Americas and Oceania Collections blog

5 posts from January 2022

28 January 2022

Sheila Watt-Cloutier on the British Library Player

In October 2021 the British Library was delighted to welcome – albeit virtually – Inuit Environment, Cultural and Human Rights Advocate Sheila Watt-Cloutier to an ‘In Conversation’ event with Polly Russell, Head of the Eccles Centre.

Watt-Cloutier’s account of the impact of climate change upon Inuit communities during her own lifetime was utterly compelling. Extraordinarily – and perhaps in defiance of audience expectations in the run-up to COP26 – her perspective on the future was startling optimistic, evincing as it did an absolute conviction in our capacity to bring about the necessary changes at this critical time.

This hour-long conversation, which includes a powerful contribution from proud Inuk youth, Ashley Cummings, can now be viewed in full on the British Library Player; please do take a look – it will leave you moved, informed and inspired.

Fuller details about Sheila, Ashley and Polly can be found below:

Sheila et al 2

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was born in Nunavik, Québec, and has for decades represented the issues pertaining to the protection of Inuit culture and the Arctic. In 1995 she was elected President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). As its spokesperson, she played a critical role in the UN negotiations to ban the use of Persistent Organic Pollutants which had been polluting the Arctic food chain. More recently, she has focused upon the impact of climate change on Inuit communities. As Chair of ICC representing the four countries of Canada, Alaska, USA, Greenland and Russia where 165,000 Inuit reside, in 2007 she launched the first legal petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, linking climate change to human rights. That same year, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2015 she received a 2015 Right Livelihood Award for her work on climate change in the Arctic and has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Medal. Her book The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2015; British Library shelfmark YD.2016.a.285) was published in 2015.

Ashley Cummings (she/her) is from Pangnirtung, Nunavut and is currently living in Whitehorse, Yukon. She is working for the Training Policy Committee and studying Indigenous Governance at Yukon University. She is a graduate fellow with the North American and Arctic Defense and Security Network, and is a leading voice for climate advocacy. As a previous member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council, Ashley advised the Prime Minister on issues that have included (but are not limited to) rural and northern health/well-being, supporting ethical and Indigenous-led tourism, mental health and other issues affecting youth across Canada. Her colourful background living in Nunavut, Yukon, Nova Scotia, Quebec and New Brunswick has given her a comprehensive perspective on life for Indigenous young people from coast to coast to coast.

Polly Russell is Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. Polly read American & Commonwealth Arts at Exeter University, was awarded a Masters in Journalism at Louisiana State University and holds a PhD in Human Geography from the University of Sheffield. Her research focusses on twentieth century women’s activism and feminism as well as the history and politics of food. Since 2012 Polly has had a column in the Financial Times Saturday magazine, The History Cook and she is the historical presenter on the BBC2 history series Back in Time.

 

26 January 2022

"Hope’s ragged symbol": 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in poetry and prose

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this post contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

 

Black and white photograph showing Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Parliament House, Canberra, 27 January 1972
First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, outside Parliament House, Canberra, 27 January 1972. Left to right- Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. Image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Courtesy SEARCH Foundation. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 BY International Licence

On the evening of 26 January 1972, four men set up a beach umbrella on the lawn opposite Parliament House (now known as Old Parliament House) on Ngunnawal Country in Canberra and established the Aboriginal tent embassy. The four men, Michael Anderson, Tony Coorey, Billy Craigie, and Bert Williams, erected a handmade sign claiming the site as the 'Aboriginal Embassy' and became the first occupants of the longest continual protest site for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights. Numerous, and often violent, attempts since 1972 to remove the embassy have ultimately failed and it remains a site of continued resistance. In recognition of its significance to Australian history, the site was included on the Commonwealth Heritage List in 2015. This blog will look at some of the poetry and prose which inspired or was inspired by the Aboriginal tent embassy.

 

Cover of 'We are going' by Kath Walker. Jacaranda Press, 1964. Shelfmark
We are going: poems by Kath Walker (now Oodgeroo Noonuccal). Brisbane : Jacaranda Press, 1964. British Library shelfmark X.900/2567.

