This past weekend, it was my super amazing girlfriend’s birthday, so to celebrate we went down to Charlottesville, VA. It was lovely! We stayed in a quaint little inn and managed to go to if not all then the vast majority of used bookstores and yarn shops in the town and enjoyed every minute of it. But why Charlottesville? I’ll tell you why. My super amazing girlfriend loves presidential sites, and Charlottesville has no shortage of them.

By “no shortage” I specifically mean three. The three presidents are Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison, and the sites are their former homes and plantations of Monticello, Highland, and Montpelier. Over the course of a three-day weekend we went to all three and it was absolutely fantastic. The first one we went to was Monticello on a warm but cloudy December day.

When you arrive at Monticello, you pull up to the Visitor’s Center (a good place for visitors admittedly). Our first destination was the very nice little farm table café they got going on because it was lunch time, but after that I think the general thing to do is probably visit the museum they got there. At Mount Vernon, they like to paint a picture of George Washington as a nerdy farming enthusiast, and in that same way at Monticello they like to portray Thomas Jefferson as a passionate hobbyist architect who maybe also did politics. I gotta say, it is a good thing he was apparently half decent at architecture, though it would probably be funnier if he wasn’t – “this building was designed by Thomas Jefferson. It’s shit, but we gotta keep it because, you know, Jefferson.” So in the museum they have all his European influences as he was designing his house at Monticello and displays of how the dome is constructed and all sorts of drafting tools on display.

This is the house, not the museum, and that’s an automatic letter-copier and not a drafting tool, to be clear.

After poking around the museum we took the bus to the top of the hill for our tour. The tour was really great. Our tour guide was Linda, a short, silver-haired woman wearing a kooky cat pin on a blue pantsuit and round red art deco glasses and who was really passionate about the information she was delivering. It was not busy at Monticello that day (or at any of the sites we would visit) so she had plenty of time to answer all of our questions. I had actually been to Monticello once before a long time ago, and all I really remembered were some nifty gadget doors, Thomas Jefferson’s not-worn-in-yet pair of boots, and his gravestone which didn’t list “president.” All that to say is that I learned a lot!

Jefferson’s map of Africa. The reason only Kingdom of Kongo is really filled in is slavery.

Of the three plantations we visited that weekend, Monticello I think did by far the best at telling the story of slavery at the plantation. At Mount Vernon slavery is presented as this sort of unsavory fact of life that an otherwise immaculate George Washington couldn’t help but be involved in. At the other two sites the way they address slavery felt sort of tacked on. But at Monticello slavery is centered in the story as an undeniable and central part of plantation life that was fully intertwined with the story of Thomas Jefferson. They make sure to present the enslaved people’s names and give them credit where it is due, such as in the display three pictures ago listing the people who built Monticello. To be fair to Highland and Montpelier, Monticello has the huge advantage of Thomas Jefferson’s meticulous records and so they know the stories of all these people where in other places it has been lost.

It’s always men that want to build on top of mountains. Monticello has gorgeous views but it wasn’t Jefferson that had to haul everything to the top of a mountain.

And like I said I learned a lot! For example, I learned how interwoven the stories of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings were. I hadn’t learned before that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, nor had I learned before that Sally had only one African grandparent. After the house tour, we went on the tour about slavery on the plantation, and we learned that Thomas Jefferson “freed” two of his children by Sally Hemmings by just sending them away so they could “pass” for white. One of the most significant facts we learned about Sally Hemings is that she agreed to re-enter slavery after negotiating with Jefferson. He had brought her to France where she was free, because slavery was illegal. She initially refused to return to the United States, and only agreed when Jefferson granted her privileges and pledged to free her children – extraordinary concessions for a 16-year-old girl to extract from one of the more powerful men around.

It wasn’t just Sally Hemings’ story they told. They’ve made sure to try to research every enslaved person’s story the best they could. The things they told were heart-wrenching. I wrote down so I wouldn’t forget how although Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, his wife wasn’t, so that, as Linda told us, he had to watch as his wife was sold away on the auction block placed on the west lawn. I think seared into my brain is Linda’s phrase describing Jefferson’s habit of gifting enslaved persons as part of his daughters’ dowries – “he was very generous with other people’s children.” All this done to people who’s ancestry only differed from Jefferson himself by one Black great-grandparent. The best new perspective I gained I think in my tour of Monticello is from a quote from Andrew Mitchell Davenport, a descendant of Peter Hemings: “Like any fiction worth its weight, race must be read and reread, interpreted, and examined.”

