Madeira Mondays: The Surprisingly Interesting History of Ketchup

Ketchup is a staple in many American households. As someone who grew up in the States, I can attest to its ubiquity and our fridge always contained at least one half-used bottle of Heinz. And we were not alone – surveys show that 97% of kitchens in the US contain a bottle. That’s a lot of ketchup! It’s clearly a household staple for many and it’s also a well-known component of American fast food (burgers and fries and ketchup).

But while I was reading Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food a few weeks ago, I learned about the interesting global historical origins of American tomato ketchup, a history involving international trade, exploration and a heck of a lot of fish.

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Jurafsky is an American linguist at Stanford University and his book overall looks at how the language we use to describe food has evolved, and also how the foods themselves have evolved over time. ‘A surprising history of culinary exchange-a sharing of ideas and culture as much as ingredients and flavors-lies just beneath the surface of our daily snacks, soups and suppers,’ the blurb promises. As a lover of food, language and random historical trivia that you can use to annoy people at dinner parties (just kidding, kind of), I wanted to read it. It’s a fun read and there are chapters on, for instance, ‘Why Ice Cream and Crackers Have Different Names’, but the story that really caught my eye was the history of ketchup. I couldn’t believe it had such a complex and fascinating origin! So where does ketchup come from?

Our story begins in Ancient China (bet you weren’t expecting that!)…

Thousands of years ago, the people living in Southern China had to come up with a solution to preserve the fish and shrimp they caught. So they salted and fermented the seafood into rich, savory pastes. This fermented fish became widely adopted throughout ancient China and people even started fermenting other things too (like soybeans, which led to an ancient version of miso).

Fast forward to the 16th century, when Southern China was a trade center and a bustling port region, with traders coming and going. As Fujianese traders (Fujian is a province in Southern China) and seamen set out, they took their ke-tchup (‘preserved-fish sauce’ in Hokkien – the language of southern Fujian and Taiwan) with them. These Fujinese people went to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Then British and Dutch merchants arrived to Southeast Asia, looking for spices, textiles and porcelain – things they could sell at a high price back in Europe. There, the traveling Brits and Dutch developed a taste for arrack, an early ancestor of rum (made from fermented rice together with molasses and palm wine), and also for this new food called ke-tchup. 

The stuff those European sailors were eating at sea was bland (salt pork, dry crackers) so they livened it up with this new tasty sauce, bought off Chinese merchants. (There are a lot of different spellings of ketchup, by the way, as a result of the English, Dutch and Portuguese speakers trying to write down the Chinese word with our Roman alphabet. So we get ‘ke-tchup’, ‘catsup’ ‘catchup’ etc.)

By the early 18th century, the British were making and selling ketchup themselves. Charles Lockyer, a trader for the East India Company who went to Asia in 1703, writes in his Account of the Trade in India: 

Soy comes in tubs from Japan, the best Ketchup from Tonqueen [Northern Vietnam]; yet good of both sorts, are made and sold very cheap in China…I know not a more profitable Commodity.

He doesn’t know ‘more profitable Commodity’!

So this guy would buy tubs and tubs of ketchup (which is still fish sauce at this point, by the way!), bottle it and sell it for high prices to rich people in England. So now ketchup has arrived to England. But because it was too expensive for ordinary people in England and the colonies to afford, people started to make their own.

Here’s a recipe that Jurafsky has found from a 1742 London cookbook, in which (Jurafsky points out), the fish sauce has already taken on a British flavor, by adding shallots (‘eschallots’) and mushrooms into the mix. But there is still fish in it – note the anchovies!

Mushrooms soon became the MAIN ingredient.

This other recipe, demonstrated by historical interpreter John Townsend on his YouTube channel, shows you an example of an 18th century ‘mushroom ketchup’.

From 1750-1850, the word ketchup meant a dark sauce typically made of mushrooms (like the one Townsend makes in the video!). So the fish is starting to fade away, but we still don’t have any tomatoes. THAT comes in in the 19th century and probably starts in Britain. Jurafsky has found a recipe from 1817 for ‘Tomato Catsup’ (and, of course, tomatoes originated in the New World, so effectively this British recipe blends a food from the Americas into a dish first invented in China).

By the mid-1850s, a uniquely American ketchup started to develop (thicker and sweeter than the British version). By the 1910’s Heinz was making and selling it. (Their spelling of ‘ketchup’ instead of ‘catsup’ also consolidated that as the most popular spelling in America). Heinz dramatically increased the amount of vinegar to preserve it longer.

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So there you have it! Our modern tomato ketchup…with its origins in Ancient China.

So what does this all…mean? Like, why does this stuff matter?

Well, if you’re me, it matters simply because it’s interesting! The foods that we eat, that we might think of as typically ‘American’, for instance, are often the product of complex human migrations and a variety of factors and influences that we don’t even know about. We’re eating history. Global history, at that.

According to Jurfasky, it matters also because ‘ketchup’s history offers us new insights into global economic history’. He explains that, if you subscribe to a traditional Western model of Asian economics, China turned inward around 1450 and became isolated and economically unimportant, until the West brought Asia into the world economy in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, Jurafsky says: ‘the vast production of trade of ke-tchup (not to mention arrack and less delicious goods like textiles and porcelain) well into the eighteenth century tell a different tale’. While the Chinese government might have officially banned sea travel, these bans were ignored and Chinese sailors continued to go out and trade on a massive scale. British merchants (like our friend Charles Lockyer from before) talked of fierce competition with Chinese traders and harbors crowded with Chinese ships. China was an economic powerhouse by the late 17th century and European sailors went to Asia generally because that’s where most of the world’s trade took place. Europeans merchants flocked there to buy silks, porcelain, arrack, and ketchup.

So, in effect, every time that you put ketchup on your hamburger, you’re a part of that story. A story of European and Chinese merchants, of British cooks and American companies. A story of Ancient Chinese fisherman who wanted a way to preserve their catch of the day. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool.

