Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Being Critical of our Sources

I am currently reading a book called The Cana Sanctuary by Frank Marotti.  It concerns the way African-Americans in St. Augustine, Florida, both in Spanish colonial times and after Florida was acquired (that's putting a nice face on it) by the United States, worked the system to their advantage in a number of ways, particularly by finding an ally in the Catholic Church.  The theme of how black citizens leveraged the system to their advantage is also explored in Jane Landers's seminal work, Black Society in Spanish Florida.

The first chapter of Mr. Marotti's book sets a background describing St. Augustine in the late colonial period (1784-1821, the Second Spanish Period) as being prosperous and bountiful, concentrating particularly on 1811-1812.  It is a rosy picture, painted from the testimonies Mr. Marotti found in claims filed after the so-called "Patriot War" of 1812, which was a blatant invasion of Spanish Florida by a ragtag "army" of mainly Georgians and South Carolinians, backed secretly at the highest levels by the United States government.  (For more on this, read James Cusick's The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida.)

These claims were filed by St. Augustine and rural East Florida residents to exact from the United States government reparations for destroyed properties and lost crops and other business losses.  Mr. Marotti appears not to have been terribly critical of these sources, for he asks no questions about what they contain.  There are descriptions of great bounty from the fields and farms of the area.  At one point he says, "Indeed, money grew on trees for numerous rural East Floridians."  He describes a five-acre plot owned by a Minorcan and worked by him and his family as being ample in its production to support a large family and to provide some profit as well.  He seems to indicate that this was a norm among the Minorcans, and states that the family in question was able to set aside money each year off the profits from such endeavors. This does not seem to square with the death records in the Catholic cathedral's archives, which cite instance after instance of Minorcans dying intestate because they were poor.  But then, we have to ask what constituted poverty in St. Augustine.

He also does not question one statement that the orange groves were so productive that 5,000 to 6,000 oranges could be got off of one tree. 

There are other statements that require questioning, but let's examine what we have here.  First, the oranges.  No one is going to get 5,000 to 6,000 oranges off one tree in a season.  According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, one mature orange tree can bear at most 1,250 oranges per tree "if you properly care for and fertilize the tree."(3)  The Department of Agriculture, for this figure, is presupposing modern agricultural methods.  I have a childhood memory of a particularly productive orange tree we had in our back yard.  My mother picked something like 100 oranges off that tree in one day, preparing to make and freeze orange juice, and it looked like it had not been touched at all.  I estimate there may have been a total of 250-300 oranges on that tree, which was pretty much just left to its own devices.

Also, this rosy picture does not square with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's soil survey of St. Johns County, where St. Augustine, and many of the rural farms surrounding it, are located. Most of the soils in St. Johns county are naturally low in fertility according to the soil survey. Soils in the county also tend to be strongly acidic, needing applications of lime to bring the pH more towards neutral. These soils also tend to be low on phosphrous and potassium. Soil tilth – preparation of the seed bed so that seeds can germinate properly and roots penetrate the soil – is important for germination and for the infiltration of water. When a soil has good tilth, the soil is porous and granular. Most St. Johns County soils do have good tilth, with their sandy surface layers. Organic matter is present in the county’s soils in low to moderate amounts, so the soil must be amended. The soil can get crusty if allowed to dry out after a heavy rain. Cover crops, plowed under, add organic matter and increase fertility.(4)  While it is true that southern St. Johns county is highly productive of such crops as potatoes, cabbages, and sorghum, these results are obtained with 20th century agricultural methods such as plowing under cover crops to add organic material, fertilization, irrigation using modern equipment and technology, and methods not available to the farmers of Spanish colonial St. Augustine.  What methods were in use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?

But the broader consideration is that Mr. Marotti did not once bring up the question of what was behind his sources, the Patriot War claims.  One thing we have to keep in mind while looking at these documents is, these were people who were seeking to get money from the U.S. government, and the likelihood was high that they were going to exaggerate their claims in order to extract as much money as they could.  They were motivated to inflate their estimates. 

