Although the Romantic poets lived two hundred years ago, a remarkable number of their manuscripts, belongings, and other assorted ephemera still survive and are preserved in archives and collections across the globe. Most of the time, these artefacts are tucked away in museum collections, or specially stored in boxes to preserve the delicate paper or materials used to make them. Generally only a select few are allowed access to these items, predominantly the archivists, curators and custodians of these wonderful remnants and the researchers who are lucky enough to be working on them. Therefore, the aim of this exciting series on the K-SAA Blog is to bring to the fore the hidden and hidden-in-plain-sight artefacts of the Romantic poets, particularly those belonging to the Shelleys, Keats, Byron and their circles. We also aim to provide you, the reader, with behind-the-scenes access to these collections, along with insider knowledge from archivists, curators, and scholars.
For fans of John Keats, 2021 is a very special year as it commemorates the bicentenary of his death on 23 February 1821. In order to mark this occasion, Keats House, Hampstead, have been delivering a programme of special events for the Keats200 bicentenary. On Saturday 12 December 2020, Laila Sumpton, Keats House Poet in Residence, led an online ‘Poetry Versus Colonialism’ workshop. The aim of Sumpton’s residency at Keats House is to look at Keats and his life through a colonial lens. This is part of the ongoing commitment of Keats House to diversify their audiences and histories through the objects they hold in their collections. Therefore, in this two-hour workshop, Sumpton fused poetry, artefacts from the holdings of Keats House, and knowledge of Keats and his circle’s connections with colonialism, in order to create an engaging, exciting and thought-provoking event.
Sumpton began by discussing the East India Company, the trading company which began in 1600 and ended up controlling much of the world’s trade, including opium, fabrics, tea, and spices. She also discussed the ways in which Keats was influenced by the company, both directly and indirectly. Keats and his siblings’ guardian, Richard Abbey, was the senior member of Abbey, Cocks, and Company, which dealt in tea imported from China. Like his brothers Tom and George, Keats could have worked for Abbey as a clerk in his counting house. However, he chose not to – instead deciding to become an apprentice apothecary, and then to study surgery at Guy’s Hospital.
Thomas Guy (1644-1724), the founder of Guy’s Hospital, was also heavily involved in colonial practices. A large amount of his money was invested in the South Sea Company, which traded enslaved Africans to South America. When it seemed likely the South Sea Company would go under, Guy reinvested some of his cash in shares of the East India Company. A statement from Guy’s Hospital in June 2020 declared that due to Guy’s associations with the slave trade, his statue at the hospital is being removed from public view. Keats himself was very close to becoming a surgeon on an Indiaman (as the large sailing ships which traded for the East India Company were called). In his letter to Miss Jeffrey on 31 May 1819, Keats stated: ‘I have the choice as it were of two Poisons…the one is voyaging to and from India for a few years; the other is leading a fevrous life alone with Poetry’. By June 9, Keats had made his mind up, writing to his sister Fanny, ‘I have given up the Idea of the Indiaman; I cannot resolve to give up my favourite studies’. Sumpton asked attendees to think about Keats as a tea dealer or East Indiaman and consider if he would still have written poetry. Luckily for us, Keats decided to choose his passion over practicality.
Concerns with colonialism are also conveyed in Keats’s poetry, particularly his 1818 work Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. Sumpton here made reference to the work of Nikki Hessell, who writes on the colonial aspects evident within the poem. Keats refers many times to Indian spices and flowers, including cloves, which are a natural antiseptic. Hospitals during the long eighteenth century were using a mixture of Eastern and Western medicines, as researchers, including those from the East India Company, were being sent to India in order to find out about the medicines used there. Keats, with his medical training, would have known that, and incorporated both cloves and opium in this poem.
Sumpton then turned to artefacts held within Keats House collections that irrevocably had links to trade and colonialism. The first of these was Charles Armitage Brown’s tea caddy. Brown was Keats’s close friend, who had assisted him in the transcription of his poems, co-wrote a play with Keats, and nursed him when he was ill. It was Brown who was residing in Wentworth Place (now Keats House) when Keats came to join him in 1818. Brown’s tea caddy is made of tortoiseshell with ivory stringing, with one side intended to contain green tea, and the other black. The centre of the caddy has an indentation where the green and black teas are mixed to create the perfect blend. Sumpton informed attendees of the tragic history behind such an innocuous object. Enslavement of African peoples was exacerbated by the sugar trade, which itself was driven by the insatiable demand for tea and coffee. As tea was more readily imported the price plummeted, meaning that during the nineteenth century it became accessible to all, not just the wealthy. As such, tea chests like Brown’s became more popular. The material of the chest is also problematic, being made of tortoiseshell and ivory. Four tons of tortoiseshell were reportedly shipped to England just before Keats’s birth. Furniture, combs, glasses, and much more were made of this durable material. The oldest tortoiseshell items date from 1670s Jamaica, as traders visited these new worlds, and bought back tortoiseshell as souvenirs. In 1711, the people of the Cayman Islands not only spoke English, but traded tortoiseshell in exchange for weapons.
