It’s Halloween, Full Moon and a Blue Moon – but what does that mean? by Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

It is very hard to miss the fact that Saturday 31st October is Halloween, and that this year the date coincides with a full Moon.  Still more unusually this full Moon will be acclaimed as a ‘Blue Moon’ since it is the second to fall in the same month (the previous one being Thursday 1 October).  This is a very rare combination since Halloween falls at full Moons only roughly every twenty years (the last occasion was 2001 and the next will be 2039).  Blue Moons are also scarce, with the most recent one being March 21st 2018.  However, Blue Moons can also be the third of four full moons to occur in a single season.  Here a season is the period between a solar solstice and equinox. The next ‘seasonal’ Blue Moon will be August 22, 2021.  All this may suggest that Halloween has a special relationship to both the solar and the lunar calendars – but in fact that is very hard to prove.

The name Halloween itself has nothing to do with the Sun or the Moon, since it is simply a contraction of All Hallows Eve.  This derives from the fact that Halloween is the evening and night before the Christian festival of All Hallows, or All Saints.  That festival was placed on 1st November from the eighth century onwards and therefore Halloween fell on 31st October.  What is much less clear is why this pair of dates was chosen.  In the early middle ages a feast day celebrating all martyrs was held soon after Easter, and from the seventh century was replaced by a date in May, originating in Rome.  This fell close to, though not at, the pagan Irish feast of Beltane, whilst the new date for All Saints coincided with the date of Samhain, the feast marking the onset of Winter.  Since the new timing was first recorded in Anglo Saxon England, where the Venerable Bede was working hard to reduce the influence of Celtic Christianity on matters such as the date of Easter, it is worth looking at the information Bede offers.

Bede noted that the pagan Anglo Saxons called October ‘Winter fills’ and November ‘Blood Month’.  He regarded the first as self-explanatory but explained that the blood spilt in November was that of cattle, slaughtered before the onset of winter and dedicated to pagan gods in unspecified rituals.  Therefore, if Bede’s evidence about Anglo-Saxon paganism is put together with surviving information about Samhain then the night between October and November emerges as one in need of purging of pagan significance.  Like Beltane, it also falls at a point midway between two key points in the solar calendar.  While Beltane falls between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice, Samhain – and thus Halloween – falls midway between the Autumn equinox and the Winter solstice.  This makes Halloween, like Mayday, a seasonal festival as well as one located at a transitional point of the solar year.

However, none of this links Halloween to the full Moon – or even the lunar calendar.  The astronomical event which falls at Halloween is (or more accurately used to be) the midnight culmination (or highest point in the sky) of the star cluster of the Pleiades.  In the medieval period this took place at the start of November; and Roman writers had emphasised the importance of the Pleiades in marking the transition of the seasons.

                                                                             ©British Library, Ms Harley 647, f4v.

What links Halloween most strongly to the Moon is their shared association with beliefs about the supernatural and about foretelling the future.  Traditions about using the lunar calendar to make predictions about coming events were passed from the classical world to medieval Europe and were accepted by the Christian Church.  Prognostic texts known as Lunaries gave the necessary information and were copied into manuscripts containing both medical and liturgical information.  The day and night of the full Moon were propitious times for starting new phases of life, such as getting married or going to school or university.  But these predictions worked for any lunar month, not only the one containing Halloween!

This takes the enquiry back to the shared theme of the supernatural, and to ghosts and witches in particular.  From the early middle ages there were fears that ghosts and spirits were able to return to earth and do harm to people, animals and crops, at liminal times – and at Halloween in particular.  This made the lighting of fires and candles, and the protective ringing of church bells, important on this night.  Gifts of food were also offered, either directly to the souls of the dead or as alms in exchange for prayers.  By the sixteenth century an additional supernatural threat had been added to the perils of the night, as growing fears about witches led to beliefs that witches were especially powerful and likely to cause harm on that night.  The medieval idea that witches were both in league with the devil and worshippers of the pagan deity, Diana, goddess of the Moon, perhaps provides the final link in this long chain of associations.

