20 January 2022
N.B. This article may contain descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive
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”.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. Perrin never visited Jamaica.
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.
 Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck, (London, 1852), page 530.
 The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in obo in Atlantic History (Accessed December 2021).
Blog post by
10 January 2022
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.
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
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
Arts and Humanities Citation Index
Book Review Digest Plus (1983- ) & Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982
Humanities and Social Sciences Index Retrospective, 1907-1984
Humanities Index, 1962 – present
International Political Science Abstracts
MLA International Bibliography
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!
23 November 2021
The British Library’s Caribbean Collections recently acquired a beautifully compact volume of poetry by the writer John Agard.
Shoot Me with Flowers was the writer’s first collection of poetry which he self-published in his birth home Guyana.
Jon Purday, a retired British Library staff member who volunteers with Oxfam in Boroughbridge, Harrogate spotted Shoot Me with Flowers in October and contacted the Library. Once catalogued, the book will be available for enjoyment and research.
While surprisingly inexpensive, the little book is a big treasure for the British Library. It is also a personal highlight for a couple of reasons: my appointment as Curator of the Caribbean Collections began in September and John Agard is someone I have known for some years! We saw each other some days after the Oxfam find and I told him that the BL would be acquiring Shoot Me with Flowers to which his proud response was “Self-published you know!”
Earlier this month within a day of the Harrogate Advertiser running an article on the discovery and subsequent acquisition of Shoot Me with Flowers, John Agard became the first poet to win the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. An apt turn up for the books!
Nicole-Rachelle Moore is the British Library's Curator for its Caribbean Collections
Images by Nicole-Rachelle Moore 2021
02 November 2021
As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library in September 2021, I was interested in material from late eighteenth-century British North America relating to American Loyalists and race issues in Atlantic Canada. The economic, political, military and social consequences of the American War of Independence had been major for the British empire. However, my focus was on the exiles from America and the relocation of thousands of Loyalists and disbanded soldiers within the empire.
After the outbreak of the war in 1776, 'Tories' - Loyalist inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies - together with their slaves, Black and Native Loyalists, as well as disbanded soldiers, migrated to Atlantic Canada, the British West Indies, Great Britain and Botany Bay to seek refuge. The first evacuation took place in 1776 when Loyalists from Boston chose to settle in Nova Scotia. Formerly called Acadia, it had been a British territory since the end of French and Indian War when many New Englanders migrated there after the expulsion of the French Acadians. The largest evacuations occurred years later from Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, in 1782, from New York City in 1783 and from St-Augustine, in East Florida until 1785.
Propaganda promoting the reception of Loyalists within the empire spread rapidly in pamphlets and newspapers. The image below, for example - 'The reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain, in the year 1783' by H. Moses - details the variety of social status and ethnicities of the Loyalists. We can see Britannia opening her arms to American loyal subjects, to Natives and to Blacks.
A wide range of documents illuminating these massive departures still exist, including petitions, muster rolls, letters, handbills, maps, and official registers either written by British officials or civilians. At the British Library, the Clarkson Papers and the miscellaneous letters and papers relating to American affairs, contain several petitions from disbanded soldiers and Loyalists to obtain land in order to settle in British American colonies.
Unsurprisingly, the question of land seems to have preoccupied the British government and the settlers throughout the War; not owning property meant being excluded from the shareholder status and its ensuing political rights. In 1782 a strong push began in Britain to offer land in Jamaica, Bermuda, St-Lucie, Barbados and the Bahamas islands to Loyalist planters from the southern colonies. The main arguments used were the possibility of bringing the slaves to the British West Indies which offered the accustomed warm climate and agricultural system. The opportunity to bring thousands of new planters or white settlers with slaves to the British Caribbean was essential in order to maintain the slave societies on these islands. But how could Free Black and Native Loyalists be integrated into this slaveholding system with their liberated, manumitted or free-born status?
