Thank you to everyone who battled the driving rain, hail and gales and came out to the second instalment of the Atlantic Cable. Tucked away in the cozy back room at the Glad Café we were treated to a great night of musical performances, talks and film all brought together by the themes of trade and exchange. Bringing their very different musical styles to the Glad, Alistair Ogilvy, Brianna Robertson and Ross Clarke from Three Blind Wolves all gave amazing performances. Ranging from a folksome lament about moving across the sea, to a traditional Shaker song, to a rousing rendition of Springsteen’s ode to Atlantic City, we were treated to unique interpretations of the diverse musical traditions that have criss-crossed the Atlantic. We’d also really like to thank Kaitlin McCormick for coming through from Edinburgh, and sharing her fascinating research into Scottish explorer John Rae. Following a mapping expedition over the Rocky Mountains which he completed in the mid-1860s, Rae had a brief stay in Victoria, where be built up a rich collection of northwest coast First Nations materials, many of which have since found their way into the National Museum of Scotland. The third element of the evening was a series of film excerpts exploring the Canadian side of the trans-Atlantic fur trade and the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Due to technical difficulties though – there are always one or two glitches – we were unable to show most of the footage. As promised though, here are links to the three films:
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Douglas Sinclair and Eduard Buckman, d.
The National Film Board of Canada, 1942
The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company
Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn, d.
The National Indian Brotherhood and the National Film Board of Canada, 1972
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The first film, a silent feature shot in black in white, was made in the late-1910s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was brought into being by British royal charter in 1670, making it the world’s oldest chartered trading company. The second film, which was made two decades later – in colour and held together by the running commentary of a narrator – was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, a film production and distribution unit that is an agency of the federal government, reporting to the Ministry of Canadian Heritage. The third film, similar in form to the preceding one, was also produced by the National Film Board of Canada and marks the 300th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, however, it offers rather different reflections on this occasion, those of Canada’s First Peoples. All three films were shot in Canada and are valuable visual sources relating to the long, complex and at points problematic history of this expansive trading network; one built around the flow of goods like blankets, tobacco and arms into North America in return for fur, pelts and other materials that, for the most part, were turned into commodities and sold to European consumers. All three films illustrate this process but do so from quite different historical junctures.
The first two links are clips taken from a much longer film, Romance of the Far Fur Country, which was first screened in 1920 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The raw footage, which dates from 1919, links up two legs of the main trading routes that criss-crossed the Canadian landscape. The film begins in Montreal in eastern Canada, the city that was then the country’s financial and commercial centre. Following the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, The Nascopie, on its annual voyage, the viewer is then taken along the St. Lawrence River and up into James Bay, where the crew took a brief break before entering, through this smaller inlet, into the vast expanse of the Hudson Bay in northern Canada. After arriving in the evocatively-named community of Moose Factory, one of the company’s first trading posts in what is now northern Ontario, the film crew left The Nascopie and continued on to Winnipeg along the Moose River, traveling by canoe and on foot with the help of two guides. These men were Cree, one of the largest First Nations groups in North America, and were likely also trappers and hunters, the principle suppliers of pelts and furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Boarding a train in Winnipeg, the film crew traveled across the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta en route to Vancouver. From here they traveled up the northwest coast to Alert Bay, where they shot quite a lot of footage – some of which will be shown here – before traveling on through the Athabasca region, eventually ending their nine-month trip in Edmonton.
The sections of footage from Alert Bay, a settlement largely populated by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations group, are particularly engrossing. There are shots of some of the large, distinctive carved totem polls and house posts the Kwakwaka’wakw were known for, which even at the time the footage was taken were becoming increasingly difficult to see in their original and intended setting due to natural decay, but also because of planned removal by dealers and agents working for curators enthusiastically assembling their museums’ budding anthropological and ethnographical collections in other parts of the country, but also in locations as far away as New York, London and Berlin. Indeed, as a kid I was completely entranced – and really still am – by the two large totem poles, multiple stories high, that are installed inside the central winding staircases at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto where I grew up, both of which came to the museum from this part of Canada in the 1920s. We also get a glimpse of some of the cultural practices of this community. Towards the end of this first section there is a quick snippet of film that features four figures in dress traditionally worn at the Potlatch, a ceremonial activity and gift-giving festival that had historically been practiced throughout North America. A long-standing system of exchange between First Nations groups, the Potlatch was seen as an economic model operating well outside of, even contrary to, the form of mercantile capitalism espoused by European settlers and trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company. Made illegal by provisions contained within the Indian Act, which was passed by the fledgling Canadian federal government in the 1870s, the Potlatch remained a contested and at least officially criminal activity until the 1950s when this act of parliament was finally repealed. Seeing these individuals putting on the masks and capes normally reserved for the Potlatch at a time when doing so was against federal law raises serious questions about the nature of the relationship between the white crew, employed by a company that was instrumental in the settlement of Canada and the expansion of the colonial government, and the communities they filmed.
