Over the past few months, I have been working on the re-cataloguing and digitisation of the papers of the British Philhellene and historian, George Finlay, and his friend, Captain Frank Abney Hastings, who were eyewitnesses to many of the events of the Greek Revolution and confidants to other leading British Philhellenes.
The collection includes Hastings’ notes on naval strategy and arguments with the Greek government, Finlay’s scathing opinions on politicians both Greek and British (of the Ionian politician Dandolo, he wrote, ‘a more barefaced and thorough blackguard does not exist; he knows no Greek and no grammar’), analysis on the events of the 1820s as they unfolded, and drafts of Finlay’s book, The History of the Greek Revolution. These papers reveal a great deal about the character, motivations and military and political judgements of Hastings, Finlay, and many others, both British and Greek, with whom they interacted.
By making these previously under-used papers available online, the project will facilitate a re-evaluation of the role of philhellenism in the Greek Revolution, in preparation for the international conference on the topic in March 2023.
At the very beginning of the project, we had only a paper catalogue, compiled by the formidable Professor Joan Hussey, Byzantine historian, and published in 1973. As one of the few Byzantine historians produced by the nineteenth century, Finlay held a special attraction for Hussey.
Although the catalogue remains an impressive achievement, unsurprisingly, it does not reflect modern archival best practice. Over the course of the project, I have updated Hussey’s legacy for the digital era, leaving it ISAD(G)-compliant, more internally consistent, and with the potential to be used as linked data so it can be easily searchable.
Processing personal papers can feel like wearing the creator’s cast-off clothes, still moulded to their body. In this case, the clothes have shaped themselves to two owners. Finlay himself carefully arranged and re-arranged his collection, and his personality is reflected in both its content and arrangement. But glimpses of Hussey’s own personality, and her affection for Finlay, can also come out, both in the meticulousness of her cataloguing and as she picks out quotations that catch her fancy. I can imagine her enjoying Finlayisms such as criticising an acquaintance who has had ‘a fit of Bavarianism’ or a threat to an acquaintance who didn’t return a book: ‘I shall feel it a duty to take every measure in my power for obtaining justice. My arms and name are pasted in the volume‘. Now, as the current cataloguer, it can feel as though both Finlay and Hussey are peering over my shoulder, with their own opinions on my arrangement and cataloguing decisions.
The next step was to prepare for digitisation the records relevant to 1821, selected by the discerning eyes of Michalis Sotiropoulos, the BSA’s 1821 Fellow in Modern Greek Studies. Finlay’s collection is a complex one, with tightly-bound scrapbooks, brittle newspaper clippings, tiny notebooks and densely-written letters. Each of these has its own treatment, whether a flatbed scanner for more robust items, a cradle scanner for books with tight or fragile bindings, higher resolution images for faint or difficult handwriting, or photography for the most brittle records. In preparation for digitisation, records were sorted according to the digitisation method needed, described in the digitisation instructions, and packed for transport.
As I write, the digitisation company is diligently turning physical paper and parchment into the binary code of digital images. These images will shortly be checked against the physical collection to ensure all pages are present and correctly scanned, then they will be uploaded to the BSA’s collection management system, and will finally made available online in March 2023.
The project will encourage researchers to see the philhellenes with fresh eyes, to re-assess their role in the Age of Revolution and place them in their global context.
I hope Finlay and Hussey would approve.
The 1821 Archive Project Assistant
British School at Athens
For more information on this BSA research project and to see more 1821 Archive Stories, visit the dedicated webpage, Unpublished Archives of British Philhellenism.