Catharsis, by Sarah Backhouse

Early July saw the Liberalism in the Americas conference, organised as the highlight of the project by Dr Deborah Toner at the University of Leicester. I went along as a sort of interested (read: ‘nosey’) colleague rather than as a delegate with something insightful to contribute. The conference ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable two days, despite the heat, which we now know was the lead up to the most prolonged UK heat wave in 7 years. I think this could be contributed to a) the high quality of papers presented, b) the intrinsically fascinating subject of the conference, and c) the enthusiasm of all the speakers, delegates and conference organisers. Thank you for inviting me!

Reflecting on this project, I hardly need say how much I enjoyed immersing myself in a new subject and learning a little of the history of Latin America (better late than never). I did however still get rather over excited when the occasional art-history-related document cropped up. I am referring to the documents which give evidence of a penchant for erecting semi-colossal bronze statues of national figures and symbols, for example the statue of Miguel de Cervantes raised in Montevideo in 1835. The sculptor of this marvellous feat was Antonio Sola… cue a mad dash to Google to see who this was… and behold, a renowned Spanish artist! Joy!

I feel extremely privileged to have been part of this project. It has been a revelation to me that interesting history did occur outside of fourteenth-century Italy and that, yes, primary sources that don’t contain lovely images can also be fascinating. As for the digital archive itself, as an academic and a museum professional, I strongly feel that web-searchable collections databases are the way to go. Just think, you can do your thesis research from your laptop without having to drag yourself to an archive. A shame, perhaps, as there really is nothing like burying your nose in a historical document and inhaling the aroma of centuries of history and dust. But, ultimately, any means of making history accessible no matter where you live or where you have the means to travel to, is an end thoroughly worth pursuing.

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 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!

Liberalism has Landed: Liberalism in the Americas Conference, July 4-5, 2013.

Endless amounts of caffeine, interesting papers, expansive plenary talks, ropey technological facilities, a virtual speaker from Lima, several hot fork buffets, a trip to the pub, and a lengthy discussion of historical ideas about breastfeeding… this conference had it all! Well, apart from an ether-tasting, which happened at my second favourite conference of the year

Many thanks to all of you who participated in the Liberalism in the Americas conference on 4-5 July, and to those of you who have played a part in the Liberalism project from the outset. The conference was in some ways a chance to reflect on the work of the project as a whole to date, and to showcase its major output – our digital library of liberalism-related primary source documents – so a large debt of thanks is due to all friends of the project, as well as everyone who came to the conference.

A series of blog posts will be featured over the next couple of weeks, providing a round-up of all the conference action to all those who couldn’t be there, although I suspect for some elements of the discussion (cf. breastfeeding), you probably had to be there.

Well, on to the Day 1 roundup!

Countdown to Conference: Liberalism minus 3 days

What have I forgotten? What have I forgotten??? Just as that question rumbles persistently around a holiday-goer’s head on the way to the airport, or halfway down the motorway, so too does it tend to plague conference organisers in the last days before an event takes place. Catering, tick; AVS support, tick; info to delegates on getting here, tick; name badges, tick; welcome packs, tick; conference paper and presentation, er, well, as ticked as it will ever be…

Most excitingly: access to the test site of the Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive for demonstration at the conference, TICK! Although some of the snazziest search and presentation features have yet to be added to the database, it was still with an enormous sense of excitement that I browsed page after page of document images and looked forward to using the database in my research when it is completed. Those attending the Liberalism in the Americas conference on 4-5 July, will get a sneak preview of the digital archive, as I’ll be talking briefly about the research materials that it holds and the features of the database that will be available freely to researchers in the near future.

My other major non-organisational appearance at the conference will be to talk about José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, a Mexican intellectual with whose work I have had something of a love-hate relationship for the last 7 odd years of research. He was a major figure in the burgeoning free press in Mexico City during the early nineteenth century, and in the debates about Mexico’s social and political development that took place therein – a considerable selection of his pamphlet writings will be available in the digital library, due to their exploration of key issues in Latin American liberalisms, like Church-State relations, freedom of the press, political representation and office-holding, education, citizenship, and free trade. Lizardi is also famous for several works of fiction, especially El Periquillo Sarniento (1816), widely (if not quite correctly) identified as Latin America’s first novel.