The memorably named Burchard of Worms compiled his Corrector in the early eleventh century and it included a text which was to be very influential.  This banned pagan traditions relating to the worship of the Moon and to rituals at new Moon and lunar eclipses. It went on to condemn those who believed that ‘the witch, Hulda’ rode on the backs of animals on special nights (which are not named) together with a throng of demons disguised as women.  Equally outlawed were the women who believed that they flew at night on the backs of animals, riding with Diana, swooping around the world and obeying the demonic commands of the goddess.  The text does not state whether Halloween was one of these special nights, nor whether a full Moon made the goddess and her followers especially powerful, although it is open to that interpretation.  But its terrifying details played a major part in the development of medieval and early modern ideas about witches.  When combined with the Christian idea that the period from Halloween to All Souls (also known as Hallowmass) was crucial for maintaining a positive relationship between the living and the dead it helps to explain the power of the night between 31st October and 1st November, and why a full Moon might be significant. 

You can find out more about Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers and her work at the university of Reading here

Anne was a guest on BBC Radio Berkshire on Friday 30th October discussing Halloween!

Her book Medieval Meteorology argues that there was significant ongoing study of meteorology and weather in the early middle ages.

Posted in News | Leave a comment

#BLM Voices of the Dream Ancestors: from National Hero to the Aboriginal Rights Movement by Tamisan Latherow

CONTENT WARNING: This post may contain voices, images or names of people who have died.

*Note, throughout this article we use the terms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. This term was chosen specifically due to the naming conventions of the tribes focused on within this article. It is not meant to be disparaging or hurtful in anyway.[1]

As a child growing up in the eighties in rural Florida, I had an unusual collection of stuffed animals consisting of kangaroos, koalas, and even an echidna thanks to an Australian family friend. I also had very little access to television. I can still remember the channels, all four of them, with most of my ‘tv time’ spent watching educational shows on PBS (the Public Broadcasting Station). One of my families’ favourites being Wild America with host Marty Stouffer as he explored the lands and animals found in North America. Our family friend had a son my age. While I was watching Marty, he was watching The Bush Tucker Man hosted by Les Hiddin’s, an ex-Army soldier and war veteran.

In The Bush Tucker Man, Les’ travels around Australia’s Northern Territories showing edible wild foods and often discusses Aboriginal peoples and their extensive knowledge of, what is arguably, their backyard. As a white man, Les’ respect and admiration for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comes through loud and clear, both then and now. Perhaps even more so since most white Aussies had little to nothing to do with their aboriginal neighbours and when they did, it often ended in disaster for the aboriginals. At the time of The Bush Tucker Man, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had only been allowed to vote in Australia for less than twenty years (1965) and had not been included in the census counts (or subject to Commonwealth laws) until 1967[2]. The population was also small, only around 175,000[3], barely 0.012 per cent (out of 14.69 million[4]). Considering these points, it’s no wonder than many Australians either didn’t have a good opinion of or more accurately, didn’t even consider, the Aboriginals in their daily life.  

Understanding why means taking a look back on a tumultuous history of forced resettlements, mass murder, and racism, but we’ll start small, with one young man named Galmarra (aka Galmahra). Born around 1833, in New South Wales to the Wonnarua Aboriginal Tribe, Galmarra was a guide under the employee of the Surveyor-General’s Department of the State of New South Wales during Edmond Kennedy’s fatal expedition to the Cape York Peninsula in 1848[5]. Just fifteen-years old, Galmarra, led the thirteen-man team into the unexplored region of Queensland even though he had never left his home in NSW before and was unfamiliar with the area. The team travelled over 1,000 kilometers up and down steep mountains, through dense tropical jungles, and hostile Aboriginal territories. By the end of the expedition, only Kennedy and Galmarra himself were able to continue on, but thirty-kilometers from their destination, the pair were attacked. Kennedy took a spear to the gut and Galmarra carried him until he died. Galmarra finished the trek alone arriving ten-days later at the supply ship[6]. He’d had no supplies. He led an expedition looking for the members of the team he and Kennedy had left behind at various points, but only two were alive. The three men were returned to Sydney several months later. He had survived, but at what price?