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Trout, Grouse, Tomatoes’ from Robert D. Wilkie, 1877. It can be found in the Boston Public Library and I accessed it via Wikimedia.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson’s Poem about Waiting

This isn’t the post I planned on writing today. I planned on writing about the (surprisingly fascinating!) history of ketchup and how it links to international travel and trade in the 18th century. BUT last week was a very full week for me work-wise. So instead of spending today researching ketchup (and don’t worry – that post is coming!), I wanted to share a lovely and timely poem from one of my favorite early American writers: Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived in Amherst Massachusetts and led a quiet, isolated life at home. Although she had only a handful of poems published in her lifetime, she is widely regarded now as one of the great American poets. I wanted to share her poem with you which begins ‘Will there really be a morning?’ (It doesn’t have a title. None of Dickinson’s poems were titled in her original manuscript, so if you ever see one of her poems printed with a title, that was added by an editor).

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Emily Dickinson, at about the age sixteen or seventeen, in the only authenticated portrait of her after childhood

I’ve not studied Dickinson’s life and work academically, and I’m not sure if there is any known ‘origin’ of this poem (if, for instance, some event in her life is known to have inspired it). But what I do know is that ever since I read it for the first time, it has seemed to me a poem full of yearning, of waiting, of unanswerable questions (‘Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day?’). As the speaker waits for ‘morning’ to arrive, they wonder what morning even is (‘has it feathers like a bird?’). It strikes me that it is the perfect poem to read right now when it seems like we are all waiting: for news, for lockdown to end, for…something. It’s an impatient poem, where the speaker seems desperate for information, calling out for wiser, more experienced people, to reassure them (‘Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!’). And I think all of us can relate to at least some of those feelings and emotions right now.

Here’s the poem:

Will there really be a morning?

Is there such a thing as day?

Could I see it from the mountains

If I were as tall as they?

 

Has it feet like water-lilies?

Has it feathers like a bird?

Is it brought from famous countries

Of which I’ve never heard?

 

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!

Oh, some wise man from the skies!

Please tell a little pilgrim

Where the place called morning lies!

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I hope you enjoyed the poem, and that you’re having a good start to the week.

Would you be curious to have more posts about Emily Dickinson? I was thinking of reviewing the new TV series about her – Dickinson – which came out last year in 2019, and also the comedy film Wild Nights with Emily (2018) which is a queer reinterpretation of her life.

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems (I’d suggest trying to find an edition where the poems aren’t titled, if possible!)
  • The Poetry Foundation’s page on Emily Dickinson has a lot more info about her life
  • A Quiet Passion, the 2016 film from Terence Davies about Dickinson’s life was pretty good!
  • The Emily Dickinson Museum’s website has lots of info about her too

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race

Every Saturday morning, I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.

I look forward to it all week and the campiness, silliness and joy that the show brings has really given me a lot of happiness during this difficult time. My partner will attest to this, but I get very into the show as I am watching it – usually curled up with a blanket and a cup of coffee – cheering on my favorite queens as they ‘lip sync for their lives’. These performers can sing, dance, act, design clothing, write song lyrics etc. etc. And one of my favorite aspects of the show is seeing all the clothes! So imagine my happiness when one of my favorite queens, Gigi Goode, rocked not one but TWO 18th century inspired outfits this season!

In this post, I wanted to take a closer look at these outfits and reflect a bit on how Gigi’s fashion interprets the 18th century for a modern drag/theatrical context. (Also I just want to talk about how cool these outfits are!!)

For those who haven’t seen it, RuPaul’s Drag Race is an American TV show where drag queens vie for the title of ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’. The contestants have to compete in a series of challenges including singing challenges, acting challenges, fashion and design challenges etc. It’s at once a parody of other reality TV shows (e.g Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model), or at least that’s how I’ve always read it, AND very much its own thing.

Now drag as an art form has a rich history and while it’s something that I’m interested in, I don’t pretend to have a vast knowledge of modern drag culture (I did take a class during my undergrad degree which was mostly about drag and gender on the Renaissance stage though, so if you want to talk drag in SHAKESPEARE’S day, I can do that!). But Drag Race combines lots of elements I love: theatricality, humor, sly satire, etc. It’s deeply fun while at the same time deeply subversive. And it often references pop culture and occasionally history, which brings me back to Gigi’s outfits!

Gigi is known as a ‘look queen’ which means her strengths lie primarily in her fashion choices (although she is a very multifaceted performer, as we’ve seen throughout the season). I knew from the moment that she appeared on the show in a chic pirate outfit, complete with tricorne hat, that I was going to enjoy her theatrical style.

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Gigi reprises her pirate outfit on last week’s episode

Gigi’s outfits always have a sense of drama and story about them. In fact, her mother is a costume designer and they often collaborate on Gigi’s looks. Gigi’s inspiration comes not only from the fashion world but from elsewhere too, as she discusses in this Vulture interview:

I like to think that my drag is inspired by things that aren’t necessarily in the world of fashion. I’m really heavily inspired by intangible women, cartoon women like Daphne from Scooby Doo, who I just did a look on. Things like careers, and household objects, anything can inspire me.

And apparently the Revolutionary era provided one of those inspirations. In Season 12’s Episode 9, ‘Choices 2020’, on the runway Gigi strutted out dressed like an 18th century redcoat soldier. In her voiceover, she says: ‘I’m giving you head-to-toe Quaker Oat’s fantasy’ which made me chuckle (she’s referencing, I presume, the label of this brand of oatmeal). ‘My hair is period, historically accurate,’ she adds. ‘I’ve got a red velvet coat. Bitch, I am it.’ The judges made their quips. The fabulous Rachel Bloom, guest judge for that week, said: ‘Talk about a John Hancock. Or lack thereof.’ ‘She’s crossdressing the Delaware,’ Ru remarked.

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Gigi in Season 12, Episode 9: ‘Choices 2020’

Bloom also wondered, during her critique at the end of the show, if Gigi was dressed as an American officer or as a redcoat. ‘Maybe you’re Benedict Arnold,’ she mused, referencing the infamous American officer who defected to the British.

