THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

12 posts categorized "Modern history"

26 February 2021

New online - February 2021

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February may be the shortest month of the year, but it is another month packed with newly digitised collections being added to the EAP website. The three latest projects to go online include:

EAP791 - Manuscripts of the Lanten community in northern Laos

The digitisation process and digitised manuscript pages

Led by Professor Dr Josephus Platenkamp and Joseba Estevez, the EAP791 project team digitised 768 manuscripts owned by private collectors within the Lanten community in northern Laos.

Members of the Lanten community migrated from the Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces of China into Laos and Vietnam following the social, political and economic upheavals during the last century of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912).

Lanten (also known as Lao Huay and Yao Mun) are classified as one of the 39 ‘ethnic minorities’ of northern Laos that are officially acknowledged by the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.

Written in Classical Chinese supplemented with lexemes from Lanten language, these manuscripts mediate the transfer across the generations of the religious knowledge and verbal and non-verbal expertise enabling ritual experts to communicate with the Deities of the Lanten pantheon. To that end the manuscripts contain instructions for rituals of healing, marriage, death, ordination, and exorcism, specifying the sacrificial procedures and the Deities involved.

EAP981 - Documents at the Jaffna Bishop's House, Sri Lanka

EAP981_Panorama600ppi

This major project followed on from pilot project EAP700. Led by Dr Appasamy Murugaiyan, the EAP981 team digitised the remaining rare documents kept under the guardianship of the Jaffna Bishop House in Sri Lanka.

The digitised material covers the period between 1775 and 1948.

The range of material digitised includes handwritten bound registers, personal memoirs, chronicles, account books, correspondence, registers of marriage, baptism, birth and death, newspaper clippings, pastoral letters, biographies of the local bishops, and some religious books.

The material also covers a wide range of languages, including French, English, Tamil, Latin, Portuguese, Sinhalese, and Dutch.

EAP1145 - Documentary heritage of traditional Protestant communities in Bulgaria

The digitisation process and digitised manuscript pages

This pilot project, led by Dr Magdalena Slavkova, produced a survey of 52 collections of material relating to Protestant communities in Bulgaria.

These collections contain a wide variety of content types including photographs, notebooks, correspondence, books, wedding and baptism certificates, religious booklets, newspaper clippings, and postcards.

In addition to the survey, the EAP1145 project team, which also included Dr Mila Maeva, Dr Yelis Erolova, and Dr Plamena Stoyanova, digitised a sample of 69 files from these collections.

 

05 February 2021

New online - December 2020 and January 2021

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We have a bumper blog this month, covering new projects that went online at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. While access to physical archives is currently restricted in many parts of the world, digital archives are increasingly important. Here are five recently digitised collections that are now freely available to access online:

EAP782 - Nineteenth-century records in the Sierra Leone Public Archives

Digitsation sample

The EAP782 project team led by Professor Suzanne Schwarz digitised police, court, and colonial records housed at the Sierra Leone Public Archives.

The documents span a period from the formation of the British Crown colony of Sierra Leone to the formation of the Sierra Leone Protectorate. These records offer significant insights into the lives of inhabitants of the region.

These provide rare insight into the life experiences of formerly enslaved people and their descendants. By the mid-nineteenth century, the population was comprised mainly of liberated Africans (and their descendants) drawn from across West Africa. The digitised records reveal the practices used by successive colonial governors to re-settle tens of thousands of liberated Africans in Freetown and surrounding colonial villages, including Regent and Wilberforce.

The police and court records include the depositions of witnesses, as well as those brought before the court for different offences. Testimony from formerly enslaved people is particularly rare, and provides a basis for reconstructing biographical information on individuals uprooted and displaced by the Atlantic slave trade.

 

EAP886 - Sanskrit Manuscripts and Books in the State of Jammu and Kashmir

Digitisation examples
The EAP886 team digitising; EAP886/1/26; EAP886/2/14.

