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.
10 November 2014
This month we have had eight new collections go up online, with over five hundred thousand new images now available to view on our website. This blog will focus on four of the new projects, EAP148, EAP128, EAP180 and EAP183. Part 2 will be published next week and will cover the remaining four projects EAP285, EAP618, EAP110 and EAP211.
The first collection is EAP148, this project carried out an inventory of archival holdings in Jamaica. This targeted libraries and archives which contain valuable historical collections that focus on the lives of enslaved Africans and free blacks in Jamaica during the period 1655-1800. The documents are important to scholars studying the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, and supplement the extensive records that are held in Britain on the forced migration of Africans to Jamaica.
The project compiled inventories of original documentation published before 1800, which are in the possession of four institutions, the Jamaica Archives, Roman Catholic Chancery’s Archive, University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Mona and the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ). At the Jamaica Archives, the Manumission of Slaves, volumes 5 through 12 were digitised, which cover the period 1747-1778. At UWI the team compiled an inventory of approximately 150 items and 10 primary sources were digitised, these documents cover the historical period 1493-1800. At the Chancery, Several burial, baptismal and marriage records were digitised. At the NLJ, the team compiled an inventory of approximately 90 items and 12 primary sources were digitised.
EAP128 digitised publications related to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities in Thailand. Bangkok is home to some of Asia's earliest and largest GLBT communities.
Since the 1970s, Thailand's GLBT communities have produced large quantities of Thai language publications including multi-issue periodicals and magazines and community organisation newsletters. This large volume of material, totalling several thousand items, documents the history of one of the world's most important non-Western homosexual/transgender cultures and is a largely untouched research resource. These materials are in danger of being destroyed and disappearing completely. Since no Thai or western library or archive has collected these materials, the only remaining copies are in the hands of private collectors.
A total of 648 issues of Thai gay, lesbian and transgender community organisations and commercial magazines from 32 different series were collected and digitised. These are now available to view online.
EAP180 digitised one of the largest collections of early printed books and periodicals in the Republic of Armenia, located in the Fundamental Scientific Library (FSL).
After the establishment of the communist regime in Armenia in 1920 and the ideological cleansings of 1937, substantial numbers of manuscripts and books were destroyed and the remaining material was confined to the archives. A huge number of Armenian periodicals published during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were placed in closed archives, as they represented views which the Soviet regime did not want circulated. The FSL was selected by the authorities to house this material and a very limited number of researchers had access to these materials. Since 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet regime and the emergence of Armenia as an independent republic, all spheres of Armenian society have experienced a tremendous and fundamental change. This category of material previously closed is now open to all users. Periodical literature is a vital and unique source of information for the study of the history of the Armenian diaspora, literature, culture, institutions, church life and politics. The condition of the material is in danger because of its storage conditions and the quality of the paper they were printed on. The fluctuation of temperatures and level of humidity in the stacks during the autumn and spring seasons remains uncontrolled. This has caused the physical condition of the materials to deteriorate and many of the rare books have been lost already.
This project digitised over 4200 volumes and has ensured that the information contained in these volumes will be preserved for research.
If you would like to know more about this project and gain insight into the digitisation procedures of an EAP project you can read an article by the project leaders Alan Hopkinson and Tigran Zargaryan, “Peculiarities of digitising materials from the collections of the National Academy of Sciences, Armenia”.
EAP183 preserved early print literature on the history of Tamilnadu. The aim of the project was to preserve and provide access to a very important segment of cultural material that reflects the history of Tamilnadu. The project preserved over 150,000 images on microfilm reels and then digitised them for better access. The materials were identified through library surveys and were borrowed and shipped to the Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) for microfilming and digitisation. The subject material is important for scholars to reconstruct the history of Tamilnadu, covering areas such as the Self-Respect Movement, Dravidian movement, Bhakti movement and other social and cultural histories of the 19th and early 20th century Tamilnadu.
Check back next week to see what else has been added!
You can also keep up to date with any new collections by joining our Facebook group.
04 March 2011
Last month we received material from five very different projects:
This pilot project is undertaking a survey of court records from the Department of State for Justice in Banjul, the Gambia. It is also copying a selection of these records. The records chosen for copying originate from the Muhammedan Court, the Police Court, the Court of Requests in Bathurst, the Police Magistrates Court and the Supreme Court. The records held by the Department of State for Justice date back to the 1820s.
Carrying on from an earlier pilot project, EAP248 is microfilming Marathi manuscripts currenlty held by libraries and private homes in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Some of these manuscripts are unique in that they have not been published. The project will thus make valuable material widely available to scholars for the first time.
The Jugantar and Amrita Bazar Patrika are two leading newspapers from colonial and post-colonial Bengal. Both newspapers cover important periods in history, including the partition of Bengal in 1905, both world wars and the independence of India. Here is a page from the Amrita Bazar Patrika from December 1872:
Also a pilot project, EAP284 is surveying records held by the Sirerra Leone Archives, and digitising a selection of these that relate to the Atlantic trade in slaves. Among the records held are Registers of Liberated Slaves and Letter Books that contain details of captured slave ships and Africans who disembarked at Freetown. Significantly, these latter records include details on individuals.
