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Monday, 23 November 2015

Jack Latham: How the United States got Big!

When I lived in Canada, I used to go to my wife's lectures in Anthropology, African and American History at the University of Toronto. They were far more engaging than the lectures I'd been given in the UK, and they gave me a grounding in history that I still remember to this day. It was like doing another degree course (I did all the reading as well).

Some of the things that stuck with me from American history were the expansion of the United States of America. We didn't learn about that in British school - we learned about the pyramids, the First World War, the Empire and how bad the Nazis were. It's still the same now.

But going to these lectures I suddenly learnt that the United States had started off so relatively small, that 200 years ago it was a place that was part of the people who had lived there for the previous millenia, that the whole of the USA was formed on lies and deceit and arbitrary power grabs that are mind-boggling in their venality. So it wasn't too different from the British Empire then (or any empire or expansion of power).

     all photographs Jack Latham

The idea that struck me most was the Louisiana Purchase. This was when the United States doubled in size by buying a bunch of land from the French. Not that the French had ever done anything with this land or even occupied any part of it for any length of time,or even 'owned' it in any sense of the word. It was wholey imaginary ownership based wholely in the mind and the statement of ownership. But if you stick a pen to a map, draw a line across it and give the space a name, it somehow looks real. And then you have something you can sell, as long as you can find someone who believes in your maps. That's how colonialism works.

So in 1803 on behalf of the United States, Thomas Jefferson bought a massive chunk of land from Napoleon Bonaparte for $15 million. Trouble was nobody knew anything about this land other than the people who lived there already. And they were Native Americans so didn't count.

So an expedition had to be mounted to 'discover the land' to find routes from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean, to map the mountains, to survey the lands, to see what was fit for farming and navigation and eventual exploitation.

The people who made this expedition were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. From 1804 to 1806, they walked across territory uncharted by Europeans, from Missouri to Oregon. It was an epic expedition, one that established an US presence on the Pacific coast and helped aid the eventual expansion of the country to what it is today.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is the foundation for Jack Latham's book, A Pink Flamingo. It's a nicely laid book of large-format images that follows the route taken by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago.

And in a strange way, it echoes the original intent of the expedition, with quiet images of roadways and houses showing how the route is navigated now, how the route has been settled. And is still being settled, because there's a sense of austerity in there, the idea that what we have now is no kind of end game.

What were the results of the Lewis and Clark expedition. A Pink Flamingo doesn't give any answers to that question. I like that.  It's still too soon to tell, it's still being settled, it's still empty, and it's still for sale, but now to a different kind of buyer.

Buy the book here.

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