Endangered archives blog

23 August 2021

The Backstory to Digitising the Barbados Gazette

Today is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Today also sees the launch of the second crowdsourcing task of the Agents of Enslavement project. To coincide with these two events we are delighted to share this guest post by Dr Lissa Paul, a literary scholar at Brock University who specialises in children’s literature and Caribbean literary studies.

Part I

When Graham Jevon emailed just a day after launching 'Agents of Enslavement' on Monday 21 July 2021, to say that the project had hit over 23,000 views, I found myself suddenly close to tears. The early nineteenth century people in the fugitive slave ads of the Barbados Gazette were going to be as alive in the minds of those who accessed the site that day as they had been when I first encountered them in the National Library in Bridgetown Barbados on disintegrating microfilms ten years ago in 2011.  My blog story is about how a community of readers, an army of readers, grows out of one reader reading.

National Library Barbados FullImage 600ppi
National Library in Bridgetown, Barbados

At the recommendation of Alissandra Cummins, Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, I had gone to the library in Bridgetown in search of the microfilm copies of the Gazette in order to look for the subject of my research, radical British author and teacher Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840). Between late 1814 and 1822, Eliza had run a school, a Seminary for Young Ladies, in Barbados with her daughter, Eliza Ann Rutherford (1789-1828).

The microfilms were stored in manilla cardboard boxes in a metal filing cabinet on the dimly lit second floor of the library. They had apparently not been disturbed in years and the only way to view them was on an ancient desk-sized microfilm reader with no copy function. A kind librarian set up a stool for my laptop so that I could at least take notes, but the films even then were fragile and had to be coaxed gently through the reader. The Gazette published twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays, and I simply started reading, issue-by-issue from 1812 as that is when Eliza's daughter (an unwilling actress at best) had arrived to join the Theatre Royal Company opening in Bridgetown in January that year. As soon as I began, I was immersed in the terrifying conflict zone of a slave-dependant community.

Faded Microfilm
Newspaper extract from a faded microfilm copy

The political news in the papers—between 1812 and 1816—mostly consisted of objections by the colonial government in Barbados to Wilberforce's initial attempts to pass a slave-registration bill, the purpose of which was to enforce the 1807 ban on the slave trade. The official line was that Barbados was a profitable, well-run island and the slaves were perfectly happy and well-managed. The proposed bill, they argued, would destroy the peace and prosperity of the island, and, picking up the slogan from the American Revolution, they claimed that the bill was a form of taxation without representation.

In the fugitive slave ads, however, there was a completely different story, one that spoke to sustained resistance in the face of what now appears as appalling, incomprehensible brutality. In the ads were people—men, women and children—who were arrestingly alive: there were details of what they looked like, how they spoke, what they wore, distinguishing features, who their relatives were, and where they might have gone. As I approached the dates of what later become known as Bussa's Rebellion on the Easter weekend in April 1816, it was business as usual as far as the news was concerned, even on Saturday 13 April, the day before the rebellion began.

I couldn't wait to see what the paper would report on the following Tuesday, but, as the records show, there was no paper on Tuesday 16 April. There's a gap in the run. The Gazette, like the rest of the island, was shut down for two weeks. The next issue was published on Tuesday 30 April 1816 and there is nothing on the rebellion on the front page. On the top-left of the first column, there is an ad for the 5'3" Philley-Melia who had absconded.  She might, the ad suggests, have gone to her mother in one parish or her husband in another (indicating that families maintained their networks despite all attempts to split them up) and that she might be using a 'false pass to move around the island (a sign that she had likely planned her escape with care).

 

EAP1086_1_15_4_5_PhilleyMeliaAbsconded600ppi
Fugitive slave advert in the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, 20 April 1816, digitised by the Barbados Archives Department [EAP1086/1/15/4/5]

Philley-Melia, I thought at the time, was a resistance fighter, and like so many others in the fugitive slave ads was a member of Bussa's de facto guerilla army. The brief report of the rebellion in the Tuesday 30 April issue was on page two, column one, under the ad for second-quality butter and it was only there to explain the publication gap to readers from other islands who might not have heard the news. Even in my first reading, I knew that the Gazette revealed important stories, ones that spoke both to the individual heroism of the enslaved and to the brutality and obliviousness of the enslavers. While Bussa (about whom little is known) received credit for the rebellion here were the people whose courage and persistence deserved recognition—which is why the Agents of Enslavement project stands as so important.

Part II

At this point I should probably say that I'm a white Canadian scholar, a professor at Brock University in the Niagara region of Ontario and that my research on Eliza Fenwick is generously funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. I have no connection to the Caribbean except through my work. My biography, Eliza Fenwick: Early Modern Feminist, published by the University of Delaware Press, 2019 partly traces Eliza's move from the radical, abolitionist company of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and others in their circle, to Barbados and then via New Haven and New York to Niagara (where I work) and Toronto (where I live).

As I'd gone to the Gazette to find traces of Eliza's presence in Barbados after I'd returned home I did what scholars do: I ordered microfilm copies through my university library and expected that they would arrive eventually. They didn't. I tried several times and kept getting rejected. Eventually, after repeated requests for an explanation I received an answer from Stewart Gillis, the (long retired) British Library Reference Team manager who had been responsible for the (now closed) unit dealing with requests for copies of microfilms.

In 2012 he wrote to me, patiently explaining that because the films were 'pretty old', as well as 'badly scratched and damaged', they were 'not suitable for further reproduction'. The films were made, he explained, on 'diazo', something I later found out to be a non-preservation medium only used for 'disposable or frequently updated' material according to information provided by the American Library Association.