Much of the testimony he cites is from neighbors testifying on a neighbor's claim, not from the individual claimants themselves.  These neighbors testify as to how many acres their friend had, how much money he received from the sale of his produce, how much he paid his workers, how much he had in expenses, and other such figures.  We need to ask the question, "Where did they get these figures from?  Who did they get the information from?"  Was there someone advising them on their testimony and advising the claimants on their claims?  Were they being told that they had to inflate their claims in order to get anything at all?  Did their friend and neighbor come to them and say that he needed them to testify as to these figures, and give them the numbers he needed mentioned?  After all, the ones testifying for their friends also had claims pending, and who doesn't need a little quid pro quo in such circumstances?

We must also remember that these claimants and their witnesses were people who had been stripped of their properties and livelihoods.  Their fields and crops destroyed, they went from the reality or even the prospect of prosperity to abject poverty.  One resident is quoted as saying that the invasion "had stripped us of nearly all that we possessed, and left ourselves, our wives, and children to the cold charity of the world." (5)  Others expressed their bereavement and their resentment.  Thus, we have not only a population motivated to garner as much as they could by inflating their claims, but also a population motivated by resentment and a wish for vengeance against the government that had supported such depredation and impoverishment among them.  This is not to say that St. Augustine was not prosperous at one time, because it certainly was not as abjectly poor as some have made it out to be in the past.  The truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and we also must take a further look to see what the income distribution was in St. Augustine, and where and how great was the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Being critical of sources raises questions such as these, some of them useful, some of them silly.  Further research can answer some of them, and some are left to speculation on the possibilities, tempered with a knowledge of human nature and psychology.  But not asking the questions at all is inviting being fooled by the sources.  It is better to ask the questions, however silly they may be, than to ignore them.  Even if our conclusions, our answers to these questions, proves at a later date to have been in error, they may lead future historians down a path that will lead to a better understanding, to better insights, and a picture that much closer to "how it essentially was." 

(1) Marotti, Frank.  The Cana Sanctuary: History, Diplomacy, and Black Catholic Marriages in Antebellum St. Augustine, Florida. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 21.

(2) Ibid., 20.

(3) Florida Department of Agriculture.  Producing Citrus in Florida.  PDF document at http://faitc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/Producing-Citrus-in-Florida.pdf (accessed 15 May 2017).

(4)  U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Survey of St. Johns County, Florida (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1983), 56.

(5) Marotti, The Cana Sanctuary, 30.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why Amateurs Should Not Translate

In my study of Spanish colonial St. Augustine from 1784 to1821, and in the creation of my book Non-Federal Censuses of Florida 1784-1945: A Guide to Sources, I have encountered a number of amateur translations.  Some of them have made me shake my head.  Some of them have made me laugh.

A few examples:

In a run of documents called the East Florida Papers, the originals of which are held at the Library of Congress, there is a letter which was written sometime in the 1920s or 1930s about a certain segment of these papers.  One document mentioned is headed, in Spanish, informacion naturalization* which the translator rendered as "Information Naturalization (?)."  At least the writer of the letter had the good sense to put the question mark in parentheses after their translation of the phrase.  Or, I should say, their mistranslation.  In Spanish, the word informacion does indeed mean "information."  But someone more familiar with the language also knows that the word has the additional meaning of "report."  And in this case, that's the word that should be used.  The translation should be "naturalization report."

In another document the amateur translator was not a paleographer, a person trained to read old handwriting.  I am a paleographer.  We can make mistakes, too, when a handwriting is really difficult to read, but one mistake this translator made is a doozy, and shows his or her unfamiliarity with paleography and with the Spanish language.  The document is a list of names that appeared in a census.  Some of the names are followed by the improbable words "el hifs," "el hiso," or "el biss."  A paleographer would recognize the error -- this is obviously a misreading of the Spanish el hijo, which means "the son."  At least el hijo makes more sense in the context than the made-up words that translator came up with.