In order to accommodate this massive arrival of Loyalist settlers, towns were founded or extended and provisioned. Land had to be quickly divided into lots in order to be distributed to about 10,000 people in Jamaica, 5,000 in the Bahamas and hundreds in St-Lucie, Bermuda and Barbados. In some cases these Loyalists doubled or tripled the black and white population of the territories. One must bear in mind the challenge of rapidly organising the evacuation and resettlement of so many refugees while dealing with the peace treaty and trade regulations between Great Britain, France and the United States of America. If we take the example of Canada, muster rolls indicate the large number of disbanded troops, Loyalists and slaves who arrived in Upper/Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia. In 1784, while the province of Quebec was receiving more than 5,500 new settlers, Nova Scotia had more than 28,000 Loyalists including about a thousand slaves and 3,000 Black Loyalists (Native Loyalists were excluded from general musters).
Beyond the British empire, land acquisition was also a huge issue in the settlement of the Black Loyalists and the Black Poor out of Britain and Atlantic Canada to Sierra Leone, Africa, in 1787 and 1792. Promises of land - between five and twenty acres - were given by the Sierra Leone Company to the 1,190 coloured men, women and children from the Black Loyalists community in Canada willing to participate in the British project 'Back to Africa'.
Land was also very much linked to economic concerns, since each Loyalist and their descendants were allowed to request financial compensation from the British government for any loss in the Thirteen Colonies. In the 1784 Land Claim Commission register extending to 1815, 47 Black Loyalists out of thousands of claimants gave lists of their lost properties in America. Consequently, the massive arrivals of new settlers shaped a Loyalist mosaic and participated in creating multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-linguistic societies in the late eighteenth-century British empire.
These documents unquestionably permit a more detailed research of the Loyalist diaspora and the under-studied question of land distribution. Social studies of Loyalists can also encompass these records in order to examine a broader cultural outcome in modern British societies.
By Seynabou Thiam-Pereira, Eccles Visiting Fellow
17 September 2021
This blog by Rebecca Goetz (Visiting Fellow, 2018) is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
In my work at the British Library in June and July 2019, I was particularly interested in documents from the late seventeenth-century Caribbean that might shed light on illegal and quasi-legal slave raiding and slave trading – moments when the evil but nonetheless completely legal (and indeed, highly regulated) trafficking in African and Indigenous American human life that we know as the Atlantic slave trades collided with the criminal or legal grey worlds of pirates and privateers. Jamaica was a particularly volatile meeting point between these different forms of maritime violence, trade and enterprise. The English seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and in the course of the next few decades, the newly-conquered island became a haven for pirates and privateers, and not coincidentally, a locus of the shadowy world of intra-European slave trading. I wanted to know how and where Europeans raided and traded for enslaved people, Indigenous and African alike. One paragraph in the records of the governor’s council of Jamaica caught my eye (Sloane MSS 1599). I had not expected to find such a vivid tale of extralegal slaving, Spanish-English rivalry, and treason against the English Crown in the British Library’s manuscripts collection – and yet here we were!
On 13 March 1688 , Captain Edward Reddish appeared before the council, asking for assistance in obtaining compensation from the governor of Margarita for the illegal seizure of his ship, the Inlargement, in 1682. The ship, which Reddish co-owned with several other business partners, was a slave ship carrying a cargo of 135 souls from Africa for sale in the English Caribbean. Reddish claimed he had difficulties with his ship, and so had put it at the island of Margarita to make repairs. The governor of Margarita, a man he named as Juan Fermín, seized the Inlargement and her cargo. Reddish told the council that “Firmin under the colour of freindship surprized the sd ship and detained her to owners loss of 5600 pounds.” Reddish went on to say that Fermín was not the legitimate governor of Margarita; Fermín had usurped that power from the duly appointed governor of the island and forced him to “take sanctuary in the Church.” Reddish understood that the rightful government on Margarita had been restored and wanted the council’s assistance in reclaiming his property or in winning restitution.
