American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more about this blog

10 January 2022

Uncovering Free Ports in the Colonial Caribbean

R. Grant Kleiser is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, New York City, and was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2021.

During my time as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library, I was interested in material concerning the diffusion of so-called ‘free ports’ in the Spanish, French, British, and Danish Caribbean from roughly 1750 to 1787. In this short period, all the aforementioned imperial powers enacted legislation to welcome foreign merchants to trade in certain colonial harbours (‘free ports’) under low customs duties. Previously, each European empire generally forbade or limited trade with other imperial powers, e.g. England and its colonies were only supposed to trade with each other. Thus, this free port movement marks a notable moment of colonial reform towards opening commerce with foreigners. In a testament to free ports’ importance, political-economic writers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Paine highlighted free ports in their treatises that advocated for what we might call “free trade” today.

Scholars are beginning to chart the origins of Caribbean free ports and their economic effects in the region. But few historians have considered such free ports’ establishment in conjunction with one another, nor have many works examined the impact free ports made on enslaved people’s lives. This is what my broader project sets out to do. Specifically, at the British Library, I wanted to understand how Spain’s lone free port of Monte Cristi (established in 1756) fit in with Britain’s Free Port Act of 1766 (which opened four ports in Jamaica and two in Dominica).

Monte Cristi lies on the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola, just on the border between Santo Domingo (the modern-day Dominican Republic) and Saint-Domingue (today Haiti). Spanish policy-makers had decided to experiment with liberalizing that port for ten years starting in the 1750s to stimulate the desperate local economy and provide support for the Spanish population there. For decades, settlers from Saint-Domingue had been attempting to push into Santo Domingo, and Madrid believed that sparking trade in that region would supply Spanish inhabitants who could defend against such incursions. Even though hundreds of British and British American merchants subsequently flocked to this port, Monte Cristi hardly figured into British politicians’ discussions to establish their own Caribbean free ports in 1766. Why did these policymakers in Westminster and Whitehall ignore Monte Cristi as a free port model when it was so popular with British merchants?

 

 

I found a critical folder to answer this question in the British Library, and it has all to do with the chaos of wartime. From 1756 to 1763 the British were engaged in a global military conflict with France, what we now call the Seven Years War. As well as head-on battles and skirmishes at sea, an important maritime wartime strategy for Britain was the naval blockade, when Royal Navy ships would try to prevent merchant ships from accessing French and French colonial ports and so starve these territories of vital supplies. To bolster the blockade effort, in 1756 the British Parliament enacted the so-called Rule of 1756. This Act extended the Navy’s efforts beyond interrupting France’s trade with its own colonies, by seeking to disrupt any neutral European power from trading with the French. British subjects were prohibited from trading with neutral powers who were also trading with France (such as Denmark and, before 1762, Spain), and in practice, the Rule often was used to legitimize the seizure of ships from any nation conducting commerce with the enemy French.

Since Monte Cristi was open to merchants of all flags and was located only a few miles from French Saint-Domingue, British naval vessels identified this port as a potential nest of illegal wartime commerce. Add MS 36213 contains the testimony from multiple appeal hearings concerning British Navy vessels that had seized merchant ships that had conducted commerce in Monte Cristi. The testimony from the appeal hearings demonstrates how many ships in and around Monte Cristi the British Navy captured, including ships from Ireland, British North America, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The captains of these ships swore that they were only trading with the neutral Spanish, and not with the enemy French. However, the British courts clearly suspected fraud on the part of the traders and also on Spanish officers in Monte Cristi providing false certificates concerning the provenance of the ships’ cargoes. These reports, taken together with other documents and Britain’s general stigma at this time against Spain as a decadent, corrupt, and lazy power, show that British policymakers in 1766 would not view Monte Cristi as a well-regulated free port worthy of emulation.

A handwritten eighteenth-century manuscript, which reads in the margin, "Slaves: Memorial of the Wets India planters complaining that the Spaniards invit the slaves to desert their masters."
“Memorial of the West India Planters complaining that the Spaniards invite the Slaves to desert their Masters,” read At the Council Chamber Whitehall, April 17, 1790, BL Add MS 38392, ff. 92-93.

I also came into the British Library hoping to find records that would detail the experiences that enslaved people had in such Caribbean free ports. While, as several historians have noted, free ports were sites of further sale and displacement of enslaved people of African descent, I argue that free ports also provided heightened opportunities for such enslaved people to claim freedom. Specifically, I note that the increased presence of Spanish vessels in British free ports offered enslaved people an easier means of escape. Spain promulgated several Reales Cédulas or royal decrees that promised freedom to any enslaved person escaping from Protestant empires who were willing to convert to Catholicism in Spanish realms. In British free ports then, Spanish merchants brought news of these decrees to eager people held in bondage as well as potential berths to stowaways. The above source, “Memorial of the West India Planters complaining that the Spaniards invite the Slaves to desert their Masters,” combined with other documents indicate that British Grenada experienced a heightened “problem” of freedom-seekers fleeing to nearby Spanish Trinidad after St. George’s, Grenada became a free port in 1787. Thus merchants and white inhabitants were not the only ones to benefit significantly from the free-port reform movement.