I don’t have a solid transition from that, but neither does America and it probably isn’t something I should transition away from anyways. After you exit the tour you can explore the grounds. They grounds include a fish pond, which of course I was very fond of. They have the usual displays about carriages and the sheer amount of booze that people who are hosting guests every day wind up going through. In the smoke house they had fake hams hanging up, just like the ones at Mount Vernon, so there must be a place out there from which you can buy fake hams to display in your former-presidential-smoke-house. And as you finish with the grounds, you can stroll back down the mountain, on the way passing the grave of the man who caused all this to be built, but thankfully we all know who deserves the credit for building it.

The Chronicle, 1881-1885

I am pleased to announce the second part of what must be honestly the most anticipated project of the century, to wit me transcribing every article in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society relating to their Central Africa mission. The first part of this project spanned the years 1876 to 1880 (more details on this project overall at that link), and the second part, linked above and embedded below, covers the next five years, 1881-1885.

This batch of transcriptions clocks in at a relatively modest 66,000 words, about 15,000 fewer words than the last time. Opening up the last time I posted a batch of transcriptions I am more than a little surprised that it was only back in April. This feels like a project I have been neglecting for ages, but there ya go, I’m slightly better than I thought. I have become more familiar with The Chronicle during the course of this project and so I am better at extracting the relevant bits. However, the magazine got a new editor in 1885, and so far I can’t really say I like what he’s done with it, but it’s a tad late to complain.

The single biggest revelation I’ve had so far about The Chronicle is that I realized that it is a fundraising document. Up until that revelation I had been thinking of The Chronicle as this handy record created specifically for my benefit. If that were the case, though, it’s honestly a bit of a weird read. They’re Victorians and I am under the impression that this was normal for them, but they go into a lot of gory detail about people’s illnesses. For example they print, at length, the sufferings of Dr. Southon after he is accidentally shot in the arm and slowly dies from infection.

It finally occurred to me that the audience of this magazine are all the churchgoers they are trying to convince to donate to the London Missionary Society. Every year in June the Society publishes their annual report, including a detailed look at their finances. In the transcription I try to translate these into modern-day dollars, and every year the Society needs to fundraise the equivalent of millions of dollars just to try to keep themselves afloat. I realized that the main purpose of The Chronicle was therefore probably to let people know how their donations were being spent, and present an image of a Society doing the best missionary work out of many competing missionary societies while letting people know that they still desperately needed more funds. Someday, when I sit down and actually analyze all that I’ve typed, I will have to keep that in mind.

When we left the missionaries in 1880, they had set up several missionary stations between Zanzibar and Ujiji and were starting to make forays towards the south of Lake Tanganyika. My interest in the London Missionary Society started because I was interested in the first steamship on Lake Tanganyika, the SS Good News. I’m going to grant myself an historic parallel by mentioning that what was the final spur to get LMS setting out into the region was a desire to put a steamship on the lake. So while the SS Good News is a throughline through the entire first decade of the Central Africa Mission, it is during 1881-1885, and really towards the latter part of that timeframe in which the story of the Good News really gets going; it is in August of 1885 that The Chronicle reports the ship was launched (though it still had a lot of fitting out to do).

This is not the Good News, but there are better versions of the same engraving they published in The Chronicle elsewhere on this blog.

Despite the mission’s nautical success, however, it is really not in a good place by the end of 1885. Central Africa was deadly for missionaries. In a lengthy November 1885 article, it’s noted that “since the commencement of the Mission in 1876, twenty-three persons have gone out to take part in the work, and of these no fewer than ten have been removed by death, and nine have retired from the service.” Although many of the nine that retired from the service but didn’t die did so out of general poor health, it is also in this same article that The Chronicle details a new development among the missionaries – people quitting out of fear. The Chronicle published excerpts of letters from recently deployed missionaries saying that they were headed home, not necessarily because they were sick, but because they finally noticed how many people were dying and wanted out before they too were struck down. With those two missionaries heading home, at the end of 1885:

The entire Mission staff is thus reduced to four. The Rev. T.F. Shaw is laboring alone at Urambo, and is the only missionary specially set apart for the work of preaching and teaching. The rest – Captain Hore, Mr. A.J. Swann, and Mr. A. Brooks – went out as laymen, the two former in charge of the boats on Lake Tanganyika, and Mr. Brooks as an artisan missionary.