When I tried to access copies of the Gazette on microfilm in libraries closer to home, I found a few but all listed their holdings as partial (only much later did I realise that that the April 1816 gap in the issues caused by the rebellion, would have counted—without explanation—as simply missing from the catalog record). And when I tried to access the physical paper copies of the Gazette in the National Archives in Barbados I was told that they were locked and that 'it would take an act of Parliament' to release them. Although my SSHRC grant covered research trips to Barbados, as the microfilms were disintegrating and the papers locked, I was overwhelmed by a sense that unless the papers were digitised, the people in the ads would die.

Part III

This is the 'it takes a village' part of the story of the long road to the digitisation of the Gazette and later the Barbadian. As a scholar I know how to find and use archival material, but initially I had no idea how to go about accessing funding to digitise the papers or who might do it or how. On my trips to Barbados, I had, however, started to make friends with people at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Cave Hill. Again, it was Alissandra Cummins who provided the key: she had invited Dr. Evelyn O'Callaghan--Caribbean scholar, UWI professor, and most recently the editor, with Tim Watson of Caribbean Literature in Transition: 1800-1920 (Cambridge UP, 2021)--to an early 'Eliza' talk I'd given at the Barbados Museum. It was Evelyn who eventually introduced me to Dr. Laurie Taylor and Dr. Leah Rosenberg of the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) based at the University of Florida.

When they found that I was going to be doing the first draft of my Eliza biography while on a fellowship in the autumn of 2014 at Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge, they put me in touch with Erich Kesse (who was there at the time but is now at the University of London). And it was Erich who suggested that the British Library Endangered Archives Programme Grant was the right body to approach for the digitisation project. On reading the application requirements I also realised, instantly, that I had no standing as I was, essentially, a tourist. Only the National Archives of Barbados, operating under the auspices of the Government of Barbados could apply. And so began what I regarded as a campaign to generate support for the application to the British Library Endangered Archives Programme. It would be, I knew, difficult.

As David Waldstreicher explains in a 1999 essay, 'Reading the Runaways' (William and Mary Quarterly 56:2), colonial papers have been read 'as rude reminder[s] of forms of unfreedom that were doomed' (246). The last thing anyone wants to do is circulate racist propaganda, so there were clearly strong arguments for keeping the papers locked up.  But as scholars of slavery studies--Sir Hilary Beckles, Sir Woodville Marshall, and Dr. Pedro Welch among others--demonstrate, it is also possible to read against the grain.

The Gazette, I found when I checked, had not been accessed for new research in about thirty-five years, around the time the microfilms were made, and the papers locked. References in the scholarly literature were typically second-hand: a citation from someone who had used the physical papers when they had been available. One person who had done an early form of data analysis (of the kind at the heart of the 'Agents of Enslavement' project) was Dr. Gad Heuman. In his 1985 essay, "Runaway Slaves in Nineteenth Century Barbados," Abolition and Slavery 6:3, Heuman used an early form of data analysis—the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS)—to analyze fugitive slave ads in the Gazette. The new more powerful tools available to scholars working in digital humanities, I realised, could potentially reveal so much more and I wondered, for instance, if it might be possible to identify 'hot spots' of resistance from the ads.

It was Evelyn who helped me try to recruit support in Barbados for the digitization of the Gazette. She suggested to Dr. Rodney Worrell in the History Department at Cave Hill that I give a talk (in 2016) on what I'd found in the Gazette. That talk, as it happened, just preceded a trip to Barbados by Laurie Taylor, of dLOC, who was coming to launch the digitization of the Jewish archives in Barbados, a project recently completed by Amalia Levi, an accomplished archivist originally from Greece and founder of HeritEdge.

Though we missed meeting each other on that occasion it was Amalia, who, in the company of Laurie, convinced the archivist at the National Library of Barbados, Ingrid Thompson, that digitising the Gazette was a worthwhile project. And that's how the application to the Endangered Archives Programme began. Ingrid, as the head of the Archives, became the principal applicant and took overall responsibility, Amalia, with her expertise as an archivist, took on the role as co-applicant and project manager. I was the other co-applicant. Given that I had the grant experience and the scholarly credentials, I was able to explain why the project was important. Laurie, through dLOC provided the technical expertise.  The grant to digitise the Gazette was awarded in 2017, and it was the first won for Barbados.

After its completion in 2018, I was asked by Amalia to consult on a second application, this time for the Barbadian. It was again, successful. And now, in the summer of 2021, with the fully digitised versions of the Gazette and the Barbadian available, Graham Jevon has launched 'Agents of Enslavement', and the people of the fugitive slave ads in the Gazette and the Barbadian are, at last, on the verge of being recognised for their heroic resistance.

AgentsOfEnslavementFugitiveTask600ppi
Agents of Enslavement crowdsourcing transcription task

As I think back to that first day reading the microfilms in the National Library, I also remember being approached by two little boys, about ten, who were curious about what I was doing. At the time I was too embarrassed to tell them, so I turned the question and asked what they were doing. Their faces fell as they told me that they were researching slavery for school. One asked, pointing to his own ribs, if I knew that slaves had been poked in the ribs with cattle prods. I did, though in the moment I asked if they knew about the British children in the 1790s who had given up sugar in support of the movement to abolish the slave trade. They had not known, but they brightened when they realized that they had a positive story to take back to their class, one about children supporting children. While that story served its purpose at the time, it wasn't the story they needed. With 'Agents of Enslavement' now up and running, however, wonderful stories of courage and active resistance will be available for future generations of children.