These documents in the British Library will serve as fundamental sources in my examination of the development of mid-to-late eighteenth-century Caribbean free ports and their impact on the Atlantic world. Not only can such research help us to understand the roots of many of our modern commercial and political-economic practices and ideas, but it can also shed light on historical actors’ experiences that have too often been silenced by contemporary writers, archival prioritization, and later scholars.

20 December 2021

Bibliographic E-resources: or, how to give up footnote-chasing forever...

This third - and deliberately brief - instalment of our e-resources blog series focuses on the Library's ‘bibliographic’ e-resources!

By and large, searching this kind of e-resource will not bring up the full-text of books and articles. Instead, you will be given a list of citations which you then need to track down elsewhere. For example, if your search brings up a journal article that looks interesting, you will need to see if the British Library or another institution subscribes to that journal in order to be able to read the article itself.

While this might at first glance seem disappointing, the unique and utterly brilliant selling point of these databases is their capacity to stop you from ever again needing to note down and follow-up footnotes as you attempt to uncover all the previous research on your topic.  Instead, in a matter of moments, you will be provided with accurate, up-to-date information about everything that has already been published in your field.

So, how do they work?

In brief, they are compiled by teams of highly-skilled indexers whose role it is to assign multiple index-terms to every article in a particular journal, thereby providing you with the greatest possible chance of retrieving citations that are relevant to your research.

All mainstream subjects – history, literature, politics, sociology, economics, art, music etc – have at least one dedicated bibliographic e-resource and these can be found by using the Subject search facility on the Library’s portal. These subject-specific e-resources include, for example:

  • America History and Life, which currently indexes articles in 1,648 journals covering United States and Canadian history and culture
  • MLA International Bibliography, which currently indexes 6000+ journals in literature, language and linguistics, literary theory and criticism, and folklore, and which adds over 66,000 citations every year
  • HAPI Online (Hispanic American Periodicals Index Online), which currently indexes 400+ journals and includes 335,000+ citations in total

Other bibliographic e-resources cover multiple subjects, for example: Humanities Index; Arts and Humanities Citation Index; and Social Sciences Full Text (selective full-text coverage since 1994).

And some bibliographic e-resources focus on a particular type of content, for example:

  • Proquest Dissertations and Theses and EThOS index, in different ways, doctoral dissertations and Master's theses 
  • Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 offers digitized access to William Frederick Poole’s ground-breaking attempt to make accessible the vast amount of magazine and journal content published in the 19th century. 

Below are some of the bibliographic e-resources with Americas content that are currently offered by the British Library, but please take a look at the full range of these resources on the Library’s website as there will be at least one database that will make your literature search both quick and comprehensive; some of  these resources will include books as well as journal articles, and an increasing number of them are, happily, offering full-text access:

ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature)
America: History and Life
Anthropological Index Online
Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts
Art Index
Arts and Humanities Citation Index
Book Review Digest Plus (1983- ) & Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982
Chicano Database
EconLit
EThOS
HAPI Online
Humanities and Social Sciences Index Retrospective, 1907-1984
Humanities Index, 1962 – present
International Political Science Abstracts
MLA International Bibliography
Music Index
PAIS International
Policy File Index
Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 (Part of Eight Centuries)
Proquest Dissertations and Theses
RLIM Abstracts of Music Literature
SciELO Citation Index
Social Sciences Citation Index
Social Sciences Full Text

Wishing you a wonderful festive season and all the very best until 2022 when the next blog in this series will highlight everything you need to know about Americas-focused Women's Studies e-resources!

 

14 December 2021

Dystopian Fiction & Long Feminist Histories

This autumn the Eccles Centre has been hosting a series of events and activities for researchers interested in gender and US politics. The programme will conclude with two days of activities this week, including a public, online event exploring the process of communicating women’s history through exhibitions, Staging Women’s History, on Thursday 16 December at 17.00 GMT, which is free to attend and open to all.

In previous events, the group has explored different aspects of the British Library’s collections, including sheet music, poetry, and fiction, which network member, Dr Eir-Anne Edgar, explores in more detail in this post.

In October 2021, thousands came out to protest a restrictive new anti-abortion law in Texas, which allows individuals to sue anyone suspected in assisting in or receiving an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Images of the protests capture the scene – some women in bright pink pussy hats, many protestors armed with homemade signs and banners, and some wearing long red cloaks and large white wimples or bonnets that conceal much of the wearer’s face – the costume made famous by the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale and worn by the Handmaids of the novel’s title.