Of similar origin is Brown’s coconut cup. Coconuts themselves are natural colonizers, floating over the sea to plant themselves wherever they land – sometimes taking an astounding 245 days to float from India to America. From 1685 onwards, several hundred coconuts were taken from the Coco Islands to Europe. As the traders had seen the indigenous peoples using coconuts as cups, so coconut cups became a popular souvenir in Europe, alongside being used in medicine as a purgative. The 1800s saw a resurgence in the coconut cups as an item frequently found as part of curiosity cabinets.
Keats’s brother, George, is of particular interest when considering the effects of colonialism on Keats and his circle’s lives. He emigrated to Louisville, Kentucky in 1818, a city where 22% of the people were enslaved Africans. George rented twelve enslaved Africans to work in his sawmill and bought three to work for him in his house. Sumpton linked George’s amassed wealth and large house to his exploitation of enslaved peoples. She also then spoke of the role of textiles within colonialism by discussing a number of items in the Keats House collections. This included the wife of George Keats, Georgiana’s nightcap, plus Fanny Brawne’s fashion print, scarf, sampler, spencer jacket, and the final piece of embroidery she was working on before she died.
Brawne was Keats’s fiancée, who he met whilst both were living in the partitioned Wentworth Place. Wentworth Place at this time was a pair of semi-detached houses, with Keats and Charles Armitage Brown living in one side of the building, and Brawne and her family in the other. In the late 1830s, the two houses were combined into one large property, which was later named Keats House in memory of its most famous resident. Brawne was incredibly fond of fashion, evidenced by the fashion prints that survive at Keats House that were once hers. During the early nineteenth century there was a demand for fine textiles including muslin and cotton from India. European mills tried to replicate these items using cotton picked by enslaved labourers, which then sold at a cheaper price than East Indian cotton. The scarf worn by Brawne is made of muslin, probably created in Scotland as a cheaper alternative to Indian muslin. The other textiles used by Brawne, including her final piece of embroidery, give an insight into the huge variety of fabrics which were created and sold in Europe during this period. It is also striking that a great number of female accomplishments were wholly based around textiles, the fabric of which were either directly or indirectly created by colonialism and exploited peoples – with this practice raising similar concerns to those around modern sweatshops today.
Interspersed with these alternative tales of historical objects and uncovering the colonial legacies contained within the collections, Sumpton invited attendees to think creatively about the items being discussed. She not only read her own poetry based on these items or stories, including ‘Many Hands’ and the powerful ‘Jamdani’, but also encouraged attendees to create their own short responses to the stories being told. This led to many moments of reflection and some excellent short creative pieces shared with the group.
The aim of Sumpton and her fellow poets and researchers, all of whom make up Poetry Versus Colonialism, is to build connections with artists, historians and curators in order to raise awareness of the legacy of Europe’s role in the slave trade. Poetry is used in order to discuss and process the sometimes-shocking stories being uncovered. The collective aims to explore four of the key items which were traded through using the senses, thus exploring tobacco (smell), cotton (touch), sugar (taste), and gold (sight) using a distinctive new approach. Future aims of the group are to work with museums and schools in order to talk about colonialism through poetry. This Keats House workshop, for me, was incredibly eye-opening, and the combination of poetry, collections, and these shocking histories created a unique and vital perspective. Sumpton made it clear that for those living in the long eighteenth century, the world they were part of had many opportunities, products, and ways of life that came about purely because of colonialism. Poetry Versus Colonialism and Keats House should be very proud of this fascinating, innovative event, and here at the K-SAA we look forward to more Keats200 events and those being given by Poetry Versus Colonialism in the future.
With thanks to Laila Sumpton, Sofie Davis, and Rob Shakespeare for their assistance and for permissions used in this article.