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Cataloguing the papers of T.A. Sprague

Miriam Hopkinson
23 April 2014
Archives trainee Miriam Hopkinson talks about cataloguing T. A. Sprague’s papers and the insights they provide into colonial attitudes at the turn of the twentieth century.

I am now nearly eight months into my archives traineeship at Kew, and I have enjoyed learning about many different aspects of archival work. So far one of the duties that I have enjoyed the most has been the opportunity to gain experience at cataloguing - one of the key skills of an archivist.

T.A. Sprague

In January, I spent a week cataloguing the papers of Dr Thomas Archibald Sprague (1877-1958), a botanist and leading authority on plant nomenclature. Sprague was a Kew staff member and spent fifteen years as the Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium before retiring in 1945. His catalogued papers are now available to view on our online archives catalogue.


Photo of TA Sprague
T. A. Sprague, 1946 (Photo: RBGK Illustrations Collection)

As well as learning about cataloguing, I have also really enjoyed being able to find out about Sprague’s adventures as a botanist and plant hunter. In 1898, before joining Kew as a Herbarium Assistant, Sprague went on a plant hunting expedition to botanically unexplored areas of Colombia and Venezuela. Among his papers were three separate personal accounts of his experiences on the expedition, as well as copies of the letters he sent to his parents while away.

Image 2 - Map.jpg

Sketched map in Sprague’s expedition notebook
SPR/1/3 Sketched map in Sprague’s expedition notebook

Reading the personal letters and vivid accounts I have enjoyed being able to gain an insight into some of the difficulties, thrills and periods of mundanity experienced while botanising in the era. For example, I was particularly struck by Sprague’s reference to shooting at alligators while on board a paddle-steamer travelling along the Orinoco River in order to relieve the boredom of the journey. The accounts also caused me to reflect on some of the uglier aspects of the colonial period.

Colonial Attitudes

One of the things I found most difficult while reading the accounts was the contemporary attitudes towards native inhabitants. Several times Sprague expresses his bewilderment at the practises and attitudes of the local people. He states:

'A very striking thing about the people, including even the negroes, was their reluctance to work and high charges for carrying one’s luggage. It seemed, in fact, a favour on their part to do so at all.' [SPR/1/1/3, p.6].

He seems to miss the point that, in carrying his luggage for him, perhaps they were doing him a favour!

In another passage Sprague explains that the Indians on one section of the river are very hostile due to 'two of their number having been killed by some whites travelling up river by steam some years ago'. Shockingly, 'it appears that [the whites] shot at the Indians from the steamer without any provocation whatever' [SPR/1/1/3, p.29]. In a letter to his father Sprague appears sympathetic to the Indians declaring, 'It is not much wonder if they feel resentment' [SPR/4/1, p.22].

I was also quite stunned to read that, while in San Augustin, Sprague and Captain Dowding (the leader of the expedition) came across 'about a hundred granite images made by the Ancient Muysca Indians long before the Spanish Conquest' [SPR/1/1/1, p.35]. After admiring the statues they decided to remove one of them and send it to the British Museum.  It is still at the British Museum, and can be viewed in their collection catalogue.

When dealing with difficult subject matters such as these, some archivists might be tempted to leave them out of descriptions in order to protect their institution, or to avoid causing distress. However, the result of this is a sanitised view of the records. I believe it is important to acknowledge our shared colonial past and give a voice to oppressed groups in the archives.

Other highlights in the Sprague collection

The collection also includes collecting notebooks and a map from his Colombia and Venezuela expedition, material relating to his expedition to the Canary Islands in 1913, botanical notebooks, and a copy of a poem about Sprague:

Image 3 - poem.jpg

A poem about Sprague, probably written by a Kew Herbarium staff member
SPR/5/1 A poem about Sprague, probably written by a Kew Herbarium staff member

First World War photographs

There is also a small photo album from Sprague’s time serving in India and Pakistan with the Royal Artillery in the First World War

Image 4 - India WW1.jpg

SPR/4/2 Photographs from Sprague's time as a soldier during the First World War
SPR/4/2 Photographs from Sprague's time as a soldier during the First World War

Some of the photographs from the album will feature in the ‘Plants, People and the Products of War’ display which will commemorate Kew’s involvement in the war. The exhibition will be in the Library, Art & Archives reading room from 1 July to 30 August 2014.

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