Americas and Oceania Collections blog

4 posts from June 2022

17 June 2022

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction

This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?

In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.

In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.

In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.

Map of a town, mainly in black ink, sectioned into separate squares for each property, some are coloured in yellow or pink, depending on the material used in their construction.
Fire insurance plan for Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1910. Part of the British Library's Canadian Copyright Collection. British Library shelfmark: Maps.146.b.48.(25)

In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.

In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.

The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.

Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.

Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…

Notes

1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986

16 June 2022

Publishing in the Colonial Anglophone Caribbean: A New Guide to the British Library's Holdings

We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published its first Caribbean-focused bibliographic guide: Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974, by Naomi Oppenheim.

Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974 is the unexpected outcome of research conducted for my doctoral thesis, ‘“Writing the Wrongs”: Caribbean Publishing in Post-war Britain from a Historical Perspective’. This thesis uses publishing as a channel to explore socio-political transformations and the relationship between print and politics. The bibliography emerged from what I had initially assumed would be a quick research exercise in which I’d call up a selection of nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean publications in order to garner a sense of key publishers. It soon became a much more ambitious task!

In essence, I decided to go on a mission to locate everything in the British Library collections that was published in Barbados, British Guiana, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, between 1800 and their respective independences: 1966, 1970, 1974, 1962 and 1962, excluding Government Printing Office publications. This entailed creative navigations of the online catalogue, using a combination of territories, cities and date ranges.

Although the bibliography began as personal research endeavour for my thesis, doing a PhD Placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library – where I worked on the Caribbean Foodways project – meant that I had time to continue working on it with guidance from the Centre’s staff and thus turn it into a public resource. By the end of the project, I had tracked down over 500 books, many of which I had called up and looked at, driven by the curiosity that a sparse catalogue record provokes.

I believe that books are vessels for producing knowledge about history, culture, politics and the nation. My interest in the Caribbean publishing landscape as a lens to understand societal and cultural shifts motivated me to create a detailed subject index for the bibliography: I wanted to know what types of books were being published, by who, and when. I divided this subject index into 11 categories – including Cultural, Economics, Geography and Space, History, Literature, Slavery, Travel and Tourism, and Religion – and I gave each of them multiple sub-categories. The index reveals that history texts, which were the most popular genre, account for a quarter of all books published between 1800 and 1974. Likewise, a quarter are literary - poetry, fiction, memoir, folktales and plays.

As well as aiding British Library users’ navigation of the Caribbean collection, this subject index also helps us to understand historiographical, literary and print trends. And there is 
a list of more than 50 digitised items that are accessible from the comfort of your home, local library or school.

A book frontipiece, brown and slightly worn, with black type.
Fig I: Frank Cudnall, Political and Social Disturbances in the West Indies: A Brief Account and Bibliography. 
Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1906. British Library shelfmark: 09004.bb.14.(2).

Publishing was hugely important in shaping ideas of the Caribbean through articulations of history, literature and vernacular language: whether it’s Frank Cundall’s prolific writing about Jamaican bibliography, biography and history, published by the Institute of Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [Fig. 1], Claude McKay’s Songs of Jamaica (1915) [Fig. 2], or Eric Williams’ self-published Historical Background of Race-Relations in the Caribbean (1955).1

The title page of Songs of Jamaica, with a photo of Claude McKay opposite in a military-style shirt and peaked hat.
Fig. 2: Claude McKay, Songs of Jamaica. Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1912. British Library shelfmark: 011645.df.40.

Published in Kingston in 1912 by Aston W. Gardner & Co., Songs of Jamaica is one of the earliest printed examples of Creole poetry. The introduction was written by Walter Jekyll, a planter who had a keen interest in collecting the songs and stories of the Jamaican peasantry, writing works that reproduced and appropriated this folk culture such as Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes (1907).2 Jekyll classified Jamaican Creole as a ‘feminine version of our masculine language’ and introduced the volume as offering ‘the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood.’ Despite his deeply essentializing and gendered framing of McKay’s poetry, Songs of Jamaica gives us insight into the early blossoming of Creole literature and the profound importance of publishing as a vehicle to express and circulate vernacular cultures. Published during a period of proto-nationalist sentiment – the Jamaican National Club was founded by Sandy Cox in 1910 – the book was indicative of a Caribbean, especially Jamaican, publishing boom that signified shifts in terms of author, language and audience.