In both his fictional and non-fictional writings, Lizardi frequently referenced and discussed the work of various other intellectuals, many from Europe, and engaged in transnational debates within political philosophy, social reform, and economic policy: the kind of transnational debates that Jeremy Adelman talked so eruditely about in his lecture delivered in May. This is one of the key issues that my paper at the conference will focus on, as I’ll be examining the relationship between Lizardi’s two major novels – El Periquillo Sarniento and La Quijotita y su prima (1818-19) – and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education, Emile (1762). More specifically, I want to think about the critical dialogue that Lizardi enters into with Emile, and what this reveals about debates ongoing in the rapidly changing political environment in Mexico in the 1810s, focusing particularly on Lizardi’s explorations of liberal citizenship, meritocratic political representation, and the social utility of education – especially for women.

And, just as I finish writing that sentence, I’ve remembered what I’ve forgotten: mental note, print out paper!

I’ll be back to report on what other people are talking about at the conference in a few days. Fingers crossed I haven’t forgotten anything else!

Conference Imminent: Liberalism in the Americas goes to Leicester!

It’s been a while since the project blog was updated, but rest assured that project elves have been beavering away in the background all this time! Our partners at the British Library have been working with the project research assistant, Sarah Backhouse, ISA lecturer Matthew Hill, and the team at ULCC on the digital library, which will be hitting metaphorical online shelves very soon. In my new post at the University of Leicester, I have also been overseeing the development of the digital library and spreading the Liberalism in the Americas excitement to the East Midlands!

Partly to celebrate the culmination of the digital library, and to further develop several themes that have emerged from previous project events, I will be convening a 2-day conference at the University of Leicester on “Liberalism in the Americas: Popular, Gendered and Global Perspectives” on 4 and 5 July 2013. Above all, like our previous events series, the conference seeks to explore the contested ways in which liberal ideas and practices were accepted, adapted, translated, and rejected in different local, regional, national, and international contexts. Following the transnational and comparative aims of the project as a whole, the conference programme includes speakers working on different parts of Latin America, North America and the Atlantic World. Our two plenary speakers also represent the transnational and comparative dimensions of the conference: Dr Nicholas Guyatt (University of York), will be speaking on “‘The High Ground of Humanity’: Liberal Understandings of Racial Removal in the Nineteenth-Century Americas” and Dr Gabriel Paquette (Johns Hopkins University), will be talking “Liberals and Liberalism in the Early Nineteenth-century Iberian Atlantic World.”

I hope you’ll be able to join us for this exciting conference programme, and the culmination of 2 years work on the Liberalism in the Americas project.

Thanks to the continued generous sponsorship of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, the registration fee is heavily subsidised and an absolute bargain! Further details, and the online registration system, can be found here. Places are limited, and the deadline for registration is 16 June, so don’t delay in reserving your place!

As always, any questions – just contact me!

Commodity Histories Workshop, 6-7 September

I recently presented a paper about the Liberalism in the Americas project at a workshop at the Open University entitled, ‘AHRC Commodity Histories Project: Networking Workshop 1. Designing a Collaborative Research Web Space: Aims, Plans and Challenges of the Commodity Histories Project’. This workshop was part of a larger AHRC-funded project, Commodity Histories: An Online Space for Collaborative Research, which itself grew out of a collaborative network, Commodities of Empire, led by Dr Sandip Hazareesingh of the Open University and Dr Jonathan Curry-Machado and Professor Jean Stubbs, both Associate Fellows at the Institute for the Study of the Americas.

The workshop brought together digital humanities experts, people leading various kinds of digitisation projects, and those with experience of creating and participating in virtual collaborative research spaces. The aim was to share experiences and discuss challenges in the establishment, maintenance, and success of these digital enterprises to support the development of the Commodity Histories project.

