The Great Research Trek and its Aftermath!

My, my, do I have a lot to report today!  I haven’t posted in a while so I do beg your forgiveness if you were waiting with bated breath for the next installment of my narrative here, though the delay of course is not due to lassitude but rather industry, as for the better part of two weeks I have been engaged in near-constant travel and archival research, putting in about a thousand miles on buses, rifling through how many archival folders and letter books the Lord Himself only knows, and in general having an absolutely terrific amount of (intellectually-stimulating) fun.  It’s enough to recall the words of the American war correspondent, author and social butterfly Richard Harding Davis in his June 29th, 1900 letter to his mother, describing the difficulty of adjusting to a vacation in Europe after spending six months in South Africa:

“[One] wonders what they would think if they knew we two had found our greatest friends in the Boer farmers, in Dutch station masters who gave us a corner under the telegraph table in which to sleep….and that we had cooked our food on sticks….and slept on the ground where there was frost on it. It will be so strange to find that there are millions of people who do not know Komatipoort*, who have thought of anything else except burghers and roor-i-neks.** It seems almost disloyal to the Boers to be glad to see newspapers only an hour old, and to welcome all the tyranny of collar buttons, scarf pins, watch chains, walking sticks and gloves even.”

Now I fully realise that I haven’t been anywhere nearly as exciting as Richard and his wife Cecil Clark Davis over a century ago, but I have to admit that for me it is yet still a novelty not to be staying in dubious hotel rooms every night, carrying most of my necessities on my back and being asked to open my computer for a librarian roughly six times a day.  I must say at the outset that I highly recommend archival research, particularly with original documents.  If you are at all like me, quite aside from their substantive content you will have a blast noting the elaborate stationery used, the postmarks, the confusing way people sometimes wrote on what seems like straightforward paper (first page vertical, second page horizontal, third page comes before the second page, &c.) and deciphering unique handwriting to the point where you will find yourself able to spot a Montagu White letter long before reading the signature.  Once you get into the rhythm of how library manuscript divisions work, the routine of it all becomes familiar and even soothing, as you come to regard librarians with less trepidation, and librarians regard you with less suspicion.

I began my journey last Tuesday on a 5.15 A.M. Megabus from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to New York City—the non-masochistic answer to why I took such an early bus is that I wanted to arrive in the City as close to when the New York Public Library opened as possible in order to maximise my productivity that day.  As it happened, the library opened at 10.00 A.M. and I was registered and working in the Manuscript Division by 11—having requested my collections online long beforehand so that I really could hit the ground running.

For anyone who has been to the New York Public Library’s Stephen Schwartzman Building before (and I had not before arriving there that Tuesday), it will be almost trite to say that the building is magnificent, but it is, and I must.  Stem to stern it is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece and a true temple to the written word, working through an idiom that has been lost to our modern sensibilities.  From the soaring vaults of the atrium ceiling to the enormous wooden tables and murals in the reading rooms to the dark walnut refinement of the Manuscript Division–my second home for four days–it was a joy to work in.  The librarians, by the way, were absolutely fantastic and good-natured in a way that was of great comfort to a non-New Yorker in a brave new world.


Impressed yet?

Impressed yet?

The material too was of great interest.  The Alice Donlevy Papers were my first focus, providing a crucial look at the pro-Boer movement through the eyes of several of its female leaders, who absorbed themselves in benefit planning and fundraising for South African prisoners of war and their families, particularly those kept close by on the British island of Bermuda.  Women played an important part in pro-Boer organising, and despite never having been to the continent to which they devoted so much attention, Donlevy and her associates Jessie Fara and Nellie Miller more than proved their commitment to me, often in the form of violent rhetoric for private consumption that I daresay would make any male envoy from the Transvaal blush.

After spending my first night at a spartan (no wifi, shared bathrooms) but clean and centrally located hotel in Manhattan, on Wednesday morning I spent time on the brand new High Line park in Chelsea before boarding a commuter train to Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey to make my noon appointment at the small but tidy New Jersey Historical Society.