Images housed at Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Galmarra, however, was not what Kennedy and the other members of team called this brave young man. They called him Jackey Jackey, a dismissive slang term often used by white Australians to deny the Aboriginals their personal identity. When called this by another Aboriginal, the term denoted a collaborator to the colonial powers and meant that the person had been complicit in their own people’s dispossession[7]. Yet it was this very name that was etched into a silver breast plate the Governor of New South Wales, Charles Augustus FitzRoy commissioned in honour of Galmarra’s bravery in early 1851. In addition to the plate, £50 was placed into trust at the local bank under his name (close to £80,000 today)[8]. Neither were actually received by Galmarra. Instead, Galmarra faded into obscurity and three years later (1854), at the tender age of twenty-one, he fell into a fire on an overland journey near Albury and died[9]. He’d supposedly been drinking, something Captain T. Beckford Simpson (captain of the Ariel) noted he was fond of during the retrieval of Kennedy’s body[10]. He’d gone from hero to heartbreak in just three years.

Unfortunately, Galmarra’s story is not unusual in its tragic ending. Last year The Guardian did a piece on “The Killing Times”, a period of 140 years (1794 – 1928) where British soldiers, Australian police, and white settlers performed over 270 state-sanctioned frontier massacres resulting in the deaths of thousands. Gippsland squatter, Henry Meyrick, wrote to his family in England in 1846 saying:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging.[11]

The primary reasons for the killings? Retaliation for the deaths of settlers (up until the early 1900s), their cattle (at least 51 of the attacks), or for land[12]. I think this strikes close to home for me, a white woman from Florida, because the area I grew up in the early 1980s still had a very active Klu Klux Klan. Hangings were something you read about in the history books for most people, but in my area, it was something to be, if not actively feared, then definitely conscious of. Twenty-years earlier the Civil Rights Movement made such acts illegal in the U.S. and likewise in Australia, where, in 1967 (after a ten-year campaign), the Australian government finally added a referendum to the Australian Constitution to include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. The Indigenous Land Rights Movement also gained momentum during this period with legal battles for Aboriginal people to maintain possession of land they had lived on since the beginning of their history. Most of the battles were due to mineral rights such as the Yirrkala mission in Arnhem Land, Lake Tyers in south western Victoria, and the Gurindij strikers in the Northern Territory[13].

Today, closer to 3.3% of the population is listed as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (just under 800,000)[14]. One would think the changing times would have brought progression and understanding, but the history of the Aboriginal people, their interactions with the white colonists, and the current political climate hasn’t changed as much as one would hope. While the 1980s and 90s saw verbal promises by the Australian government to recognize the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (the “Barunga Statement” and the Mabo Agreement)[15], those same promises never seemed to bear fruit and though the 2007 creation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) could have been a catalyst for change around the world, initially the United States, Australia, and New Zealand all voted against it. A large part of the problem is semantics. UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,”[16] but Australian law says land ownership must be proven, something almost impossible due to Australia’s own history of forced relocation and resettlement. Other concerns revolve around perceived unacceptable cultural practices with governmental policies making “welfare payments conditional on school attendance, compulsory health checks on children, abolition of Community Development Employment Projects, alcohol bans and new restrictions regarding Indigenous culture, custom and law. Many children were also removed from their families, bringing back memories of Stolen Generations,”[17] those children who were forcibly removed from their families and adopted into white communities in the 1960s and 1970s, some 20,000 of which were alive in 2018 when the government formally apologized. A 1997 report estimated that one in three children were forcefully removed to institutions and foster care, many suffering abuse and neglect[18].

For a community that is still not formally recognized by the Australian constitution, there are little legal options. Their voices are not heard or acknowledged by the Australian government and this makes any form of relationship difficult at best.