This short paragraph attracted my attention because I could not imagine what legitimate business an English captain might have on Margarita, a tiny island off the coast of what is now Venezuela, over 1,500 km away from Jamaica at completely the other end of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish had claimed mastery of Margarita since the mid-1520s, when they were busily laying claim to the southern Caribbean and its rich pearl beds. Margarita and its sister islets, Coche and Cubagua, were centers of the Spanish pearling industry from the 1520s to the 1540s. Even as early as the first decade of the 1500s, Margarita, Coche, Cubagua, and the nearby mainland were also centers of Spanish slaving of Indigenous people. By the later sixteenth century, Margarita had reinvented itself not as a pearling space but as a locus of a vigorous, informal, and often illegal trade in enslaved Indigenous people from the interior of South America. Margarita was an entrepot providing extralegal and untaxed access to enslaved people to other Spanish islands as well as Cartagena and Spanish settlements in central America. In the 1590s, Walter Ralegh noted a well-established slave trade in the Orinoco River basin; he described canoes full of captive Indigenous women bound for sale as slaves on Margarita. Almost a century later, Margarita remained part of an informal trading and slaving network that included English settlements in Guyana, Dutch settlements at Essequibo, and Curaçao. It seems unlikely to me that Reddish had such serious trouble with the Inlargement that he ended up at Margarita by accident. Instead, I suspect Reddish thought he could get a higher price for his enslaved cargo in Margarita than in Jamaica and he could evade English regulations and taxes while he was at it.
What Reddish did not expect was political chaos on Margarita. Juan Fermín de Huidobro was born on Margarita but had spent his career in various Spanish-controlled locales around the southern Caribbean, including posts on Trinidad and in Guyana. His varied career suggests to me he would have been broadly familiar with informal trade in enslaved people, foodstuffs, and commercially valuable products such as annatto (an orange-red condiment and natural dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree), tobacco, and sugar around the southern rim of the Caribbean. In 1677 he was appointed military commander in charge of fortifying the island and the nearby mainland against attack from the Dutch, English, and the Kalinagos of the Lesser Antilles. Fermín had a falling out with the civil governor of the island, Juan Muñoz Gadea, and the two spent the decade of the 1680s sparring in court at the Audiencia of Santo Domingo, in the Council of the Indies, and periodically launching rebellions against one another on the island. The saga came to a conclusion finally in 1689 when Fermín died.
Reddish clearly believed he could get compensation for the cargo of enslaved people Fermín seized from Muñoz. But the English governor of Jamaica, Christopher Monck, Duke of Albemarle, had other ideas. When Reddish brought his petition to the Council, Albemarle pointed out that some of the owners of the Inlargement had been “attainted for treason whereby the sd ship and Cargoe became forfeited.” The Council voted to write to the governor of Margarita and ask for compensation in the King’s name instead of Reddish’s. I imagine that Reddish’s business partners might have been involved in Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685, the unsuccessful uprising of several leading Protestant against the Catholic King James II, who was still on the throne at the time of Reddish’s petition (although I do not yet know for sure who they were). Reddish left the council empty-handed.
While I can flesh out the story of Reddish, the Inlargement, and political hijinks on Margarita, there is less I can say about the 135 enslaved people seized. Their “final passages,” as the historian Greg O’Malley would term them, were not recorded in the archives of Spain or of England. Illicit trading and tax evasion made it imperative for smugglers trading in enslaved people to avoid official notice—and thus details were not recorded in imperial archives. Some of these enslaved people might have remained on Margarita as pearl divers. Others might have been sold to planters in Cumaná’s nascent sugar economy. Some might have ended up in Cartagena, and others still might have been sold in Dutch, French, or English territories. Their voices and stories are lost amid tales of interimperial rivalry and treason.
30 July 2021
This blog by JS Tennant is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not and like Columbus also it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.