With the second film we leave British Columbia and return to the historic focal point of the fur trade, the area in and around the Hudson Bay. Simply titled Fur Trade, this shorter documentary was made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1942. Whereas the overall central character in Romance of the Far Fur Country is the trade itself, the trading posts and waterways that made up the route, the second film concerns a specific individual. The film begins in the aforementioned Moose Factory where the omniscient narrator introduces us to the Hudson’s Bay Company store manager, and other officials permanently stationed in this small community like the government-appointed doctor and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. The film then catches up with its main character, George McLoed, a Cree trapper who, like many others, leave the settlement over the winter months to check on their trap lines, only periodically returning to trading posts like Moose Factory to sell their dried skins and pelts to the HBC traders.
Fur Trade, the film, effects a slight shift of focus away from the broader operations and functions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and hones in on the experiences of a specific person. This allows the viewer to get a sense of the extent to which the fur trade relied on the skills of individuals, particularly First Nations peoples whose knowledge of the area was invaluable. This contrasts scenes from Romance of the Far Fur Country, in which indigenous peoples are positioned more as objects of study, rather than as active personalities. That said, although George McLoed is essential to the film’s narrative structure, he remains a silent contributor. The excerpts from the third film that will be shown this evening address this silence head-on. The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company opens with footage from the festivities organised by the Company to mark its 300th anniversary, which took place just three years after another moment of national celebration, the Centennial of Canadian Confederation, which created the Dominion back in 1867. What follows however, is an interpretation of the Company’s history that contrasts the version presented at the anniversary celebrations, as well as that forwarded in the two previous films. Narrated by George Manuel, president of the National Indian Brotherhood, the film calls into question many of the supposed benefits of the trade. It encourages the viewer to reflect on what might be some of the legacies of the system, and to consider its ongoing impact on Canada’s First Nations peoples. Although The Other Side of the Ledger is very focused on telling an alternate history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in a wider context it is undoubtedly reflective of the revitalization of Native political activism that took place in the 1960s.
The excerpts that had been selected for screening at the Atlantic Cable come to around 20 minutes, just a fraction of the total footage. Hopefully the films will pique your interest in the ‘far fur country.’ The history of Canada’s involvement in the fur trade is a fascinating one, and the legacies of this exchange network remain ever-present. Indeed, just the other day I stumbled across a second-hand men’s Hudson’s Bay Company blanket coat. These coats, which are still in production, got their names from the fact they were traditionally made out of the company’s famous point blankets, one of the staple goods exported from Britain and exchanged for furs and pelts at trading stations dotted all over Canada. Likely to have begun its life as a blanket made in a British woollen mill, and then transformed into a garment capable of withstanding Canadian winters, this coat has now found its way into a vintage clothing shop on Great Western Road.
- Rosie Spooner
A murmuration of starlings fly close to power lines at sunset near Gretna on the Scottish borders. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA
Reminds me of this Jo Mango tune`
Join us this Thursday at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe for the second instalment of The Atlantic Cable! With three amazing musical performances lined up and a discussion around the documentary “Treasures From the Far Fur Country”.
Click here for more details. See ya there!
In a lecture delivered on American culture in 1881, English cleric and writer H.R Haweis defined American humour as possessing three main traits. The first trait was the clash between the European settlers and the native inhabitants of the continent, which along with a great deal of tragedy, brought the potential for comic misunderstandings between the two races. The second trait was “the contrast between the vastness of American nature and the smallness of man”. Haweis argues this juxtaposition resulted in the formation of the American “tall tale” through exaggerations of the American landscape. The third and most interesting trait, in my opinion, was “the shock between Business and Piety”, in which Haweis argues that although the first New England settlers were motivated by a search for religious freedom, they were also shrewdly aware of the commercial possibilities of the New World.1 A century later Louis D. Rubin’s own analyses of American humour complemented Haweis’ with his definition of “The Great American Joke”. Rubin argued that The Great American Joke that sits central to all American humour is the gap between the ideal promise of American democracy – freedom, equality, self-government- and the ordinary quality of everyday life. For Rubin the definition of the American comic imagination resides in this contrast between the ideal and the mundane, “the interplay of the ornamental and the elemental, the language of culture and the language of sweat, the democratic ideal and the mulishness of fallen human nature.”2 Examples of this wrestle between American optimism and American actuality are illimitable in American culture, from books such as The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby, or films and TV shows such as Easy Rider, The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation.
In Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (1857), he reflects on the indomitable presence of the American corporation in the modern United States with relation to this comic duality within the American consciousness. Melville is most famous for his 1851 work Moby Dick. This later novel is centred around the American confidence man (later shortened to conman), and questions the American character and emerging American Corporation. Basing the novel in an idyllic Mississippi steam-boat named the Fidèle, Melville contrasts the unassuming setting with a narrative consisting of conmen, who one-by-one, peddle fictitious charities and bonds to gullible passengers on board. It this gullibility, popularly used in the “tall tale” by the likes of Mark Twain, that turns sour in The Confidence Man. Rather than using it to amaze or elicit amusement, the conmen use people’s gullibility to defraud. Melville depicts the more toxic side of American optimism vs. American actuality, and in addition the first rumblings of the American corporate character.
Melville’s conmen foretell what would later become standard characterisations of the American corporation in the later years of the United States. In making these comparisons however is not to say that all corporations necessarily work outside the limits of the law, or should be distrusted and held in disdain. However, like Melville’s conmen, they use a number of similar techniques and tactics in American business, many of which are indeed questionable. In one of the initial chapters of The Confidence Man, a character- described simply as having “a long weed in his hat”- approaches a country merchant with the typical over-familiarity of any good conman, and then proceeds in an attempt to dupe him out of his money.3 The man with the weed uses a number of tactics to soften the merchant up, such as an appeal to charity, a hopeful masonic connection that he can manipulate, and of course “the rare chance of investment” in good stock.4 Later on this develops into biblical parables (only those of course that favour the transaction of business), repudiations of cynicism in one’s fellow man, and a pathological insincerity that would later become a standard in American corporation culture. Just as Rubin’s optimism vs. actuality formula states, the crassness of a devious business transaction is best delivered when clothed in higher ideals. Appeals to charity, religious parables, friendship and a general affirmation of American optimism help cushion the transaction, and once again depict the contrast between the idealistic vs. the mundane. Melville’s conmen balance constantly between the necessity to appear amicable in business, but to retain a cut-throat manner in business practise. This steady contrast that in many ways heralds the later American corporate character.5 In a conversation held between two conmen later in the novel, under the names of Charlie and Frank (which are almost certainly false names), Frank contrasts his own amicable business qualities with the “soulless corporation of a bank.”6 However, in Charlie’s request for a loan, Frank is unapologetic in his denial, but utilises a number of philosophies and moral homilies to explain his reasons. The truth is of course that he recognises Charlie as a conman like himself, and is as ruthless as the soulless corporations he pretends to despise.
Another reflection of contemporary American corporations can be found in the inconspicuousness of the conmen themselves, initially seen in their language. Behind the numerous homilies and half-baked philosophies lies the conmen’s exploitation of a violently-litigious language, what one of the passengers humorously refers to as “hog-latin”:
“That is, while in general efficacious to happiness, the world’s law may yet, in some cases, have, to the eye of reason, an unequal operation, just as, in the same imperfect view, some inequalities may appear in the operations of heaven’s law; nevertheless, to one who has a right confidence, final benignity is, in every instance, as sure with the one law as the other. I expound the point at some length, because these are the considerations, my poor fellow, which, weighed as they merit, will enable you to sustain with unimpaired trust the apparent calamities which are yours.”7
Comically-inflated and insubstantial, the conmen’s use of this litigious language, which is in sharp contrast with the everyday language of their fellow passengers, is another form of evasion that would become employed in the modern corporate character. A subsequent quality can be found in their lack of physical substance. Contrasted with one another through minute descriptions such as a weed in one’s hat, or the colour of their jacket, the conmen merge into each other through deliberately confounding narratives and conversations, and at times seem to melt through the steamboat as they make their way from victim to victim peddling their various scams. It is even strongly hinted that a black cripple, who begs momentarily on board the steamboat, is in fact just one of the conmen in disguise, and who later simply switches costume in order to further business on-board the steamboat and avoid rebuttal from his previous successes. This is manifested in the port-stops the steam-boat makes along the Mississippi, allowing the characters- or versions of the characters- to be excused from any consequences of their scams by having a chance to leave the steamboat. This incorporeal quality to Melville’s conmen resonates heavily with contemporary American corporations. Through judicial rulings on issues such as Corporate Personhood- the legal concept that a corporation may be recognized as an individual in the eyes of the law- the character of a corporation has become more and more intangible and as a result, harder to confront on legal grounds. Melville’s conmen’s discreet movements aboard the Fidèle reflect the increasingly clandestine nature of later corporate patterns. Like Melville’s conmen, the American Corporation has come to rely on this form of semi-physicality in order to be successful, allowing it to move into the fabric of American life, utilise social, cultural and political patterns for its own means, and yet evade retribution.
