or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/15

   June 20th, 2015

colonial ninjaI know I tend to be overly-paranoid, but sometimes reference questions are so unusual that I think they just have to be some "secret shopper" type test to see if I'll take them seriously. One such question came in via email last week:

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, June 09, 2015 5:11 PM
To: [email protected]; [email protected]
Subject: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

patron_name: [---------------------]
patron_email_address: [---------------------]
patron_card_number: [---------------------]

Comments: Do you have reference/source documents on trade of goods/ideas from Asia to Europe during the 18th Century? I am a French & Indian War re-enactor, and I am looking to doing some research on whether certain items, bamboo training sword and stuff like that, as well as knowledge of martial arts would have been traded during this time period.

Thank you for your assistance.

What the heck? It sounds both plausible and ridiculous at the same time. However, since that's the kind of criteria that interests me, I looked around to see what could be found.

My coworkers had already pulled the few books we had on the French and Indian War, but they weren't much help. And we didn't have any resources on Europe-Asia trade in the 18th Century, so I continued looking online. The best I could find were references to European colonization of Asia, but not much specifically about the trade of bamboo swords or martial arts training.

So, I replied to the patron with what I could find:

From: "Chelmsford Library Reference"
Sent: 6/10/2015 7:20:00 PM
Subject: RE: Chelmsford Library Reference Question


Unfortunately, we don't have very many resources on the French and Indian war, and for those we do we haven't been able to find any mention of bamboo or martial arts, or any trade with Asia.

I checked some of the history databases we subscribe to, as well as two books that seemed most relevant:
- The war that made America : a short history of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson (call number 973.26/Ande)
- Empires at war : the French and Indian War and the struggle for North America, 1754-1763, by William M. Fowler, Jr. (call number 973.26/Fowl)

Since we didn't have any luck with library resources, I tried to find other organizations with more expertise in the French and Indian War. Here are a few groups that might have the information you're looking for:

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has an extensive list of online resources:

Fort William Henry Museum in Lake George, NY, has an extensive exhibit and a Contact Us form for questions:

Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, PA, also has an extensive museum and a contact form:

Lastly, the website http://www.warforempire.org/visit/site_listing.aspx?state=massachusetts&c=visit lists sites in MA that might be of use, including the Boston National History Park which can be contacted at http://www.nps.gov/bost/contacts.htm

I did find a reference stating that the French and Indian War was the name of just the North American theater of the Seven Years War, which took place in other parts of the world simultaneously, including Asia. It looks like France, England, and Spain had various battles in Asia, mostly in India and the Philippines. Although fighting happened at the same time as the French and Indian War in North America, I wasn't able to find any cross-over between the two areas.

I'm sorry we can't provide more direct help, but we will keep looking at let you know if we find anything with the connection you're looking for. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

Very shortly the patron replied:

Sent: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:38 PM
To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Re[2]: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

Mr. Herzog,

I thank you very much for your assistance, and I must especially thank you for going several steps beyond what I expected, it is greatly appreciated!

Many thanks,

I always feel a little guilty when a patron thanks me even though I don't feel I helped very much, but perhaps one of the museums will provide the information he's seeking. And I've been mostly out of the library since this question came in, but now that I'm back I can continue looking - I still have the patron's email address, and who knows what further research might find.

Still, though - I will admit to looking this patron up in the catalog to make sure he was real before I started working on the question.

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5 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/15”

  1. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    I love questions like this one! It turns out that the fact that his character has a bamboo sword specifically might be the key. According to the information I found about Asian practice swords, the bamboo practice sword was just now coming into wide use at the time of the French and Indian War, and only in Japan. Prior to that, practice swords were made of hardwood, and were prone to crippling people during practice.

    A couple of historical timelines show us that the first American ship didn’t sail to Japan until 1791 and the first documented Japanese didn’t come to America until 1843. In fact, Japan was closed to Europeans throughout the entire 18th century, except for a Dutch trading enclave that dealt largely in selling medical and technological information.

    So if I were to encounter a soldier in the French and Indian war with a bamboo practice sword and a good grasp of martial arts, I would assume that he had ties to Dutch merchants, doctors, or scientists, and that he acquired his skills through an unusual but not unheard-of friendship with a Japanese kendo practitioner serving in the Dutch enclave at Dejima.

    If by “bamboo” he just meant “not metal,” then that throws the whole theory on its ear, but that’s the advantage of not asking follow-up questions before you start your wild postulations.

  2. Alger C. Newberry III Says:

    When I began reading this, the first thing I thought of was that, first of all, he is probably an emerging enthusiast of the period and, secondly, that he has seen the film “Brotherhood of the Wolf” that details a period shortly after the war where a soldier comes back to France with a Native American companion (played by Mark Dacascos, an actor of mixed Asian heritage). The two fight with “Crouching Tiger”-esque martial arts skills and the villain, who also was in North America during the French and Indian War has equally anachronistic fighting skills.

    This was my impression, but all things considered it makes sense to me. It was a good film if you can suspend your disbelief. 😛

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @The Librarian: thank you for your research – whew, I haven’t done serious cross-checking research like that in a long time. I will definitely pass it along to the patron.

    @Alger: thank you for the movie reference (I just requested it from a nearby library). You may absolutely be correct too. As much as I enjoy movies like this (and Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”), I kind of like actual historical accuracy, too.

    Another person emailed me directly with some other research suggestions, so I’ll forward all of this, including asking about the movie, to the patron and see what he says. Thanks again to everyone!

  4. Jen Says:

    I have a subscription to Black Belt magazine and they often have articles on the history of various martial arts. I think if you ever would like to write up a story on the question and the research you have found, they might be interested in publishing it. They also might have some resources for you to look at as well.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jen: thanks for the idea. I’ll have to do a lot more serious research to make it interesting for a magazine, but the comments here (and a few I received in email) have been great. I’ll definitely think about it.

    And that’s awesome you’re into martial arts – I love hearing about what librarians do in their free time. We are such a diverse and interesting people.