Led by Mr Chetan Pandey, the EAP886 project team digitised 46 books and manuscripts located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in India. In particular, they focussed on material relating to:

  • Sanskritism
  • Hinduism
  • Kashmir Shaivism (a Tantric school of Mysticism indigenous to Kashmir)
  • Tantra
  • Mysticism.

 

EAP1017 - Manuscripts and Archival Documents of Russian Old Believers Escapists (Skrytniks)

Digitisation examples
The EAP1017 team cataloguing; EAP1017/1/66; EAP1017/1/140.

The EAP1017 project team, led by Dr Irina Belayeva, digitised manuscripts and documents of the Skrytniks (Old Believers Escapists) - a social group that was in opposition to the Russian state, first to the Russian Empire and then to the Soviet Union.

The digitised material shows the structure of Skrytniks, their traditions, faith and intercommunication with other social groups.

 

EAP1077 - Tibetan Bonpo Manuscripts

Project location and digitisation example

Dr Valentina Punzi and the EAP1077 team digitised 6 collection of Tibetan manuscripts belonging to private households in the Qinghai Province of China. These include rare and unique ritual texts from the late 19th and early 20 centuries.

 

EAP1123 - Thai-Mon palm-leaf manuscripts

Digitisation example

The Mons of Thailand and Burma were regional, cultural, and religious intermediaries and supported a palm leaf manuscript tradition into the 1920s. The EAP1123 project team, led by Dr Patrick McCormick, conducted a survey of 28 temples in and around Bangkok.

They also digitised a sample of manuscripts from six collections. Many of these texts are unknown in Burma, but they are key to understanding recent history in the region and the Mon role in intellectual history.

Combined, the survey and digitisation sample provide important insights into the history of the Mons in Thailand and Burma.

 

We will be continuing to publish more digital collections in the coming weeks, so keep an eye out for those!

18 November 2020

What’s in a name? The Sovietisation of the Mongolian language and the Challenges of Reversal

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One of the newest EAP projects to go online is EAP890, which contains two collections of Mongolian newspapers, covering the period 1936-1945.

Written in traditional Mongolian script, these newspapers offer a fascinating insight into the history of Mongolian politics and society. They also provide a Mongolian perspective on international affairs, including the dominant global event of the period: the Second World War.

What's in a name?

But beyond the content, even to the untrained eye, this collection shines a light on a key period in Mongolia’s history, as the influence of the Soviet Union intensified eastwards after the 1917 Russian revolution.

Even if you cannot read the traditional Mongolian script these newspapers are written in, a quick glance at different editions of the Ardyn Undesnii Erkh collection prompts a simple question: why did the name of this newspaper keep changing? The answer lies not in typographical errors and careless editing; it is much more profound.

The newspaper title when printed in traditional Mongolian script was always consistent (see yellow boxes below). But alongside this was a variant title written in an alternative script (see red boxes).

In the following examples from four different months in 1941, the variant titles were written differently in each edition. In February 1941, the variant title is very similar to the current Romanised transliteration. But month by month this gradually changed to something that closely resembles the modern Cyrillic spelling.

Part of newspaper title front cover
13 February 1941 (EAP890/1/1/54/3)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
12 March 1941 (EAP890/1/1/55/4)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
12 May 1941 (EAP890/1/1/57/2)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
23 June 1941 (EAP890/1/1/58/6)

What is going on?

These changing titles are indicative of a pivotal period in Mongolian history.  They reveal a process of linguistic revolution, which act as an important indicator of the broader social and political changes that Mongolia experienced during the mid-20th century.

The Sovietisation of Mongolia

Situated in the heart of central Asia, Mongolia is surrounded by two global superpowers: Russia to the north and China to the south. Between the late 17th  and early 20th centuries, Mongolia was controlled by the Chinese Qing dynasty. Throughout this period, local dialects predominantly used the vertical Mongolian script, which was adapted from the Old Uyghur alphabet after Genghis Khan captured an Uyghur scribe at the beginning of the 13th century, during the formative years of the Mongol Empire.