Although the conmen of Melville’s novel peddle all numbers of bonds, stocks and charity appeals, as the title suggests, what is actually being peddled is Confidence. It is treated rarer and more precious than honed gold, and lies at the centre of any business transaction. It is described as a rare element in American life by the man with the weed, who lectures on the importance of confidence to a young student. “Confidence! I have sometimes almost thought that confidence is fled; that confidence is the New Astrea—emigrated—vanished—gone.” Then softly sliding nearer, with the softest air, quivering down and looking up, “could you now, my dear young sir, under such circumstances, by way of experiment, simply have confidence in me?”’8 This sermon is delivered naturally before he himself hopes to corrupt the young man’s confidence in the form of a scam. With his later conversation with the Missourian, the more captivated the victim is in the transaction, the more precious confidence becomes, to the point that physical money means nothing to the conmen during the negotiation of the deal:
‘“Respected sir, never willingly do I handle money not with perfect willingness, nay, with a certain alacrity, paid. Either tell me that you have a perfect and unquestioning confidence in me…or permit me respectfully to return these bills.”’9
The double-meaning of “confidence”, both as a personal quality and in terms of economic confidence, is deliberately merged in The Confidence Man. In Melville’s use of the idealism vs. actuality equation, both forms of confidence feed off each other. However, in doing so, the conmen dilute this aforementioned confidence by corrupting it themselves. As Nancy A. Walker notes, in carrying out scams aboard the Fidèle, “man’s desire to trust in others is thwarted time after time.”10As the later conmen, known only as the cosmpolitan, states later in the novel, “confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions. Without it, commerce between man and man, as between country and country, would, like a watch, run down and stop.”11 Confidence therefore is not just valuable in reinstating confidence in one’s fellow man, but necessary for American business, and more specifically, deception. The conmen see any form of scepticism to their scams as unquestionably dangerous, where any discourse outside of the absolutism of utter confidence is ignored completely. Their pleas for assurance range for a confidence in mankind, confidence in one another, confidence in this transaction, confidence in American business, or in its broadest intent, a confidence in the American experiment. However once this confidence has been secured, it is corrupted immediately.
As a precursor to the rise of the American Corporation, Melville brilliantly depicts the fostering of a new form of power long before it entered popular discourse. Through the conmen’s unwavering demand for absolute confidence, Melville cunningly sees the porousness of American optimism as a vessel for corruption. Whether it’s fraudulent stocks in the Black Rapids Coal Company, or precarious, extra-legal mortgages sold a few years before the recession in 2007, Melville recognised early on how the American Corporation would utilise the best qualities of the American character for private gain. As he depicted in his earlier work Moby Dick, Ahab’s quest to catch the White Whale was in part a commentary on the illimitable, inexhaustible energy of American optimism. However, this optimism bears bad fruit; in Ahab’s example, his idealisation of an indifferent white whale makes him sacrifice himself and his crew; in The Confidence Man, requests forfaith in each other and confidence in American business leads to further corruption, further distrust, and further private gain. It is only really 150 years later that the novel can be fully realized for its insight- the quaintness of the snake-oil products sold by the herb-doctor onboard the Fidèle would later take on more and more sinister manifestations as the American Corporation grew larger and larger. In reflecting on the growing position they now hold in the United States, Melville’s The Confidence Man stands as a hilarious- if tragic- precursor to the rise of this power, and as a significant instance of the battle between idealism and actuality inherent in the national humour.