Caribbean Publishing contains all of these works and a plethora of riches, yet like any research guide, it has its limitations. Publishers across the British Empire were required by law to send copies of all published works to the British Museum, so, technically the British Library should hold a copy of everything that was published in the Caribbean before independence. Yet, this is not the case, for several reasons to do with collecting and archiving. For example, ephemeral publications – which likely included radical, unofficial and DIY pamphlets – would have escaped legal deposit, thereby never becoming part of the collection. And even once items had arrived safely, they were vulnerable to loss, damage and destruction. For example, many of the cookbooks in the bibliography, including Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book: Three Hundred and Twelve Simple Cookery Receipts and Household Hints (Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1893) and 100 Jamaica Recipes (Kingston: Gleaner Co., 1934), were destroyed by bomb damage to the Museum during World War II. Despite these gaps, I hope that this bibliography will support further study of Caribbean publishing, book history, literature, and any of the subjects covered in this extensive guide.

I would like to end by noting that it was thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s student development fund that I was able to do a placement at the Eccles Centre focusing on Caribbean collections. And I would like to thank all of the wonderful Eccles Team!

Dr. Naomi Oppenheim

Notes

1. Eric Williams, The Historical Background of Race Relations in the Caribbean. Trinidad: [s.n.], 1955; British Library shelfmark: Document Supply W9/3965. 

2. Walter Jekyll, Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes. London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt, 1907; British Library shelfmark: Ac.9938/24.

15 June 2022

Electronic resources for African American History

As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the digitally available collections which can support those studying African American History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass.

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

1. African American Communities

Let’s start with African American Communities which gives access to hundreds of pieces of primary source material for researchers examining racial oppression across social, political, cultural and religious arenas in America. You can study a range of items, from scrapbooks to official records, oral histories to 360-degree objects, which focus on Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, Brooklyn and locations in North Carolina. Topics covered by this resource’s collection include racism, desegregation, civil rights movements and expressions of African American culture displayed through artists, musicians and more.

Before delving into a few of the materials the resource provides, the platform itself has a number of very useful features to help navigate its vast offering that are worth mentioning. The ‘Nature and Scope’ link on the main landing page gives a comprehensive overview of the themes and source archives you can view. You can choose to browse items in a number of ways as all documents have been indexed using multiple categories, or you can also do a general full text search. Community case studies and thematic guides and essays are also available which offer handy entry points into the collections and give a steer as to where to start. One of my favourite features is ‘My Archive’ where you can save and revisit your previous searches and any documents you’d like to return to, quickly and easily.

A few examples will demonstrate the breadth of material on offer from this rich resource.

Researchers examining civil rights protests and movements will be interested in the collection of materials generated or collected by the Chicago Urban League. Items held here explore one of the most famous civil rights protests for open housing, which took place near Marquette Park in the summer of 1966, and its aftermath. The protest contributed to the creation of Chicago as a racially open city as many Black residents moved into its vicinities. However, as this 1977 report shows, even some 11 years later, racial tensions and violence were very much still in existence.

Conclusions of the Marquette Park
Conclusions of the Marquette Park: A descriptive history of efforts to peacefully resolve racial conflict report, 1977 © University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Other materials in the Chicago Urban League collection offer insights into the social services available to African Americans between 1935 and the 1980s, including those regarding reproductive health, youth and welfare services, general health and access to hospitals, and issues related to the aging and those with mental illness.

Researchers interested in the literary and political history of African Americans will be enthused by access to The Messenger, provided by The Newberry Library, Chicago. Founded in New York in 1917, the latter years of the publication from 1925 to its final issue in 1928, can be accessed by this e-resource. Significant in the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance, the magazine helped voice African American intellectual, cultural and political expression through articles, short stories, letters, reviews, songs and art. It featured a number of writers in the early stages of their career, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ was first published in the September 1926 edition of The Messenger. Her short story instalments in the magazine told of various characters living in an African American community just outside Orlando and used authentic dialect. Her work represented an honest picture of Black culture in the American south in the early 20th century.

