23 August 2021
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
We 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.
The project has two main aims:
- To examine the role that newspapers played in facilitating and challenging the practice of slavery
- 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:
- Enslaved people advertised for sale
- Enslaved people wanted for purchase
- Adverts seeking the recapture of fugitives (enslaved people who have escaped)
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
01 February 2021
We're now fully embarked on 2021, with changes and new challenges happening all the time, and yet every day feeling much like the last. With a little distance from 2020, it seems the right time to step back and look at the year that has just been, and what it meant for EAP in particular.
When I have time to read, I try to keep track of interesting passages that I might want to revisit later. Several years ago, I copied these words from John Gray's Straw Dogs into my notes, and I just came across them again this week:
"As a side effect of climate change, new patterns of disease could trim the human population. Our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indissolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere. Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future than any of our hopes or plans."
In this book, written in 2002, Gray is pretty pessimistic about humanity's prospects, too much so for me, but it is striking to see how right he was. In 2020 we had to rethink almost all of our hopes and plans, due to a pandemic that is indeed inextricably linked to the climate crisis (see this article in The Lancet).
For EAP, this meant completely rethinking our way of operating. In February, we began to question whether our international panel would be able to come to London to review the year's applications, and by early March it was clear that it wouldn't be possible. We decided to postpone the whole round of funding, giving us and our project applicants the space to wait and reassess what would be possible and what might not. And for the projects EAP is currently funding, we offered extensions and advice, reaching out to them over the course of the year to see where they were, and what adjustments they needed to make to ensure they stayed safe through the pandemic.
In the meantime, as the EAP team adjusted to working from home, we found it was still possible to put new digital collections from completed projects online. Over the course of 2020 over a million images went up on the EAP website, representing a vast range of materials, geographic regions and time periods. To pick five of these almost at random:
- EAP813 Preservation of the disappearing book heritage of Siberian Buddhists
- EAP816 Selective digitisation and preservation of the photographic archive of the ‘Vasile Parvan’ Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest, Romania
- EAP820 Documenting Slavery and Emancipation in Kita, Western Mali
- EAP880 Fragments of Sikkim: Preserving and presenting the palace archives of a Himalayan Kingdom, 1875-1975
- EAP896 Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu
Global lockdowns meant more people visiting us online as well. When we looked at our website statistics at the end of the year, one thing was especially good to see: people were coming to the site from the countries where new projects had just been completed and put online. For example, we saw a big increase in users from Peru after a collection of Peruvian newspapers (EAP498) went online. This was helped by many Peruvian and other Spanish-speaking users of social media enthusiastically posting about the new collection being made available.
The first months of lockdown turned out to be a good opportunity to trial a crowdsourcing project we had been thinking about. The EAP team chose EAP016, a collection of Siberian photographs and used the free platform Zooniverse. Among our contributors were the British Library’s own Russian language curators who also translated Zooniverse site terms into Russian. We also had help from the amazing Steppe Sisters Network, a group of more than 100 female archaeologists who study and/or live in the region.
As debates and action on colonialism and racism intensified, we looked at ways to address this in EAP's practices. For instance, our cataloguing guidelines meant that we recorded colonial-era names such as Rhodesia and Dutch East Indies if these were in use at the time of the archive; yet this meant these names appeared as key terms on the EAP website, without comment or context. We decided to change our cataloguing practice and use modern place names in the field that appears as index terms on the website, and keep historical place names in free-text fields where they can be discussed in context. We tried to highlight the resources for Black Studies in the EAP collections, created by so many great projects in Africa and the Caribbean (see this earlier blog post for example.)
As we moved towards the autumn and some of our grant applicants decided they weren't going ahead with their applications, we decided to make a limited call for another round. In the midst of a period of great uncertainty, and as the second wave of the pandemic loomed in many places, we weren't sure what response we would see. It was both surprising and heartening to receive so many applications planning new projects across the world. This above everything has made me realise that we humans will not give up on our hopes and plans. We may need new hopes, and we definitely need to be creative about coming up with different, more flexible plans, but we continue to strive to make things better. And in a time when we are separated from each other, our thoughts turn to new ways of connecting.
Having started this post with a rather pessimistic quote, I'll end with a hopeful one, by one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes:
Sometimes when I'm lonely,
Don't know why,
Keep thinking I won't be lonely
By and by.
Post written by Sam van Schaik, Head of EAP