A Few Thoughts, by Sarah Backhouse

There were times during the project when I encountered individual documents or recurring themes that have forced me to stop and have a good, hard think.

One particular document stands out, a government proclamation published in Montevideo on 20 July 1812. Article number 4 of this ‘Bando’ states that (my translation): ‘all persons who speak favourably of the revolutionary government [of Buenos Aires], or of its unworthy cause, whether in public or in private, if they are discovered will within 24 hours be sentenced to death, regardless of class, dignity or sex.’

Obviously we know that historically such injustices were not uncommon, and that legislation such as this was unremarkable within oppressed communities. But to see a government-issued proclamation condemning to death those who voice a controversial opinion, in black and white on my laptop screen, was chilling. This document was the actual piece of paper that the citizens of Montevideo would have seen (according to the publication details of the document, which instructs for it to be exhibited in a public Plaza for all to see), and perhaps understood as a personal death sentence in many cases.

In addition to a wealth of documents relating to the big important things happening in Latin America in the nineteenth century (wars of independence, changing political regimes, the establishment of constitutions and industrial reform, to name just a few), I was delighted to discover that the documents in the digital archive also provide extraordinary glimpses of everyday life.

One police notice from Argentina dated 1799 instructs citizens to keep the streets of Buenos Aires clear of rubbish and in good repair. Do we conclude, therefore, that the streets were neither clean nor in good repair? In Peru in 1808, a pamphlet announced a charity collection for the widows and orphans of Zaragoza, Spain, during the Napoleonic wars. I wondered, what was the reaction to international aid in the early nineteenth century, when life at home was hardly easy? A touching document describing an 1837 prize-giving ceremony at a public school in Argentina, rewarding children who had distinguished themselves, provides proof that concern for the well-being of children is universal and encouraged, regardless of the current political situation. Perhaps this helps to answer my question.

I have been pondering one particularly influential theme that crops up repeatedly in the documents: the freedom of the press. Something so easy to take for granted in today’s overly-saturated media culture, this constitutional law greatly influenced Latin American culture and politics when it was first introduced and was vociferously defended in times of censorship. Furthermore, this law has greatly shaped the content of the digital archive, which reflects the trend of an overwhelming increase in published documents in Latin America in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as writers eager to express their thoughts regarding the government of their newly-liberated countries are given the green light. In this case, the fact of the existence of these documents tells a story, and is evidence in itself of the political developments of the time.

The writers of nineteenth-century Latin America were so keenly aware of their place in history and of their role as witnesses to the enormous upheavals and historical developments that occurred in their countries. I was particularly interested to read a short historical novel, La Huerfana de Pago-Largo, by Francisco López Torres, about a young orphan girl who represents nineteenth-century civilisation and humanity, by rejecting tyranny, embracing liberty, practicing virtue and combating church abuse.

The church is one institution in particular that suffered considerable upheavals. Living in the UK, it is difficult to imagine life in a society so heavily dominated by the church. The documents in the digital library give an idea of the extent to which the church influenced many aspects of everyday life. In one such document, a dialogue of the Bishop of Cadiz, inhabitants of the city are urged to reform their behaviour, in accordance with that required by the local junta. I tried to imagine how I would feel, especially as a child, if my behaviour was so explicitly monitored by not only my parents and school teachers, but also by the government and the church. I couldn’t.

The nineteenth century was a period when the nations of Latin America were struggling to define themselves, to clearly establish their territories and declare themselves to the world. I was particularly fascinated by the series of documents in the digital library concerning the border disputes in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina. Travelling through the region myself a few years ago, and crossing the border from one country to the other every few days for several weeks, I was completely oblivious to the fact that the border had only been defined following a laborious process of long drawn-out disputes and negotiations. I wish I had worked on this project before my South American travels; I might have understood a little more about what I witnessed.

The Honorary Latin Americanist, by Sarah Backhouse

With the Liberalism in the Americas project now coming to a close, and the digital library  complete and looking marvellous… I thought it high time that I contribute some thoughts about the project and my part in it.

I have been working on the digital library for the past year, primarily creating metadata, assigning keywords to and writing abstracts for the 1000 or so documents that are searchable, browse-able and readable from the web. How remarkable! I wish such things existed during my PhD.

As a medieval art historian, I am used to significant shortages of historical documentation, and at times a complete absence of surviving contemporary textual evidence. It was rather refreshing for me, therefore, to get stuck into a subject that is comparatively saturated with surviving primary records. Unfortunately the digital library can only hold a fraction of the documents out there; for historians this is a disappointment, for me this is simply phenomenal! It makes me wonder – do historians ever have time to do anything but read?