- James Nixon
1 Haweis, H.R, American Humourists. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. Web version: http://archive.org/details/americanhumoris01hawegoog
2 Rubin, Louis D., The Comic Imagination in American Literature. North Carolina: Rutgers University Press, 1986, p.52. Print.
3 Melville, Herman, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. New York: Dix, Edwards and Co, 185, p.27. Print.
4 The Confidence Man, P.33.
5 The Confidence Man, P.153.
6 The Confidence Man, P.316
7 The Confidence Man, P.152
8 The Confidence Man, P.41
9 The Confidence Man, p.200.
10 Walker, Nancy A., What’s So Funny? Humor in American Culture. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1998, P.17.
11 The Confidence Man, P.200
- Swinging Modern Sounds #49: Divided By a Common Tongue by Rick Moody (via therumpus)
Discussion around how one becomes an icon has always interested me. To me questions on what one has to do, what has to be done to a potential candidate in order for them to fit the mould of an icon, and whether there is a sense of selective memory in popularising ideas of that figure, are immensely interesting questions. George Orwell’s Reflections of Gandhi (1949) and Christopher Hitchens tackling of Mother Teresa’s legacy in The Missionary Position (1995) are just a few examples of attempts to critically analyse ideas of the Icon and the figures behind them. In Guardian writer and columnist Gary Younge’s excellent contribution to this discussion in The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King’s Dream (2013), he focuses his attentions on the icon of Martin Luther King Jr., his famous Dream Speech at the Million Man March in August 1963, and the nature of his historical legacy.
Waiting for a visa interview at the US embassy requires a great deal of patience. Picture a large room full of frustrated people all eagerly waiting (4-5 hours on average) their turn to make a plea for passage across the Ocean to settle in the hallowed land. Oh, that hallowed land, where, according to the promotional videos at the embassy, immigrants are ‘always welcome’ and ‘opportunity abounds’ like nowhere else. However flawed, outdated, or hyperbolic the rhetoric might be, you can’t fault the unashamed idealism of it all; a hark back to the very roots of the ‘land of liberty’.
Thankfully, there are also some other forms of visual stimulation at the embassy to pass the time. On the wall closest to the interview booths, two transatlantic paintings from the 19th Century hung, and seemed to strike a resonating chord with the (albeit frustrated) hopes of modern-day travellers seeking to venture across the water:
Wharves of Boston, Robert Salmon
Robert Salmon’s ‘Wharves of Boston’ not only suggests the mysterious romanticism of sailing into new lands, but also provides an important historical marker of early American seamanship and transatlantic commerce. Salmon lived in Scotland until 1828, where, influenced by Dutch seascapes, he painted scenes at Greenock harbour. His own move to Boston led to him becoming a leading maritime painter, influencing fellow artists such as Fitz Hugh Lane who were also directly affected and inspired by transatlantic voyages.
Sierra Nevada in California, Albert Bierstadt
Next to Salmon’s painting was, quite fittingly but not in an immediately obvious sense, Albert Bierstadt’s ‘Sierra Nevada in California’. Bierstadt was a master of marketing as well as painting, and was known to unveil his ‘new world’ paintings in theatrical fashion in London and St. Petersburg. In doing so, he fueled European interest in emigration and the natural splendours of the relatively ‘new nation’.
Romanticism, idealism, emigration, hopes, dreams, mystery, flawed idealism and the will to flee over the ocean. Two paintings with themes that were somehow still deep within, beneath the boredom and frustration, the people waiting for their visa interview on the 20th September, 2013.
A play about Scottish-Caribbean connections in Glasgow you say? In the words of friend of the AC Dr Michael Morris (who also stars in the play!), you can expect…
A multi-media extravaganza exploring Scottish-Caribbean relations through one woman’s zesty account of her family history. Fifty Shades of Black ;) is part-reggae gig, part-autobiographical monologue, and an all-action blockbuster that takes in Scotland’s history of slavery and colonialism in relation to modern day sexual politics in the form of the 50 Shades phenomenon.
Get your tickets here - http://citz.co.uk/whatson/info/ankur_ha_ha/
Apologies for the broadcast silence guys! The Cable may have gone a wee bit quiet but life outside our transatlantic collective has been hectic as all get out. We’ve been travelling, writing book chapters and dissertations, and helping organizing fundraisers and festivals.
This little side project has unfortunately been side lined.
Don’t worry! We’ll be back with a vengeance in September.
If you’re interested in submitting work or just want to say hi, drop us a line over at email@example.com
We’d love to hear from you!
The Atlantic Cable team