Sol Bellear, a former rugby league player for South Sydney Rabbitohs and Aboriginal rights activist told The Guardian in 2017 that “things should be so much better for Aboriginal people. I think the country saw 1967 as the end of the fight…before 1967, we weren’t counted in the census or anything as people. Dogs and cats and pigs and sheep were counted in Australia before Aboriginal people.”[19]

Some terrifying social justice numbers have come to light in the past few years, including the one that equates Indigenous incarceration rates in Australia today to matching those in apartheid South Africa with Indigenous rates being 15 times the age-standardised non-Indigenous rates or the federal government cutting $534-million to Commonwealth-funded Indigenous programs[20]. These are the not-so-subtle points, the more insidious aspects are found in the fields of medicine where institutionalised racism can be found with health care workers making assumptions on a person’s living style based on them being Aboriginal. Even in the world of museums we find issues, such as the 2013 Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act which was passed mostly due to pressure from the British Museum. The law prevents claims from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owners of items on loan to Australia from the British Museum’s Indigenous collection, some 6,000 pieces just like the silver breast plate given, not to Galmarra, but to a museum and eventually to the State Library of New South Wales where it has been in residence since 1966[21].

Images housed at Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

In Aboriginal mythology, the world and everything around and on it was created during a period called The Dreaming. The goal of this living system is to reproduce itself through a balanced relationship with all of its parts by being aware of each other and acting morally towards one another.[22] As the Wonnarua Aboriginal Nation, of which Galmarra was a member, states “the land held the key to life’s secrets. Man was given the knowledge to read the land and for every rock, tree and creek he found an explanation for existence. He did not own the land, the land owned him.”[23] We should all try and remember such a fundamental concept.

For Galmarra, perhaps if he had been shown the connection between all of us his fifteen-minutes of fame might not have broken him. Having someone to talk to about what was most likely PTSD from surviving the massacre of the Kennedy expedition might not have sent him to the bottle and his untimely death. Galmarra’s story is a sad tale but one that highlights and brings to focus so many different issues we prefer to ignore. However, to hide our heads in the sand is an inexcusable practice. Like the 2018 apology we must sit up, steel ourselves for some unpleasantness and acknowledge that we messed up. Galmarra is just one of thousands of forgotten voices and it’s time that their stories came to light; time he stepped back into the national spotlight and reclaimed the right of his name and his heritage, so let’s give it to them. Let us remember what he and dozens of others did, their service for both their country and their people and the world. Let us give all the Galmarra’s not just a voice, but a hand. Let us give them back their culture and identity and make reparations beyond ‘I’m sorry’, because words can only take you so far.

It is up to each and every one of us to be aware of and act morally towards each other. To be good neighbours. Only then can change truly take place.

References

Allam, L., & Evershed, N. (2019, March 3). The killing times: the massacres of Aboriginal people Australia must confront. Retrieved from The Guardian: ttps://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/04/the-killing-times-the-massacres-of-aboriginal-people-australia-must-confront

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (1998, June 3). Australian Social Trends, 1998 Population Growth: Growth and distribution of Indigenous people, cat. no 4102.0. Retrieved from Australian Bureau of Statistics: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/ABS@.nsf/2f762f95845417aeca25706c00834efa/39f2f4183125265aca2570ec0018e4f8!OpenDocument

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012, May 24). Year Book Australia, 2012 Population Size and Growth cn. 1301.0. Retrieved from Australian Bureau of Statistics: https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1301.0~2012~Main%20Features~Population%20size%20and%20growth~47

Australians Together. (2020, September 16). The Indigenous civil rights movement in Austalia. Retrieved from Australians Together: https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/civil-rights-movement/

Beale, E. (1967). Jackey Jackey (?–1854). (Australian National University) Retrieved October 25, 2020, from Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jackey-jackey-2264

Collins Dictionary. (2020, October 14). Jacky (English). Retrieved from Collins Dictionary: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/jacky

Common Ground First Nations. (2020, October 15). Aboriginal, Indigenous or First Nations? Retrieved from Common Ground: https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/aboriginal-or-indigenous

