Passed Along | Newberry

Passed Along

I know you’d rather read almost anything besides an admonition not to donate books when the Newberry is closed over the holidays, so let’s look at the story contained in this little volume. It’s about the size of a modern paperback book, but it was published in 1810. There’s an interesting story in the book, and bits of a second story along the edges.

It has one of those wonderful old-fashioned title pages which saved the expense of hiring someone to write a synopsis of the text. It calls itself The History of Don Francisco de Miranda’s Attempt to Effect a Revolution in South America, in a Series of Letters by a Gentleman Who Was an Officer Under That General. The gentleman in question seems to have been James Biggs, about whom I can’t learn much of anything else. His book went through three or four editions, either because it appealed to certain political sentiments in the United States, or because it was a good adventure story. (I haven’t read it, so I can’t really say.)

Francisco de Miranda appears to have taken the United States as his example, and wanted South America to break away from Spain and unite in something similar. He was assisted by a number of adventurers from the United States, looking for adventure or plunder, and, though unsuccessful in the attempt Biggs writes about here, did finally become Dictator of Venezuela, which he intended to use as a base for further successes. Further success eluded him, and he made plans to surrender to Spain and flee the country. His followers, offended by this, took him into custody and handed him over to the Spanish authorities, who kept him in a dungeon for the rest of his life. One of his chief supporters, Simon Bolivar, did better later on.

A man named William Nicholson bought this copy of the book in 1810, and wrote his name inside. At this point, we are missing some of the story, but when HIS son inherited the book, that young man left behind more details.

He notes that his grandfather, William Nicholson’s father, is mentioned in the book twice, and gives you the page numbers. The grandson seems to have written mainly in pencil, so perhaps it was William himself who took a pen and put marks next to the name Benj. Nicholson, who is listed as a private soldier captured by the Spanish (perhaps on board a ship called the “Bee”, according to another penciled note.) I’m not sure what became of Benj. Nicholson; some Americans evaded charges of piracy by claiming Thomas Jefferson was on their side, but whether that defense would have been available to a member of the rank and file, I can’t say.

What I’d really like to know about is the relationship between the book and the grandson. Did Dad read it to him? Did Grandpa make it home to tell stories about his adventures south of the border? The grandson took this all rather seriously: besides his pencilled notes, there are also some clipping he had to cut down to the size of the book, showing views of the harbor where the action took place, a map of the excitement, and so on. Maybe he found the book by himself on a shelf, liked the story, and asked Dad why someone with their last name was marked in the text. And when did he do all these things, and where has the book been since?

That’s all of the story I know, but, of course, the best books inspire you to come up with your own stories to go with the text.

(Oh, and by the way, don’t donate books when the library is closed for the holidays. Especially those books handed down in your family since 1810.)

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