In 1962, the poet, educator and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, prepared a poem for the 5th Annual General Meeting of the Federal Council Aboriginal Advancement in Adelaide. Entitled Aboriginal Charter of Rights, the poem gave voice to the feelings of Aboriginal people, articulating them in 44 lines for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before. Noonuccal, a descendant of the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), uses short, sharp, repetitive lines to make clear the disparity between demands of basic human rights and the current conditions imposed on Aboriginal people:

We want hope, not racialism,

Brotherhood, not ostracism,

Black advance, not white ascendance:

Make us equals, not dependants (Noonuccal, 1962).

Aboriginal Charter of Rights was subsequently published in her first book of poems We are going: poems (Jacaranda Press, 1964, shelfmark X.900/2567.); the first collection of verse published by an Aboriginal poet. The poem reverberated in the Aboriginal rights demonstrations of the 1960s, fueling a growing civil rights awareness amongst students and leading to the 1965 Freedom Ride.  Aboriginal Charter of Rights nears an end with Noonuccal asking "Must we native Old Australians, In our own land rank as aliens?".

 

Cover of The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State / edited by Andrew Schaap and Gary Foley and Edwina Howell. London : Routledge, 2014. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107
The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State / edited by Gary Foley, Andrew Schaap and Edwina Howell. 2014. British Library shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Noonuccal's words were revisited by Gary Foley, the Gumbainggir activist and academic, who played a key role in the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy. In the 2014 edited collection of writing on the tent embassy, The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State (Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107), Foley recalls the decision to name the protest site an embassy was to reflect how Aboriginal people were treated as "aliens in their own land" and so, like other aliens, needed an embassy of their own.  However this embassy wouldn't be a grand government building like the one across the lawn, but one which would reflect the living conditions of Aboriginals; a simple tent which Bobbi Sykes designated "Hope's ragged symbol" in the liberal newspaper Nation Review in 1972.

 

Cover of Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826
Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. British Library shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826

Bobbi (or Roberta) Sykes was a writer, activist, and the first Black Australian to attend Harvard University in the US. She became the executive secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Her piece in the Nation Review begins by outlining the symbolism of the tent:

From the first, the Aboriginal embassy represented the people. It was an embarrassment to the government same as the people are. It was poor and shabby just like the people. For many of the residents who passed through and stayed for a while it was more luxurious than their own homes despite the cold, the lack of facilities, the constant need for money, for food. The embassy was everything that the people still are (Sykes, 1972, 165).

and continues with her personal account of the multiple, violent clashes with police who attempted to remove the protesters and tent from the site; "I was hurled to the ground on several occasions, and walked over by heavy cop boots. 'The whole world's watching, the whole world's watching' we chanted". Sykes later revisits these struggles from 1972 in a haunting description of the tent being torn down in the second volume of her autobiography, Snake Dancing (1998, Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826). Bobbi Sykes was instrumental in publicising the fight for Aboriginal rights to an international audience and inspired many others to do the same.

In her 1998 speech for International Women's Day in Sydney, the Wiradjuri woman and activist Isobel Coe declared:

Now the Aboriginal tent Embassy is all about Sovereignty, this is Aboriginal land, always was and always will be and we are there to tell the truth about Sovereignty. [...] The time has come for us to sit down, we’re mothers, we’re grandmothers aunt’s we’re sisters and we all have a common goal and we all have a stake in this country because we all have children and if we are to go into the next century in peace and harmony we have to address the sovereignty issue. That dirty word that no-one wants to talk about, Aboriginal Sovereignty (Coe, 1998).

Another 'dirty' word in her speech that Coe, a prominent figure at the Aboriginal tent embassy, wanted to get people to talk about was genocide, "We are the first people, not just of this country but of the world and that recognition hasn’t come [...] and when there is another genocide you people [...] will be a part of the conspiracy to commit genocide now!". In 1998 Coe, along with three others, applied to the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory to get the crime of genocide recognised as a crime in Australian law. The application was dismissed and the words in her speech here reflect the shared frustration among Aboriginal people that 26 years have passed since the embassy was established and little progress has been made.