My paper, ‘Liberalism in the Americas: Building an International Network, Digital Library, and Virtual Research Community‘, focused on how to engage the wider academic community in digital projects, and how the Liberalism project, and several other digital projects underway at ISA, have sought to incorporate feedback from projected users of the resources into their design. This helped to stimulate some broader discussion about the merits of different methods of obtaining this feedback. In the early stages of the Liberalism project, we sought advice from our Steering Committee and Advisory Groups- all experts in the field – about which thematic topics, types of documents, and regions of the Americas should be prioritised in the construction of our digital library. So this was very much an expert-led consultation process. Our workshop and lecture series helped to provide additional ongoing feedback from scholars on the content of the digital resources during the academic year 2012-13, and these events also went some way towards incorporating the views of a broader spectrum of potential users of the library, including graduate students.

However, Dr Matthew Alan Hill, who leads the digital project Atlantic Archive: US-UK Relations in an Age of Global War, 1939-1945 at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, took a more open and democratic approach in garnering feedback on the development of his resources. Through an online survey, which is currently open on the Atlantic Archive research hub, anyone can give their views on what themes and document types should be prioritised for the next phase of digitisation. This method has the advantage of casting the net wider in terms of the range of users that would potentially provide feedback for shaping the content of digital resources.

The Commodity Histories workshop participants agreed that considerations of audience were paramount in making the decision as to appropriate methods of feedback and engagement. The Atlantic Archive project, for instance, aims to serve the needs of history school teachers and pupils, as well as undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars working in the field. Due to the vast majority of the documents in the Liberalism in the Americas Digital Archive being available only in the Spanish language, UK secondary schools were not considered a realistic audience for these resources. Consequently, seeking feedback from a more limited audience of graduate students and more advanced scholars seemed quite appropriate in the case of the Liberalism resources. But clearly both approaches could have strengths and weaknesses.

Please do share your thoughts below in the comments section!

Key Liberal Documents: Beyond Civilisation and Barbarism

In addition to eliciting an animated debate about Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the Conquest of the Desert in late nineteenth-century Argentina, the recent ISA-hosted symposium “Two Hundred Years of Sarmiento: Backwards and Forwards” also gave me some new ideas about important documentary sources for the project’s digital library on Liberalism in the Americas.

Of course, Sarmiento’s name immediately brings to mind his most famous work, Facundo o civilización y barbarie (1845): a polemic essay critiquing the provincial leaders and political cultures of the Argentine interior opposed to the liberal reformers of Buenos Aires. Facundo was an enormously important work that helped to shape the debate about the nature of Latin American societies and political cultures during the nineteenth century and remains a key referrent for researchers and educators working on this era. However, while it is undoubtedly a key referrent on the subject, the fact that Facundo is already very widely available in print and digital formats means that it is not a priority for inclusion in the Liberalism in the Americas digital library. For digital versions of Facundo, see:

The Internet Archive, available in pdf and other formats. [Edition: Buenos Aires: Librería de Facultad de Juan Roldán y Compañía, 1921], [Edition: Buenos Aires: Félix Lajouane, 1889], [Edition: Montevideo: Tipografía Americana, 1888], [Edition: Nueva York: D. Appleton y Compañía, 1868], [Edition (in English): London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marson, 1868], [Edition (in English): New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1868] [Edition (in French): Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1853].

The Internet Archive also hosts some other items of interest written by Sarmiento, including “North and South America. A Discourse Delivered before the Rhode-Island Historical Society, December 27, 1865,” various editions of Sarmiento’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, and two editions of Las escuelas: Base de la prosperidad i de la republica en los Estados Unidos.

Missing from the collection, however, is Argiropolis (1850), which creates a vision of a utopian city of the future in the Argentine region. Adrián Gorelik discussed this text in the symposium, explaining how Sarmiento used the imagined city as a prototype for the ideal national community, outlining in microcosm how society, politics, culture and the economy operated in this urban community. The British Library carries two editions of this text: one is a French edition published in Paris in 1851; the other dates from 1916, published in Spanish in Buenos Aires, with a bibliographical introduction by Ernesto Quesada. Which of the two editions would be most useful to include in our digital library? Are there other lesser known works by Domingo Sarmiento that we could usefully include? Let us know in the comments section below.