These are the sorts of outfits that Gigi’s look is alluding to, and I’m guessing you can see the resemblance! (The fellow on the left is not in military regalia, whereas the guy on the right – British General Burgoyne – is. But you get the overall look!)

I enjoyed so many things about Gigi’s outfit, but in particular the enormous white feather sticking out of the tricorne hat. In general, I think it was quite cool that Gigi designed the outfit based on 18th century men‘s fashion, not women’s, because this was a time period when much more flamboyant, colorful and ornate outfits were the norm for men, as opposed to now, when the black and white suit still reigns supreme. Why can’t we bring back looks like these for men’s fashion, I ask?

I also liked the little nods to period details in Gigi’s look, such as the ribbons tying up her stockings (that’s really how people kept their stockings up) and, of course, the white wig. Men at this time would have often worn wigs and, as Gigi notes, this one perfectly suits the period style. I also liked the enormous red bow tying back the wig. An 18th century gentleman probably wouldn’t have worn an enormous red bow like that, but rather a simple black ribbon tying back his wig, but it all contributes to the sense of heightened theatricality (an 18th century gentleman wouldn’t have worn black stiletto boots either!).

Seeing Gigi’s outfit also made me think of the time that I crossdressed to give an academic presentation at Trinity College Dublin last year, on representations of John Adams in popular media.

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My ‘John Adams’ outfit last autumn for Trinity College’s HistoryCon 2019

Anyways, I tip my three-cornered hat to Gigi, for making this history nerd’s day, and if my historical fiction ever gets adapted into film, I think that Gigi should play everyone.

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Any other fans of Drag Race out there remember this outfit? Which has been your favorite outfit (or favorite Queen?) of the season? Who are you rooting for in the finale? (I think it’s obvious who I’m rooting for!)

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow (Book Review)

On the cover of Celia Garth, there is a beautiful blonde woman peering out at you serenely. Behind her, there’s a harbor front (presumably Colonial Charleston, where this book is set). The woman on the cover is lovely, but she also has a definite Mean Girls vibe – she knows she is good-looking and well-dressed and there’s a strong possibility she’s not gonna invite you to sit at her lunch table. But she also looks sharp and observant, like she sees things.

I love this cover, because to me it incapsulates what I liked most about Celia Garth – the titular main character. Celia Garth’s main strength is its characterization, particularly its depiction of Celia herself who, as this cover image suggests, is attractive, vain, serene, and intelligent. An interesting young woman who proves an captivating viewpoint character as we explore the turbulent final years of the Revolutionary War in British-occupied Charleston.

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My copy of Celia Garth

Celia Garth was published in 1959 and it follows the story of Celia, a young orphan in Colonial South Carolina who comes from money but finds herself needing to work in a dress shop to pay the bills. She’s a talented seamstress and, wanting to prove her worth, she accepts a commission from a Mrs. Vivian Lacy – a glamorous older woman with exacting requirements and expensive taste (I pictured Glenn Close, because that’s who I would cast if I was going to make this a movie!). But soon her career goals are overshadowed by the trauma of the Revolutionary War. The British army arrives to Charleston and some quite grizzly disasters befall Celia and people she loves. The book becomes a story of survival – how to survive mortal danger, but also grief. And there are parts of it that are genuinely quite moving.

As I mentioned earlier, the real strength of this book is the characters. Celia herself is wholly believable and complex from the start. I enjoyed how she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and is judgmental of people who are less conventionally attractive than her (this is kind of unpleasant to read but it’s realistic, especially for a naive, pretty young woman). She’s also whip smart, stubborn, and always making bold choices with consequences (an ‘active’ character, as it were). But her client Vivian was my favorite character by far. She had a very Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey vibe, if you’ve seen that show, and she was always throwing out sassy little aphorisms. To a pregnant acquaintance, Vivian says: ‘I know these nine months seem endless. But Nature takes her time. You cannot hurry a tree, or a baby, or a hard boiled egg.’ Aside from Vivian and Celia, you get a whole host of other colorful characters: the laid-back and good-natured Captain Jimmy Rand (who had ‘an ugly, engaging face, scooped at the temples, bony at the jaw, with a wide mouth and a look of being amused by life in general’), the witty daredevil Luke who fights with Francis Marion’s men in the swamps, and a whole bunch of other people besides.

In fact, one of my main criticisms of the book was that there were simply too many characters. I couldn’t keep track a lot of the time or remember who was related to who. These wealthy southern planter families were often inter-related, sure, but I think a family tree would have been useful to remember everything. That simple addition would have made a big difference.

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A lovely Colonial house in Charleston, South Carolina, taken during a research trip I took to Charleston in 2017

While I had no major issue with the overall historical accuracy of the book (which is saying something, because my whole PhD project looked at the lives of women in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War), it should be noted that slavery simply isn’t a concern in the book at all. There are enslaved characters (Marietta, Vivian’s enslaved maid, is a prominent secondary character and I got a good sense of who she was), but the institution as a whole is simply…there.

Now, that could have been a choice on author Gwen Bristow’s part to show the past through Celia’s eyes, and Celia (a white woman from a wealthy background living in the early South) would have accepted slavery as a fact of life (abolition doesn’t really become a big thing until the next century). But the knowledge of what is happening to these enslaved people hovered just out of sight, like a strange specter, as I was reading the book. There’s one moment when Vivian is meeting Celia for the first time and Celia feels like ‘something put up for auction.’ I don’t think Bristow was trying to evoke slavery here at all, but this line only served to remind me that, just a few streets away, not only were things being put on auction, but people were too. The book just doesn’t address slavery at all, so if that’s a topic that you want explored in more depth, in fiction, then I’d say look elsewhere (look to, for instance, Beloved by Toni Morrison. Or if you want something about this time period, why not try Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, or even the poetry collection I reviewed last year, Mistress by Chet’la Sebree?).

