Sometimes doing history feels like you are beginning with a completed painting, quilt or jigsaw and trying to go back to the start to figure out how the paint got on the canvas, or where the thread came from, or whose hands completed the jigsaw. Was it one person or a group of people? How long did it take them? I study global humanitarianism during the Great Irish Famine and lots of the things I discover lead me to ask these kinds of questions. How on earth did a ship sailing from Hawaii to British Colombia donate money to Ireland during the Famine? I know that this happened, but I don’t know how. I am now trying to figure this out. In fact, most of these things happen because of people’s relationships with one another and the wielding of power and profits. The British Relief Association was the largest organisation involved in famine philanthropy, amassing hundreds of thousands of donations from people across the world. I have been researching its committee-members, one of them is named John Prescott, a banker. I found his old bank cheque from 1871 and bought it for £4. It is not a piece in the particular jigsaw I am trying to disassemble, but holding it in my hands feels as though, at least, I am not holding nothing.
Image: Bank Cheque, Messrs Prescott, Grote, Cave & Cave, 1871, author’s own photograph.