The Messenger cover and Eatonville Anthology
The Messenger, World’s Greatest Negro Monthly, September 1926 with excerpt of Zora Xeale Hurston’s The Eatonville Anthology © The Newberry Library, Chicago, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Straying slightly from the more conventional primary source material one might expect from such e-resources, a quick mention goes to the Weeksville Interactive Exhibition also available on African American Communities. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses located in Weeksville (now Brooklyn) are New York landmarks preserving the homes belonging to a free and independent African American community. The interactive exhibition allows users to explore the layout and objects within the homes from the 1860s – 1930s, complete with 360-degree photography, opening a door onto how African American life in a bygone era could have looked for some. The packaging and marketing choices on the food and drinks packaging are particularly striking and could be great resources for researchers of culinary history and art.

Ginger Ale bottles and tinned goods
Ginger Ale bottles, n.d. and food tins, 1930s Hunterfly Road House, 1930-1939 © 5th of July Resource Center for Self-Determination & Freedom, Weeksville Heritage Center, access provided by African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

2. Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2

Next up is Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2 from ProQuest’s History Vault, which is another fantastic resource for researchers to turn to study both well- and lesser-known events and social movements in American history. A gathering of materials from a multitude of perspectives, this e-offering features records of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and federal records on the Black Freedom Struggle. Key archival material is available to search and view, including digitised letters, newspapers, photographs and official reports.

Researchers examining many aspects of the African American fight for freedom in 20th-century America will find it a very useful research tool indeed, to name one example: those studying the Great Migration and its impact on Black America can access materials from the 1929 National Interracial Conference regarding African American women in industry. Much of the material from which this selection draws is rich in detail on the living and working conditions of American workers. The extracts below are from a study of 15 U.S. States by the U.S. Women’s Bureau showing details of Black women workers, including their industries, numbers of employees, their hours, and facts concerning the conditions under which they worked, and earnings.

Median ages and industries from National Interracial Conference report
Examples of pages from National Interracial Conference, African American Women in Industry: From a Study of 15 States by the U.S. Women's Bureau, records of U.S. Women's Bureau, 1928 © 2022 ProQuest LLC, access provided by Black Freedom Struggle e-resource from ProQuest

Continuing the vein of study regarding the history and impact of Black women in America, users may also be interested to note an abundance of newspaper clippings about activist Angela Davis, from the African American Police League Records, 1961 – 1988, to which the Black Freedom Struggle e-resource offers access. Provided by the Chicago History Museum, the e-folder includes clippings from 1970 to 1972 and covers key moments surrounding Davis’s trial. With cuttings from mass-readership papers such as the Chicago Daily News, to African American newspapers and university student newspapers, the selection to sift through should provide researchers with many angles from which to examine the prolific impact of, and response to, Angela Davis, in Chicago specifically.

Angela Davis cuttings
Selection of items from ‘News clipping: Angela Davis, 1972’ folder from African American Police League provided by Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois © 2022 ProQuest LLC, access provided by Black Freedom Struggle e-resource from ProQuest


3. Race Relations in America

Packed with primary sources you might not find elsewhere, another e-resource rich in ephemeral material offered by the British Library is Race Relations in America. The origins of the collection digitised for this resource are sourced from the records of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, housed at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.

Examining three pivotal decades in the struggle for Civil Rights in America, the items made digitally accessible by this resource give particular voice to the every-person: telling stories through the eyes and work of sociologists, activists, psychologists, teachers, ministers, students and homemakers, those on the ground trying to make change happen. Through correspondence, personal testimonies, maps, and marketing publications, researchers will find unexpected items providing an interesting look at the ways in which Civil Rights and calls for desegregation were advocated from within the home and beyond. This calendar below, entitled ‘Dateline for Freedom’, is an example of such and includes photographs of people of different races interacting in educational and leisure activities.

Calendar, Dateline for Freedom, 1951-1954
Calendar, Dateline for Freedom, 1951-1954 © Physical rights retained and permission granted by the Amistad Research Center, access provided by Race Relations in America e-resource from Adam Matthew

Race Relations in America provides access to a wealth of documents highlighting different responses to the challenges of overcoming prejudice, segregation and racial tensions. Key themes examined by the e-resource include desegregation of schools, industries and public transport; the role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement and in African American Communities; and the migration of African Americas from the rural South to urban centres, and the industrial and domestic impacts that came with it. As mentioned before, the ‘My Archive’ feature is again available here – meaning one can save every document, search result or individual image to return to at any point.