Another aspect of the book I didn’t love is that it majorly glorifies American officer Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion and majorly attacks the infamous British officer Banastre Tarleton. I’ve talked about these figures in my post about the movie The Patriotbut suffice it to say here that Tarleton’s legacy as a ‘butcher’ might be more grounded in legend than in fact. But I was more inclined to accept the Evil Aristocratic British Baddies v. Noble American Farmers dichotomy here than in The Patriot, because this is the war as CELIA sees it. And Celia is furious at Tarleton and psyched about Marion, as many South Carolinian patriots were at the time. So, fair enough.

My final critical comment is that the book kind of peters out, rather than building to a strong climax. I won’t give anything away, but Celia gets involved with helping the rebels and this doesn’t develop in a satisfying way, I thought. But the ending itself (as in, the last few pages) was quite moving.

I would compare this book to one that came out last year – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although that’s set in 1930’s and 1940’s New York City, it also features a young seamstress coming of age during wartime and all the colorful characters she meets.  There are even similar sorts of characters in both books. But books also have fun frivolous moments but also deal with the trauma of war. I would also recommend Celia if you enjoy things like Outlander (which I’ve not actually read, but I’ve seen a bit of the show and I understand that parts of it are set in colonial Charleston!).

It does not surpass Johnny Tremain as my favorite book I’ve read set during the Revolutionary War, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The prose is solid, and the characters are vivid and memorable. It was predictable, but I still cried twice while reading it, which is a testament to Bristow’s characterization. I wanted the best for Celia and her pals. And I would quite happily pick up another historical novel by Bristow, and there are apparently several!

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An iconic South Carolina sight – the live oaks twisting together in a sort of tunnel/roof. I believe I took this photo near Magnolia Planation.

Do let me know what you think about this book. Does Celia sound like something you’d be curious to read? Any other recommendations for historical novels that I should pick up? (Speaking of other novels, I have some exciting news about the one I’m working on, so stay tuned for that, later this month. AND stay tuned for more news about my new poetry book, which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press in July!).

PS Today’s Featured Image is from the cover of Celia Garth. If you buy this edition, from the 1950’s, please PLEASE don’t read the book jacket. The synopsis there gives so much away about the plot and even though it’s a fairly predictable story, you don’t want to spoil it!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Many of America’s most famous poets lived during the 19th century: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example. But there was already a literary tradition beginning to blossom in America in the 18th century as well and one of the literary darlings of colonial America, celebrated both nationally and internationally, was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Phillis Wheatley rose to prominence as a popular poet in early America, despite the fact that she was a woman, an African-American and a slave. Phillis Wheatley had a remarkable and in many ways quite a tragic life. She’s not a figure that I know a lot about, but I’ve always been curious to learn more, especially since I saw a first edition of one of her books at the Museum of the American Revolution last year. So, in honor of her upcoming birthday – May 8, 1753 – I’ve done a little bit of research into her life and writings, so that I could introduce you (or perhaps re-introduce you!) to this important figure in American literature.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. I took this photo during a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last autumn.

Who was she?

Born in 1753, Wheatley was kidnaped from her home in West Africa at a young age, brought to America and sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys, noticing that she was very bright, taught her to read and write. Sondra A. O’Neale of Emory University writes, in her short biography of Phillis Wheatley on The Poetry Foundation’s website, about Phillis’ classical education at the Wheatley house:

Soon (Phillis Wheatley) was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (…) and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid , Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

She wrote an elegy for a reverend, George Whitefield, which brought her first national acclaim (as it was published in Boston, Newport and Phildelphia) and then international acclaim, as it was published in London too.

Shortly after that, she travelled to London, where she was welcomed by prominent artists and dignitaries. Her book was published soon after: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American.

What did she write about?

Her poetry is very 18th century in its style, for sure. She writes in rhyming couples mostly, with a lot of allusions to classical themes and literature. A lot of her poems were celebratory of America and America’s victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, and he replied with an invitation to visit him (he was in Massachusetts at the time), saying that he would be ‘happy to see a person so favored by the muses.’

She also comments on slavery from a Christian perspective in her poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. In the same article by Sondra A. O’Neale I quoted from above, O’Neale talks about Wheatley’s influence on fledgling abolitionist movements of the 18th century: ‘Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual (…) her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.’

What happened to Wheatley?

She was eventually freed from slavery in the mid 1770’s.

She was so incredibly young when she became famous and unfortunately some difficult years lay ahead of her, despite her connections to the rich and famous of her time. She married a free black man who ran a grocery store and experienced years of poverty during the Revolutionary War. She had been struggling with poor health all her life and died at the age of just 31.

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So had you heard of Phillis Wheatley before? If you grew up in the USA, did you study her in schools? I never did, which seems a shame because she was one of the country’s earliest poets and has such a unique personal history.

As an American poet myself and someone who loves 18th century history, it was fascinating for me to learn a bit more about who she was and I hope you found it interesting too! I definitely plan on reading more about her in the future.

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Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is by Edward Colyer, ‘Still Life’ ca. 1696, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Grace and Frankie…and John Adams

I think most people have ‘their shows’, those they gravitate to when times are tough and they just want to zone out and relax. Aside from Gilmore Girls (my #1 feel-good show), I love to watch Grace and Frankie. It’s good, quality easy-watching TV, and today, I wanted to tell you a little more about it and its surprising connections to early American history! Read on, friends…

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Lily Tomlin, left, and Jane Fonda, right, star as the titular Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie is in many ways a radical show for network TV. It features two unconventional leading ladies – older women in their 70’s and 80’s – often talking frankly about sex, relationships and (small spoiler alert) trying to start a company where they sell sex toys! The premise is basically that these two women, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin), get stuck together when their husbands, longtime business partners, announce that they are gay…and marrying each other. So it’s a bit of an Odd Couple set-up: Grace and Frankie move in together when their husbands leave them. Grace is organized, severe, Type A. Frankie is a hippie, scattered, creative. They clash. Then they become besties. It’s cute.