My final note on this batch of transcriptions is that until this point, I had considered the colonization of this area as somewhere between an unfortunate side effect and an unrelated but parallel enterprise to the evangelization by the missionaries. But now a letter from Captain Hore states plainly that he envisioned European colonization as part and parcel of the enterprise all along: “As to the future of the Mission… if we look further off it is nothing but a tide of Europeans crowding into the continent from all sides, and plenty of the ‘fit’ surviving and evangelizing, colonizing, or amassing wealth, according to their several missions.” I think the missionaries deserve credit for their part in combatting the slave trade in the region, the dire effects of which are also detailed by Captain Hore in this era of The Chronicle. But we have to keep in mind that you don’t have to be intending bad outcomes for bad outcomes to happen, and when we consider the impact these missionaries had we must carefully weigh the bad outcomes along with the good.

If there are any researchers out there using this work, please let me know. I would be delighted to chat more about the history of this region and see what you’re digging up. I don’t know if anyone is using my last batch of transcriptions, but I think I have been cited in at least one college paper from the University of Zambia on World War I, at least. I would like to figure out something productive to do with all this research, but I know my biggest hurdle will be figuring out a way to center African voices into these African stories, and I am conscious I might not be the guy to do that. But between here and that, we have a few more decades to transcribe.

Library of Congress

This is a picture of Congress, from the library.

As loyal readers are aware I went to Yale for my graduate degree. That was fun! There were many advantages of going to Yale, but one of them, I am willing to say, was access to the Yale Library. The Yale Library has a very large collection. 15 million items it turns out. With so many items, they have an array of pleasingly obscure items, including at least one book on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes, which, again, loyal readers are aware is a particular interest of mine. Frankly you never know what you have until it’s gone, and although the Alexandria Library is very nice, I do not think they have 15 million different items, and I can confirm that they have exactly zero books on the lake steamers of the African Great Lakes.

I know I am banging on about the lake steamers here, but I have recently restarted my effort at retyping the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I started to feel bad about having stopped pursuing that because I have been reading more books on southern Africa. But since I am reading about Tanganyika, etc, that has me thinking about lake steamers and the like, so that has me remembering there were several books that I wanted to look at while I was in Zambia which I couldn’t because like, I was in Zambia and very far from a library with a collection of any particular note (though Mbala did, in fact, have a library) (I am now realizing that I don’t think I ever wrote about the Tanganyika Victoria Memorial Institute!). Of the two books apparently in the whole world that discuss African Great Lakes steamers, the Yale Library, for all its vast collection, only has one of them (and as of yet will still mail it to me here in Virginia), but for the other I was lost and distraught. Lost and distraught, that is, until the internet reminded me that the Library of Congress has one and I live near the Library of Congress!

The Library of Congress, according to the pamphlet they hand out, has more than 167 million items, which is a lot more than the Alexandria Library and also more than Yale! So I wanted to go and read the book at the Library of Congress. Due to a misunderstanding of the website, I thought that you currently couldn’t do any reading at the Library of Congress, but I wanted to go anyways. My super amazing girlfriend (pictured above) had already been and would be my tour guide. So last Saturday we got on the metro and went to the famously large library.

It is very nice! I didn’t realize what it would be like. First and foremost, the Library of Congress is a place dedicated to excellent ceilings. I won’t subject you to them all, but I do like the below one with “SCIENCE” displayed in tile. I do like both mosaics and SCIENCE. Plus there is like a weird baby involved in the image and I don’t know what that is about, but presumably it is about SCIENCE. I suppose I should specify here that I am talking about the Thomas Jefferson building because the library has a number of other buildings, too.

When we went, the library had two major displays set up. In one wing, they had a whole display on early interactions with the Americas. This was based on the collection of some dude (it was quite the collection, dude) and had an impressive array of artifacts. I really was not expecting to see Mayan pottery when I walked into the museum that day. One of the most impressive items was the earliest map to denote the Americas as America. I took a picture that was just whatever, but you can find it here. The bit I looked at the most was Southern Africa which was cool and impressive and stuff.