One year later in 1999, that frustration is echoed by the essayists Felicia Fletcher and John Leonard in Australia Day at the Aboriginal tent embassy; an evocative account in the literary journal, Meanjin, of the corroboree ceremony for Aboriginal sovereignty which took place on Australia Day at the embassy in 1999 (58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn.). The piece oscillates between descriptions of the ceremony itself, which involved merging water and fire; "All day the smoke continued to billow out over Parliamentary Triangle; fragrant wood-smoke blowing over the non-native trees and formal gardens", and bitter humour:

'Dear Aboriginal people/s, I hereby enclose your citizenship rights. I have retained my rights to dispossess you of your land. Making a fuss will not prove worthwhile because we are many and you are few. Our God is now your God. Enjoy. Goodbye erstwhile companions of my explorers, and thanks for all the land' (Fletcher & Leonard, 1999, 13).

Canberra poet, Paul Cliff, who has co-published with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, similarly employed a particularly ignorant, non-Indigenous voice to great effect in his poem, Tent Embassy, Winter (Parliament House Lawn, Canberra) which features in his 2002 collection The Impatient World (Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502). In this short but striking poem, Cliff takes the position of an outsider looking in: "Frost grips the tents [...] 9am: and no one's stirred. Is that -- traditional?". This question brings us to one of the final writers to feature in this blog; Lionel Fogarty.

 

 

Cover of Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land / Lionel George Fogarty ; co-edited by Ali Cobby Eckermann. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press, 2015. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977
Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land / Lionel George Fogarty, 2015. British Library shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977


The poetry of Lionel Fogarty, Murri poet and activist, subverts the question of what might be considered 'traditional'. Described by poet, John Kinsella as ‘the greatest living Australian poet’, Fogarty's work is abstract, radical, and at times indecipherable through his mutinous approach to traditional grammatical structures. His poetry draws inspiration from Oodgeroo Noonuccal and is directly informed by his involvement in Aboriginal activism since the 1970s. His 2015 collection Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land (Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977) includes the poem Tent Embassy 1971-2021 as well as number of his own drawings which push and pull at the reader. Mogwie-Idan ends with the poem Power Lives in the Spears:

    Power live in the spears

    Power live in the worries

    Power air in the didgeridoo

    Power run on the people heart

    Bear off the power come from the land (Fogarty, 2015)

 

Cover of Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. British Library shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312
Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. British Library shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312

Fogarty's words here are reminiscent of the closing lines of Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a poem from the Wiradjuri poet, playwright, printmaker and activist, Kevin Gilbert, which features in his award-winning 1994 collection Black from the edge (Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312.). Gilbert was instrumental in the continual occupation of the tent embassy site and spent the final year of his life there. A memorial was held at the embassy for him following his death in 1993. Gilbert's poem, Winter Camp, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, begins with the lines; "We see them, shoulders hunched, standing in the rain", and pays homage to the undiminished, and vital, flames of anger and hope in those who have kept the Aboriginal tent embassy site running for fifty years. The poems ends with the following lines which feel an appropriate way to conclude this blog post:

human spirit flames for love

to light the pages of history

with their heroic form (Gilbert, 1994, 30).

 

Pay attention,"The whole world's watching."

Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator

 

References:

Cliff, P. (2002). The Impatient World. N.S.W. : Five Islands Press. Shelfmark YA.2003.a.48502

Coe, I (1998). Speech for the virtual tour Sydney 1998 IWD. [Online] Available at: http://www.isis.aust.com/iwd/docos/tour98/coe.htm

Fletcher, F., & Leonard, J. (1999). Australia Day at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Meanjin, 58 (1), 10-17. Shefmark P.P.5126.gbn. Also available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.898736456225388

Fogarty, L. (2015). Mogwie-Idan : stories of the land. Newtown, NSW : Vagabond Press. Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3977