The show has been running now for six seasons (the 7th one comes out later this year I believe and will be the last). But it’s a very relaxing watch because it’s funny, the stakes are low, and everyone more or less gets along with and loves each other.

But of course there is drama in the show, which brings me to how it ties together with American history! At the end of Season 3, Grace’s ex-husband Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) becomes involved with a gay theatre company’s production of 1776. For those of you who don’t know – 1776 is a musical set during the American Revolution. It’s about John Adams and his push for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. Robert is cast in the leading role as John Adams, but his theatre company is plagued by homophobic protestors who try (and fail) to shut down the play.

Later, Robert wins an acting award for his portrayal of John Adams. He uses his acceptance speech as a platform for LGBT+ activism, citing Adams as his inspiration:

It was an honor to play John Adams, a man who stood up to things that were bigger and scarier and more powerful than he was. And you know we had a little taste of that during our run of 1776. We had to stand up to bullies, who were threatening to shut us down because we are a gay theatre group. But we did stand up. Because the show of eradicating intolerance must go on…I thank the one man who truly made all of this possible. John Adams.

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Martin Sheen as Robert Hanson, playing John Adams in a gay community theatre production of 1776 in Grace and Frankie

 

Robert’s statement that Adams ‘made all of this possible’ refers not only to how Adams inspired the musical, but also that Adams made America possible, a country where he has the right to stand up and express his beliefs. I found this scene very moving and I’ll talk more about the musical 1776, and its connections to modern progressive politics, in a later post.

So I would recommend Grace and Frankie not only because it’s cute, smart, sweet and enjoyable, but also because of its fun nods to American history. I hope that it brings you joy during this troubling time. Let me know if you’ve seen it in the comments below and please do recommend other ‘feel good’ shows. What are your favorites?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings and French Cooking

Thomas Jefferson is known for several things.

He is considered one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and is probably most famous for writing The Declaration of Independence in 1776, a list of grievances that the American colonies sent to King George III which kicked off the American Revolution.  He’s also been in the press recently as Monticello, his home (which is now a museum and research center), grapples with how to represent the more uncomfortable truths about Jefferson’s life: namely that he kept hundreds of slaves (despite expressing a belief that slavery was morally repugnant) and fathered several children with an enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings.

So, he was a complicated man. And an endlessly interesting one.

I was actually fortunate enough to live at Monticello for a month in 2016 as a visiting research fellow while I was working on my PhD. During that time, I got to know Jefferson pretty well. And one of the most interesting aspects of his life that very few people know about is that he was a major foodie. This guy LOVED his wine and his culinary experimentation; he tried growing all kinds of things at his home in Virginia.  So it is no surprise that when he went to France in 1784, as an Ambassador of the new United States of America, he was keen that one of his slaves, James Hemings, go with him and be trained up as a French chef. So Jefferson and Hemings struck a bargain. If Hemings learned how to become a French chef in Paris and returned to Virginia to teach another slave the skills of French cookery, then Jefferson would free him. Hemings agreed.

This story, of James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, their intertwined lives and culinary journeys, forms the basis of Thomas J. Craughwell‘s book Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America

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It’s a fascinating story and Craughwell’s short, entertaining book covers their time in France as well as their return to the early Republic, when Jefferson became President and attempted to introduce French cuisine to the United States. Some of the foods that Jefferson and Hemings brought back included things we consider staples now, like macaroni and cheese and ice cream. Although they can’t be solely credited with introducing these to America, these foods certainly weren’t popular at the time, so Hemings and Jefferson were some of the first.

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Photo taken in the kitchens at Monticello in Virginia

One of the best things about Craughwell’s book is its informal, highly-readable style, from a non-fiction author who apparently wrote about many different historical subjects (from President Lincoln to Urban Legends). It’s an easy and accessible overview for those who aren’t too familiar with the time period. As someone who studies this period, I also learned some new things too, namely about the origins of modern French cooking (good and simple sauces, fresh ingredients sourced daily) and how its emphasis on simplicity was actually a reaction to the excesses of the Court of Versailles.

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From The Georgian House, recreated 18th century townhouse where I volunteer in Edinburgh

But as a whole the book felt a little too short and superficial. I wanted more description of the food James learned to prepare in Paris, and more about James in general as a person. Craughwell isn’t a historian and he does acknowledge that it’s difficult to find information about James, who did become a chef de cuisine, a master of French cooking, in Paris and was eventually freed by Jefferson. His story has a tragic end however: he committed suicide while drinking at the age of just 36.

Of course it’s significantly harder to learn about James’ character than about Jefferson. Jefferson was a U.S President and a wealthy white landowner who left an enormous amount of documents behind him: things he bought, letters he wrote, etc. James was born into slavery and although he ended up being free and self-employed as a cook in Baltimore, his life is, understandably, much harder to trace. I talk about this in my post about Juan San Malo from New Orleans, but it is a challenge trying to uncover the lives of those like James who don’t leave behind the paper trail of men like Jefferson.

Yet perhaps more information about how other French chefs were trained at the time in Paris (What their daily rituals were like? What sort of recipes they were learning?) would have given more insight into James’ situation. This would have been a good way to bulk out the James sections and wouldn’t have required gaining more information about him specifically. I just felt that there wasn’t enough about his life, or enough about the food he made, honestly. A lot of it focused on Jefferson’s life and his family, which is fine but there are other books which cover this and in much greater depth. With this book, I wanted to learn about French cooking and James Hemings.

That being said, Craughwell has clearly hit on a fascinating story and if you’re looking for a fun and fast-paced read about food and Early American history, then this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I’m a sucker for stories about food and am of the firm belief that someone should make a movie about James and his culinary adventures in Paris, his complicated relationship with Jefferson, his bringing French cuisine to America etc. It’s an interesting and unusual story. So get cracking, Hollywood!

