Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania


The Americas and Oceania Collections blog promotes our collections relating to North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania by providing new readings of our historical holdings, highlighting recent acquisitions, and showcasing new research on our collections. It is written by our curators and collection specialists across the Library, with guest posts from Eccles Centre staff and fellows. Read more about this blog

28 February 2024

Reframing Dominant Narratives: Jewish History on the Island of Jamaica

Marina Delfos Harris is a native Jamaican and community historian; she was a 2023 Eccles Institute Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

Jamaica’s Jewish heritage has intrigued me for over 20 years and was the focus of my Master’s Thesis at the London Metropolitan University back in 2005. Over the last 12 years, I have become more involved in researching and preserving this rich heritage, particularly through Jewish cemeteries. However, this work has been mainly voluntary and not as consistent as I would have liked. Two years ago, I made a commitment to myself to find a way to dedicate the rest of my working life to what I consider a vital, albeit forgotten aspect of Jamaican history and culture. 

Lifelong learning is a thing, a thing so powerful that we underestimate its importance when it comes to mature students and researchers who can contribute to world knowledge in powerful ways. The Eccles Institute for the Americas supports this concept of lifelong learning. Their Visiting Fellowships offer a brilliant opportunity for independent researchers such as me to engage in original research at a world-class institution. They are especially beneficial to those of us who need that jumpstart to further our research.   

In applying for the Fellowship my goal was and is still to expand our knowledge of Jamaica’s Jewish history so that the overall historical narrative of Jamaica can be more inclusive and accurate. One of the ways I wanted to pursue this goal was to start filling in the gaps in original community records that have been destroyed by fire, hurricanes and earthquakes on the island over the last three and a half centuries. The collection of Jewish cemetery archives that remain in Jamaica has, like many other historic cemeteries around the world, been compromised by vandalism and neglect. Yet, what I discovered while in London, was that Jamaica’s oldest Jewish cemetery, the 17th century Hunts Bay burial ground, has a much larger percentage of legible tombstones than the oldest Jewish cemetery in the UK, the 17th-century Velho ‘Old Cemetery’ established by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in London’s East End. What this realization reinforced for me was that the work that my colleagues and I do through the Jamaican Jewish Cemeteries Preservation Fund (JJCPF), has value and that the documentation we are creating is significant. My research findings at the British Library will supplement this work and contribute to a repository that other researchers and genealogists can access. 

Initially my research plan was focused on searching for maps confirming the locations of Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica, plus scanning for death announcements in newspapers and other publications. I spent my first week in Maps Reading Room and and had assumed there must be detailed plans of the key port towns like Port Royal and the old Capital of St. Jago de La Vega (Spanish Town) as Jamaica was a former British colony, and a significant one at that in the 18th century. Frustratingly this was not the case. I found maps of interest but not that “aha!” moment I had expected. But this is research, as one of the other Fellows commiserated with the rest of us at one of our bi-monthly Researchers Packed Lunch.  

A map of Kingston showing the streets and location of properties for insurance purposes.
C.E. Goad, Insurance Plan of Kingston, 1894. British Library shelfmark: 145.b.3(5.)

From there I moved on to the Newsroom where I could have spent my entire four weeks! The data was rich and broad and my plan to scan only for obituaries quickly went out the window. I was giddy with excitement when I found numerous references to the Jewish population: business ads, court cases, gaol lists, juror lists, lists of passengers departing and arriving, and committee memberships. One page of ads from the 19 February 1840 edition of The St. Jago De La Vega Gazette, for example, mentions the following Jamaican Jews: Depass, Dias, Spyers and Sanguinetti - Liquor Licenses; Deleon and Lyon - Tavern Licenses; Lyon, Fuertado and Sanguinetti – Goods for Sale; De LaMotta – Deputy Marshall’s Office; Court Cases – Moss vs Lazarus and Levison vs Lyon. 

Image of two pages of a newspaper, with four columns on text on each page.
St. Jago De La Vega Gazette, 19 February 1840. British Library shelfmark: MFM.MMisc1070 

Scanning microfilm was tedious but rewarding. One of the bits of helpful advice I received before I embarked on my Fellowship, was to gather as much information as possible while I was there and save the analyzing for later. The ability to scan and email a newspaper page from microfilm allowed me this luxury and is one of the best tools offered by the British Library. 

The final two weeks of my research were dedicated to the Manuscripts and Rare Books Reading Rooms. This is when I started to hone my research skills and build confidence with my approach to the materials. I became more adept at sifting through documents to determine what information was valuable and what wasn’t. It was essential to get a feel of what else was held within the various collections at the British Library, as undoubtedly there are treasures to be discovered in the most obscure of manuscripts. It could be a telling entry in meticulously kept government records, or a sentence that gives pause, challenging what you thought you understood. My research also benefited from access to online journals during my Fellowship.  Jstor is an incredible resource that connected me with multiple articles and references to Jamaica’s Jewish community.  

One of my finds The Natural, Moral and Political History of Jamaica... by James Knight, included commentary on Jamaica’s Jews; some of which was derogatory. The ‘List of Landowners in Jamaica etc. about 1750’ was a gem of a record, however, and I was surprised to see the number of Jews who owned land, many of them occupying over 500 acres.  It will be constructive comparing it to the ‘List of Jewish Persons Endenizened and Naturalized 1609-1799' compiled by Samuel, Barnett & Diamond that I viewed on Jstor, as 141 Jews were naturalized in Jamaica during the period 1741-1751. 