Foley, G. (2014). A reflection on the first thirty days of the embassy. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Gilbert, K. (1988). Inside Black Australia : an anthology of Aboriginal poetry. Harmondsworth : Penguin, published with the assistance of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Shelfmark YH.1989.a.6

Gilbert, K. (1994). Black from the edge. South Melbourne, Vic. : Hyland House. Shelfmark YK.1995.a.1312

Sykes, R. (1972). Bobbi Sykes 'Hope's ragged symbol' Nation Review, 29 July-4 August 1972. In: Foley, G., Schaap, A., & Howell, E. (eds.). (2014). The Aboriginal tent embassy : sovereignty, black power, land rights and the State. London : Routledge. 165-168. Shelfmark YC.2013.a.13107

Sykes, R. (1998). Snake dancing. French Forest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. Shelfmark YA.2000.a.1826

Walker, K. (1964). We are going: poems. Brisbane : Jacaranda Press. Shelfmark X.900/2567.

Watson, I. (2000). Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 28 years after it was established [Interview with Isobell Coe by Watson, Irene.]. Indigenous Law Bulletin, 5(1), 17–18. Available online in Reading Rooms at: https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/ielapa.200104820

 

 

 

22 January 2022

Commemorating Roberta Bondar's voyage into space

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dr Roberta Bondar blasting off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center and becoming Canada’s first female astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space!

Bondar had dreamt of this moment from an early age. As a child she showed an aptitude for science and when she was around 12 years old her father built her a laboratory in their basement. Following high school, she obtained a Bachelors degree in Zoology and Agriculture, a Masters degree in Experimental Pathology, and a PhD in Neurobiology. She became a medical doctor in 1977 and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (in neurology) in 1981.

When Canada's National Research Council set up the Canadian Astronaut Program, Bondar immediately signed up. She was selected in December 1983. In 1986 the Challenger disaster threatened the entire space shuttle programme. However, a three-year investigation resulted in its revival and in 1990 Bondar learned she would be the next Canadian astronaut to go into space. 1

Roberta Bondar in her astronaut's uniform, set within the circular frame of the postage stamp; in the background is a black and white image of Bondar holding a stack of papers.
48c stamp by Canada Post celebrating astronaut Roberta Bodnar. It was issued in 2003 as part of a series of eight stamps honouring Canadian astronauts and the space programme that made their work possible. The British Library's Philatelic Collection: General Collection.

Along with six colleagues, Bondar was on board the Space Shuttle Discovery from 22 - 30 January 1992 as part of the first International Microgravity Laboratory mission - the precursor to the International Space Station. The main goal of the mission was to study the effects of microgravity on a variety of organisms and the physiological changes that occur in a weightless environment. As ‘Payload Specialist 1’, Bondar conducted over 40 advanced experiments for 14 countries. Many of these focused upon the effect of weightlessness on the human body - for example, on eye motion, the inner ear, the elongation of the spine and back pain, and energy expenditure during a spaceflight. Others explored the effects of microgravity on other life forms, including shrimp eggs, lentil seedlings, fruit fly eggs and bacteria. 

Roberta Bondar holds an ultrasound to her pilot's head, just above his left ear.
Dr Roberta Bondar using a Doppler ultrasound during her 1992 flight on board Space Shuttle Discovery; Stephen Oswald, the pilot, volunteered for this experiment for Bondar's own research into blood flow to the brain. Image courtesy robertabondar.com

 

Wearing a white polo shirt, Roberta Bondar sits in the Space Shuttle surrounded by equipment while juggling a cookie.
Dr Roberta Bondar - a former Girl Guide - juggling Girl Guide cookies during her 1992 flight on board Space Shuttle Discovery. Image courtesy of the Archives of Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Bondar's ground-breaking work enabled NASA to better prepare its astronauts for long stays on the International Space Station. Following her career as an astronaut, she collaborated with NASA and led a space medicine research team investigating the neurological symptoms seen after spaceflight and their connections to neurological illnesses on Earth, including Parkinson’s disease and stroke. 

