. How – in light of those historical realities – do we make sense of the long-held claim that the Tropics were somehow more "natural" or "pristine" than other environments, or in the context of so much local knowledge, awaiting discovery? From Cuba to Panama, George Wheeler depended on a diverse group of people to produce his travel experience. Tourists, tour guides, steamship workers, UFCO plantation managers and workers, "unskilled" laborers, research assistants, and U.S. army personnel were part of an elaborate and asymmetrical social network connecting the U.S.-Caribbean world.
Retracing the journey of a scientist like Wheeler is crucial to understanding how future travelers would also navigate the region. How many of Wheeler's students, colleagues, and friends followed his footsteps and went on their own Caribbean adventure, depending on the same social and environmental order?
To learn about the educational experiences influencing Wheeler's tropical travels, see Part III of this article, "The Education of George C. Wheeler."
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Tropical Travels of George C. Wheeler - Part I, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
This is the first part of a three-part series on George C. Wheeler and the relationship of science and tourism in the Caribbean by the Archives' former Research Fellow, Blake Scott.
On May 31st 1924, a young scientist by the name of George C. Wheeler boarded a steamship in Brooklyn, New York. Five days later, he was in the Caribbean for the first time. He writes:
June 4, Docked at Havana at about 7:30 a.m. The city is beautiful from the harbor in the morning. One of the first things one sees is the huge electric sign ‘Ford’ on the assembling plant. One gets a good view of Morro Castle on entering the harbor.
Went on an automobile sight-seeing trip with the cruise passengers… University – beautiful buildings. Old cathedral. New cathedral. Paseo de Marti. Parque Central. Parque de la India. Cigar factory. Malecón (seawall). Piña Colada (strained pineapple juice) very good – 20 cents.
Next stop – beer garden near the cervecería where Cerveza Tropical is brewed. The beer is free here and freely do the Americans imbibe. Next to the country to see pineapples and bananas growing. Country magnificent. Mariano district – beach.
In his journal, in shorthand, George C. Wheeler reveals himself to be a man of science and also a man on vacation. On his first day in the Tropics, he went sightseeing and drinking with a group of tourists. The next day, June 5th, he was in the field collecting ants on the outskirts of Havana. He was on a research fellowship with the United Fruit Company (UFCO) to study and collect insects. Over the course of three months, Wheeler studied and toured his way across the Caribbean – from Cuba to Costa Rica to Panama.
The record of that trip (Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989) is part of the Smithsonian Institutional Archives. It includes George C. Wheeler's travel diary, personal correspondence and photos, along with scientific pamphlets, maps, and an oral interview. As a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I studied the tropical travels of U.S. scientists to better understand the relationship between science and tourism in the Caribbean. During the summer of 1924, George C. Wheeler traveled and drank with tourists, studied with fellow scientists, and relied on countless locals and foreign nationals to produce his travel experience.
Entangled History, Science and Tourism
Wheeler's Caribbean trip highlights an important yet overlooked aspect of U.S.-Latin American history. Social and natural scientists often think of scientific fieldwork and tourism as distinct kinds of travel. Wheeler's personal journey, however, shows science and tourism to be deeply entangled in the early twentieth century.
His presence on a tourist steamer was not an anomaly. U.S. scientists and tourists shared modes of transportation, labor, and information throughout the twentieth century. On the ships of UFCO's "Great White Fleet" passengers luxuriously traveled and mingled on the upper "Promenade," "Cabin," and "Saloon" decks. Down below – on those same ships – billions of pounds of bananas, coffee, and cacao returned to markets in the United States. Tourists and scientists followed the same lines of transportation that brought bananas to U.S. consumers and colonial officials and businessmen to Latin America.