Recommended Further Reading/Watching

The Featured Image of today’s post is a still-life painting with oysters and wine from Flemish painter Peter Jacob Horemans, c. 1769, accessed via the Wikipedia Commons.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Louisiana

New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. Not only is it jam packed with delicious, flavorful food and music on every corner, there is also such a rich history there. Just have a stroll around the French Quarter and you’ll be able to see (and taste!) aspects of the many different cultures that shaped this unique city: Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, French, Anglo-American and Creole. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind place and I was lucky enough to go back there, for the first time in about ten years, for a family holiday this winter.

While we were there, I paid a visit to the Cabildo, a building that was once the colonial Spanish city hall but is now the home of the Louisiana State History Museum.

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The Louisiana State Museum: The Cabildo

We went in for the afternoon and while there were lots of interesting things to see – including a whole exhibition on the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and its memory in pop culture – the exhibition that really stuck with me was was called: Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana.

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The exhibition at The Cabildo

This is a multimedia exhibition featuring paintings, lithographs, and songs, alongside historical artifacts such as maps and period documents. It follows the story of a man called Juan San Malo, the leader of a runaway slave community in 1780s. But what really struck me was the format of the exhibition, which the museum describes as ‘a conversation between tradition and innovation.’ It’s part of an ongoing series apparently called In Dialogue, which features both traditional history documents (maps etc.) but also contemporary responses to those documents.

I liked this approach for several reasons. For one thing, men like Juan San Malo are usually left out of the traditional historical record. Even if we could find mention of him or runaway men like him, in perhaps letters, diaries, or newspaper ads from the time looking for runaway slaves, these documents would most likely have been authored by wealthy white landowning men, not by San Malo himself.

Also, San Malo was a Creole speaker. (Louisiana Creole was a francophone language created by enslaved Africans who lived on plantations in the region). By featuring many Creole songs in the exhibition, it tells San Malo’s story not only in his own language, but in a rare and endangered language of the area. The songs we hear are like an oral history of the region, an alternative history of New Orleans.

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One of the striking pieces of art featured at the exhibition: Morning Mist in Colony Maron, by Francis X. Pavy, 2017. I am not a visual artist, so this description means little to me, but this piece is described as ‘augmented photographic lithophane in carved acrylic’. All I know is that lithophanes are backlit and several pieces like this were part of the exhibition. I liked the use of shadow, given how little we know about Juan San Malo.

One of the historical artifacts that I especially liked seeing was the ‘diatonic accordion.’ I learned that apparently German immigrants brought accordions to Louisiana and, in the early 20th century, the instrument was adopted by Creole and Cajun musicians.

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German accordion from 1850

Another striking feature of the exhibition was the large altar in the center of it, where you could place offerings or write in a book about ‘a dream of freedom’. This was a fitting element, considering that San Malo, who created one of the largest runaway slave settlements in North America and was eventually hung by Spanish officials, seems to be something of a folk hero and even a saint, who people memorialized and turned to for strength. Words from a Creole song ‘Ourra St. Malo’ (Dirge for San Malo) can be read on the walls nearby.

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The altar in the center of the exhibition

One of the only things that I wished was different about the exhibition is that I wanted to know a bit more about the significance of the altar and how altars fit into Creole customs, because I know that Catholicism had a big influence in New Orleans (but maybe there was that information and I just missed it!). The only other thing that I wished was different was that I simply wanted more of the whole exhibition, as it was really just one room. But there is plenty to see in that room! I left feeling like I had learned something new about 18th century New Orleans and also with many ideas about how history can be communicated to the public, not just with maps and period documents, but with modern art and songs too. I thought about how this exhibition is not simply about one man’s life, but rather about the history of a language. A language which, in itself, IS history. Basically, it gave me a lot to think about! If you are in New Orleans, I would encourage a visit and do let me know what you think of it too.

‘Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana’ runs until May 10, 2020 at The Cabildo.

Madeira Mondays is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Patriot (Part I)

Rousing. Violent. Exciting.

These are the three adjectives that Netflix has chosen to describe Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot (2000). And Netflix is right. Seeing Mel Gibson (fresh from his turn as William Wallace in Braveheart) hacking dozens of British soldiers to death with a tomahawk is definitely ‘violent’. Then seeing him riding with a tattered American flag on a horse at sunrise while men around him shout ‘Huzzah!’ is pretty ‘rousing’, I guess. And every time that Heath Ledger or Jason Issacs are on screen (two talented actors who get to really chew some scenery in this movie), it is ‘exciting’ for me, the viewer, to watch them act.

But while The Patriot might be rousing, violent and exciting, it is also a comically simplistic portrayal of a complicated time in America’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: this movie is an over-the-top melodrama of the highest order. Like any good melodrama, you can expect exaggerated, stereotypical characters and clear cut Goodies and Baddies. And wouldn’t history, and human nature, be much easier to understand if it was really like this? If there really were simply heroes and villains? Perhaps that really is the appeal of films like The Patriot. More than their violence, their star power, and their exciting set pieces (note the battle scene where the guy’s leg gets knocked off by the cannon ball!), these types of movies are comforting in their simplicity. They present a national mythology that is easy to grasp and that most people can get behind.

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Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin. The film came out several years before Gibson was blacklisted in Hollywood for his anti-Semitic comments made during a 2006 DUI arrest.

The Patriot presents a version of the Revolutionary War where the the British Army is seemingly populated entirely by incompetent aristocrats and psychologically disturbed sadists who go around committing atrocities without repercussions. I’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post, but to say that this film’s depiction of British army officers during the American Revolution is ‘inaccurate’ doesn’t go far enough. It is outrageous. American civilians were definitely abused by both armies, but nothing on the scale this film seems to suggest as far as I am aware and often that abuse was by the REBEL army towards Loyalists.

But before I get any further ripping into this film, I have a confession: I loved The Patriot as a kid. I watched it so many times that I could still recite it today. I watched it so often in part because I liked this time period and there are so few films and books depicting it, but also because there are some engaging and fun things about The Patriot. Not enough to redeem it, mind you! This is not a ‘good’ movie. It’s a fun, bombastic melodrama (check out my reviews of The John Adams Miniseries or The Witch for ideas of much better, more nuanced, movies set in early America).

But in fairness to The Patriot, I have decided to break this post up into two parts. Today I’m posting about things which I think work about this film. They are largely related to the talent of some of the actors. Next Monday, I’ll be talking about the things that do NOT work so well.

As a quick synopsis (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled about the plot!): The Patriot is a story about a farmer with a troubled past, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), who wants to remain neutral in the escalating conflict with Great Britain. But he’s pulled into the war when his headstrong son Gabriel (Health Ledger) joins the Continental Army and when an evil British officer, Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs), murders his other son Thomas and burns his house down. The rest of the film follows Martin’s journey as he joins the rebel army and succeeds at every turn evading the British through guerilla warfare: stealing their supplies, planning sneak attacks, hiding in the woods and evading capture etc. Then Gabriel dies, also at the hands of Colonel Tavington, in a scene that is genuinely sad, especially given our loss of Ledger in real life. But all is well(ish) in the end because Martin enacts his revenge by killing Tavington and the Continental army wins the war (of course).

So it is a movie about a badass fighter man with a dark past who wants to get out of that life but is drawn into it when the baddies attack his family. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. This is basically John Wick…in the American Revolution.

As a side note, it made me laugh to learn that Harrison Ford declined the lead role in this because he said the film boiled down the Revolutionary War to a ‘one-man’s-revenge’ melodrama. Yup. That about sums it up.

That being said, there is some fun to be had here and some things that succeed in this movie.

Some things that work in The Patriot

1 – The score

As I was searching for things to praise, the music immediately came to mind. Then I looked up who scored it: John Williams! Even if you don’t know John Williams, you have probably heard his work. He scored ET, the Indianan Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, Star Wars, and the first three Harry Potter films. To name just a few.

The score in The Patriot is excellent and definitely ‘rousing’. It makes moving use of period instruments, like violins and flutes, and is delicate and hopeful. To be honest, the music is doing most of the emotional heavy lifting over a lackluster script and fairly cardboard characters (more on the characterization below). You can listen to the theme here.

2 – Everything looks pretty good

The material world of The Patriot seems to have been created with attention and care. For instance, there is a sampler on the wall in one of the opening scenes, in the girls’ bedroom, which is a nice touch. And as far as I can tell, most of the material culture stuff is well done. The elite women are never wearing head coverings outside during the day (like a mob cap etc.) for modesty, but that’s not a huge deal. And everyone looks too clean, but, by and large, I felt this stuff was fine. Apparently the film was even supervised by The Smithsonian. Of course I’m by no means an expert, but anything glaringly obvious I probably would have picked up on so well done to the costume and set designers.

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Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and Benjamin Martin (Gibson) at war.

3 – Warfare

It conveys the gruesome brutality of 18th century warfare – where men stood in lines and shot at each other, before stabbing one another with bayonets. Sometimes I would argue it relishes the fighting a bit too much, like when the cannon ball flies directly towards the camera, but director Roland Emmerich seems interested in these details. Perhaps more interested in these details than he is in the characters themselves. As for me, I’m not very interested in military history or in how 18th century battles are fought, beyond the basics, but zooming in (literally) on this works to convey the sacrifices that men on both sides of the conflict made to serve their country. You come away thinking that war is a gruesome and terrible thing, which is true.

4 – Tom Wilkinson

This talented actor is having a lot of fun as the pompous General Cornwallis, saying lines like ‘These rustics are so inept. Nearly takes the honor out of victory. Nearly.’ Fun Fact: he also gets to play a jolly, folksy Ben Franklin in the John Adams Miniseries. In some ways the mirror opposite of Cornwallis. What fun!

5 – Jason Issacs

As far as I’m concerned, Jason Issacs is the hero of this movie and not just because I have always found him a really charismatic and good-looking actor (although that helps). He is a hero because this actor is given nothing to do besides being a complete sadistic murderer, but it somehow works because he commits to it 100%.

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Jason Issacs as Col. William Tavington

His character of Tavington is wholly one-dimensional and one level. Usually overtly evil characters like this are at least given one redeeming trait by the screenwriters – maybe they have a dog or a kid? Maybe they are seen enjoying a piece of music once? Basically, they are shown loving or appreciating something. Nope. Not Tavington. He basically just kills people or thinks about killing them. There is one brief moment of humanity when Tavington admits to Cornwallis that his father is a disgraced aristocrat and he has no inheritance. ‘I advance myself only through victory,’ Tavington says. It’s a thin and underdeveloped motivation for the levels of brutality that Tavington commits, but Issacs definitely nails this moment and we see a flicker of fragility in Tavington’s eyes. Still though, 98% of the time this character is written to be a cardboard cut-out of Evil. And yet. Issacs is a joy to watch. When you’re playing a role like this, you’ve just got to give it your all. And he does. No surprise that he later played Captain Hook in a remake of Peter Pan. He is basically already playing Captain Hook in The Patriot.

6 – Heath Ledger

Again. His character is non-existent. Like Issac’s Tavington, Ledger is given nothing to work with. His character of Gabriel Martin is just Earnest Young Hero Man. And yet. He’s not bland at all, but imbues Gabriel with a youthful exuberance, a quiet dignity, a curiosity for life, and a whole host of other traits that are not coming from the writing but the delivery. This was Ledger’s first big dramatic role and the career that he went on to have – Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight etc. – is not surprising at all, given his evident charm and likeable onscreen persona here. He also underplays some of the more dramatic moments, which is something this film desperately needs more of.