After many years working as a scientist, Bondar forged a new path and became an Honours student in Professional Nature Photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California; here, she was profoundly influenced by the work of renowned American photographer, Ansel Adams. She later created the Roberta Bondar Foundation and writes of this transition:

It took time, considerable reflection and detailed planning to build a Foundation focused on two of my passions, the environment and education. Following the razor-sharp focus and discipline involved in being an astronaut and scientist, I chose to apply my love of photography to foster sustainable development. Few get to view our earth from space. It puts unimaginable perspective on life and our stewardship of the planet. I made it the catalyst to a new career. My camera lens is my way of giving back in exhibits, seminars, schools across Canada and overseas.

For her book Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000; British Library shelfmark LB.31.b.21551), Bondar photographed Canada’s 41 national parks from Gwaii Haanas in the west to Terra Nova in the east, and Point Pelee in the south to Quttinirpaaq in the north; the book includes 100 of her photos as well as six images from space.

Now in her mid-70s, Roberta Bondar remains tireless in her commitment to environmental and scientific education and to deepening humanity's love for planet Earth. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Specially Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holds the NASA Space Medal and has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame. 

Photo of coastal area with the pinky-blue water and sky almost indistinguishable from one another.
Coastal and Marine Biome - Blue Haiku - Kouchibouguac National Park, New Brunswick, Canada. Photo by Roberta Bondar; courtesy The Roberta Bondar Foundation.

 

Trees in autumn are reflected in a lake that has dry, brown grass in the foreground; the sky is blue with light cloud cover.
Forests Biome - Boreal Fall - Prince Albert National Park of Canada, Saskatchewan. Photo by Roberta Bondar; courtesy The Roberta Bondar Foundation.

Footnotes:

1. On 5 October 1984, Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to go into space; he went on two further missions in 1996 and 2000. Roberta Bondar was the second Canadian in space.

20 January 2022

Slavery and the Sugar Trade: cataloguing five bills of lading

 

N.B. This article may contain descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive

 

Colour image of Jamaican slaves/enslaved people cutting sugar cane in a field. They are dressed in working clothes typical of the time
Title: Jamaica negroes cutting (sugar) canes in their working dresses. Shelfmark: T.1140.(3.)

 

Slave sugar sweetened the British economy for over three hundred years. As abolitionist discourse grew over the course of the 18th century, the operations of British-owned Caribbean sugar plantations became a contentious subject. Even after abolition, the economics of the post-emancipation sugar trade remained a bitter question in British politics. In 1848, amidst revolutions and financial crises, it was sugar that dominated debate in the Commons, as Disraeli noted in his biography of Bentinck:

“Singular article of produce! What is the reason of this influence? It is that all considerations mingle in it; not merely commercial, but imperial, philanthropic, religious; confounding the legislature and the nation lost in a maze of conflicting interests and contending emotions”[1].

The library has recently acquired five bills of lading dating from 1714-1800.  They are printed forms recording the receipt of goods transported by sea, with gaps for the addition of specific information by hand.  In their printed contents alone, they are unassuming pieces of administrative ephemera. However, the devil is in the details. Three of the bills were completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an organisation that lobbied for the greater influence of the Church of England within Britain’s burgeoning empire.  The Society spanned the Atlantic, including Barbados, where it operated a slave-worked sugar plantation[2]. It is from this plantation that these bills originate.

They detail three separate shipments of sugar from Barbados to England from May 1714 to April 1715. Though all three are penned by Woodbridge, each bill lists a different ship and captain. More can be learned of these ships when cross-referenced with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. For instance, one bill details a shipment transported upon the ship ‘Smith Frigate’, captained by John Riding, and signed in Barbados, 29th April 1715. When searching the database for ‘Smith Frigate’, one finds a detailed entry which tells the story of a 200 ton ship, responsible for carrying 287 enslaved people from Cape Coast Castle to Barbados in 1714. Fourteen people died during middle passage of this voyage[3]. The ship returned to England in 1715, taking the sugar with it. By presenting this information side-by-side, we can contextualise the sugar trade and its inextricable relationship with slavery in the 18th century.