The microcosm of Wheeler's experience – as a 27 year-old white-male scientist traveling in the Tropics – illuminates a larger history. With the War of 1898 and the building of the Panama Canal (1904-1914), the U.S.' southern "frontier" moved to the forefront of public interest. In the 1910s and 1920s, there was an immense thirst for knowledge about newly acquired territories in the Caribbean region: Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica. In this context, U.S. teachers and researchers with international experience became important sources of information. How could one govern, exploit, or enjoy the fruits of U.S. expansion without knowing about the region's culture and nature? Scientists like George Wheeler had the infrastructural and financial backing to travel, in large part, because of the Caribbean's heightened geopolitical and commercial relevance to the U.S.
The knowledge scientists gained from their travels was useful to the U.S. government, the scientific community, U.S. companies, and also future tourists. When Wheeler returned home to Syracuse University, he became a recognized expert – a sort of local celebrity. Newspapers published flattering articles about him and he received a number of invitations to share his story. For the student Science Club, he gave a lecture entitled "Biological Work in Central America." For the Faculty Club, he gave a similar presentation with "illustrations."
Wheeler brought the Tropics home to a domestic audience. Although the specific notes from his lectures are not in the Archives, a collection guide at Rice University – "George C. Wheeler: Correspondence, Scrapbook, and Biology Lecture and Laboratory Notes, 1915-1957" – affirms that Wheeler's travel experience supplied him with lecture material and entertaining stories for decades to come. His journal, which is at the Archives, documents some of his more memorable travel encounters. Personal observations and photos, supplemented with maps and scientific data, became the basis of a new tropical expertise.
Travelers like Wheeler were more than objective men of science. During the first decades of the twentieth century, entertainment was interwoven into science and teaching. Scientists became cultural leaders, introducing the U.S. public to new and old ideas about the Tropics.
To learn more about Wheeler's travels, see the upcoming Part II of this article, "From Plantations to Islands of Science: Travels in Costa Rica and Panama."
- Record Unit 9560 - Oral history interview with George C. Wheeler, 1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives
I was hoping for skulls and mummies, but I got apocalypse and 'brain paralisis' [sic] instead.
It was an otherwise uneventful day in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and I was looking for human remains from Peru in the archives of the old National Institute for the Promotion of Science. The National institute was chartered by Congress in 1842, but in 1862 it folded, and its collections went to the Smithsonian.
It was in a folder marked 'miscellany' that I found a document that didn't quite belong: written in April 1866, four years after the National Institute's transfer, it was nothing less than an apocalyptic prophecy by one "Benjamin, the Anti Christ," recorded in San Francisco.
Then, as now, America was no stranger to millenarian sects and doomsday predictions, embedded with contemporary political messages. The one laid out by "Benjamin, the Anti Christ," was particularly flamboyant, however:
"The End is now on hand; the forthcoming Epoch, or Grand Change and Revolution, and Bloodshed, awaits Mankind, at every door, most horrible to relate."
It would start March 4, 1867 with a change of office: President Andrew Johnson would leave the government and the Senate would fill his vacancy.
Before another president could be elected, however, on February 22, 1871 a massive Earthquake would sink the Western coast of North America, from Washington to Mexico. "Two millions and One half of human beings" would die. Two plagues would follow: Cholera Infantum, and Brain Paralisis [sic.]
A landbridge would link the State of Florida to Panama, achieving what for many was a great American dream: the Caribbean as a U.S. lake. Canals would run from Lake Superior to New York, cut across Florida, and through Mexico to the great new bay of Arizona, where the "Holy City of the New Jerusalem" would be founded -- home of the United States' new government.
A General Congress would meet there, then annex Mexico, Honduras and Canada, and Great Britain. Austria and Italy would join the U.S. as well. Vice Governors would rule beneath a "Grand Head King," who would be crowned in Dover, England, govern the Seven Tribes of Israel, and live in Arizona.
Against the united transatlantic protestant nations of U.S. and England, the Catholic countries of Europe, Africa and Asia would wage war, until God would sweep them from the Earth. The Protestants and Jews would then unite as "one Body Politic" and 190 years of "Univeral Liberty, universal Freedom and universal Love" under the Banner of God and the American Eagle.