As well as sharing the experiences of everyday African American people, the resource also contains documents and materials from pioneering names in the Civil Rights Movement. You can listen to the speeches of Thurgood Marshall, along with over 100 hours of further recordings from those seeking to understand and improve racial tensions. You can also view Champions of Democracy, a pamphlet on citizenship activities at Highlander Folk School, authored by Septima Clark. Highlander, Tennessee, was the site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists and it was where Rosa Parks had attended a workshop on schools desegregation in the summer of 1955.

Highlander Folk School: 'Champions of Democracy'
Highlander Folk School: 'Champions of Democracy', n.d., © Physical rights retained and permission granted by the Amistad Research Center, access provided by Race Relations in America e-resource from Adam Matthew

This brief blog only touches the surface when it comes to the fully accessible, digital collections that one can use for researching African American history and American racial oppression. Other e-resources on the subject that that Library provides access to, and that are available for free with your Reader Pass, include History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988, Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2017, Slavery & Antislavery: a Transnational Archive, and Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture, and Law. Don’t forget that newspaper and periodical-specific e-resources also offer a wealth of material that could be of interest – take a look at African American Newspapers Series 1 1827-1998 and Series 2 1935-1956 (Readers with a valid pass have remote access to this resource), and Baltimore Afro-American, 1893-1988.

Look out for next month’s instalment in this blog series focusing on our e-resources that support researchers examining the Caribbean, past and present.

By Rachael Culley, Curator North American Published Collections Post 1850

01 June 2022

Food and Freedom in 19th-Century Jamaica

Katey Castellano is Professor of English at James Madison University and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

During my Eccles Fellowship at the British Library in March and April 2022, I researched the publications and perspectives of the Black Romantic-era writer, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/36). Wedderburn was born enslaved in Jamaica, and as a young man he migrated to London, where he became involved in London’s ultraradical circles. My research suggests that, even though he was publishing in London, Wedderburn’s political theories grow out of his experiences of being raised by his enslaved mother, Rosanna, and his grandmother, Talkee Amy. His writing importantly provides a rare glimpse into what Vincent Brown describes as an “oppositional political history taught and learned on Jamaican plantations—a radical pedagogy of the enslaved.”1 Wedderburn’s publications challenge the abolitionist narrative that liberal, individualist freedoms should be spread from England to the West Indies. Instead, Wedderburn instructs his white, lower-class readers in London about already existing African-Jamaican practices of land and food reclamation.2 In other words, Wedderburn’s abolitionist pedagogy insists that food and freedom are inseparable.

A pen and ink sketch of a middle aged man wearing a dark jacket with a white shirt underneath.
Image 1: Portrait of Robert Wedderburn from The Horrors of Slavery (London, 1824). British Library shelfmark: 8156.c.714.

The British Library holds one of two remaining copies of Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root, or a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica (1817). An inexpensive weekly periodical for working-class readers, Axe Laid to the Root’s six issues disseminate a vision of abolition that opposes private property, both in people and land, because access to land for growing food is necessary for freedom from the plantation system. Wedderburn declares, “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing; for if you once give up the possession of your lands, your oppressors will have power to starve you to death.”3

The front page of a journal, with many different fonts in its headings and two columns of text.
Image 2: Title page from Robert Wedderburn, Axe Laid to the Root; or, a Fatal Blow to Oppressors (London, 1817). British Library shelfmark: P.P.3557.

When Wedderburn admonishes enslaved people in Jamaica to “keep possession of the land,” he is referring to the provision grounds, land distributed by enslavers for enslaved people to grow their own food. Access to this land allowed enslaved people to cultivate kinships and culture around growing and eating yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, and other vegetables. Sylvia Wynter argues, “Around the growing of yam, of food for survival” enslaved laborers in Jamaica “created on the plot a folk culture—the basis of a social order.”4

A colourful image of different botanical species, including yams.
Image 3: Image of yams (#45) from William Jowett Titford, Sketches towards a Hortus Botanicus Americanus (London, 1811). British Library shelfmark: 447.i.25.

