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Early printed books relating to the Caribbean

Some of the earliest writings relating to the Caribbean are represented by what is usually referred to as 'the Columbus letter'. This letter was written by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage and announced the discovery of 'new lands in the west'.

Arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean

Arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean © The British Library Board

It was to receive a wide circulation in print: there are nine editions from the 15th century, two in Spanish, one in German and six in Latin (the British Library has five of these editions). In addition, there are five 15th-century editions of a translation into Italian verse (image from La lettera dellisole che ha trouato nuouamente il Re dispagna, Florentie [1493?], IA.27798) by Giuliano Dati (two of which are in the British Library). This makes a total of 14 known editions from the 15th century (an example of an early bestseller), seven of which are to be found in the Library. A number of these editions were received with the donation of the library of Sir Thomas Grenville (1755-1846) after his death. Grenville's collection was particularly strong in early voyages and travels, and included the Basel edition of 1493 which is famous for its woodcut images depicting the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean. Holdings of the later English translations of the Letter are also good.

Other early titles of note include:

Of the newe landes and of ye people founde by the messengers of the kynge of Portygale named Emanuel (Antwerp, 1520, BL shelfmark G. 7106), a copy of the first description of America in English.

Sir John Hawkins, A True declaration of the troublesome voyadge of M J Haukins to the parties of Guynea and the West Indies in. 1567 and 1568 (London, 1569, C. 32.a.16)
Sir Walter Raleigh, The Discoverie of the large, rich and bewtiful Empyre of Guiana.(London, 1596, C.32.g.25).

Arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean

Of the newe landes and of ye people founde by the messengers of thekynge of Portygale named Emanuel (Antwerp, 1520, BL shelfmark G. 7106), a copy of the first description of America in English. © The British Library Board

These and many other works of Caribbean interest were acquired with the Library's 'foundation' collections. One of these collections - the library of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) MD FRS, President of the Royal Society, contains much botanical, scientific and medical literature relating to the West Indies. Sloane had been physician to the Governor of Jamaica (the 2nd Duke of Albemarle) from 1687 to 1688, and during his stay on the island studied the local natural history. He published several works on the subject, including A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica, with the natural history ... of the last of those islands. (London, 2 vols, 1707-25, 443.i.8). Although Sloane focused on the natural history of Jamaica in the latter work, its introduction includes an account of slavery which, although brief, records the essential features of American slave societies - the physical conditions of the slaves, the methods used to control them, and also, some of their customs, beliefs, and social relations. Not surprisingly, Sloane was particularly interested in the medical knowledge of the slaves, but he also documented their musical skills and included transcripts of some African tunes and pictures of their instruments in his survey. He also sketched the economic links of Jamaica with England and other American colonies (both Spanish and English). Sloane's manuscript collections also contain material of Caribbean interest.

Transcripts of African music

Transcripts of African music © The British Library Board


Instruments © The British Library Board

Holdings of material from the eighteenth century are particularly strong and include such well known titles as William Beckford's Descriptive account of the of the Island of Jamaica.(London, 1790); The History, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (London 1793-1801) and An Historical survey of the French Colony in the Island of St. Domingo (London, 1797, 984.f.22.) by Bryan Edwards, and Edward Long's History of Jamaica (map from the History of Jamaica, London, 1774, G.4255-7). Long's manuscript collections relating to the history of Jamaica are also to be found in the Library. These include correspondence, maps, genealogical and other historical material.

Early printing from the Caribbean

Early printing from the Caribbean is well represented in the collections. For the period 1701-1800, the Library holds items from Martinique, the Dominican Republic, St. Vincent, the Bahamas, Dominica, Antigua, Grenada, Santo Domingo (Haiti), Barbados, St Christopher, Guyana, Bermuda, and Jamaica. As well as administrative documents such as proclamations, laws, acts, votes of legislatures, lists of slaves and the expected almanacs and sermons, one can also find works on natural history, medicine, agriculture, historical treatises, poetry and dissidence. Titles include: Arthur Broughton, Hortus Eastensis: or, a catalogue of exotic plants cultivated in the botanic garden.,(Jamaica, 1792, BL shelfmark B.5.(7)); Samuel Martin also known as Agricola Antegonianus, An Essay on plantership...(Antigua, 1750, 1139.h.1(1)); William Shervington, Occasional poems, (Antigua, 1749, C.136.b.3); Thomas Chalkley, Free thoughts communicated to free-thinkers, (2nd ed. Printed in Barbados, 1735, 4017.a.74), and Some memoirs of the first settlement of Barbados and other Caribbee islands.(Barbados, 1741, G.14967). For further information on printed material from the Spanish-speaking and Francophone Caribbean, see the Hispanic Collections and French Collections webpages.