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Heath Ledger as Gabriel Martin

7 – ‘They had green eyes’

In a movie full of over-the-top emotions and epic battle sequences, perhaps the only moment that I found truly sad and human was a tiny one, when the proud French officer Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo) finally opens up to Benjamin Martin about the loss of his daughters who were killed by the British army (because that’s what the British army does in this movie, kills civilians left and right). Martin asks him, as they are marching in to battle, presumably about to die: ‘How old were your daughters?’ Villeneuve answers: ‘Violette was 12 and Pauline 10. They had green eyes.’ Maybe it’s the actor’s understated, almost numbed, delivery. Or maybe it’s just this small touch of specificity in a movie that is usually broad strokes, but I found this moment between the men genuinely touching. Martin has just lost his son, Gabriel, and it is a sweet moment of connection and shared loss between them. The screenwriter Robert Rodat could have used a lot more moments like this.

In general, some of the banter between the men also works well and there are a lot of quippy one liners where the militiamen are teasing one another which I felt was sweet and made the overall tone less self-important.

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Tcheky Karyo as Villeneuve

So there you have it. Some things that I genuinely appreciated about The Patriot!

In next week’s post, we are going in-depth looking at what isn’t working so well in this film, as well as some of the history that inspired it. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve seen The Patriot. It’s currently streaming on UK Netflix, so maybe it’s time for a re-watch even if you saw it twenty years ago when it came out. I’d love to hear your thoughts. See you next Monday for Part II!

PS If you’re looking for some historical fiction which isn’t at all like The Patriot, but rather a spooky, Victorian ghost story about sisters and séances, then check out my story The Astonishing Rivers Sisters, published this week in Halfway Down the Stairs magazine!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution

I have wanted to visit the Museum of the American Revolution ever since I saw this CBS special about it. The museum opened very recently (2017) and last month, during my first ever visit to Philadelphia, I finally managed to stop in and see it for myself!

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It’s an enormous undertaking, trying to present the entire Revolutionary War (plus its lead up and its aftermath) to visitors. Some of those visitors (like myself) might know a fair amount about this period already, but some might be learning about it for the first time. From the look of it during my visit, it seems to be a popular place to take school groups, but it’s also right by Independence Hall and all the other major Revolutionary War sites in Philly so I imagine it attracts all sorts of tourists and visitors, both local and international. Overall I think the museum does a really great job of presenting the war from various different perspectives (political, racial, geographical, etc.) and conveying that this was a complex conflict and not matter of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. I actually heard one of the tour guides saying to a group of what looked like eight or nine-year-old school kids, ‘Now what did I say at the beginning of the tour? The Revolution was nuanced.’ Even using the word nuanced with kids of that age made me smile and made it clear just how committed the museum was to trying to tell a multifaceted a story of the Revolution.

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Of course the Revolutionary War was experienced differently by everyone who was alive during that time, but I think they did a relatively good job of exploring some underrepresented perspectives that I certainly wasn’t taught at school: the dilemmas of the people of the Iroquois nations deciding which side of the conflict to align themselves with, for instance. There is also some exploration of how many enslaved men ran away to join the British army in exchange for their freedom.

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Dramatic display inside the museum about the people of the Oneida nation deciding who to ally themselves with

Overall it is a very battle centered museum – the rooms are basically arranged to explore chronologically the different military campaigns. Since I’m more interested in social history (a fancy way of saying ‘how people lived’) and day to day life for women at home during this period, it didn’t appeal to me as much. But I also recognize that those are my particular interests. The Revolutionary war was a war, after all, so I imagine many people are primarily curious about the different battles and military engagements. It’s just not my cup of tea.

That being said, there was still lots for me to see and enjoy there. Here are a couple of things that stood out to me as particular favorites from my visit.

Phillis Wheatley book: They had a signed first edition of the first published book of poetry written by an African American woman, Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley is a fascinating historical figure in American history and literature (a blog post about her is forthcoming!). She was born in West Africa, but forced into slavery as a child and transported to North America. She learned to read and write from the Boston family she served and ended up becoming a famous, celebrated poet in her day.

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Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

George III statue fragments: The book that I’m working on is set in colonial New York, so it was really cool to see two original fragments of the statue of King George III that was pulled down in NYC on July 9, 1776. I also learned that based on the fragments, it’s been concluded that the statue featured George III in a Roman-style toga, which I had not known before and actually impacted a scene in my book! (Fun fact: Most of the lead from the statue was melted down into musket balls by the Continental army during the war).

Toy broom and toy platter: I liked seeing the itty-bitty toys excavated from British Revolutionary Campsites around New York City, reminders that the children of British soldiers were going around with the army in North America. I’ve never seen little pewter toys like this before and it was a charming sight.

‘Women’s Property and War’ display: Something that a lot of people don’t know is that after the Revolution, there were ‘confiscation’ laws passed and the new government started seizing the property of those who had remained loyal to the King. A lot of my PhD was looking at the experiences of women in South Carolina who suffered during and after the war because of their husbands’ politics and who lost their property due to these laws. This display featured furniture pieces similar to the furniture that was confiscated from the Drinker family (Philadelphia Quakers who tried to remain neutral during the war). I’ve read Elizabeth Drinker’s diary, and obviously have a lot of personal interest in this topic, so I was happy to see this particular display, although I would have been happy with even more about it.

Tea: I’m a big fan of incorporating multisensory displays at museums and there was a box where you could smell one of the varieties of tea that was thrown into the Boston Harbor during the tea party. (It was black and green tea thrown overboard).

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The mirrors at the end: When you’re leaving the exhibition there’s a big mirror and it says ‘Meet the future of the American Revolution’ at the top. It’s a very sweet visual reminder of our connection with the past and I really like the idea of school kids peering up at themselves and seeing themselves as part of this story. (Did I tear up a bit? Yes. Yes I did).

So overall it was absolutely worth a visit and if you’re in Philly you could quite easily tie it in with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You’ll leave with a really clear sense of what led to the Revolutionary War, as well as the key moments and battles. There’s also a rotating exhibition on the ground floor, so do have a look at what is on there when you visit.

Thanks for reading and I hope that it’s helpful for anyone considering a visit! Museums like this always make me think of the tremendous challenge of communicating such a sprawling conflict to people and this museum did a good job. And let me know, if you’ve been already, what you thought of the Museum of the American Revolution – I’d be very curious.

See you next Monday!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.