Dr. Anthony MacFarlane: Book Collector of the West Indies

I began my love affair with books at age eight. My very early years were spent on the small plantation-Salisbury-owned by my grandparents. In those days the Institute of Jamaica had a service where books were sent to readers in the "country"-any place in Jamaica outside Kingston. The books were dispatched by mail in a brown paper wrapper and adorned with the purple stamp "Official Free." When the reader wanted to return the books the wrapping was reversed and mailed back to the institute-again, free. The staff at the Institute selected the titles, and on many occasions my grandmother groused that she had already read the book or books in question. In one of the passages at Salisbury there was a bookcase. This was called "the library." I had no idea what a real library was until I moved to Spanish Town and the St. Catherine Parish Library was inaugurated.

When I was eight years old my grandmother got me hooked on reading. Her method was very simple; she went to Kingston once per month and on one occasion she returned with a book for me. This was Little Men by Louisa May Alcott. I flipped through the pages and had a sense of disappointment. There were no pictures. But after a few days and with nothing to occupy myself, I picked the book up and began to read. I was hooked. Paperback books became available and I could then afford to buy books myself.

When I went to university in 1957, my educational background was typical but not especially focused on the history of Jamaica, my birthplace. My reading consisted, for the most part, of authors who were of European origin. When I arrived in Canada in June 1959 and studied at McMaster University, my passion was for classical piano music and the myriad associations that came with that interest. At school the subjects that we were taught pertaining to literature and history did not include any of the pertinent elements in Jamaican, or indeed West Indian, history. More specifically, we were taught nothing about the two pillars that identified our history-sugar and slaves.

In Jamaica at the university the acclaimed historian was Dr. Elsa Goveia. She was one of the few people of our acquaintance that had actually written a book. Her Historiography of the British West Indies to the End of the Nineteenth Century was a groundbreaking work that was published in Mexico City in 1956. This was an outgrowth of her Ph.D. thesis entitled Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (1952, revised and published in 1965).  For the first time, a young West Indian could access a book that related all of the important histories that were generated over a four hundred-year period. In those days, books on West Indian history were not easily found.

But in 1966, and several years after I had immigrated to Canada, a friend from Jamaica would visit frequently from London, Ontario. He was in the process of gaining his Master’s in library science. And on one visit he suggested that I should start collecting seriously. I had not thought of collecting previously. Basically, "serious collecting" would have to begin with a particular area of interest.

After graduating from McMaster in 1961, I pursued a medical degree at the University of Toronto. I took a year "off" from medicine and went to Paris. Paris was a good place to be in the mid 1960s. I wanted to learn French so that I could read Marcel Proust’s great novel (À la recherche du temps perdu) in the original form-not in translation. Books were relatively inexpensive. On the way to Paris I stopped in London for two weeks, to visit my brother who was living there, and also to hunt for antiquarian books on the history of the West Indies. I had heard apocryphal stories about old books being bought for a song in a bookseller’s barrow outside the shop. Alas, there were no old books to be found-not even in Birmingham where I extended my search. The day before I left for Paris I visited Maggs, one of the great booksellers in London. A family business, it had been in operation for over a hundred years. My initial meeting with the owner Jonn Maggs was not encouraging. He was not optimistic about finding any books on the West Indies. Moreover, when I asked questions about such material as reprints with which he was not familiar, he suspected that I was a dealer. We had lunch together. Whatever the "test" was, Mr. Maggs returned to the shop and asked an associate to take me downstairs to see if there was anything of interest to me. I had at that time of my life never seen, much less handled an antiquarian history that dealt with the West Indies. I was, therefore, quite unfamiliar with the books that later proved to be of consummate interest.

In a nutshell I bought as many books as I could afford. I mailed the lot off to Canada but kept one that I took to Paris with me. I would read a few pages every night and realized with surprise that the descriptions given reminded me very much of Salisbury. I then saw how this knowledge could be used in my medical practice, and I returned to Canada with new ideas as to how I could use this information in treating West Indian patients.

On my return to Canada, I was very fortunate to be friendly with two collectors-Rabbi Bernard Baskin and his brother, Leonard. Under their tutelage, I developed an understanding of the principles of collecting rare books. Goveia’s Historiography has been a guidepost to my collecting. Now, more than 40 years later, my collection is quite large, and yes, I’m concerned about the future of my books. I can sell them or donate them to an institution where they will be available to the larger community, including West Indians who were unaware of their history. McMaster University is a good fit. And besides, I live just a few blocks away from the university and I can have ongoing access to the books as necessary. Accordingly, the decision has been made, and it remains to be seen whether these books will inspire youth of West Indian origin-and indeed those of other cultures-to be re-acquainted with their history.
Photograph of Anthony MacFarlane by Mohan Juneja © 2011