Every time I mentioned to people that I would be going to Newark on this trip, people reacted with a mix of confusion, distaste, and concern (“Are you going to do research at the airport?” was my favourite follow-up).  Poor Newark, I suppose.  And yet in the midst of what I admit was a deeply forlorn park in which literally no living grass was to be found, the New Jersey Historical Society runs a tight ship, and in the form of the Edward Seymour Wilde papers, keeps a small but magnificent little collection of pro-Boer propaganda and correspondence.  Wilde, who was president of the chronically broke Boer Independence Association from 1901 to 1902, was in contact with such luminaries as Charles Pierce and Montagu White, yet limiteded his activism to the  industrial towns of northern New Jersey, an excellent example of a local (and not particularly successful) South African advocacy organisation at work.  With the guidance of a couple of excellent librarians, in very quiet surroundings, I was able to comb through all three boxes of the collection by their closing at 5, catching a train to Greenwich Village in time to meet a friend of mine who goes to N.Y.U.  Let the records show that contrary to the dark intimations of many, I was not mugged, and Newark in fact treated me quite well.


A small but tidy place.

The next three days I spend back at the New York Public Library, finishing the Donlevy Papers and moving through those of the pro-British journalist Poultney Bigelow and the Irish-American pro-Boer congressman Bourke Cockran.  Besides his smug pundit’s wit and reprehensible racial beliefs (among the worst of a bad bunch, considering the time period), Bigelow’s journal from his 1896 tour of South Africa is notable for its sketches of Paul Kruger and scenes of South African life through American eyes, many of which I photographed.  Cockran’s correspondence regarding the war was also illuminating, as was his curious (and classically 19th century) lecture on British history that reconciled the apparent contradictions in British national character by dividing the population into a virtuous mass of upstanding “Saxons” and a parasitic “Norman” upper class.

The New York Public Library is closed on Sundays during the summer, so my last day in New York I spent exploring on my own, walking the length of Central Park, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, experiencing art until I could physiologically do so no more, and arriving at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine in time for choral evensong—a magnificent space that coincidentally happened to be hosting a photography exhibition at the time by a modern artist in Cape Town.  Afterwards I took a rather boisterous train ride back downtown to catch another Megabus to New Haven, Connecticut, arriving at 8.30 P.M., and, after another half hour’s walk, reaching the La Quinta on Sargent Drive, well outside the city centre.

While it was certainly gratifying to have both wifi and my own bathroom (even though the light in it didn’t work), my La Quinta was a paragon of consumerist loneliness, set amid a grim industrial landscape of warehouses, an Ikea, and the interstate about forty-five minutes on foot from the New Haven Common.  Not that I couldn’t appreciate the aesthetic; on the contrary, by the hotel pool the next day I drank in the exquisite desolation of it all with relish (the landscape, not the pool water), and that first night I enjoyed fittingly subpar Italian food in a nearby restaurant that thankfully was open late


It was a decidedly mixed bag, this place

The next day I made my first pedestrian sojourn into New Haven on the trail of the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale.  The city is a curious place; a heterogenous mix in which the over-the-top Gothic opulence of Yale is juxtaposed–often quite starkly–with poverty and decay in the neighbourhoods surrounding it.  It is neither very pretty nor particularly ugly.  The three best things I can find to say about it are these: that it is compact and walkable, that Yale’s magnificent archival collections are located there (and particularly rich for students of Africa), and that the hamburger sandwich was invented there, incidentally, around the time of the South African War (I cannot verify this last claim; I also doubt the two events were in any way related).  At Yale for the next two days I dove head-first into the John Hays Hammond and Frederick Russell Burnham Papers: two Californians, the first a mining magnate and the second a dashing scout, both close associates of Cecil Rhodes who played major roles in the war and its prelude.  Burnham, with his biography full of swashbuckling adventure and earnest impressions of the South Africa he saw, was especially absorbing.  The Sterling library, with its inspiring Gothic interior, was under renovation during my visit, but the reading room was yet untouched and quite picturesque.