The provision grounds were not spectacular or immediately revolutionary, like other moments of Black self-emancipation, such as Tacky’s War or the Haitian Revolution. Yet the provision grounds not only nourished people, they also reterritorialized estates. For example, a survey of Edward Long’s Lucky Valley Estate (1769)⁠, demonstrates that a large part of the estate must be reserved for provision grounds. The map illustrates how the provision grounds were limited and hemmed by the plantation, yet the grounds were also located close to the mountains and away from the surveillance of enslavers and overseers. Growing food also allowed some self-determination in diet and provided subsistence for self-emancipated individuals who fled the plantations.

A hand drawn map showing the different land uses on a Jamaican estate in the 18th century.
Image 4: Detail from Plan of the Lucky Valley Estate by James Blair, 1769, reduced and copied by William Gardner; n.d. 14 chains to an inch. 531 mm. x 458 mm. Add MS 43379 A.

Guided by Wedderburn’s theory that abolition requires access to land and food, I explored other colonial texts at the British Library that describe the provision grounds. Matthew Lewis is best known as the author of the popular gothic novel The Monk (1796), yet while at the British Library I studied his Journal of a West India Proprietor, which was written from 1815 to 1818. The journal records two visits to inherited plantations in Jamaica. As Lewis attempts to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved people, the provision grounds become a point of contentious negotiation. By the middle of his first visit, the people that Lewis enslaved had negotiated increased freedom to visit their provision grounds: “I therefore granted them as a matter of right, and of which no person should deprive them on any account whatever, every Saturday to cultivate their grounds.”5 Throughout his journal, Lewis vacillates between his anxiety about the independence cultivated by the provision grounds and his desire to be a hero in facilitating access to them. Provision grounds finally provoke a crisis within the idea of the people as property: if people are property, how can they have rights to the land? Enslaved people bequeathed provision grounds to their kin and earned money from selling excess produce, but, legally, enslaved people were themselves property. By cultivating independent food production on the provision grounds, then, the seeds of freedom had been sown before Emancipation.

The black and white title page of a book.
Image 5: Title Page from Matthew Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor (London, 1834). British Library shelfmark: 1050.l.17.

The radical nature of the provision grounds emerges even more clearly during Emancipation (1834), when the provision grounds became openly contested spaces. In the Holland House Papers, an estate manager, Thomas MacNeil, complained to Lord Holland that formerly enslaved people “have withheld so much labour from the estate” while at the same time “they have devoted much labour to improve their cottages, and increase the extent of their provision lands.” Holland wants formerly enslaved labourers to cultivate sugar cane and pay rent for their land, but MacNeil reports, “They declare they will not pay any rents whatever until they see ‘the Queen's Law’ to say they must do so, that their parents before them, had possession of the land and had houses where theirs now are, before Lady Holland was born and that they cannot think of paying any rent whatever and work for the estate also.”⁠6 MacNeil’s letter indicates that formerly enslaved people “cannot think” of paying rent after emancipation because they understood freedom as the right to possess the provision grounds as an intergenerational inheritance. The formerly enslaved people on Holland’s estate struggle to retain African-Jamaican land and food-based freedoms nearly identical to those advocated by Wedderburn: “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, our freedom is not worth possessing.”

After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people in Jamaica resisted leaving or paying rent for their grounds. Both planters and antislavery activists wanted to detach African-Jamaicans from the land in order to force the formerly enslaved population into useful wage-labour for the British economy. Following Wedderburn’s argument that food and land are inseparable from freedom, I found evidence in planter journals and letters that African-Jamaican food systems challenged the plantation system during and after slavery.

For more information about African American foodways, see the interview with Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011; British Library shelfmark DRT.ELD.DS.70649), at the British Library’s Food Season 2022. 

Notes:

1. Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard: Harvard UP, 2020), 242.
2.  I have made this argument in “Provision Grounds Against the Plantation: Robert Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root (1817),” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 25.1 (2021): 15-27.
3.  Axe Laid to the Root; or, a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, no. 1 (London, 1817): 4.
4.  “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou 5 (1971): 99. My reading of Wynter’s plot is influenced by Janae Davis, Alex Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crisis,” Geography Compass 13.5 (2019): 1-15.
5.  Journal of a West India Proprietor (London, 1834): 191-2.
6.  Letter from Thomas MacNeil to Lord Holland, 15 February 1839, Holland House Papers, Add Ms. 51816, ff. 169-70. I originally found reference to these letters in Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications, 1988), 108.