In a collection of extracts of the marriage records I'm dealing with currently, there is an instance where the individual making the extracts was not familiar with ecclesiastical Latin, in which the marriage records were kept until 1788, when Bishop Cirilo de Barcelona, the auxiliary bishop of Cuba, made a visitation and informed the priests at the church in St. Augustine that from thenceforward, the church records were to be kept in Spanish, not in Latin.  Not that I'm all that fluent in ecclesiastical Latin myself, but I've been able to figure out enough to comfortably translate or at least read these church records.  The translator misread the document and placed the time of the marriage in question as 21 December 1786.  The Latin in the document reads "Anno Domini 1786 Die 21 Mensis Februarii . . ."  What that says is:  The Year of Our Lord 1786, day 21 month February . . ."  So the correct date of the wedding is February 21, not December.  The translator may have thought "Die" looked like "Dic," which he thought was an abbreviation for diciembre, the Spanish for December.

It's lovely that people get interested in a historical subject enough to want to do such work, usually on a volunteer basis.  However, translation is not easy.  Language is tricky.  Handwriting can be tricky, too.  I am trained in Spanish and in paleography, and I still at times feel that I am floundering.  Two lessons here are:

1.  Be careful with translated works, especially those done on a volunteer basis by amateurs.  (Be aware, however, that there are some retired professionals doing translations, too.  It's best, when retired, to have some activities, and when the retired pros do the job, it benefits everyone.)

2.  Some things are best left to the pros.

*I have to apologize that my computer does not do high-end ASCII, and I don't know any other way to make the diacritical markings used in Spanish.  If anyone has any help on that, I'd be happy to have it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Getting down to brass tacks

Since our younger daughter moved out, we have the other two bedrooms in our house back for our own use.  My husband has not yet begun to put together his "man cave," but he's retired, so he doesn't need to get to it right away.  I, on the other hand, have made significant progress in getting my office ready.  Now I finally have a space with a door I can close to minimize interruptions -- complete with a "mean sign" saying not to disturb me unless the state forest or the house is on fire!

I have four bookcases in here, and will be ordering another one. I will also be confiscating yet another from the chaos in what should be our living room, and have on order from Kohl's a 5-shelf bookcase to hold CDs and DVDs.  I'm in the process of arranging my books on the shelves; I'm so anal retentive, I have them classified according to the Dewey Decimal system.  What do you expect?  I was trained as a librarian, having got my master's in library science at FSU in 1970.

But it's great to have this space, and I have gotten a great deal done.  I'm a little late, having had a bout of the flu after I got back home from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.  I can now spend the next terms at home, writing my thesis, since I have completed my in-residence coursework at USFSP.

It took a couple weeks to fully recover from the flu, though it was an abbreviated bout.  I had a flu shot in October, and am I ever glad I did.  I do not want to think what my bout of flu would have been like had I not had the shot! Temperature up to 102.4 and muscle and joint aches were no fun!

But now I've gotten a lot done on my proposal for my thesis.  I want to get that done in a couple more days and run it out to the member of my thesis committee who is at the University of North Florida.  Then it, and the signature form signed by the local professor, will go down to St. Pete for my major professor and the program director to sign off on.

I've also found some other sources for my research.  I have a stack of books on my desk.  This is a great desk -- it's a large oak roll-top we bought from friends who were done with it.  It has lots of drawer space, lots of cubbyholes for pens, pencils, and all sorts of other office supplies, and a large writing space, with two writing surfaces that pull out.  I have my computer on a wonderful computer desk I bought from Levenger's.  And my printer is on a low stand, with room for lots of paper, that my husband lent me.

So I'm jumping in with both feet and enjoying being able to work with few distractions.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

All done; time to go home

Today I finished my research at the Library of Congress.  In addition to the marriage license petitions I mentioned in my last post, I have found a few letters concerning "clandestine marriages," those marriages conducted without a Catholic priest present.  This was a punishable offense in Spanish society, being outside the observance of those rules laid down in the Real Pragmática de Casamientos.