Daley, P. (2017, May 18). It’s 50 years since Indigenous Australians first ‘counted’. Why has so little changed? Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/may/18/50-years-since-indigenous-australians-first-counted-why-has-so-little-changed-1967-referendum

Florek, S. (2020, October 15). Our Global Neighbours: Galmarra’s Breat Plate. Retrieved from Australian Museum: https://australian.museum/blog-archive/science/our-global-neighbours-galmarras-breast-plate/

Henderson, A. (2015, July 13). Timeline: Recognition of Australia’s Indigenous people. Retrieved from Austailian Broadcasting Channel News: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-06/indigenous-recognition-timeline-of-australian-history/6586176?nw=0

Hume, L. (2004, March). Accessing the Eternal: Dreaming “The Dreaming” and Ceremonial Performance. Zygon, 39(1), 237-258.

Lamensch, M. (2019, May 1). Australia’s slow progress on Indigenous rights. Retrieved from Open Canada: https://opencanada.org/australias-slow-progress-on-indigenous-rights/

Mao, F. (2018, February 13). Australia’s apology to Stolen Generations: ‘It gave me peace’. Retrieved from BBC News, Sydney: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-43039522

Nugent, M. (2015). Jacky Jacky and the politics of Aboriginal Testimony. In S. Konishi, M. Nigent, & T. Shellam (Eds.), Indigenous Intermediaries: New Perspectives on Exploration Archives (pp. 67-84). Canberra, Austalia: ANU Press.

Wikipedia. (2020, October 2). Jackey Jackey. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jackey_Jackey&oldid=973462603

Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation. (2014). About Us. Retrieved from Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation: https://www.wonnarua.org.au/about-us-page-2/


[1] (Common Ground First Nations, 2020)

[2] (Henderson, 2015)

[3] (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998)

[4] (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012)

[5] (Wikipedia, 2020)

[6] (Nugent, 2015)

[7] (Collins Dictionary, 2020)

[8] (Florek, 2020)

[9] (Florek, 2020)

[10] (Beale, 1967)

[11] (Allam & Evershed, 2019)

[12] (Allam & Evershed, 2019)

[13] (Australians Together, 2020)

[14] (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012)

[15] (Lamensch, 2019)

[16] (Lamensch, 2019)

[17] (Lamensch, 2019)

[18] (Mao, 2018)

[19] (Daley, 2017)

[20] (Daley, 2017)

[21] (Florek, 2020)

[22] (Hume, 2004)

[23] (Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation, 2014)

Tamisan Latherow is a PhD student at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development researching Women’s Participation in the British Agricultural Community in the Second World War. Members of the WLA and Women’s Institute who wish to participate in her research should contact her at: t.l.latherow@pgr.reading.ac.uk.

You can also find her om Twitter @SeshatofMars

Posted in News | Leave a comment

#BLM ‘a good breedin’ ‘oman sho did fetch de money,’ by Aisha Djelid

On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.  

After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’

The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away. 

Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.   

What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women. 

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”. 

Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid

Posted in News | Leave a comment

#BHM ‘Beyond the Reggae Bassline’ by Professor Matt Worley

For Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, whose death was announced as I wrote this blog (1941–2020)

I first heard Reggae as a child, the rhythms sending me to sleep as a I lay on a camp-bed in Nottingham. My Grandma lived on Berridge Road in Forest Fields. Dad had moved to Norwich, so we used to go and visit her at Easter or over the summer. Her house was an old-school two-up two-down, with interwinding back alleys and a front room only ever used for best. Mum and Dad slept in one bedroom; my sister and I would be on camp-beds in Gran’s. Norwich had no Afro-Caribbean or Black British community at the time. This was the 1970s, so I may have seen a Rasta on TV … maybe. But in Forest Fields, Nottingham’s Black community provided much of the life that enlivened the battered streets and chimney stacks. Pleasing for me, this came with a soundtrack.

