Stealing from the Provincial Press, or How do you know where the trail ends?

Tracing historical networks is a tricky business. Proper network analysis requires, among other things, a complete data set from which to draw out conclusions. But when, I ask you, did an early modern historian last find a complete data set?

In my current project, the main difficulty has been determining the end, or rather, the beginning, of a pathway of communication. At what point does the historian admit defeat and accept that the data she seeks is either lost or virtually irretrievable at this point in time?

Take, for example, my trail du jour. On 6 March 1819, The British Gazette and Berwick Advertiser, a biweekly provincial newspaper in Berwickshire, published a short piece, which it labelled a curiosity:

NEW COLONY IN LOWERCANADA. 

The following curiousnotice is extracted from a Quebec paper which arrived on Saturday:– 

INTERESTING TOTHOUSANDS!—COLONY OF BROTHERLY UNION. 

“It is in agitation tofound a Colony upon the ancient Spartan plan, sanctioned by Apostolical usage,of living in common, and enjoying a community of goods. In this establishment,as each will labour for all, and all for each, personal property will beknown—and all lust of private gain, engendered by an imperfect organization ofSociety, will be sacrificed at the shrine of public felicity.

“To carry this projectinto execution, a fertile tract of land, consisting of some thousands of acres,s on the point of being purchased and surveyed.

“Husbandmen and artisansof every sort are invited to this Colonization. We tender the right hand offellowship, to the honest and industrious of every description of People,whatever be their religious or political faith.

“Want of funds will notfurnish a reason for excluding any Colonist; and, on the other hand, it will bea fundamental law of this establishment, that whatever property may be, byadventurers, put into the Common Stock, will be considered as a loan, andrefunded to them or their assignees on demand.

“The Colony will besituated within the bounds of Lower Canada, and under the protection andcontrol of his Majesty’s Government.

“All persons who arewilling to embark in this enterprise, are requested to address themselves tothe Subscribers personally or by letter. They will specify their country, age,profession, number of children, if married, property, &c.

“No letter will  be received by from Principals, nor unless post paid.—Every letter to bear on itssuperscription the words. ‘Colony of Brotherly Union.’

“As Soon as a sufficientnumber of applicants shall have enrolled their names, notice will be given bypublic advertisement to convene and digest a code of laws and regulations forthe establishment.

“S. Cleveland Blyth.
“St. Constant, Lower Canada, Dec. 3, 1818.

“The several Gentlemenwho conduct the Public Papers printed in these Provinces and the neighbouringStates of America, are respectfully requested to give the above one insertion pro bono publico.

Three weeks later, on 29 March 1819, the Caledonian Mercury, a major Edinburgh periodical, and one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Scotland, printed the same extract, word for word, with the same typographic conventions throughout, except in the advertiser’s location, which the Mercury did not italicise. The editor of the Mercury made no reference to the Advertiser, or in any way indicated that the comment

The following curious notice is extracted from a Quebec paper which arrived on Saturday

was not his own; a seemingly strange oversight, as the Mercury‘s colonial news was usually clearly attributed. Was this simply a case of metropolitan snobbery? Could it be that the Edinburgh editor could not bring himself to acknowledge the keen eyes and sharp scissors of his Borderer colleague?

It is certainly possible. Although extracts from major urban centres such as London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester were clearly cited, or at least vaguely referenced (‘A London Daily’), during the 1810s there is no reference to any provincial paper within Britain as a source of colonial intelligence.

Then again, perhaps the rabbit hole goes deeper. Perhaps the Advertiser and Mercury were both equally guilty of plagiarism from some third party. Indeed The Literary Panorama of 1819 also reprinted and the curious advertisement, in its entirety, with no trace of acknowledgement, albeit many months later.

As I do not have currently have access to Quebecois newspapers from this period, I am as yet unable to discover which one originally printed the advertisement, or even to verify that it was ‘originally’ printed at all.  As to the originator of the ‘curiousity’ comment, I am left with the following clues.

  1. The advertisement is dated 3 December 1818 and was said to arrive from Quebec ‘on Saturday’  three months later. This delay  far exceeds that typical for Quebecois news in the Berwickshire newspaper by nearly two months.
  2. There is no indication, in the other issues of the Advertiser, that the supply of news from British North America suffered any particular interruption during the winter of 1818-1819.
  3. The original advertisement requested that it be printed in newspapers in British North America and the United States, rather than those in Great Britain.
It is therefore likely that the advertisement originally made its rounds in North America, where the ‘curiosity’ comment was first written, before heading across the Atlantic. Whether it lay dormant at the Advertiser‘s office, waiting for space, or was only brought to the editor’s attention some weeks later, is unknown. Regardless, it is very unlikely that the Advertiser‘s editor wrote the ‘curiosity’ comment himself.
Forgoing, for the moment, the delight of pronouncing guilt upon these historical plagiarisers, I am still left with the very real difficulty of tracing the path of this piece. To say that it came originally from Quebec, and may have taken a detour or two before arriving in Scotland, is wholly unsatisfactory. 
So, until such time as I can begin the second phase of my research, and scour the pages of the North American press, I make the following request:
Should you ever, in your studies or serendipities, come across a mention of the Colony of Brotherly Union before March 1819, let your voice be heard and the mystery of its Atlantic crossing solved.

2 thoughts on “Stealing from the Provincial Press, or How do you know where the trail ends?

  1. Ken

    A quick search of Early American Newspapers returns eight hits. The earliest reference is from the New-York Daily Advertiser, December 24, 1818. The other search results suggest the original notice comes from a paper called the Canadian Courant.

    The other references that show up are: Connecticut Herald, January 19, 1819 (New Haven)
    American Beacon, January 20, 1819 (Norfolk, VA)
    Rochester Telegraph, February 9, 1819
    Alexandria Herald (VA), February 10
    Palmyra Register, February 17
    Otsego Herald, February 22.

    There's no mention of a 'curious notice', though, as far as I can find out. Usual caveats about the likelihood of OCR meaning certain references are missed out apply.

    Hope that's useful for you!

    Ken Owen.

  2. M. H. Beals

    Many thanks for this Ken! I had not dived into the EAN for this project yet. Still have British North America blinkers on I suppose.

    Alas, I'm afraid these results raise more questions than they answer, in terms of chronology and information networks, but, I suppose, questions are the lifeblood of this work!

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