MA Cultural Geography students in the Foyle Reading Room at the RGS-IBG
On 9 February, the MA Cultural Geography students visited the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) for a series of talks from current PhD researchers (including Peter Martin, Benjamin Newman, and Jane Wess) describing their work with the Society archives. The students also had the chance to work with some primary material: the journals and log books of the Royal Navy commander Foley Charles Prendergast Vereker (1850-1900). In this post, the students offer their thoughts and reflections on Vereker’s material (errors and omissions expected).
After studying two of Vereker’s journals (1870-1872 and 1883-1884), I was struck by the clarity of the watercolour works – so much so, that when photographs appeared in the journal from 1883, I found myself hoping for more hand crafted illustrations. Vereker himself appreciates the beauty of the landscapes he had so carefully represented in his works: he notes in one entry that the Seychelle Islands were compared to the Garden of Eden, whereby ‘naught but humanity is vile’. I began my readings expecting to read purely colonial texts, so was pleasantly surprised to find Vereker and his crew truly appreciating the landscapes and cultures they passed through. Alongside the artworks, the science of geographical expeditions was foregrounded through the common occurrence of coastal surveys, weather readings, and mapping. For me, this highlighted how the geographical discipline has long been a hybrid of the arts and the sciences. It also displayed the continued importance of visual methods in empirical geographical fieldwork, both in the past and present.
Today’s visit to the RGS involved my first experience working with archival materials. The journals of Vereker enabled me to get to grips with the process of an exploring an archive itself, which felt like an investigation requiring me to piece together the tiny pieces of information I could identify. My key observations from the task include how immersive it was flicking through the pages of the journals. The illustrations accompanying the text were the most interesting, as they seemed to tell the story, and gave me a further insight into Vereker’s explorations in the East. I was particularly struck by the use of night and day in many of the painted images, as well as the portrayal of the landscapes he explored. The use of vivid colour and the emphasis on the physical aspects of the environments – the trees, rocks, sand and water – conveyed a sense of being there. Finally, I also found the process of reading to be a slightly intrusive one – as if I was reading somebody’s personal diary. This was not a negative, as I believe this is the nature of archival research, allowing you a deep insight into someone’s personal life and experience. Overall, it has been an experience which has not only introduced me to a new method, but also the environment of the archive.
I perused Vereker’s journals and logbooks, and apart from frank admiration at the quality of their preservation at the hands of the Royal Society, I found myself drawn into the narrative world of his crafting. Being 150 years old, the union of scientific survey, artistic impressionism and textual description (frequently and pleasingly juxtaposed on adjacent pages) illustrates the tradition this dual approach to research has within the geographical discipline. Vereker himself strikes me as something of a dilettante, his voyages playing out as he leaps from one ship to the next, circumnavigating the globe under the pretence of surveying, collecting and observing at the behest of her majesty. In truth this romantic imagining is mostly constructed by each journals vivid artwork and erudite, verbose description; perhaps helped along in my own mind by Vereker’s lineage from the exiled Plantagenet dynasty. Surely, the frontiers of the colonial world were a fitting place for such an individual. It is this imperialism that frequently shatter the mythology and re-contextualise his work, whether it be callous and dismissive attitudes towards native peoples, or highly questionable environmental attitudes.
Never having set foot in an archive before I was unsure of what I would find! I couldn’t believe the vast amount of documents and artefacts that the RGS store, predominantly on site. I was shocked at the beauty of the Vereker journals, the watercolour pictures a work of art onto themselves. I thought that the advent of photography would have rendered these artworks almost redundant but I am so pleased that this was not the case. The images and drawings worked in harmonious conjunction with each other to give a romanticised representation of the vast array of places Vereker and his crew journeyed to and observed. I particularly enjoyed reading the anecdotal narratives that are weaved throughout the journals. Initially I was shocked that exploration based journals could fetch such a hefty sum at auctions.. However, after spending the afternoon in the archives (with many thanks to the RGS, Ben, Jane, Peter and Innes for guiding us through) I began to understand the rationale behind the infatuation that persists and therefore the high price placed on these these journals in the modern day, as they undoubtedly remain wholly intriguing and exceptionally visually beautiful artefacts.
Jogging between between two principle journals (one containing Vereker’s entries from 1873-1877 and the other entries from 1884-1885) I found myself reflecting on the notion of ‘free time’, specifically the time that had afforded Vereker the opportunity to so diligently document his travels in text, watercolour, and eventually photography. It felt particular significant that the relative scope and size of the journals grow with the increase in his rank. Beyond what I might speculate about the distribution of ‘downtime’ amongst a crew’s ranks, there seems something generally significant about the time afforded a sailor at any rank while at sea. As such I found myself viewing and reading through the journals as the product of much prolonged reflection, the opportunity for which, must have been inherently ‘part of the job’. It left me curious about the tradition of observational journaling within the navy more generally, specifically the manners in which the tradition may have been nurtured and encouraged institutionally.