Back then, the bass and drums were the main appeal. The space between the sounds. Accompanying the rhythms was a language that, to my ears, sounded both impenetrable and alluring. I’d be lying if I said I was knowingly tuning my pre-teen consciousness into Tappa Zukie’s ‘MPLA’ or The Abyssinians’ ‘Satta Massagana’ . I knew neither the song titles nor the artists. But the drawn-out dubs enveloped my mind and the rhymes of the toasting deejays planted seeds that would flower once I became ever-more obsessed with all things musical and (sub)cultural. In 1979–80, the sounds that drifted down Berridge Road at night or around Hyson Green as my Gran and I wandered to the shops began to make more sense. Two-tone brought punk and ska together, with cover versions played by bands such as The Specials and Selecter helping me trace who-did-what-and-when . I also found punk in 1980, meaning the Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’ and Toots’ ‘Pressure Drop’went onto my mental list. In the books I read, Don Letts’ picture appeared regularly – his playing of reggae between punk acts at London’s Roxy club in 1977 making the punky-reggae connection complete; his dreadlocked image part of the iconography. Over the 1980s, I tuned into John Peel and the Ranking Miss P. From Backs Records in Norwich, a Greensleeves 12” would be oft-purchased alongside my favoured post-punk fare. One of my first ever gigs was Burning Spear at the UEA. Reggae music, be it from Jamaica or home-grown in the UK, was part of the cultural tapestry, connecting and communicating and transmitting.

 Fast forward to the 2010s and I’m researching and writing about Britain’s post-war cultural history, especially all things youth cultural and/or subcultural. Through our Subcultures Network (http://www.reading.ac.uk/history/research/Subcultures/) I meet Lez Henry, deejay and professor. We collaborate on a special issue of a journal, with Lez exploring the alternative public arenes opened up by Reggae’s sound system culture. Crossing paths regularly thereafter, we plot a book on British Reggae with the objective of bringing together academics, writers, musicians, deejays and poets to trace at least a part of the history and influence. We get Paul Gilroy to write on the ‘vexed history’ of the ‘heart-i-cal’ philosophy. Lez links up with Les Back to psychogeographically map the Reggae beat of southeast London. Martyn Glynn and Tim Wells connect the dub poets with the ranters. Lucy Robinson brings Smiley Culture forward as a hybrid voice for the Commonwealth. The woman’s contribution to sound system culture is demonstrated by Lynda Rosenior-Patten and June Reid , while Kenny Monrose presents lo-fi dancehall cassette-tapes as a vector of cultural transmission. Lisa Palmer discusses pirate radio in Birmingham; Tim Kew excavates the blues parties that soundtracked the Nottingham streets I remember from childhood; Peter Hughes Jachimiak revisits the records shops and labels that produced the sounds; Melissa Chemam celebrates Bristol’s reggae legacies, before Joy White traces Reggae’s bass transmission through all things Grime. The religious belief systems integral to much Reggae are explored by Carl Tracey and Robert Beckford.

            As for me, I moved from listening-in to editing – absorbing and appreciating the sounds and words evoked in the chapters. The System is Sound: Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline will be published by Palgrave in late 2020 or early 2021. Where Reggae both infused and invigorated British culture, so may it now help crack open the academy. Personally, I’d tend to choose a Big Youth single over a record by The Beatles most days of the week; I’m more ‘Satan’s Side’ than Their Satanic Majesty’s. As Lez always says, ‘Anything that is learned can be unlearned’. By shifting the focus, we can do more than understand the world. We may also help to change it.

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#BLM Finding ‘sanctuary’ with the US Army, by Liz Barnes

Edwin Forbes, ‘The sanctuary,’ ca. 1876, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington DC. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.20773/ 

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy. 

In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.

Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.

In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.

Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved. [1] Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation. 

Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.

The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.

[1] The young black men that Forbes did depict were generally labourers rather than fighters. See, for example, ‘a mule driver’ (1863) https://www.loc.gov/item/2004661540/; ‘Dick, the cook’ (1863) https://www.loc.gov/item/2004661826/

First posted on the Reading Gender History Research Cluster blog here

Liz Barnes recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @E_M_Barnes.

Posted in News | Leave a comment