– Malcolm Lowry, 1937
It might seem like a truism to restate the importance of Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas. But recent theories around primacy - those jostling counter claims attributing first transatlantic landfall to Norsemen, Basque or Bristol cod-fishermen, or a Portuguese pilot - detract little from the hemispheric and historical significance of the Genoese navigator’s albeit unintended achievement.
Portugal was the pioneering nation of exploration in the late medieval period. Columbus had first sought sponsorship for his design from the kings of Portugal and England. He then spent seven long years petitioning Fernando and Isabel of Spain, trailing around after the regents’ itinerant court among their vast retinue of hand-wringing camp followers. Eventually, his doggedness won over the ‘Catholic Sovereigns’ whose union had brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and reached its apotheosis in the rout of Islam’s last stronghold on the peninsula at Granada.
Columbus failed to convince the regents during a debate with the country’s leading theologians and cosmographers at Salamanca in 1486, but a further audience near Granada in 1491 (under siege at the time) led Fernando and Isabel – buoyed no doubt by their imminent success – to grant his request. They urged him to set off quickly, in fact, perturbed by recent news that the Portuguese had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Spain needed to open a new, westward, maritime trade route into the lucrative spice markets of Asia.
Medieval European cartography can be generally categorised within three traditions: the mappaemundi, portolan charts and celestial maps. Mappaemundi were large, decorative circular maps of the known world, intended as much for spiritual instruction as locational accuracy. They were often beautifully illustrated with densely symbolic imagery, classical themes, placing Jerusalem at the nexus of all lands. Portolan charts, or sea charts, usually showed the Black Sea or Mediterranean and were deemed to be accurate, meant for active use by navigators. Although invented by the Phoenicians, these portable charts were perfected in late medieval times in the city states of Venice, Genoa, Florence as well as Ancona and Palma de Mallorca.
In the 1400s Europeans believed there were three continents, corresponding with those assigned to the sons of Noah: Asia, Europe and Africa. But both mappaemundi and portolan charts did signal the possibility of Terra incognita: most notably the existence of an Edenic terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, whose existence was a given for orthodox Christians in the Middle Ages. The few sea charts which have come down to us showing a portion of the Atlantic – such as that of Grazioso Benincasa (1470) [Figure 1] – often position mythical islands such as Antilia, Brasil, Saint Brendan's Isle and Salvaga out at the edge of the mar tenebroso, the shadowy sea. An entirely new continent, though – let alone two – would have been beyond the wildest imaginings (even to the highly susceptible medieval mind).
Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia – a mid-second century work of theoretical geography and manual for map-making – proved a sensation in clerical and courtly circles in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin in 1406. A manuscript of the Alexandrian scholar’s treatise had been copied out in the late thirteenth century the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and was preserved in the Monastery of Vatopedi [Figure 2]. Although not printed until the 1470s, the Cosmographia was widely circulated before then and, although it overestimated degrees of longitude (elongating the distance between west and east), confirmed the tripartite nature of the world. Having languished practically unknown – except by Arab astronomers – for 1,300 years before the time of Columbus, the eventual rediscovery of Ptolemy as a geographer became one of the major intellectual events of the fifteenth century.
Like many learned men of his age, Columbus was steeped in the work of Ptolemy and colourful travelogues such as Marco Polo’s Il milione and Mandeville’s Travels. Lumbered with such preconceptions it is hardly a surprise that, when he stumbled upon the myriad cays, atolls and islands of the West Indies, he assumed this was the same archipelago off the eastern end of Orbis terrarum where the Great Khan – Emperor of China (or Cathay) – went to capture slaves. Although Ptolemy never fully mapped the outer rim of East Asia, he did describe a cluster of islands numbering 1,378 which must have recalled, for Columbus – who jotted this in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi – Polo’s 1,300 cities in Mangi (South China) and the 7,448 islands in the Sea of Mangi, verdant with fragrant trees and a profusion of white and black pepper.
Ptolemy’s conjectural coastlines, and Polo’s fanciful writings, were of little use to him in the Caribbean, which he named ‘the Indies’: at that time a term often assigning the whole of South and East Asia, a hazily imagined space so characterised by islands that its easternmost confine was often labelled Insulindia. Encountering Cuba on his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus publicly declared it to be the fabled Golden Chersonese (the present-day Malay Peninsula), stating later it was the littoral of mainland Cathay.
Displaying their own doubts, perhaps, ahead of his second voyage, the Spanish sovereigns urged Columbus to explore Cuba, ‘known up till now as a continent [tierra firme]’, once more. In June, 1494, dismissing claims to the contrary from native inhabitants ‘so ignorant and provincial they think the whole world is composed of islands’ he made his crew sign an oath affirming the continental nature of Cuba which, if reneged upon, would entail a cutting out of tongues. Privately, he conceded the possibility it could be an island, which he initially called Juana, only later updating this to ‘Cuba’: the name used by its local peoples (which in any case may have signified Florida).
At the turn of the century Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist in the service of the Spanish court, had written of reports from men who claimed to have rounded the island. Given that he sailed under Columbus’s command on both the first and second voyages (as mate of the flagship Marigalante, which he also owned), and that first recorded circumnavigation of Cuba was by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, it is surprising that the Castilian cartographer Juan de la Cosa dared to depict Cuba as an island on his map of 1500. Beautifully executed on ox-hide [Figure 3], it also shows a putative channel cleaving the isthmus of Central America, through which wades a cartouche of St Christopher (who Columbus openly associated himself with) ferrying a cherubic Christ child on his shoulders. Was this to salve his admiral’s potential misgivings about the depiction of Cuba?
The beautiful Cantino planisphere of 1502 [Figure 4, below] is coloured and adorned like a mappamundi but studded by compass roses radiating rhumb lines and strongly accented coastlines in the portolan fashion. It shows a half-figured, spectral presence of the South and North American continents, but likewise a breach in Central America, hoping against hope for a seaward passage there towards Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Cantino planisphere also carries the prominent legend The King of Castile’s Antillies, named of course after Antilia, the island or (sometimes) archipelago of legend: the place – often associated with Cuba – some of Columbus’s many detractors felt he had really reached.
Columbus seems to have been afflicted with a sort of Insulindia of the senses, an archipelagic delirium derived from antiquity, the bible, and books of travel. Writing to the Pope in February, 1502, he claims that, among the hundreds of islands he discovered were Tarshish, Cethia, Ophaz, and Cipangu [Japan]; Ophir, the biblical region from where King Solomon received regular tributes of gold, ivory, peacocks and apes; as well as ‘vastly infinite lands’: it is ‘in that vicinity the Terrestrial Paradise is to be found’. Publicly, perhaps for fear of having duped the Catholic Sovereigns, Columbus maintained the unwavering conviction that he’d reached Asia – one professed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until the day he died in 1506.
The first printed map to show the ‘New World’ is the Contarini-Rosselli that same year, the only copy of which is held at the British Library [Figure 5, above]. Ptolemy, although writing in Greek, owed much of his knowledge to the expansion of the Roman empire; Columbus’s discovery of the Americas for Europe, and Portuguese advances across Asia, made it clear to cartographers that the old Jerusalem-centred manner of depiction no longer held. But such was the Alexandrine’s influence that, well into the sixteenth century, attempts were made to fit the Americas and Asia into a Ptolemaic framework, such as can be seen in the Contarini-Rosselli Map the Ruysch World Map of 1507 [Figure 6].
Confusion, sparked by Columbus’s equivocations over the nature of Cuba, are evidenced here in analysis which has shown that Ruysch painted over his original inscription Terra de Cuba, on the large island in its place, leaving it unnamed. The 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller maps mislabel Cuba as ‘Isabella’, while the latter goes as far as to categorise an area of mainland Mexico as Terra de Cuba, Asie Partis. Similarly, the 1520 Schöner Globe marks Terra de Cuba on a landmass floating where North America should be, with Japan hovering tantalisingly nearby through an open sea channel [Figure 7]. In the end, Columbus’s characteristic intransigence had a devastating effect on the posterity and status he so craved. His false idea of Cuba contributed to the two continents being named instead for his friend, a Florentine also in the service of Spain: the explorer Américo Vespucio.
JS Tennant’s work Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba is forthcoming from William Collins. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award.
13 July 2021
This is the ninth and final blog coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
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This blog is about Hazel Daniels who was born in Guyana in 1946. Training and practicing as a radiographer in Georgetown, she then married Omar Daniels in 1973 and moved to the UK in 1975, where they have lived ever since, raising their three children. An enthusiastic home cook, Hazel likes to experiment with different cuisines and flavours in the kitchen, but is guided by her Guyanese roots. This blog focuses on Hazel’s descriptions of Guyanese ingredients and dishes alongside her philosophy of food and health, but you will soon be able to listen to her full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
‘if you want to take something forward, into the future, I think it has to be pepperpot’
All the participants of Guyanese heritage that I have interviewed for the Caribbean Foodways oral history project spoke about pepperpot. A dish with First Nations origins, pepperpot is history in a bowl. Paying tribute to the First Nations people of Guyana, ‘the people who were there hundreds and hundreds of years … before the colonies,’ Hazel explains the intriguing process of making this historic meal. The key ingredient is cassareep, which is made from boiling cassava for hours, until the pristine white flesh of the root becomes a ‘dark substance.’ The seemingly magical ‘preservative quality’ of the cassareep means that this rich stew, which is made from combining meat, fish or vegetables with the dark sauce, does not need to be refrigerated and it sits on the back of the stove, being eaten day in and day out until the pepperpot is gone!
Also commenting on the importance of the cassava to 'Guinan natives', Rev. J. G. Wood's exploratory index to Charles Waterton's, Wanderings in South America (1882) described how boiled cassava was then 'flavoured with red-pepper' to become the 'well-known cassareep' and that 'when the palate has become accustomed to the inordinate amount of red pepper, is not only nourishing but appetizing.'1 Moreover, 'the pot is never cleaned, so that, as it is very thick, very soft, and very porous, it absorbs the juices.'2 Alongside Hazel's interview and recipes, Wood's glossary evokes the continuity of cassareep in Guyana's foodways.
‘a language that we can virtually all communicate with, even without speaking’
Attuned to the variance and connectivity that encompasses the Caribbean region, Hazel compares Guyana’s ‘racing rivers’ to the island nations of the region that have ‘beautiful beaches and blue water.’ Whilst highlighting the distinctiveness of Guyana as a mainland country, located on the South American continent, she believes that the ‘roots are virtually the same … we understand each other, we eat each other’s food.’ This understanding is the outcome of the region’s history, where all these societies have been profoundly shaped by the African diaspora.
Experimenting in the Kitchen
Hazel moved to England in 1975 to join her husband, Omar Daniels, who was studying psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Having trained as a radiographer in Guyana, she started working at King’s College Hospital. Upon moving to England, Hazel noticed that ‘the food was different,’ it lacked ‘that extra bit’ from the food she had grown up with – the wonders of fresh thyme, juicy tomatoes, papayas and garlic that smelt ‘to high heaven.’ Inviting her new colleagues round for dinner, Hazel would ‘try to create’ classic English dishes with ‘a little twist’ by adding a stick of cinnamon, sweet peppers or pomegranate molasses (that she likens to cassareep), which seemed revolutionary to her dinner guests who were bowled over by her food.
This playful approach to cooking, which contrasted with Hazel’s serious and accurate line of work as a radiographer, offered a feeling a freedom. Describing herself as a maverick in the kitchen, Hazel speaks about being ‘free to try new things’ without the constraints of a cookbook or scales. Always inspired by other cuisines, Hazel’s food has been influenced by the aromas and textures of Egypt, where Omar received a scholarship to study medicine (and her paternal grandfather had fought for the British army). Talking me through her favourite meals, she describes cooking melting lamb and rice with almonds and fruits, a dish that is traditionally eaten for Iftar, when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. From roast beef and tagines to plant-based stews, Hazel’s repertoire captures her open spirit and tastebuds that are always trying to create not only tasty, but beautiful looking dishes.
Whilst not one for using recipes, Hazel’s ‘Fish Creole with Herb Dressing’ features in Rosamund Grant’s landmark cookbook, Caribbean and African Cookery. Published in 1989, with a foreword by Maya Angelou, it was one of the first Black-British authored cookbooks about Caribbean food. An old friend of Grant’s, the two attended primary school together in Georgetown. Meeting up at her legendary North London restaurant, Bambaya, Hazel reminisces about the joys of eating at a restaurant that served ‘all the food that we remembered.’ As Grant explains in her own oral history with the British Library, ‘Europeans tend to see Caribbean food in a particular way,’ for example, it is stereotyped as ‘spicy’ or ‘exotic.’5 In defiant response to this, Grant stated ‘I will define who I am and I will define … what I’m cooking.’6 Much like her schoolfriend, Hazel has forged her own personal and culinary path.
‘food is so much more than sustenance’
Given her lengthy career in healthcare, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that Hazel's food philosophy is embedded in a belief that food is a ‘preventative medicine.’ Throughout the interview, she often highlights the mineral and vitamin qualities of certain ingredients, such as getting magnesium from avocados, nuts and raisins. Much like this page in the health section of a West Indian cookery book, Hazel has wide-ranging knowledge of food’s nutritional value, which was partly shaped by her parent’s emphasis on maintaining a balanced diet and eating well.
As Hazel sets out in her philosophy, ‘culture and food are integral to the sense of identity … of every human being.’ Food has shaped Hazel’s life profoundly and that of her children, to whom she has passed down an adaptable Guyanese culinary heritage that lives on through the spices that they rub, coat or add to food. As the last blog in the Caribbean Foodway series, I think that Hazel’s food philosophy is the perfect note to end on, as it encompasses the centrality of food in the politics of health, community, history and identity formation. In the words of the remarkable Hazel Daniels … ‘it’s what defines us all and brings us all together’!
I will leave you all with Hazel’s recipe for a classic Guyanese pepperpot, which she has generously shared. The Caribbean Foodways series may be over for now, but I invite you all to continue your exploration of Caribbean cooking by trying out the recipes shared in these blogs by our wonderful participants. Whether it is Ranette Prime’s Trini Phoulourie, or Ann Husband’s Green Banana Salad, tweet us with photographs of what you’ve cooked @BL_EcclesCentre!
Thank you Hazel Daniels for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality
Further reading / references
- Phyllis Clark, West Indian Cookery (Edinburgh: Published for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago by Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1946) British Library Shelfmark 7948.a.66.
- Hazel Daniels interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, April 2021 (uncatalogued)
- High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021)
- James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
- Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to the America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011) British Library Shelfmark DRT ELD.DS.70649
- Annual Jamaican potpourri, 1951 – 1969 Reprint (Nendeln, Kraus Reprint, 1970) British Library Shelfmark P.803/423.
- Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014) British Library Shelfmark YKL.2015.a.1788
- Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
- Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35
- Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882) British Library Shelfmark 12350.m.12.
- Rev J. G. Wood, 'Explanation Index' in Wanderings in South America, The North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the Years 1812, 1816, 1820, and 1824 by Charles Waterton (London: Macmillan & Co, 1882), pp.50-51
- Ibid, p.51.
- Olive Senior, ‘Preface’, in Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean (Leeds: Peekash Press, 2014), pp.11-16 (p.11).
- High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2021).
- Rosamund Grant, ‘Not just Caribbean Stew’, Oral history curator’s choice (2000-2002) C821/35.
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