 

Images 1-3. Three bills of lading completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The bills refer to three separate shipments of sugar, sent from Barbados to England, between April 1714 and May 1715
Image 1. One of the 'Three bills of lading' (processing shelfmark)

 

Images 1-3. Three bills of lading completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The bills refer to three separate shipments of sugar, sent from Barbados to England, between April 1714 and May 1715
Image 2. One of the 'Three bills of lading' (processing shelfmark)

 

Images 1-3: Three bills of lading completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The bills refer to three separate shipments of sugar, sent from Barbados to England, between April 1714 and May 1715
Image 3. One of the 'Three bills of lading' (processing shelfmark).
Images 1-3: Three bills of lading completed by Dudley Woodbridge on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The bills refer to three separate shipments of sugar, sent from Barbados to England, between April 1714 and May 1715

 

Another bill details the transport of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Kingston to London in April 1778. It is signed by the carrier, Captain James Moore, and the form has been completed by the agent, Malcolm Laing. Once again, this document is enriched when compared against databases. Laing appears on the UCL Legacies of British Slavery database as a resident slave-owner from Kingston[4]. During probate of his estate in 1782, he owned 93 enslaved persons, 44 of which were male and 49 female. 30 were children. Unlike the other bills, this one survived with its original paper envelope. The envelope is addressed to William Philip Perrin, owner of five estates in Jamaica, inherited from his father[5]. Further archival evidence attests to the scale of Perrin’s operations in Jamaica, where enslaved persons were forced to labour on sugar plantations, further engorging Perrin’s healthy capital. The sale of sugar from these plantations turned a profit of £4,500 per annum, equivalent to approximately £400,000 today[6]. Perrin never visited Jamaica.

 

Bill of lading detailing the shipment of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Perrin's plantation in Jamaica, to England. Signed by Malcolm Laing.
Recto of the bill of lading detailing the shipment of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Perrin's plantation in Jamaica, to England. Signed by Malcolm Laing.

 

Verso of the bill of lading detailing the shipment of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Perrin's plantation in Jamaica, to England. Signed by Malcolm Laing
Verso of the bill of lading detailing the shipment of twenty hogsheads of sugar from Perrin's plantation in Jamaica, to England. Signed by Malcolm Laing

 

Image of envelope belonging to the above bill of lading, detailing the name of the recipient, William Philip Perrin
Envelope belonging to the above bill of lading, detailing the name of the recipient, William Philip Perrin (processing shelfmark)

 

Careful consideration has been given to how these items are catalogued. It was important to contextualise these items, using supporting information drawn from databases such as those mentioned above. Unsurprisingly, none of these refers to the individuals who were kidnapped, sold, and enslaved for the production of sugar. Yet, sugar and slavery are inextricably related, and to describe such resources without any indication of this association would be reductive. Subject headings related to slavery have been included alongside those of shipping and trade. Summary notes have been added to enhance the historical context of the documents, and citations refer to the databases where this information is collated. One inescapable tragedy is that the enslaved individuals from these plantations cannot be named, but their slavers can. For named individuals, such as William Philip Perrin and Malcolm Laing, authorised name entries have been created, with adequate biographical information detailing who they were and how they made their money. By linking our catalogue records with data from other sources, we are able to enrich our metadata to contextualise these documents, and provide a valuable description of what they are and what they represent. 

 

[1] Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck, (London, 1852), page 530.

[2] The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in obo in Atlantic History (Accessed  December 2021).

[3] Ship Voyage ID 76476, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database  (Accessed December 2021).

[4] Malcolm Laing of Kingston, Jamaica, Legacies of British Slavery database, (Accessed December 2021).

[5] William Philip Perrin, Legacies of British Slavery database (Accessed December 2021)

[6] Price of Britain’s Slave Trade Revealed (Accessed December 2021).

 

Blog post by

Kither, Alex,  Cataloguer Printed Heritage Collections 

 

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 a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

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.