And then, on March 4, 2057, there would be a Flood, inundating all the Earth save that occupied by the children of the Seven Tribes of Israel.
Who was Benjamin the Anti Christ? Was he just a more jingoistic and fanatic version of San Francisco's famed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton, who wandered the streets in a beaver hat topped with a peacock feather, ruling the U.S. -- and protecting Mexico -- in his mind before he died in 1880? What happened to him?
There are a number of clues that San Francisco history buffs can help us with. There is a scan and transcript of the entire nine-page document, which includes no less than twelve names signed by witnesses and a notary, over at The Appendix: A New Journal of Narrative and Experimental History, a new web-based archive-devoted history journal that just started up.
We would love your help. Email the editors if you can help solve the mystery -- or post your ideas below.
- Record Unit 7058: National Institute, Records, 1839-1863 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
In New Haven, Connecticut, right now there is a rare opportunity to get a taste of the world of the Smithsonian's founding donor, James Smithson. At the Yale Center for British Art, an exhibition that was years in the making recently opened, after a stint this past spring at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The show is about an English ship--the Westmorland--that was captured in 1779 after leaving Livorno, Italy, loaded down with treasures that young English gentlemen had purchased on the Grand Tour.
The Grand Tour, a trip to the European continent, with Italy as the prime destination, typically lasted a year or more. It was part of virtually every wealthy young Englishman's education--offering a chance to soak up the culture of classical antiquity and the Renaissance (and to party on the Continent, where the rules of society were a little more permissive).
The way that we pick up postcards and trinkets today, young men like Smithson bought prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (there were 40 volumes of prints by Piranesi on the Westmorland!), antiquities fresh from recent excavations, copies of ancient statues, books, marble tabletops and much more. Typically, these handsome young bucks had their portraits painted, too, usually with some ruins or some other icon of Rome in the background.
The French (who were at war with England in 1779 on account of having joined the U.S. in the Revolutionary War) took the Westmorland, their "English Prize," to the nearest port (Málaga, Spain) to sell the contents. The anchovies, parmesan cheese, olive oil, and other goodies were sold right off the dock, but most all the Grand Tour treasures were bought by the King, who deposited them in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. And there they stayed, for over two hundred years.
In the late 1990s, scholars at Madrid's Royal Academy began to piece together this amazing story, which had been essentially forgotten. Thus began a real detective story, trying to match the objects with their original owners--the British lords who were known only by the initials that were stamped on the packing crates. One of their first successes involved "H.R.H.D.G." - which turned out to be His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of King George III. Historians still haven't identified all of the owners, but the exhibit highlights some of the discoveries they have made so far, and the exquisite objects collected by these men.
James Smithson was abroad about a decade after this episode (he was only 14 years old in 1779). He spent almost seven years on his Grand Tour, including several in Italy (the French Revolution and the war that followed coupled with Smithson’s dread of sea travel meant he stayed in Europe much longer than he might have otherwise).
Smithson was a little different than your average English aristocrat abroad, as he was interested in building his mineral cabinet and connecting with scientific circles across Europe. "It is only by exchange and mutual assistance that naturallists [sic] can possibly ever succeed in assembling together a collection of subjects of their study," he wrote to one of his Italian scientist friends.
But Smithson was no stranger to the perils that faced a fashionable Grand Tourist in the late 18th century. He lost a trunk full of books in Italy, which he was never able to recover ("The French deranged all my plans, and I have not heard a word of my case of books since," he told one friend). And when he was back on the Continent again in the early 1800s, he had his passport stolen--by a French policeman who was convinced Smithson was a spy and snuck into his room and took it!)--but that’s another story for another day...
The English Prize: The Capture of the "Westmorland," an Episode of the Grand Tour is on at the Yale Center for British Art until January 13, 2013.
- Smithson's Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
- The Lost World of James Smithson, by Heather Ewing
- Record Unit 7000 - James Smithson Collection, c. 1974, 1981-1983, Smithsonian Institution Archives