After Sunday and Monday night at the La Quinta, on Tuesday evening I boarded a Peter Pan bus first to Hartford and then to Boston, arriving once again late in the evening.  My lodgings in Boston were the trendiest of my trip by far, a brand new Hostelling International location in Chinatown, insufferably smug to my sensibilities but undoubtedly clean and well-kept.  After dinner at a local diner in the area, I went swiftly to bed and prepared for the final segment of my trek.


Certainly fits the Beacon Street look, no?

The Massachusetts Historical Society is located in the tony neighbourhood of Back Bay in a townhouse that befits its prestige as the oldest historical society in the United States, equal to Virginia’s excellent society in collections and facilities.  Unfortunately however, one doesn’t always meet with success in research, and I was roundly skunked in my pursuit of documents related to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and his opinion of the war.  I succeeded in finding a lovely photograph of Richard Harding Davis in a Boer uniform, but it was clear after three hours of hunting through microfilm that the collections were not likely to offer up any gems.  That being the case, and already quite satisfied with the success of my journey so far, I repaired to a place where I could research print sources online, thereafter setting off on foot to explore the cities of Boston and Cambridge, successfully darkening the gates of M.I.T. and Harvard out of curiosity, walking the vaunted Freedom Trail to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, and repairing to Boston Common when the strain of all that was in my backpack grew to be too much.  I also took time amid my wanderings (for my bus home was not to leave South Station until 10.30 P.M.) to consider the implications of all the data I had collected and begin to pen a summary to send off to my advisor.  Boston, it should be said, is an absolutely magnificent city, quite unlike any other in the United States of which I’m aware, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Eventually, however, I had to board my final Megabus for the epic ten hour overnight slog back to D.C., stopping in Milford, Connecticut, Secaucus, New Jersey. Philadelphia, and Baltimore along the way.  It is generally not my custom even to seek sleep on journeys like this, and so I spent most of the time either writing my summary or gazing out the window at the passing industrial hinterland.  One naturally gains an appreciation for the enormousness of the Boston-Washington megalopolis, and when I arrived finally, after two Metro rides, to meet my mother outside West Falls Church station, I was still sufficiently verbal to make some emphatic observations upon my journey before falling asleep, at long last, in a familiar bed.

Thus ends the “official” summer phase of my thesis research.  Of course the research process continues, and over the next few weeks I plan to tie up some loose ends with books I plan to read and data I plan to organise in order to prepare for next year.  We are undoubtedly and inescapably making a transition—it is now time to actually embark upon the strenuous journey of actually writing the blessed thing.  For those interested in continuing to follow my project, I will be posting on my Honours Research blog through the spring.  I have very little to say over what might happen in the interim—I have never written anything nearly as long or sophisticated as this before, and I am somewhat daunted—yet having done the research that I have this summer (and a fantastic experience it has been), I am confident that I have the tools to move forward in a successful way and hopefully look back in less than a year’s time with satisfaction on my efforts here.

In the meantime, enjoy a classic South African song that’s kept me resolute through all this rugged travel over hill and dale, veld and berg:

Trans-Karoo, Herman Holtshauzen


Bring haar huis toe

Laat jou ysterwiele rol

Bring haar en maak my lewe vol!



Snel oor die spore

Want met jou bring jy my liefde

Terug na my….***

*Komatipoort is a town on the railroad line between Delagoa Bay (present-day Maputo, Mozambique) and Pretoria, capital of the South African Republic.

**“Burgher” refers to a natural born (white) citizen of the South African Republic or Orange Free State; “rooinek” (literally, “red neck”) is an Afrikaans term for the British, recalling the sunburn many white visitors doubtless received upon arriving in country.

***“Trans-Karoo! / Bring her home / Let your iron wheels roll / Bring her and make my life complete…. Trans-Karoo! / Quickly over the tracks / Because with you you are bringing my love / Back to me….”