I also really enjoyed seeing the Taino ceremonial wooden stool. That object is just so ephemeral and rare and also looks like a turtle, which is cool. Of course on a serious note it reminds us about the important and advanced cultures that existed in these places before Columbus came over and wiped them out.

On the other side of the library they had on display Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. He had sold it to Congress when their first library burned down, which was potentially a bad move for book longevity because it wouldn’t be the last time the Library of Congress burned down. Fortunately not all his books burned, and so they had a number of the originals. They also had identical copies of some of the books, more modern reprintings of some of his books, and then also some boxes to fill out the ones they couldn’t get. They had the whole thing in a spiral, and this was the first time I have been out and about with my super amazing girlfriend and said something like “we could do the living room like this” and she agreed. So I am looking forward to turning our living room into a spiral, it’s gonna be great.

The final thing to see was the Main Reading Room. Seeing people reading in the Main Reading Room is what eventually led me to discover that you could read in the Main Reading Room on Saturdays, and I hope that is something I can take advantage of soon, because like I said I want to read that book on steamships. Maybe I will read other books there too someday, who knows. A lot of people apparently do genealogy research there. Me though? I just want to look at boats.

Think of all the boat knowledge hidden away here!

Washington Monument

Reading this week:

  • Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Like I mentioned last week, my super amazing girlfriend’s absolute best friend in the whole wide world was visiting last week, so we were out on the town looking at stuff. One of those stuffs was the Washington Monument!

Now, you see, I grew up over near Annapolis, so I had been to DC plenty of times back in the heady days of my youth. I would see commercials on like, Nickelodeon for contests where you could win a trip to DC and I thought that was a bit of a lame prize because we would go there for field trips, you know? (Despite the regularity, sometimes it didn’t go well; I remember one time we got to the Natural History Museum at 0830 only for the teacher to discover only at that moment the Smithsonian Museums don’t open until 10) However, despite the regularity of my visits to DC, one thing I had never done (among many things, actually) was go up to the top of the Washington Monument.

This is not for lack of trying! It’s just mostly due to lack of trying. Back in the ole’ days, you had to line up for tickets. They were first come first serve, which meant you had to be one of the first however many people in the line, which meant you had to get there early. I did try to do this once. It took forever for me to find parking that day, but I got in line, and the line started moving, and when I was finally three people away from the window they had run out of tickets. This was very sad for me, clearly. But mostly I had just never tried.

But since my super amazing girlfriend’s best friend was in town, they did try, and lo and behold, they got four tickets! Super neat! We showed up at our appointed time, went through security, quickly admired a statue of George Washington, got in the elevator, and head to the top!

The first and stupidest thing I learned is that the windows look at lot bigger up close than they do from the bottom. I thought they were very tiny. They are small, but not tiny. See? Stupid. There are actually two floors at the top, the 500′ level and the 490′ level. The 500′ level has the windows and you can look out and admire the city. I put those pictures at the bottom. It is a pretty excellent way to see DC all at once (well in four chunks, one for each direction) and you can spend as much time up there as you want. I was like “I can spot my workplace from here!” and “I can spot my house from here!” and “wow the White House has more trees on its grounds than I thought!” You know, deep things like that. It was pretty neat.

After you are done with the 500′ foot level, you descend some stairs to the 490′ level and there is a very tiny museum thingy. There’s not a whole lot there, but the single most interesting thing for me was the above model, which shows how the monument’s very top is constructed. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but the monument is entirely stone (they claim to be the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world, which is neat!) and I was impressed how they did the masonry to put the top together, as demonstrated in the model above. It is also from the 490′ level that you catch the elevator down. Taking the stairs was not an option, though in the elevator on both the way up and down they have a presentation, and on the way down they pause twice to let you look at some of the carved stones on the inside. So that was cool! Having taken the elevator down, we were discharged (you have to go elsewhere for the gift shop), having gained a whole new perspective on this city I’ve been visiting for my whole life.

The mall, Smithsonian Museums, Capitol, etc.
My house is off to the left, beyond Reagan Airport. The tidal basin looked nice!
I discovered my phone could do wide-angle shots, so that’s neat. Look at all the trees by the White House! The State Department is off to the left. The bit with the trees in the background on the right and center is Maryland!