It’s easier to find doodles, scribbles, and inscriptions in children’s books than polished drawings. When I discover one, I always hope that it will provide some insight into the artist, who presumably owned the book and had some reason for decorating the page.
The other day I opened up a rather sorry-looking American book from the 1820s, which had on the back of the front free endpaper a handsome color drawing of a rose below a name in a hand that could be contemporary with the book. The more I looked at the book, the more difficult it became to draw any conclusions about the drawing.
The name above the drawing is “William Crowell.” Lacking a date or a place, there’s no information in the book to help answer the question when his name was written in the book, or to try and identify him, his home or age.
Would a boy or young man be as likely to choose the subject of a flower than a girl or young woman? Is it possible that the signature and drawing were made by a girl or woman presenting the book to him as a gift? Or does that line of thought simply demonstrate how easy it is to fall back on gender role stereotypes when there is no information to query. While this makes it easy to construct a plausible little scenario, it shuts down thinking about alternative explanations. William Crowell might have been an enthusiastic gardener or plant collector.
But why would anyone draw a rose in a 72-page pamphlet by Mrs. Sherwood, the famous British evangelical woman writer? It seems irrelevant to the story of Dazee, a West African boy taken by a slaver operating illegally after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807. An anti-slavery patrol of the Royal Navy liberates him before he can be sold and takes him to freedom in Sierra Leone. A missionary takes an interest in the boy, a willing convert to Christianity who finds peace when eventually reunited with his mother, who also embraces his faith.
What if there is no connection between the signature and the drawing: they might have been done at separate times by different people. The person who drew the rose may have had no interest in the story at all, but simply been looking for a blank piece of paper to fill. Seeing a beautiful rose, he or she pulled the book out of a pocket and captured its appearance.
Whether or not we know how the rose came to be drawn in this tract, the bibliographic record will record the presence of the drawing, the signature, and the little vignette on the title page. Some researcher may recognize the book as having belonging to a library that was dispersed sometime ago and be delighted to add this to the list of books it once contained. Someone curating an exhibition may want to include it as a specimen of amateur botanizing. What matters is that these traces left behind in The Re-captured Slave are discoverable.