This project has continued copying material identified by a previous pilot project, and new material found during the current project. Included in this are photographs, posters, political flyers, publications and political documents. The project has copied a mix of administrative, political records, and material relating to the legends, history and customs of Gypsy communities in Bulgaria. Here is an image of a wedding group:
09 July 2010
Last month we received material from only one project: 'Faces drawn in the sand': a rescue project of Native Peoples' photographs stored at the Museum of La Plata, Argentina - major project.
Led by Dr Irina Podgorny, this project built on the work of an earlier pilot project that successfully identified and re-located 'forgotten collections' within the Museum of La Plata. The major project created microfilm and digital images of 11 Collections. All the material is photographic and include glass plate negatives, celluloid film, glass lantern slides and albumen prints. They are quite amazing. Some of the originals are cracked or damaged because of their age and the project team has done a great job making good quality copies. It was difficult choosing only a few images to show in this post. Here are three:
This project is now finished and the full Collections available for access.
05 February 2010
Last month we received material from two EAP projects.
The project Preserving early print literature on the history of Tamilnadu is microfilming books and periodicals. It's actively seeking out libraries and private owners with collections most in need of preservation. Like many archival and library collections the contents of these vary in scope, themes and formats. Details are on their EAP Project webpage.
Normally at this point I would include an image from one of the copied books or manuscripts. Instead, below you'll see two photographs taken by the project team of libraries they're working with. These show the original materials where they live. These pictures are important to me as they provide a real-life background to the microfilm and digital copies we receive.
The project Riau manuscripts: the gateway to the Malay intellectual world is copying material from private collections. The project hopes to expand the number of manuscripts available to scholars and thus allow wider research into the Malay-Muslim world. Many of the items are being copied from book sellers and antique dealers, meaning that texts not owned by public institutions will be made available for public use. Here is a page from one of these books.
08 January 2010
Looking over the EAP Accession records it appears most of December was spent processing new material into the library. We received discs, microfilm and hard drives from seven projects! Some of these were continuing transfers from on-going projects. Some were the first receipts from new projects.
Material was received from:
This last project is the second undertaken by Dr Feldhaus to copy Marathi manuscripts in India. Her first project, Preserving Marathi manuscripts and making them accessible, was completed in 2007. It successfully microfilmed 300 manuscripts including: works of the Vakari poet-saints from the 13th to the 17th centuries; works of the 'Pandit' poets of the 17th and 18th centuries; notebooks of songs used by performers of kirtans and other types of (mostly Vaishnava) religious performances; manuscripts on yoga, astrology and other kinds of sciences including (interestingly) the science of horses; and manuscripts of the vast literature of the Mahanubhav sect. The project also conducted training for staff in digital preservation and raised awareness of Marathi manuscript collections and their care.
The current major project is continuing to microfilm Marathi manuscripts and training staff. Here is a glimpse of the result:
09 November 2009
Last month we received material from two projects. Towards the end of October we received another consignment of discs from the United National Independence Party of Zambia. Included were correspondence papers from Regional Headquarters and minutes of government and provincial committee meetings, plus correspondence concerning elections. This project is nearly completed and we expect to receive more material in November.
We also received microfilm from the project Preserving early print literature on the history of Tamilnadu.
This project aims to produce both microfilm and digital copies of 19th and 20th century books and periodicals and to make them available to researchers. The material is currently housed in different library and private collections. The items being copied relate to the Dravidian and politicals movements. They also cover the histories of Vaishnaviam, Saivism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The images here have been produced from the microfilm by the project.
05 March 2009
On 5 March the Cologne City Archive building collapsed. The archive contained over 26 kilometres of records dating back to the 10th century. This includes the personal papers of Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Boell and records belonging to the composer Jacques Offenbach, Karl Marx, Hegel, and West Germany’s first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer - as well as photographs, maps and rare books. How much will be recovered is still unknown.
This disaster brought home just how fragile archives are, and how important. The people of Cologne have lost a vital link with their past. As a story from The Times states: 'The German city of Cologne woke up yesterday without a memory'. This memory loss, however large it turns out to be, will touch not just Cologne but the whole of Europe and the world.
Increasingly, libraries and archives are copying their holdings partly to mitigate the effects of a disaster. This has been going on for a long time, and indeed records from the Cologne City Archives had been copied onto microfilm and stored in another location. Many of the records copied as part of the EAP are endangered because they are at risk of being damaged or lost through disasters such as fire and flood. Many simply exist in unhealthy storage environments.
One of the more unusual threats to archives is butter lamps. The project Digital documentation of manuscript collection in Gangtey made digital copies of Buddhist manuscripts from Gangtey Monastery in Bhutan. These manuscripts are kept at the monastery and are in danger of accidentally being burnt from the butter lamps used by the monks. The project successfully digitised the entire collection of manuscripts at Gangety.
Most of these were written in the 17th century and are beautiful artefacts in their own right. Many were written in the dbu can calligraphy and begin with miniatures of the Buddha and Buddhist hierarchs.