Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

3 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

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.

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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.

20 July 2021

Help trace the stories of enslaved people in the Caribbean using colonial newspapers

We are excited to launch a new crowdsourcing project that explores the links between slavery and newspapers in late 18th and early 19th century Barbados: Agents of Enslavement: Colonial newspapers in the Caribbean and hidden genealogies of the enslaved. 

This project will examine the extent to which newspapers facilitated and challenged the practice of slavery. It will also help to reveal the identities, networks, and acts of resistance of enslaved people hidden within these printed texts. 

You can find details of how to get involved at the bottom of this blog post. 

Emancipation Statue (Bussa)
Emancipation Statue (Bussa)

Focus on Barbados 

Barbados is particularly significant in the history of Caribbean enslavement because this is where Britain’s trans-Atlantic slave plantation model began in the 17th century, before spreading throughout the region. 

Other European empires had enslaved and transported Africans to plantations in the Americas since the 1500s, but it was in the 17th century that English capitalists industrialised this process and created what historian Hilary Beckles described as the ‘first black slave society’ in Barbados. English (and later British) capitalists purchased men, women and children enslaved in Africa, brought them to the Caribbean, forced them to work against their will, and then enslaved their children, grandchildren, and so on. 

This model officially ended after the 1807 act to prohibit the trade of enslaved people and the 1833 act to abolish slavery altogether – though enslavement effectively continued until 1838 in the guise of transitional ‘apprenticeships’, which was essentially enslavement by another name. Even after this date, many people had little choice but to continue working for their former enslavers on very low pay. 

While the British enslaved people for hundreds of years across the Caribbean, this project is centred specifically on the abolition and emancipation period of the late 18th and early 19th century in Barbados, the place where Britain’s barbaric colonial slave plantation system began. 

The research material 

This project will focus on two newspaper titles, which are already free to view online: 

The physical copies of these newspapers are located at the Barbados Archives Department, where they were digitised by a local team thanks to funding from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. 

While these newspapers are already available to view online, this project will help researchers interrogate the content, assist family historians to trace their ancestors, and help to memorialise individuals who resisted enslavement. 

Disturbing and offensive content 

YellowWarningSignWe are conscious that the material we are asking people to engage with is disturbing to read. The nature of this project means that users will see terms that are now considered discriminatory, harmful or offensive. The newspapers also contain graphic descriptions of how enslaved people were mistreated. 

While this was a period in which calls to end slavery were eventually enshrined in law, racialised enslavement was nonetheless rife and accepted. Abolition and emancipation were far from unanimous and these newspapers reflect this. The way that these publications normalise slavery and abuse is particularly shocking.  

We therefore strongly recommend that users consider this carefully before engaging with this project. And if you do get involved, please consider taking regular breaks and referring to the resources we have included to offer support.  

Project aims 

The project has two main aims: 

  1. To examine the role that newspapers played in facilitating and challenging the practice of slavery
  2. To create a database of enslaved people and their acts of resistance identified in these newspapers.

The first task - Launched 20 July 2021 

The first crowdsourcing task launched on 20 July will contribute to both these aims. It asks contributors to identify four specific types of newspaper advertisement / notice: 

  1. Enslaved people advertised for sale
  2. Enslaved people wanted for purchase 
  3. Adverts seeking the recapture of fugitives (enslaved people who have escaped) 
  4. Notices informing enslavers that they can collect fugitives who have been captured.

The second task - Launching 23 August 2021 

The second crowdsourcing task will ask contributors to transcribe key information from the adverts identified in the first task. This will include information such as names, ages, and places. It will provide the platform for creating a database of people identified within these newspapers, but also create a dataset for analysing trends within these adverts.

Finding the voices of the enslaved in the words of enslavers 

These tasks could seem depressing, as users identify advert after advert that facilitated and supported the practice of slavery and dehumanised the people who were enslaved. 

Yet while the adverts are written from the perspective of enslavers, they often provide a unique record of an enslaved person’s existence, identity, and actions. This is particularly true of the fugitive advertisements as every advert seeking the re-capture of an enslaved person who had escaped captivity represents an act of resistance.  

The degree to which the actions and identities of enslaved people emerge from the page often depends on the needs of the enslaver. When offered for sale, people were usually anonymised. The very first edition of The Barbadian newspaper contained an advertisement for the sale of two people; both identified simply by their gender, number of children, and domestic skills. 

Enslaved people for sale advert
The Barbadian, 14 December 1822 (EAP1251/1/1/1)

But when enslavers were seeking the return of those who had escaped, their identities were necessarily revealed. To achieve their objective these adverts required detailed descriptions. The better the description the easier it would be to track down the fugitive.  

Fugitive advert
The Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, 22 November 1783 (EAP1086/1/1/8/3)

Now, two hundred years later, these adverts act as a record of each fugitive’s individual existence and agency. These descriptions enable us to identify individuals and map both social and geographic connections. Fugitive adverts usually specify locations and often mention family members and other associates who might know where a fugitive is hiding. This will therefore enable us to try to establish networks of people and places and potentially identify patterns of resistance. 

This enhanced level of detail represents the interests of the enslaver; but it reflects the actions of the enslaved.  These adverts reveal a powerful narrative of resistance that reminds us that these people were neither generic nor passive victims. They were individuals, with families and friends, who fought against oppression. 

What will we do with these adverts? 

This project seeks to help bring these acts of resistance to the fore, individually and collectively. 

Once we have a dataset of adverts drawn, classified, and transcribed by crowdsourcing contributors, we will use these in several ways. 

Database of people 

These transcriptions will form the basis for a database of enslaved people identified within these adverts. A database that not only identifies individuals, but which also maps family connections and other networks of enslaved people. 

Analyse at scale 

The results of these first two tasks will also enable us to analyse the adverts at scale, to observe patterns and answer compelling questions. Did one newspaper do more to facilitate the practice of slavery than another? Did a particular type of advertisement increase or decrease at any given time? If so, can these trends be linked to other events, such as major revolts or legislative changes? 

Share the datasets

We will also make the datasets freely available via the British Library’s Research Repository  so that anyone can access and re-use the crowdsourcing results for their own research purposes. 

Future tasks 

The current task to identify four types of advertisement and notices is just one aspect of this project. Further tasks will include one to transcribe key information from these adverts and another that will ask users to label selected articles as either pro- or anti-slavery. 

This latter task will help us understand whether attitudes expressed within these newspapers changed over time and the extent to which these newspapers provided a means to challenge the practice of slavery as well as facilitate it. 

How to get involved 

To achieve the aims of this project, we need your help to reveal the secrets hidden within these newspapers. 

Anyone can get involved simply by visiting the crowdsourcing site and going to the “Classify” page. 

You do not need to register to take part. However, if you choose to register as a contributor, this will enable you to engage in discussions and ask questions on the talk boards. It will also allow us to acknowledge your contribution to the project. 

We recognise that engaging with this will be a painful experience for many, but we believe this is a worthy and significant endeavour that will help researchers understand the relationship between newspapers and slavery, and help to remember and highlight the humanity and resistance of people who suffered and fought against enslavement. 

Acknowledgements 

It is thanks to the award of the British Library’s Coleridge Fellowship that we are able to carry out this research project. And it is thanks to the work of the Barbados Archives Department that we have access to the digitised newspapers to work with. 

17 June 2020

The Legacy of Slavery: A 19th Century Newspaper and 21st Century Racial Inequity

The Barbadian newspaper is EAP’s latest digitised collection to go online. It does so at a particularly apposite moment. From coronavirus to #BlackLivesMatter this 19th century colonial era newspaper provides stark parallels with the cultural and political issues so prevalent today.

Listing victims

These parallels first came into focus the day after I began working on the collection when, on Saturday 23 May 2020, The New York Times published an emotive front page: a solemn list of obituaries; the names and descriptions of 1,000 people killed by Covid-19. It was a format strikingly similar to a series of front pages issued by The Barbadian almost 200 years previously, during the spring of 1835. Two days later, after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, the parallels came into even sharper focus because The Barbadian printed an altogether different list of people. These were not the victims of a disease, but the supposed victims of the abolition of slavery.

Front Pages of the New York Times and The Barbadian newspapers

While the NYT informed us that 85 year old Ellis Marshal from New Orleans was ‘a jazz pianist and patriarch of a family of musicians’; ‘no-one made creamed potatoes or fried sweet corn the way’ 85 year old June Beverley Hill from Sacramento did; and that John Herman Cloxer Jr, 62, was ‘one of the few African-American corporate bond traders on Wall Street’. In contrast, The Barbadian informed its readers that the honourable Nathaniel Forte claimed compensation for 53 slaves in Warley; John Frere sought recompense for 238 slaves at the Lower Estate; and Maria Frazer and her children requested indemnity for 1 slave in the parish of St Michael.

Compensation for abolition

Britain's slave plantation model began in Barbados in the 17th century before spreading throughout the Caribbean. Built on the enslavement of men, women, and children from Africa, it was a lucrative system that generated excessive wealth for many slave owners and drove the British economy. As the anti-slavery movement gained momentum in the late 18th century, plantation owners and merchants throughout the empire blamed abolitionists for their own economic woes. In tandem with calls to abolish slavery, they demanded reciprocal compensation on the basis that laws protecting inanimate property also applied to slaves. This campaign had political support from absentee proprietors in the UK parliament and when the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act came into force, it was in conjunction with a system that enabled 46,000 slave owners, including more than 80 MPs, to claim compensation.

The British government paid a total of £20 million - 40% of its national budget - to compensate thousands of slave owners; the equivalent of approximately £17 billion today. It required enormous borrowing by the government, so much that the debt was not fully repaid until 2015.

This statistic was announced to the world in a 2018 fact of the day tweet by the UK Treasury and prompted a sharp rebuke by historian David Olusoga. The tweet was pitched as a pat on the back for UK taxpayers’ contribution towards abolishing slavery. Instead it was an unsightly reminder that 21st century taxpayers had continued to fund the ill-gotten gains of human enslavement.

Tweet by the UK Treasury

Patriotic memory

The Treasury’s tweet is indicative of a predilection towards a patriotic view of the past. One that gravitates towards remembering Britain’s role in abolition, rather than its part in establishing and maintaining a system of racial servitude; and one that obscures the structural inequalities that abolition failed to end.

This patriotic imagining of Britain’s imperial legacy is prevalent in the tendency to laud British advocates of abolition, the white allies of those enslaved, such as campaigner William Wilberforce and missionary John Smith - also known as the Demerera Martyr.

Black advocates of abolition such as the formerly enslaved man Olaudah Equiano, or Bussa - the enslaved person widely attributed with leading the largest Barbados rebellion in 1816 - are largely absent from British public discourse on the topic.

Emancipation Statue in Barbados
The Emancipation Statue in Barbados, often referred to as the Bussa Emancipation Statue

Within the Barbadian context, an article published in 1979 by J T Gilmore concluded that Reverend William Marshall Harte made ‘a change in Barbadian society as great as that brought by the Emancipation Act’. Quite the accolade for a man who successfully claimed more than £2,500 in compensation for 112 slaves across four locations, and who preached that ‘slavery [was] not inconsistent with Christianity’.

William Harte's compensation claim and an advertisement for a sermon on Slavery and Christianity
List of compensation claims, EAP1251/1/14/3/7 (left); William Harte's sermon, EAP1251/1/2/12/3 (right).

Harte could be considered a quintessential example of the white colonialist on a civilising mission. His contribution to emancipation, according to Gilmore, was his belief that despite his ‘very low opinion of the morals and capacities of the negroes, he firmly believed that these could be improved by instruction, and that at least where matters of grace were concerned, the black slave could truly be made the equal of his white master’.

Freedom of expression

The case of William Harte is indicative of one of the key structural tenets of racial inequality. Colonial control is often based on three principles: expression, violence, and law. Newspapers often represent all three. The Barbadian reported violence, announced laws, and offered a means of expression to men like Reverend William Harte.

Harte’s attempts to civilise the enslaved were not well received by a significant chunk of the white population in Barbados. When, in 1819, he and his associates were threatened by white parishioners angry that enslaved black people were invited into the church, his privileged position enabled him a right of reply in the form of a letter to the editor of the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette (which is also available on the EAP website). And when he was chastised in the Barbados Mercury in 1827, his friendship with Abel Clinckett, the editor and proprietor of The Barbadian, afforded him an indirect defence in the form of a supportive editorial. The enslaved had no such right of reply.

William Harte's letter to the editor of the Barbados Mercury
William Harte's letter to the editor of the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, 21 September 1819, EAP1086/1/18/9/6.

Licence to kill

Without freedom of expression, the enslaved were reliant on the legal system for protection. But the system of governance was intentionally rigged against them. Laws are not inherently moral or just. Often they are means of enforcing compliance and subjugation in the interests of those who make them. An 1824 proclamation by King George IV asserted that  the ‘Slave Population … will be undeserving of Our Protection if they shall fail to render entire Submission to the Laws, as well as dutiful Obedience to their Masters’. The objective was to dampen thoughts of rebellion; the means was to suggest that continued enslavement was a slave’s only hope of protection. Protection from what, was left unsaid. Had the king wished to be more succinct, he may simply have remarked that ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts’.

Proclamation by King George IV
Supplement to the Barbadian, 23 April 1824, EAP1251/1/3/4/7

If enslaved people were to comply with the law, it was surely only right that the colonial powers did too. The traditionalist argument in support of the British Empire is that in comparison to other imperial powers, British imperialists mostly acted legally. But as Matthew Hughes’s recent study of Britain’s colonial pacification of Palestine showed, the British maintained colonial control by constantly altering the law to make considerable brutality permissible.

The counter-insurgency tactics employed by the British in the Middle East in the 1930s - the combination of brutal force and legal dictate - are not so different from the methods used to control the colonies in the Americas one hundred years earlier.

In August 1823 The Barbadian reported on a revolt in the colony of Demerera-Essequibo (modern day Guyana), in which more than 10,000 enslaved people detained their enslavers and demanded that the governor listen to their grievances and grant them ‘rights’. While the revolt itself was predominantly non-violent, the government response was uncompromising. Governor John Murray proclaimed martial law and military detachments, including the British army’s all black West India Regiment, killed and wounded rebelling slaves.

Moreover, in the interests of protecting British subjects and property, the governor’s proclamation of martial law included an instruction for all ‘faithful subjects of His Majesty … to govern themselves accordingly’. It was a call to arms that essentially permitted the white population to kill members of the black population.

Proclamation of Martial Law in Demerera and Essequebo
The Barbadian, 30 August 1823, EAP1251/1/2/8/9

Police brutality beyond emancipation

The trans-Atlantic slave system was inherently racist, but the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, despite its stated intention, did little to dismantle the structures of racial inequality. Freedom was not immediate. Instead, slavery was replaced by a new system of apprenticeships: a transitional scheme that required hitherto enslaved persons to continue working for their previous enslavers for 45 hours per week in return for free board and lodging. By any other name they remained enslaved. 

They also remained reliant on a system of law and order that privileged the white settler population. Emancipation coincided with the establishment, in 1834, of the first formal police force in Barbados and one of the first reported interactions between the police and the black community was indicative of the continued inequality.

According to a report printed in The Barbadian, police officer Thomas Green took a loose goat from the market. When the goat was claimed by an ‘apprenticed’ woman named Benebah, the officer refused to return the goat unless she paid him. But Benebah did not comply. Instead she returned to the market where she vented her frustration. When the officer heard that she had been abusing him, he confronted the pregnant woman. Still enraged at the injustice, she abused him directly. The officer grabbed Benebah, intent on dragging her to the police station. She resisted; clenched her teeth on his hand. Green responded, pulled her towards him, and forced his knee into her abdomen. Benebah threw the officer to the floor, before others joined the scuffle and the officer was retrieved by two colleagues.

When the incident was over, Green was brought before the magistrate and sent to prison. But he was swiftly released on the basis of a certificate from Dr Cleare stating that ‘the woman [was] in no immediate danger’.

Newspaper accounts of an incident between a Barbados police officer and a former slave
The Barbadian, 27 August 1834, EAP1251/1/13/8/8

Bolster the police

Beyond the lack of legal accountability for the police officer, the editorial comment was starkly in the officer’s favour. The Barbadian demanded an increased police presence and lamented that: ‘The overbearing insolence of the ill disposed negroes, especially the females, when they see so small a portion of the police in the way, is very trying to human patience, as we find in the case of Saturday’. While the piece went on to ‘earnestly intreat our Police officers to keep a strict guard over their own tempers, to be patient under provocation, but firm in the execution of their duty, not regarding colour, rank, or station’, the subtle distinction between ‘human’ and ‘negroes’ puts the racial motivation of the views expressed into sharp relief.

The racial slant was reminiscent of the editorial comment on the 1823 revolt in Demerera, which took the form of a vitriolic tirade against the abolitionist African Institution and its leading figures, including William Wilberforce and James Stephen, blaming them for sowing disorder and describing them as ‘a junta of fanatics … specious friends of humanity, who have not one spark of christian feeling for the millions of human beings of their own colour’.

Telling the stories of the enslaved

As a newspaper written by the white community, for the white community, The Barbadian does not provide a mouthpiece for the enslaved. But it is a vital historical source that reveals much about the attitudes and incidents of this period and of the overt and covert forms of racial inequality that preceded and succeeded emancipation.

It is also a useful resource for tracing the stories of those enslaved. Take pregnant Benebah, for example. The newspaper report of the police incident remarked that she was an apprentice of John Piggot Maynard. By cross referencing this with the slave register available online via Ancestry.com, we find that in 1834 Benebah was a 30 year old black Barbadian gifted to John Maynard’s 7 year old daughter by Richard Grannum.

1834 slave register
1834 slave register from Ancestry.com

Slave registration was first introduced in 1812. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, this was one method of combatting illegal trading and the registers later became integral to the calculation of slave owners’ compensation claims. In January 1823, The Barbadian printed a schedule, which it copied from the Barbados Mercury, as guidance for enslavers.

Slave register schedule for guidance
The Barbadian, 29 January 1823, EAP1251/1/2/1/9

These registers were essentially a census that had to be completed every three years, and they enable us to trace the registration of 13 year old Benebah as a sheep keeper in 1817, through to her final registration in 1834.

1817 slave register
1817 slave register from Ancestry.com

With a bit more digging it may well be possible to track Benebah’s story further, including that of her unborn child who felt the full force of the law while still in his/her mother’s womb.

The degree to which the voices of the enslaved emerge from the page often depends on the needs of the enslaver. When offered for sale, enslaved people usually remained nameless. The very first edition of The Barbadian contained an advertisement for the sale of two enslaved people; both identified simply by their gender, number of children, and domestic skills.

Slaves for sale advert
The Barbadian, 14 December 1822, EAP1251/1/1/1

But when enslavers were seeking the return of those who had absconded, their identities were necessarily revealed. The Barbados Mercury is strewn with advertisements requesting the recapture of enslaved people who had escaped.

Runaway slave advert
Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, 18 January 1823, EAP1086/1/22/1/7

To achieve their objective, these adverts required detailed descriptions and consequently offer a significant means of identifying individuals and revealing their lineage. This enhanced level of detail represents the interests of the enslaver; but it reflects the actions of the enslaved. The publication of these adverts, and the stories they reveal, were created by the enslaver, but born out acts of resistance.

For those tracing their ancestors or broadly researching the period, newspapers such as these can therefore be crucial for starting that search or expanding upon it. It shines a light on individual stories, highlights moments of protest, and demonstrates the structural inequalities that continued during the transition towards and beyond emancipation.

21st century parallels

Recent events have shown that the transition from slavery to racial equality is far from complete. US citizen George Floyd was a free man. But he lacked freedom to express. He had no access to an opinion piece in a national newspaper. He did not even have the freedom to breathe or express his opposition to being strangled to death by an officer of the law. Freedom of expression, though, was afforded to US Senator Tom Cotton whose recent opinion piece on the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd called on the US Government to ‘send in the troops’. Like the response to the 1823 revolt in Demerera and the 1816 rebellion in Barbados, Tom Cotton essentially advocated the implementation of martial law in order to subdue those people protesting racial inequality. Reminiscent of the response to the assault on Benebah, Tom Cotton called for more force rather than more understanding; prioritised punishment over change.

While racism in its most overt form - black people in chains - may be largely in the past, its legacy continues. When comments on slavery in a 19th century newspaper draw parallels with 21st century attitudes to race; when standing for the national anthem is deemed more important than protesting racial injustice; and when the fate of a statue is more concerning than the death of a fellow human being; it is clear that for some, jingoism trumps equality, and that the structural inequities of slavery remain significantly unchanged.

By Graham Jevon

Related digital resources

The Barbadian (1822-1861)

The Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette (1783-1848)

UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Slave Registers – available online via Ancestry.com or in person at The National Archives (UK)

"Barbados Runaways" Public History & Outreach Platform 

Selected further reading

Colonial counterinsurgency methods

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

Ilana Feldman, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967 (Duke University Press, 2008).

Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Matthew Hughes, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: The British Army, the Colonial State, and the Arab Revolt, 1936-1939 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Slavery and emancipation

Hilary Beckles, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Caribbean Single Market (Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Hilary Beckles and Verene A Shepherd, Liberties Lost: The Indigenous Caribbean and Slave Systems (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Hilary Beckles, Jerome S Handler, and Diane Lumsden Brandis, 'The 1816 Slave Revolt in Barbados: An Exchange in Barbados Newspapers', https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/mpi/2011/1816-Revolt-2000.pdf.

Kathleen Mary Butler, The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados, 1823-1843 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerera Slave Rebellion of 1823 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Don Foster, Chapter 1: ‘Liberation psychology’, in Norman Duncan, Kopano Ratele, Derek Hook, Nhlanhla Mkhize, Peace Kiguwa, Anthony Collins (eds.), Self, Community and Psychology (UCT Press, 2004).

J T Gilmore, ‘The Rev. William Harte and Attitudes to Slavery in Early Nineteenth-Century Barbados’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 30/4 (October 1979).

Miles Ogborn, The Freedom of Speech: Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

David Olusoga, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/12/treasury-tweet-slavery-compensate-slave-owners.

Edwin Angel Wallbridge, The Demerera Martyr: Memoirs of the Rev. John Smith, Missionary to Demerera (Charles Gilpin, 1848).

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