Monday, June 12, 2017

Best History Craves Original Documents!

Like any government today, copies are made and transmitted to each entity in the particular discussion involved. This might be an ambassador for nation A, writing letters to nation B. There would need to be a copy of that letter for the ambassador himself, one for nation B and one for the leaders of nation A. Computers make this easy... you simply "CC" someone in an email and transmit it to everyone on the email list. Before computers, we had xerographic copies and before that, there were mimeograph copies, both variations of modern copy technology. Before the 1950s, in the mid-nineteenth century, we had photography which could function as a copy machine, for a lack of any other form of cheaper technology. 

In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson worked with a Hawkins and Peale Polygraph, a mechanical version of a copy maker in which copies were made simultaneously with the original. This device was invented in Philadelphia by Isaac Hawkins and Charles Wilson Peale, who was also famous for his early American paintings. Jefferson lamented that he did not have the device during the Revolution.

One of Jefferson's polygraphs, "Hawkins & Peale Patent Polygraph No. 57"

An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)
Still, there had been a type of copier even in the late eighteenth century. Believe it or not, Scottish engineer and instrument-maker James Watt Jr. developed a type of wet-transfer copy machine as early as 1779 in London. Pamela Clemit writes:
Watt’s invention is said to have been prompted by the boredom he experienced in making scribal copies of his business correspondence. In July 1779 he wrote to Joseph Black: “I have lately discovered a method of copying [writing] instantaneously, provided it has been written [the same day] or within 24 hours, I send you a specimen [and will] Impart the secret if it will be of any use to you. [It enables] me to copy all my business letters—”

Everybody Makes Mistakes!

Clerks or scribes in the early eighteenth century did not have it so easy... assuming that you could call using Watts' messy wet machine easy. There were no forms of copy machines or technology back then. There were no cameras either. Still, clerks and scribes made many a copy in the course of their career, but these copies all had to be made by hand. They sometimes wrote their initials at the close of the document, but not always. So, we don't often know who made the copy! 

Human error easily introduced itself while using these records. Still and although they were handwritten, the original or copy of the original had to be present, which meant you could check the original with the copy - side by side with the paper it was copied upon. Still, this did not prevent all errors in copying or errors of transcription - putting the handwriting in text format. Human beings make mistakes and historians should be particularly aware of this fact.

An example of early copies appear often in my research upon pirates. There's the letter of Richard Perry to his brother Micajah in London. The second page told of it being a copy. The
deposition of Andrew Turbett and Robert Gilmore appears to be original, but it was taken in Virginia originally and the only extant version is in the Admiralty records in London. This must also be a copy. In fact, most of these remaining primary sources will be copies from the original. The only one that may be original that I have transcribed might be the Henry Timberlake deposition regarding Edward Thache's first appearance - as a pirate - in documentation and originally discovered by Arne Bialuschewski in Jamaica. Many transcribed records are available on the Pirate Reference page of my website.

One case that I've recently received involved British copies of a series of letters written between the Duke of Portland, governor of Jamaica, Capt. Joseph Laws of HMS Mermaid, J. Geronimo Badillo, governor of Panama, and the pirates of Cassandra, an East India ship that had been taken near Madagascar at the island of Anjouan (Johanna) in 1720, while under Captain James McCraigh. 

The only documentary references to this ship's surrender in the West Indies known to exist are those found in CO 137/52 at the National Archives in London. They are clearly copies, not just because the handwriting is the same on all of the folios, regardless of named author, but because some state "Coppy" at the beginning (see below). These had been formed by a scribe who probably worked for the Admiralty at 22 Whitehall Street in London. It is also possible that a Jamaican scribe had created these folios, but they are not creased as might be expected of documents sent overseas, so they are probably copies of copies sent from Jamaica from the governor there. They were also written on cheap small-sized whitish-gray paper and not viewed as anything special.

Portion of 3rd folio from Cassandra documents in CO 137/52, National Archives (London)
The pirate captain of Cassandra had been called many names throughout the various depositions, newspaper articles, and official documents. The captain was always surnamed Taylor, but his given name has run the gamut from George, John, Richard, and William. Pirate writers have always had enough trouble with name changes, but this "William" version has been particularly troublesome, mostly due not to a copy error, but rather transcription.

For the last 81 years, the Calendar of State Papers in Volume 34 (1936) shows partial transcriptions of these records, taken as official copies of primary sources, that read:
74. ii. (a) Capt. Laws to Governor the Duke of Portland. Mermaid in the Grout, 24th April, 1723. Encloses following. Has sent his Lieutenant (his brother), to perswade William Taylor and the other pirates on board the Cassandra to surrender, but thinks they will not do so without force or promise of pardon. He cannot attack the pirates, but is waiting off the lagoon where they lie. The Governor of Panama and Porto Bello have sent a sloop with an offer of pardon to the pirates, if they will come in to their port. There is not one Spaniard amongst them.
(b) Petition of pirates on board the Cassandra to the Governor of Jamaica. Island of Pines, near Caledonia [Cuba?], April 10, 1723. Ask for a grant of pardon. They were forced and deluded by others from the Isle of Providence, but since they got clear of them, have committed no acts of piracy, for a year past. Signed, Wm. Taylor, Wm. Fox, Wm. Bates. 70 British subjects, 37 foreigners.
The sole purpose of this article is to illustrate the value of reading the actual records for yourself. A good historian tries to get as close as possible to the originals, which in this case were the copies made by the Admiralty, which I ordered from London. The Calendar is usually accurate, but if you can, go further! Since 1936, when the Calendar was created, this man's name shown especially in (b) above, has been determined to be William. After all, (b) was a document signed by Capt. Taylor himself - but it was a summary and transcription from the original - a potentially faulty human being looked at it and summarized it. I suspect he looked at the list of names in (b) and wrote them down as Taylor, Fox, and Bates, all with the given name William and he didn't remember that the first name was different. 

Many pirate enthusiasts have believed his name to be John, Richard, or William (mostly because of the mis-transcription). George was only mentioned once in a deposition - perhaps by a man with a faulty memory some years after the fact. 

The actual record shows his most likely real name twice - Richard. CO 137/52, folios 1 and 6 show: 

CO 137/52, 6th folio - "Richd:" and NOT "Wm:" as it was transcribed in Calendar
CO 137/52, first folio
Copy if you must, you professional historians, but double and triple check to be sure!Your career may suffer!


Exciting new detail, including information from French and English depositions, appears in a new book, Sailing East: West-Indian Pirates in Madagascar, now available! 

Please keep up with updates on my website at

Meanwhile, visit my Amazon page for already published material, including Quest for Blackbeard! 

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