Mannequin wearing a black dress with red cape and white bonnet.
Homemade ‘handmaid’ Women’s March costume, featured in the British Library’s ‘Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights’ exhibition, 2020-21

Culturally, the costumes have come to be synonymous with the oppression of women by a Christian, patriarchal society that restricts women’s political and individual freedoms and punishes rule-breakers with physical and emotional violence. Even more significantly, the costumes represent the bravery and cunning exercised by women who have had enough and push back against oppression, as protagonist June/Offred does, rescuing children and women tormented in Gilead’s society.

Atwood’s follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, the highly anticipated 2019 novel, The Testaments, captures the zeitgeist of the Trump presidency. Without revealing too many spoilers, readers see Offred’s legacy via the brave actions of a few young women – some in Gilead, some across the border in Canada – as well as a surprising twist from characters familiar to readers from The Handmaid’s Tale. Told in alternating perspectives from three different women, it seems that Atwood is underscoring the way in which women must work together to implement societal change. In particular, The Testaments illustrates the power that narrative has. A secret library, tucked deep in the recesses of Gilead, contains forbidden books that portray “problematic women” who deviate from their social norms. “Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost, Lives of Girls and Women – what a moral panic each one of them would cause if set loose among the Supplicants!” (Atwood, 35).

Inside back cover showing envelop and extra content
Special edition of The Testaments (2019) from Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Inside back cover showing envelop for bonus material.

 

Handwritten list on lined notepaper
Special edition of The Testaments (2019) from Pelee Island Bird Observatory, featuring bonus content, including ‘Aunt Lydia’s Reading List’

These books, like 'The Testaments' itself, have the power to impact culture and society. As Atwood herself has noted, the Trump administration’s attempts to limit the rights of immigrants, women, LGBTQI people, and other members of marginalized groups have inspired her work.

In my research, I examine how dystopian fiction such as Atwood’s novels addresses contemporary feminist political issues and movements, including the #metoo movement and the fourth wave feminist movement’s drive for reproductive justice. Although my project focuses on recent iterations of women’s writing and their corresponding political issues, it is important to note that there is a much longer history of feminist dystopian novels that imaginatively reframe contemporaneous social and political issues. We can also see this in the work of authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose utopian trilogy (written in 1909, 1915, and 1916 – yet not published until the 1970’s) portrays a world without men, one in which women are breadwinners and are able to procreate without men, and emphasizes the necessity of community, education, and the malleability of gender roles. 

Three paperback books on a table
Selected editions of Gilman’s work, left to right: Herland (London: Woman's Press, 1979) General Reference Collection X.909/44756; Herland, The Yellow Wall-paper, and Selected Writings (New York : Penguin Books, 1999) Document Supply m03/42037; The Yellow Wallpaper (London: Virago Press, 2009) General Reference Collection H.2013/.5096

Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” arguably her most well-known story, was re-printed in 1973 by Feminist Press. Originally written in 1892 and, like her utopian trilogy, first published in her periodical The Forerunner, Gilman’s work was “rediscovered” by second wave feminists and struck a chord with a new generation of readers. The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates many 19th century women’s issues, such as the limitations of the domestic sphere, medical treatment for women’s mental and physical health issues, the pressures of motherhood and marriage, and more. For second wave feminist readers, the worlds that Gilman portrays in her work, imagined and real, resonate from the 19th century and into the 70’s, much in the same way that the Reagan-era issues captured in The Handmaid’s Tale reverberate in 2021.

The “Gender and US Politics” group discussed Gilman’s short story and Atwood’s latest novel during a meeting that focused on fiction. Given my current research project, I was very excited to discuss these materials with others. I am one of just a few literature scholars in the group, which is also composed of historians, political scientists, and members of diverse disciplines. Listening to those outside of my expertise was one of the most interesting (and inspiring) aspects of the meeting. For instance, several scholars research suffragism in the US and abroad, and their contributions shed light on new ways of thinking about the literature, particularly in considering Gilman’s work. The opportunity to be part of a transdisciplinary group of scholars with intersecting research interests has helped me “see” the literature I work with in new ways, such as making connections between Atwood’s novels and television adaptation with Gilman’s writing, first published almost one hundred years before. It has also helped me to see how literature resonates over time with readers and how political issues can morph or remain the same, despite the political progress women have made.

****

Dr Eir-Anne Edgar is Associate Professor of Literature in ILU at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. She is currently at work on her research project, Women in the Wastelands: The World-Making of Feminist Critical Dystopian Fiction, which explores the recent explosion of transnational, feminist dystopian novels and the ways in which they “re-make” or “re-see” real-world issues. Though the Wasteland may seem like a strange place to locate hope, this project finds that women authors have long located frustrations with the limitations placed against gender and sexuality within the pages of dystopian and utopian novels.

The Gender and US Politics project, coordinated by Cara Rodway (Eccles Centre) and Robert Mason (University of Edinburgh) is supported by the British Association for American Studies and the US Embassy London.

[Posted by Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre]