Americas and Oceania Collections blog

28 posts categorized "Maps"

05 December 2022

“The Flying Researcher”: South Asians and Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest

Rishma Johal is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

As an academic in training, I believe that most PhD Candidates—particularly *cough cough* myself—are young, wide-eyed, naive students who hope to use their magical wings to fly from source to source in a matter of seconds. If any of this were remotely true, my thesis would be complete in a few days. However, no matter how aware I am of my naivete, there is always the glimmer of hope that the next research trip will be 'the one' in which I read every source at the archives. Needless to say, this hope is shattered as soon as an archivist hands me a file weighing a few good pounds in the morning of my very first day. Perhaps, the British Library experience has been my most dramatic encounter in terms of the amount of information available versus the amount of information that I can read in a short period of time. This autumn, as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I enjoyed five weeks at the British Library, yet even that felt too little to complete my research. Thus, if I had to select one challenge over any other, it would be my fight against time. Nevertheless, the availability and versatility of sources at the Library ensured that my visit was both fruitful and rewarding.

My research entails analysing files on South Asian migrants and Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest—both marginalised communities about whom information at archives is generally limited. Specifically, my thesis examines intersections and dissension among early South Asian migrants and Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest from 1857–1947. This means that I am examining files on diverse groups of people. It is quite time-consuming to search for these sources, although the British Library holds a wealth of data. For this reason, the limit on the number of sources that I could request in one day quickly became another challenge, though I managed to power through most of the sources on my research list.

Conducting research at the British Library was imperative as it enabled me to access many archival records about early South Asian migrants in both Canada and the United States. Most of these files were held in the India Office Records and I also found correspondence among various levels of government on South Asian migration, from reading views of inspectors, politicians, and ministers in Vancouver and British Columbia to Ottawa, Britain, and India. I found numerous instances of concern over increasing numbers of South Asians in the Pacific Northwest that incorporated correspondence with American officials. The British Library has a priceless amount of information on the Ghadar movement (early Indian independence struggle that began in North America) and clandestine activities run by South Asians from California extending to Argentina, Panama, South Africa, Afghanistan, and Australia. However, the British Empire’s vast network of information gathering and sharing is only visible when files are accessed that discuss the Ghadar movement, “Hindu immigration,” and event specific files such as IOR/L/PJ/1325, File 3601 Canadian Immigration; the Komagata Maru Incident. These sources discussed the status of South Asians in Canada and noted the companies that they owned as well as the land purchases that they made, which was vital information concerning South Asians’ role in settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession.

Advert for a lecture; at the top is a photo of a bearded man wearing a turban; the text includes details of the event.
Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind: Activities in USA. British Library shelfmark: IOR/L/PJ/12/289, India Office Records.

In one or two instances, I also found comparisons that officials made between the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia and South Asians. My favourite sources were rare finds that may not have been as useful as the above files for my thesis but were integral in terms of South Asian diasporic activity. For instance, I was thrilled to view a flag made by the Ghadar Party of San Francisco with a map that envisioned the borders of a free India as early as 1920 (Mss Eur C228: 1920). I was also able to view several maps made by South Asian surveyors and assistants within the British Indian army. These included maps of boundaries in Tibet, China, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa. The maps portray the role that some South Asians played as intermediaries within the colonisation of the Indian Ocean Arena before many migrated to North America.

A finely detailed map showing rivers and their tributaries.
Part of Southern Abyssinia and British East Africa Lake Region and Daua River by Captain R.E. Maud and Indian Suveyors Sher Jang and Shahzad Mir. War Office Ledger. British Library shelfmark: Map Collections. WOMAT/AFR/ABY/14 : 1903.

I was also interested in sources on Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, though finding archival materials associated with specific tribes was difficult. For this aspect of my research, I utilised the vast collection of books that covered substantial components of the history of Indigenous peoples from California, Washington and Oregon. However, I was able to locate a few important firsthand documents such as the Report on the Condition and Needs of the Mission Indians of California (British Library shelfmark: A.S.217/19, 1873) made by special agents Helen Jackson and Abbott Kinney and The Report of the Special Agent for California Indians to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs by C.E. Kelsey (British Library shelfmark: Mic.K.2130, 1906). The former report provided a significant account of how white colonists dispossessed Indigenous peoples in Southern California, despite US government orders that recognized Mission Indians’ lands as reservation lands. The 1906 report outlined the conditions of Indigenous peoples living within California and described the areas that remained populated by them. Reading these reports in comparison to one another was particularly useful for my research. The Quarterly Journal of the Society of American Indians (British Library shelfmark: P.P.3437.bad) was another important source that discussed Native American issues, although individuals interested in Native Americans, rather than those of Indigenous ancestry, published most of the articles. More importantly, I was able to read a wide variety of books written about Indigenous peoples and to corroborate movements of certain Indigenous communities with the migration and land purchases of South Asians.

Overall, my magical wings were quite elated to fly from one source to the next at the British Library whether that was in a matter of hours, days, or weeks as I continue to read files that I photographed in October. I had an amazing experience as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, and I would highly recommend this fellowship opportunity to other researchers in American Studies. Although I did not have a chance to attend many events, connecting with other Fellows and the Eccles Centre team at one of their Researchers' Packed Lunches was wonderful. Nevertheless, time is always of the essence. Alas, this researcher flies away to the next archive!

19 October 2022

Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.

Suelin Low Chew Tung is an artist and writer and is based in Grenada; she was a 2020 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.

My days as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library, from July to August 2022, were happily spent pouring over maps, ledgers, bound letters, loose papers, and other documents related to Grenada, an island (and the name of the State of Grenada) located at 12°07’N 61°40’W. 

Grenada is part of an archipelago variously known as the Caribes Islands, Lesser Antilles, West India Islands, and Windward Islands, within a space called the West Indies or the Caribbean. My project is to list changes in names during the French and British colonial ownership of this small island nation and overlay them on a contemporary map. I will then have a better idea of where was called what, why, and if any of the original colonial names survived as the physical landscape both changed and changed hands.

I spent most of my time in the Maps Reading Room reviewing single maps, duplicate maps, maps on paper and fabric, both coloured and black and white, in books and boxes. I came across maps referring to Grenada as l’isle de la Grenade (British Library shelfmark: Maps 147.e.8.); las Islas Granada (Maps D.DE.H.SEC.9.(506.)); island of Granada (Maps 82410.(2.)); and l’Isola di Granata (Maps C.24.f.10.). No wonder there is confusion as to the correct pronunciation.

After the British gained control of the island from the French in 1763, however, the name changed from la Grenade to Grenada.1 So, it’s Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.

I was determined to find all documents relating to Grenada in the British Library’s catalogue. The staff in Maps, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Asia & Africa and the Newsroom were accommodating, and I was grateful for their input. Regarding the former, the Library contains one of the best map collections on Grenada. Representations on early maps in Jomard’s collection and the Blathwayt Atlas, showed the island as a blob, a cross, a backwards L, and even a crab’s claw.2 I saw the island’s shape evolve from a smudge to the elegant outline we are accustomed to seeing on Google Earth—a green mango set against blue sea. Unfolding each map opened new ideas for artwork, and suddenly Grenada was not just a speck on the world map but a place that vibrated throughout history.

I was beyond thrilled.

Detail of a black and white map, with large writing and tiny islands.
Fig. 1: Detail of Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot. British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11.

Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard, contains several maps showing Grenada:

• Map XIX. 1: Mappemonde peintre sur parchemin par order de Henri II, roi de France, is a 1542 map which shows an unnamed Grenada hanging off the edge of the image.
• Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot, pilote-major de Charles-Quint, de la première moitié du xvie siècle. On this 1544 map, the shark tooth-shaped island is called la Granada. It is connected to I. vicente (St. Vincent) by two strands of unnamed islands; the effect is of a necklace, a Kalinago caracoli.
• Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa, pilote de Christophe Colomb, fin du xve siècle. On this map, Grenada is called Mayo.

According to J.A. Martin (2013), de La Cosa’s map showing Grenada took information from Vincente Yañez Pinzón’s map of his exploration of the Americas in 1499-1500.3 Though Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ and naming Grenada as Conception, Pinzón apparently visited Grenada on 1 May 1500 at what is now St. George’s Harbour. Map XVI shows Grenada as a blue cashew nut shape, identified as Mayo. Pinzón’s landfall is listed as “poyna” a corruption of Puerto de la Reyna, meaning Port of the Queen (Isabella).

Detail of a coloured map.
Fig. 2: Detail of Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa. British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11.

In the Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.), John Sellers’ Chart of the Caribe Islands (p. 25) enlarges that backwards L so the island shape is recognisable as a smaller version of modern-day Trinidad. On the 1656 map by Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville and George duRoy, Les Isles Antilles (p. 26), Granada is a crab’s claw at the end of a shattered arm of granular rocks they called Granadilla. John Sellers’ The Island of Tobago (p. 29), includes a Chart of the Carriby Islands where the Granada claw is less pronounced, and the smaller rocks are called Granadillos. The Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae (p. 37), is a map of Venezuela showing the Caribbean archipelago. On this, Granada looks more like an opened nutmeg, eerily similar to the one on our national flag.

Detail of a black and white map of Venezuela.
Fig. 3: Detail of Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae. British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.

My visit with the Library's Philatelic team was also an absolute pleasure. I got a good introduction to how stamps are made, the Grenada stamps in the Tapling Collection, and Grenada stamps in general. As they explained: stamps hold a mirror to history. Indeed, these vignettes of our island’s story will inspire a series of artworks on the currency of stamps, given that fewer people are using stamps as postage.

Apart from creating a series of artworks inspired by the British Library’s collections, my main intention is to render a single map of Grenada place names. This will connect old place names with new, identify places which no longer exist and new spaces which fill that void. I hope to start conversations on shifting landscapes and narratives of Grenada’s past, and heritage education/appreciation/conservation policy.

This was my fifth visit to the British Library since 2011, but the first on a fellowship. The Eccles Visiting Fellowship provided opportunity and funding for research at the British Library, a safe space to dream, to learn and be inspired. I needed at least another month. 


References

  1. Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
  2. Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard (British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11); Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.).
  3. Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

26 September 2022

The Haldimand Papers: The British Empire in North America

Patrick J. Jung is a professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Science and Communication at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I had the honour of spending five weeks at the British Library engaged with the Haldimand Papers during the summer of 2022. This sizeable collection presented a daunting task as it consists of 249 volumes, many of which contain hundreds of original manuscripts. Nevertheless, it was time well spent with one of the most important manuscript collections for understanding the history of the British Empire in North America.

Frederick Haldimand was a Swiss-born British army officer who arrived in North America in 1756 during the opening years of the French and Indian War. Except for a hiatus in Britain from 1775 to 1778, Haldimand remained in North America until 1784. In addition to serving as the military commander of East and West Florida from 1765 to 1773, he served as the commander of Quebec from 1778 to 1784 and was responsible for the colony’s military defense, particularly during the American Revolution. Haldimand also commanded British installations in the Great Lakes region. His papers often provide the only record of the events that transpired in this vast expanse, which included posts in the eastern Great Lakes such as Fort Niagara (Fig. 1) and Fort Detroit (Fig. 2), and the sole installation in the western Great Lakes, Fort Michilimackinac.

Sparse, hand-drawn map of Fort Niagara.
Fig. 1: [Author unknown], Rough Plan of Fort Niagara, &c., 31 July 1760, Haldimand Papers, Add. Mss. vol. 21686/32.

Originally, I planned to focus on those documents related to the American Revolution in the Trans-Appalachian West, but in the course of my research, I noticed a distinct contrast between the British officer class serving in North America and the American colonials concerning their attitudes toward Native societies. Whereas colonials sought to expand their settlements westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains at the expense of the Indigenous societies, British army officers strove to preserve Native lands for Native people. The reasons for this sentiment shifted over time, but it was a surprisingly consistent policy goal from the 1750s onward. The Haldimand Papers proved to be an essential resource for investigating this ideological divide as they span three crucial decades and preserve a record of British imperialism in North America that is unparalleled in scope.

Hand-drawn map showing Fort Detroit and villages along a river which is shaded in orange; there are several islands in the river.
Fig. 2: [Author unknown], Fort Detroit and Its Environs, n.d., Haldimand Papers, Add. Mss. vol. 21686/72.

During the 1750s and 1760s, British officers endeavoured to prevent American colonials from settling on the Native lands of the Trans-Appalachian West to mollify the Indigenous societies and prevent uprisings such as that of Pontiac’s Rebellion from 1763 to 1766. In the aftermath of this insurrection, British military administrators reestablished the earlier system of trade instituted by the French that extended political, economic, and cultural autonomy to Native people. The advent of the American Revolution witnessed both the British and their Native allies working toward the common goal of defeating the American colonials and pushing the tide of White expansion eastward back across the Appalachian Mountains. When the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict in 1783, Haldimand gave this policy a more structured form when he proposed establishing a Native barrier state north of the Ohio River as a means of preserving the land base of Britain’s Indigenous allies. In a letter dated 27 November 1783, Haldimand advised that “the intermediate country between the limits assigned to Canada by the provisional treaty…should be considered entirely as belonging to the Indians, and that the subjects neither of Great Britain nor of the American States should be allowed to settle within them” (Haldimand Papers, Add. Mss. vol. 21716/73-75). The idea of a North American Native barrier state remained a British objective for the next three decades.

The Haldimand Papers make clear that American colonials exhibited what Patrick Wolfe (2006) has labeled “settler colonialism,” or the “logic of elimination” (387-388) whereby they sought to eliminate Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Through the voluminous correspondence preserved in the Haldimand Papers, the patient researcher can discern the development of British policies designed to counter American settler colonialism and preserve Native autonomy during the latter half of the eighteenth century. British policymakers ultimately failed to achieve this policy goal, and thus, it remains a neglected aspect of British imperial history. As I continued my examination of the Haldimand Papers, I became determined to correct this historiographic oversight in the future.

In his synthesis of the history of the British Empire, Bernard Peters (2004) asserts that British military commanders on the ground and imperial authorities in London often found it necessary to “protect…indigenous subjects from maverick Britons” (6). Certainly, this was the case in British North America from the 1750s onward. Historians researching this phenomenon will find the Haldimand Papers an essential source of historical information.

Sources

Anderson, Fred. (2000). Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Vintage Books.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. (1969). “Barrier to Settlement: British Indian Policy in the Old Northwest 1783-1794.” In The Frontier in American Development: Essays in Honor of Paul Wallace Gates. Pp. 249-276. David Ellis, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Dendy, John O. (1972). “Frederick Haldimand and the Defense of Canada, 1778-1784.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University.

Haldimand, Frederick. Papers. (1750-1790). Additional Manuscripts, vols. 21661-21895. British Library.

Porter, Bernard. (2004). The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004. Fourth edition. Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson.

Sutherland, Stuart, Pierre Tousignant, and Madeleine Dionne-Tousignant. (1983). “Haldimand, Sir Frederick,” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 5, pp 887-904. Francess Halpenny, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.

Wolfe, Patrick. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8:387–409.

 

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

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.


 

 

 

17 September 2021

The Masters of Margarita – Anglo-Spanish rivalry, treason and the slave trade

This blog by Rebecca Goetz (2018 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) 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!

A bound volume of seventeenth-century manuscripts is open at the Minutes of a Meeting of the Council of Jamaica, 13 March 1688, Sloane MS 1599, v26-r27.
Minutes of a Meeting of the Council of Jamaica, 13 March 1688, Sloane MS 1599, v26-r27.

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.

A large and colourful seventeenth-century map of the Caribbean Sea. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
'A Chart of the West Indies, from Cape Cod to the River Oronoque', in J. Seller, Atlas Maritimus (London, 1675). Maps 7 TAB.77. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
Detail of a large and colourful seventeenth-century map of the Caribbean Sea. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red.
Detail of 'A Chart of the West Indies, from Cape Cod to the River Oronoque', in J. Seller, Atlas Maritimus (London, 1675). Maps 7 TAB.77. Jamaica is circled in purple; Margarita is circled in red



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

Columbus and the Idea of Cuba

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). 

Detail from the Benincasa chart showing the mythical islands of Antilia & Salvaga.
Figure 1: Portolan chart from 1470 by Grazioso Benincasa. British Library shelfmark: MS 31318A.

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. 

A yellowing manuscript page in Greek with two spherical sketches suggesting the tripartite nature of the world.
Figure 2: 14th century MS of Ptolemy’s Geographia. British Library shelfmark: Burney MS 111.

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? 

Coloured map showing the islands and sea in the Caribbean.
Figure 3: Map of Juan de la Cosa, 1500. Detail of the Caribbean Sea region. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

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.  

This detail of the planosphere has a white/cream background and shows numerous islands, some with images of wildlife.
Figure 4: Planisphere named for Alberto Cantino. 1502. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantino_planisphere#/media/File:Cantino_west.jpg

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. 

Figure 4 revised
Figure 5: Francesco di Lorenzo Roselli & Giovanni Matteo Contarini, Mundu [sic] spericum. [Florence ?], 1506. British Library shelfmark: Maps C.2.cc.4

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]. 

5 revised final
Figure 6: Johann Ruysch world map, created 1507-08. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ruysch_map.jpg

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. 

Colourful detail of Schoner's 1520 globe.
Figure 7: Detail of the globe by Johannes Schöner, 1520. Image courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

 

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.

 

30 June 2021

Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality

This is the eighth in a series of blogs 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 Rod Westmaas who was born in Guyana in 1957 but grew up in Streatham, South London. Raised on the flavours of Guyana in their London home and moving back there as a teenager, Rod has a deep knowledge of Guyanese cooking and history. Dedicating his life to the hospitality industry, he has worked in Britain, Barbados and the United States. Aside from this, Rod set up Guyana SPEAKS with his wife, Dr. Juanita Cox, and he runs history walking tours. This blog focuses on his descriptions of one pot dishes with indigenous and African roots and his experience in the world of catering, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Map of British Guiana
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. Available to view online.

The One Pot 

Rod’s mother, Zena Westmaas, grew up in the Pomeroon, a region in Guyana next to the Pomeroon River which is located between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers. As Rod explains, this area of Guyana had a significant First Nations population, which meant that the food of Zena’s upbringing was based on ‘the native foods of that region and … Afro-Centric foods.’ In contrast to this, his paternal grandmother, Winifred Alberta, a woman of mixed descent with an Irish father and a light complexion, would only cook Eurocentric food, ‘she didn’t dabble into other types of foods – it’s the way she was brought up.’ During the interview, Rod showed me Winifred’s now tattered cookbook, that was printed by the Royal Bakery Company in 1929. After reading aloud a handwritten recipe for sponge cake, he recalled the treacle cake, baked potatoes and cheese soufflés that she used to love eating. The varying food heritages from Rod’s family capture his own reflections on the relationship between food, race and class in Guyana – ‘there was the distinct colour division, and colour defined what you ate.’

Food, Race and Class

Page of a book - text about ground provisions in Barbados
John Davy, M.D. and F.R.S. The West Indies, before and since Slave Emancipation comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands' military command; founded on notes and observations collected during a three years residence (Barbados: J. Bowen, 1854) British Library Shelfmark 10470.d.4. Available to view online
 
 
Page of cookbook with a recipe for Metagee
Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313

Metemgee is a prime example of this historic food division. This tasty and nutritious stew, ‘stems from the enslaved Africans having … to put all their foods together in this one pot to make something delicious.’ A popular dish in the Pomeroon area, it typically contained ‘ground provisions’ cooked with coconut i.e. root vegetables that were historically cultivated by enslaved Africans on small plots of land that were used to supplement the meagre rations that were supplied by planters.1 Hence, Metemgee is a living record of resistance through cultivation, cooking and nourishment. As fellow Guyanese, Rosamund Grant’s recipe shows, ‘There are many variations of this cooked around the Caribbean Islands, with different names e.g. Sancoche (with many more ingredients), Oildown or Oileen.’2 Interestingly, Rod tells me that Metemgee means ‘and the plantain makes it better’ – which a common ingredient across adaptations of this one pot. Using the example of Metemgee in his race-class-food analysis, Rod explained that it would not have been well received to cook this in a ‘light-skinned household.’ However, nowadays it is universal, which speaks to the fact that so much of Guyanese cuisine is a blending of indigenous and African cultures.

Silver pot on an open fire
Pot on Fire, photograph courtesy of Rod Westmaas

Cow Heel Soup Recipe

Cow heel soup is another one pot that Rod temptingly describes. Reciting a recipe, the cook is instructed to ‘scald, scrape and thoroughly clean the cow heel’ before cooking with a mix of ‘celery … mixed root vegetables … lime juice and grated nutmeg.’

Front cover of recipe pamphlet
Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170
 
Page from recipe pamphlet, including Cowheel and Lentil Soup and Cowheel Hotchpotch
Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170

Interestingly, Rod’s cow heel soup – hailing from the hills and rivers of Guyana – has much in common with these various cow heel hotchpotch concoctions that were published in a pamphlet-style cookbook by United Cattle Products Ltd. from the 1920s. Combining tasty and cheap offcuts with root vegetables, herbs and spices (with more seasoning in Rod’s version) embodies the resourcefulness of cooks with limited means, who seem to have magical powers of flavour extraction.

Rod’s recollections of bubbling one pots remind me of a folktale that I read in Andrew Salkey’s archive, ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings.’3 In this story, Brother Anancy sniffs around Gordon Town, Jamaica, searching for ‘large honey dumplings’ that are ‘being cooked in coconut milk, on a low gas flame.’ The narrator explains how Anancy: 

‘craved food of that kind ever since he was a spider boy, in Nigeria, the old Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and Mali, and he had brought his craving for honey dumplings, all the way across the Middle Passage into the horror of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. … They made him think of his African childhood and his promises to return, one day, to his first homes on the continent.’

This folktale conveys an important lesson about the histories of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean but also the sanctity of food as an unbreakable connection back to Africa. Like Anancy’s honey dumplings, Rod’s stories of Metemgee and cow heel soup embody the African roots that continue to shape Guyanese culture.

Life in London

Open page of children's book including a rhyme and an illustration
Valerie Bloom, Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1999) British Library Shelfmark YK.2000.b.360

Guyanese Fruits

Moving to London just before he turned two, Rod spent his early childhood in Streatham before moving back to Guyana in 1970. Rod recalls waking up to the smell of frying from bakes – a ‘cheap bread alternative’ – ‘that would invariably have mashed sardines with onions as an accompaniment.’ Whilst Zena and Patrick Westmaas encouraged Rod and his siblings to ‘integrate … enjoy your fish and chips … shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash, become a child of Britain,’ they were also exposed to Guyanese flavours at home, producing a sense of ‘cross culture.’ Rod remembers having a curry for school dinners, prompting him to ask his mother why the curry had raisins in it, to which she said, ‘that’s no curry’! As much as Zena and Patrick tried to recreate Guyanese dishes at their South London home, Rod could only imagine the rich variety of produce from the place of his birth. In this clip, Rod tells an anecdote about visiting a market with his father, who turned to him and said ‘that’s nothing compared to Guyana’ and he started naming an impressive list of fruits, from soursop to sapodilla. This reminds me of Valerie Bloom’s children’s book (pictured above) that was published by one of Britain’s first Black publishers, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Using the fruits and roots of the Caribbean to list the alphabet, accompanied with beautiful illustrations, the book was a meeting of educational and culinary nourishment that equipped children with an understanding of Caribbean ingredients, flavours and creole language.

West Indian Students' Centre

Having a nourishing though frugal upbringing, Rod explains that they would only have chicken once a month, but that they ate lots of bakes (made out of flour, baking powder, sugar and water) with saltfish. Striving for more, like your ‘typical West Indian family,’ Zena decided to go into private catering. Her main customers were the West Indian Students Centre and the Commonwealth Institute. An important activist and creative hub, the West Indian Students' Centre in Earl’s Court, became a meeting place for the Caribbean Artists Movement and hosted the likes of James Baldwin.4 Orders for ‘dhal puris, rotis, curry, black pudding,’ came streaming in and ‘she made quite a bit of money on the side,’ especially given that during this period in the 1960s there were seldom other Caribbean food businesses.

Catering

Front cover with gold writing and sketches of the Savoy Hotel
W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.
Black and white photograph of kitchen at the Savoy, with pots piled high
W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.

Catering training

Inspired by his mother, Rod decided to go into the hospitality industry. Training for two and half years at Lewisham College, this was intermingled with work experience at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand and the InterContinental on Park Lane. Initially immersed in a world of “Souffle aux ecrevisses à la Florentine” and “Canard en chemise”, at London’s fine dining hotels, Rod later moved to Barbados to work with his mother, who had just set up the San Remo boutique hotel (later Zena established the Golden Sands Apartment Hotel where Rod also worked).5 These experiences set him up for an impressive catering career that has spanned Britain, the Caribbean and the USA; with Rod having managed 2,000 weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and conferences in his lifetime. Whether talking about the politics of the hospitality industry (e.g. ‘getting more people of colour involved’) or the history of Guyana, Rod’s profound interest, love and knowledge of food chimes throughout his interview, which you will soon be able to listen to!

Black and white photograph of Rod standing infront of a tropical fruit display
Rod Westmaas, Banqueting Manager (1984), photograph courtesy of Rod Westmaas

Thank you Rod Westmaas 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 next (and final) blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Hazel Daniels: Pepperpot Philosophising

Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen

References / further reading

  • ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive
  • Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969)
  • ‘Diet and food production for enslaved Africans’, National Museums Liverpool
  • Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe, 34 (2011), 58-75
  • Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018
  • Guyana Speaks
  • Jack Webb, Rod Westmaas, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and William Tantam (eds.), Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond (London: University of London Press, Institute of Latin American Studies, 2020)
  • 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.
  • John Davy, M.D. and F.R.S. The West Indies, before and since Slave Emancipation comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands' military command; founded on notes and observations collected during a three years residence (Barbados: J. Bowen, 1854) British Library Shelfmark 10470.d.4.
  • Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad: New York, 2017)
  • Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170
  • Rod Westmaas interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
  • Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
  • Valerie Bloom, Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1999) British Library Shelfmark 2000.b.360
  • C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.
  1. Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe 34 (2011), 58-75.
  2. Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989)
  3. ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive.
  4. Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018; Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969) – in this film Baldwin and Dick Gregory relate the Black experience in America to the experience of African Caribbean peoples in Britain, during a discussion that was held at the West Indian Students’ Centre.
  5. W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893).

 

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