Not being a subject specialist for this project has been challenging at times, and on many occasions I had to make a mad dash for (ahem) Google (definitely not Wikipedia) to do a little ‘research’. There can be no doubt that the turbulent nineteenth century is an immensely fascinating period in Latin American history; yet the political complexities of the numerous wars of independence, especially concerning Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, left me completely baffled. How to write an abstract for an obscure, undated pamphlet concerning a war in a country which had many over the period in question? I was somewhat relieved, therefore, to move on from the wars and begin cataloguing the numerous constitutions of said countries that were published in the following decades.

At times equally confusing was the rapidly changing public opinion of various rulers and politicians. Some rulers of course were universally deplored (Argentine dictator Juan Manuel José Doming Ortiz de Rosas, for example, was the subject of numerous documents accusing him of heinous atrocities), yet others fell in and out of favour repeatedly, causing me much consternation and frantic googling. Antonio López de Santa Anna, for example, was applauded for his part in bringing about the independence of Mexico, but later attacked because of his unpopular federal constitution. Similarly, King Ferdinand VII of Spain was ridiculed during the Napoleonic Wars, but later revered after he was forced to sign the Spanish Constitution.

Such nuances are part of what makes studying history so compelling and endlessly stimulating of course; for my part, they have made this project rather more challenging than anticipated, but ever so much more rewarding.

To find out more about Dr Sarah Backhouse, see her website.

Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive – Now Live!

Drum roll please………………

And the day has come at last, when I can proudly announce the arrival of the Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive! Head straight over to the online repository of primary documents at http://liberalism-in-americas.org/ to explore what the archive has on offer. Political pamphlets, essays, political ephemera, books, and periodicals from nineteenth-century Latin America have been included to facilitate research on the development and impact of liberal ideas and political practices across the continent, with a particular focus on Mexico, Argentina, and Peru.

The archive has several key features that we hope researchers will find useful. First, there are a range of browsing options, where the documents can be surveyed according to the country or region they relate to, the year in which they were published, the author, and the key themes that we identified as particularly important to current investigations into Latin American liberalisms: Church and State; Economic Development, Policy and Ideas; Political Culture; Race and Ethnicity; and Women and Gender. Secondly, each document has been catalogued with a range of additional keywords – citizenship, elections, freedom of the press, secularisation, constitutionalism, suffrage, education, industry, taxation, tribute, property, freemasonry, currency, republicanism, imperialism, immigration, and many, many more. In addition to keywords that help to provide researchers with further information about the content and context of archived materials, each document has been catalogued with a short abstract that goes into a little more detail.

In addition to browsing the collection, you can simply search for key terms that interest you. Bear in mind that much of the catalogue information – keywords, abstract, and so on – are entered in English, but that the vast majority of the document titles and content is in Spanish, so it will be necessary to alternate between English and Spanish words in the search function to locate sources of interest.

Once an interesting document has been located, you can access the material in a variety of ways: image files will appear one at a time on the screen, or you can download the entire document as a pdf or text-only format. In the text option, which you can also view alongside the image files, there are numerous errors in transcription, which are the result of imperfect OCR (optical character recognition) technology that sometimes struggles with non-English language text and older fonts. It is this OCR technology that makes the documents fully searchable, which is obviously a bonus, even in imperfect form, but unfortunately we didn’t have the man/woman-power to manually correct the mistakes made by the software in this transcription process.

But you can get involved, and help us to improve the search and text-only functions by correcting any mistakes that you notice in the transcriptions. To do this, you will need to create an account and log-in – this is purely so that we can verify changes are being made by actual people, and not some evil spamming machine; there is no charge, and creating an account will result in no undesired emailing etc. Once you’ve logged in, you can check the original image against the text and make any changes to the text transcription that you can. Your changes will then get sent to me for approval.This will make the text-only option of viewing documents more accurate for subsequent users and will also make the search function more reliable, so it’s very valuable work! If everyone who uses the database edited a single document that they used or downloaded, together we will make an enormous difference!

Well, I hope everyone will find the archive useful for their research. Feel free to get in touch if you notice any errors that can’t be corrected from your own account and I’ll endeavor to correct them.

Over the next couple of weeks, in celebration of the archive’s birth, we’re going to be hearing from Sarah Backhouse, the Liberalism in the Americas’ tireless research assistant who catalogued the archive material, about her experiences working on the archive. As you all get familiar with the resources, we’d love to hear any stories about your encounter with unexpected documents and how you’re using them, so do get in touch!