All in all, I collected a significant amount of information, although at the time I thought I hadn’t, and it has taken me several weeks to compile and label 48 pages of typed notes and tables, 94 pages of newspaper scans, 43 images of maps and 69 images of manuscripts and books.  There were many maps and documents that didn’t reveal anything useful, but for me the absence of information is just as telling as the presence of information.   

My role now, as I see it, is to analyze, write and present my findings, add to the knowledge base and continue research. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity that the Eccles Institute Fellowship offered me and the sense of purpose it gave me to continue with my goal of learning and sharing research about Jamaican Jewish history. 

As I reflect on my Fellowship and the data I collected, I am encouraged by Heidi Kaufman’s “Strangers in the Archive,” where she asserts that archives have the power to shape and produce meaning, and in turn, I believe, to reframe marginalized narratives like that of Jamaica’s Jewish community. 



21 February 2024

Researching and Unraveling Haitian Stories in the Archives

Jean Renel Pierre Louis (aka Prensnelo) is a Haitian-Grenadian artist and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

I came to the British Library as an Eccles Visiting Fellow in July 2023 to research and unravel Haitian stories within the Library’s collection. My objective was to find inspiration for a new series of artworks, drawing strength from both my own recollections of the 2010 earthquake and the profound spirituality that defines Haitian existence and resilience. 

Hispaniola – named in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and split between French and Spanish control – over time became the distinct entities of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Opening and unrolling maps created between 1564 and 1794 revealed the evolving contours of this shared landmass and was very emotional for me. The many changes to the border separating the two nations shows a history of changing plot lines and its impact on the Haitian psyche. Varying spellings of Haiti and other place names which still exist, including those that were new to me, also caught my attention.  

A man looks at a large map of the Isle of San Domingo.
Isle of San Domingo or Hispaniola. London: Printed for William Faden, 1794. British Library shelfmark: Maps K.Top.123.36.2. 

The Library’s Philatelic collection holds what could be described as a Haitian history in miniature. From stamps honouring revolutionary heroes and commemorating the bicentennial of Port au Prince – showing George Washington, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Simon Bolivar – to a 1979 stamp portraying a rural Haitian mother breastfeeding and marking the 50th Anniversary of the Interamerican Children Organisation, these stamps are a mosaic of Haiti’s triumphs and tribulations. I had not thought of stamps as holders of history before this and finally appreciated the value of my father’s cherished collection, held in two red and brown suitcases and including a stamp of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Haiti’s 40th President.  

Seven stamps in different colours of Haitian revolutionary heroes.
British Library Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection, Haiti.

I did not find much information on Faustin Elie-Soulouque, a politician and military commander from Petit-Goave (my maternal hometown) who was president and later Emperor of Haiti. However, documents on Henry Christophe, a key leader in the Haitian Revolution and the only monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti, included a peculiar typewritten addition to the Library’s copy of Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta (Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850; British Library shelfmark W.4769): an image of ‘Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti.’ This addition reminded me that history, like ink on paper, can be amended and expanded. 

A skecth of young man in a military uniform, including a bicorn hat with a large feather.
'Christophe, or Henry the First, King of Haiti', in Colesworthey Grant, Lithographic Sketches of the Public Characters of Calcutta. Calcutta: W. Thacker and Co., 1850. British Library shelfmark: W.4769. 

Photographs of Haiti in its glory days made me a little sad, given the many buildings that are still unfixed more than a decade after the earthquake. However, those images, as well as video and recordings of ceremonial songs and festivals, were good references for future projects.  

Between July and November my days at the British Library helped me to think more broadly about how I, as a visual artist, can pay my respects to the resilience of a nation and of a people that have endured such highs and lows. The Eccles Fellowship provided me with a wellspring of inspiration for canvases yet to come. 


01 February 2024

Hello - and moving forward...

The Americas and Oceania team is delighted to connect with you for the first time since the cyber-attack on the British Library at the end of October 2023. Together with the rest of our colleagues, we are so grateful to our Readers for your incredible support during the last few months. 

As you may be aware, the Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire are open for personal study. Access to collection items and online resources is limited but steadily expanding, so please visit the British Library website for the most up-to-date information. The website includes information about renewing or obtaining your Reader Pass. It also includes a recently released searchable online version of the Main Catalogue which contains records of the majority of the Library’s printed collections along with extensive ‘FAQs’ and a video to assist you in ordering and accessing collection items. 

Although most of the Library’s digital collection and online resources are currently unavailable, the following freely available online resources include British Library items:  

 Other available resources include: 

Within the Library’s Reading Rooms there is an extraordinarily rich collection of Americas reference materials. In Rare Books and Music, for example, there are guides to American sheet music and jazz, and histories of the book in the Caribbean. Humanities 1 has a wealth of reference works and encyclopedic works in history and literature while Humanities 2 has books and journals on entertainment, film and popular music studies. The Newsroom also has extremely useful histories and guides to the press and media landscapes of the Americas and Oceania, and there are also plenty of relevant and inspiring titles available in Social Sciences and Manuscripts. All these books are on the Main Catalogue or you can browse in person with a Reader Pass.

The 'Enciclopedia de Mexico' (HLR 972.003) in Humanities 1.
The 'Enciclopedia de Mexico' (HLR 972.003) in Humanities 1.
A selection of American music titles in Rare Books and Music
A selection of American music titles in Rare Books and Music


A selection of popular music books in Humanities 2
A selection of popular music books in Humanities 2


A selection of media studies books in the Newsroom
A selection of media studies books in the Newsroom

 Finally, the Reference Services team is on hand to answer research queries and advise on collection availability at [email protected]; they are receiving a high volume of enquiries but will get back to you as soon as possible. If you have an Americas-focused collection query you can also email [email protected]  

Thank you so much again for keeping in touch and for your ongoing support!