There were also several royal edicts, or cédulas, regarding the Real Pragmática, the rules for marriage among the military and among government employees, and the rules for the marriage of slaves.  It is going to be interesting transcribing and analyzing these documents.  The transcription at times will also be harrowing and frustrating.  For example, the document in which the rules for the marriage of slaves is spelled out is heavily damaged by worms. There are other documents which suffer from faded ink or from just plain awful handwriting.  That's what makes paleography a challenge.

The research was intriguing.  The staff in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress are real pros.  They know their collection and are very helpful.  I had some frustrating times with the scanning microfilm readers, but that is more because at times machines and I just do not get along. 

Now I begin my preparations for going home.  I leave Monday afternoon, and am looking forward to getting home.  I am not a city person; I prefer suburbia or the country.  It is also very hot in Washington, D.C., being the middle of July.  City heat is a thing all its own.

I'll post entries here as I go along in the transcription and analysis of the documents, and the development of my thesis.  I was hoping to look at how the different governors had applied the Real Pragmática, but the marriage license petitions span only 1785-1803, the administrations of two governors, Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes and Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada.  I think there is enough material, and taken together with background reading on the Real Pragmática and other issues relating to marriage, I'm sure I can come up with something.

Just what that will be remains to be seen.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Road Trip!

I'm going on a road trip, but not by car.  I'm taking the train to Washington, D.C., next Wednesday -- provided that the arrangements get made on time -- for two months of research at the Library of Congress.

Why not fly?  I have issues with flying, which make it uncomfortable.  One problem could be serious.  Even though I was chewing gum and doing all the things you're supposed to do to equalize pressure on landing, I had an excruciating pain in my left ear on landing in Orlando in 2008 when I returned from my research trip to Seville, Spain.  Not quite a burst eardrum, but I don't want to take any chances with that!

So, the train.  I like the train.  Not so far to fall if something goes wrong, which -- knock on my little wooden head -- it won't.  And you get to see the scenery, see the real America.  I like that.

I'll be mucking about in the East Florida Papers at the Library, looking at the originals for parts which don't show up readably on the microfilms.  The 1793 Spanish census of St. Augustine, Florida, is one of those.  I'll also be looking at matrimonial license petitions.  This research is all for my thesis, which is on the application of the Real Pragmática de Casamiento (Royal Pragmatic of Marriage), proclaimed in 1776 by King Carlos III, and extended to the colonies in 1778.  One thing I'm wondering is if the various governors of East Florida in the Second Spanish Period applied the rules differently.

Yeah, it's one of those esoteric airy-fairy thesis topics.  But it can be quite important to those of us studying Spanish colonial Florida.  At least, I hope it will be.  And I hope one of the university presses will think it is, too.

So Monday through Friday, I'll have my nose to the grindstone, reading old Spanish and transcribing.  I have a bunch of the matrimonial license petitions already transcribed and some translated, as I am hoping to publish a book of annotated translations of these records.  Some of them have wonderful historical and genealogical information in them, and many of them just have good stories!  And at bottom, that's what history is to me -- a good story.

Monday and Wednesday evenings, the Local History and Genealogy Reading Room is open to 9:30.  I might feel a little antsy about walking to the Metro Station and from the bus stop back to the condo where I'm renting a room, but maybe there are tactics I can employ to make the journey safer.

I'll be haunting that reading room, and also on Saturday using the National Archives, for another project I have in mind, which is a more long-term thing and not for discussion right now.  When I have a germ of an idea, I tend to play it close to the vest.  My publisher has expressed an interest in this project.  It will require further research trips to a couple other cities, something that will be another two years down the road, at least.

But it's enough to keep me off the streets and out of the pool halls for a long time to come!

The term is over!

I'm back home from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where I'm running hard after a Master of Liberal Arts in Florida Studies.  This term was hard, but I also goofed off a bit.  In grad school, there are no Latin Honors (cum laude and all that), no honors in the major, so I have decided to study, yes, but also not to get all knotted up about it, and if I make a B, that's fine.  That's all I need.  But so far, I seem to be heading toward A's.  That's fine, too.  I certainly do not mind.

The toughest class was Theory of History.  Theoretical stuff makes my head hurt, anyway, but historical theory can get really out there.  The professor is a young neo-hippie (doesn't even own a car) who is uber-smart.  He's very fond of the French Revolution, so we read a lot of translations of French historians.  I've already talked about being a bit of an Annaliste in my own methods. I like background in my histories.  We explored other theories and methods, some of them I liked, some I didn't.  Post-structuralism (post-modernism) can only, in my opinion, lead to paralysis.  If you believe there's no such thing as "truth," what do you do as a historian?  Why bother?  I think there is such a thing as "truth," though it may not always -- or ever -- be absolute.  I think we can say things about the past that are true, and from which we can learn.

The seminar in Modern Florida was not that tough, but there was a lot of reading, some of it absolutely excellent.  One of those was Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, an account of a very dark incident in the history of the United States and of Florida.  Dr. Arsenault, who conducted the seminar, assigned the book, and almost all of us agreed that it was the best of the books we were assigned.  The author, Gilbert King, won a Pulitzer Prize just last month for the book, and it is well-deserved.  I did my paper for this course on "Prohibition and the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg, 1927-1933."  I'm waiting for feedback from Dr. Arsenault on that.  It was fun to do, and interesting to me because Prohibition is one of my favorite periods of U.S. history, and I served in the Coast Guard.  My husband also served (he's the reason I joined), and was stationed in St. Petersburg in the early 1970s.  Our younger daughter was born there.

And Dr. Arsenault gives great parties!

The last class I took was in Feature Writing (as in newspapers and magazines), which I took to satisfy the writing requirement for the Florida Studies degree.  I chose that course, as I figured there would be far less reading in that than in a literature course, which was another way to satisfy the requirement.  I didn't need 10 books to read on top of what I had to read for Theory and Modern Florida, and I hate having books assigned and then having to dissect them looking for what I think is often not there.  But I won't get into that.

The Feature Writing course was interesting, though the professor in the beginning was too enamored of the technology of the online component.  The University of South Florida is switching from Blackboard (used for mounting assignments, receiving submissions of homework and papers, e-mail service to the class, and other functions) to Canvas.  We used Blackboard at the University of North Florida, where I did my post-bacc work, and I thought it was a dog.  I think Canvas is a pig.  Paper works.

The other reason I took Feature Writing was that we actually WROTE!  We had to do two major feature articles (2500 words or more).  Mine won't be published -- that's not where my interest lies.  But it was fascinating to do the articles.  The first one was on suicide, a rather grim topic.  I learned a heck of a lot, and once I get back home, plan to do some awareness work.  It's just so important.  The second article was on the great white shark.  That was most fascinating.  I chose to focus on the shark that was tagged in March off the coast of Jacksonville, FL, and the efforts of OCEARCH to tag and track great white sharks around the world.

And that was my term.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thesis topic

I have picked a topic for my master's thesis here at good ol' USFSP.  My main area of study is colonial Spanish St. Augustine, mainly during the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821).

I have decided to examine the application of the Spanish marriage law (the real pragmática de casamiento) in St. Augustine during that period.  One of my questions is whether the law was applied differently by different governors.  I have not got past the first governor of the Second Spanish Period, Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes, who appears to have been rather an old softie when it came to folks getting married.

Another question is to see how much the law was either bent or completely ignored!  It prohibited interracial marriages, but there are documented instances when these did occur, generally of light-skinned mulattoes or octaroons with white Spaniards, and generally among the elites, who probably could get their way no matter what (also one of the questions I'll be looking at).

So I have more reason to go to Washington, D.C., and look at Spanish colonial sources at the Library of Congress, and will have to get onto lots of transcribing when I get done with this term.