After the fall of the Chinese Manchu dynasty in 1911, Mongolia swayed between independence and continued control by the new Republic of China, until Russian troops entered Mongolia in 1920 and defeated the Chinese army a few months later.

In 1924, the Mongolian People's Republic was established and during subsequent decades Mongolia became increasingly aligned with the recently formed Soviet Union. 

During the 1930s, Mongolia was subject to a series of brutal purges. Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and tens of thousands of people were killed. This process intensified as the world drifted towards war. Notable politicians, including Mongolian prime ministers Peljidiin Genden and Anandyn Amar were arrested and shot in the Soviet Union, accused of counterrevolutionary activity and spying for Japan.

These purges were ordered by the Soviets, but largely overseen by Khorloogiin Choibalsan - sometimes referred to as the 'Stalin of Mongolia'. Choibalsan was in Russia as a student when the 1917 Bolshevik revolution took place. He returned to Mongolia inspired by the Bolshevik cause and after Stalin came to power in Moscow, Choibalsan gradually emerged as the principal conduit for Soviet influence in Mongolia. By 1939, after the arrest of Amar, Choibalsan had become Mongolia's dominant political leader.

Extract from a newspaper including images of Joseph Stalin and Khorloogiin Choibalsan
12 March 1941 (EAP890/1/1/55/4). Pictured: Joseph Stalin (top); Khorloogiin Choibalsan (bottom right)
 
Khorloogiin Choibalsan with Soviet officials
Khorloogiin Choibalsan with Soviet military officers, 1940 (EAP264/1/2/1/10)

During the next few years, the Sovietisation of Mongolia continued unabated and part of this effort included Russifying the Mongolian language. 

Linguistic revolution

While violent purges provide stark evidence of political change, alterations to the national language were also a significant part of the Sovietisation process.

Initial attempts to unify languages within the communist sphere centred on the Latin script. A 1932 Soviet report explained that a unified script would create a system for use by the working masses, as opposed to multiple narrow systems designed for use by the ruling classes. During the late 1930s this objective continued, but Cyrillic became the preferred, unifying writing system.

The first two extracts above, from early 1941 editions of Ardyn Undesnii Erkh, represent a hangover from those initial aborted efforts to Latinise languages within the Soviet Union during the 1920s-30s and replica efforts in Mongolia. In the early 1930s, a Latin alphabet containing 24 dominant characters emerged in Mongolia. This shift was subsequently aborted and in 1937 the former Minster of Education  was prosecuted for crimes which included trying to destroy the Mongolian national script. But in early 1941, after the rise of Choibalsan, Latinisation re-emerged. And on 21 February 1941, a resolution was passed in Mongolia to approve a 42-letter Latin script. This decree was short-lived, though, as a month a later, on 25 March, Cyrillic was adopted as the preferred alternative to the traditional Mongolian script. Five years later, this change was enforced

The processes of both Latinising and Russifying the Mongolian language were neither straightforward nor definitive. The subtle and gradual alterations to both the Latin and the Cyrillic versions of the titles evident in these newspaper demonstrate this.  The task of using new alphabets to represent an existing language was subject to intense linguistic debate.

As the last national newspapers printed in traditional Mongolian script before the forceful switch to the Cyrillic script on 1 January 1946, these two newspaper collections offer an important insight into the nature of those debates and provide a potentially useful dataset to help better understand the mechanics and subtleties of this linguistic revolution.

By the time of this enforced change, Unen had already transitioned. When the final edition available in this collection was published on 31 December 1945, the only remnant of the traditional Mongolian script was the title; the rest of the newspaper was printed in Cyrillic.

Two front covers of Unen newspaper
Unen, 1 January 1942 (EAP890/1/2/1/1), left; Unen, 31 December 1945 (EAP890/1/2/45/11), right

When the Sovietisation process began, the titles were the first parts of these newspapers to change. When the process was complete, they were the last thing to remain.

Beyond communism and 21st century challenges

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of communism in Mongolia, efforts have been made to resurrect the traditional script, which is still used in the autonomous Inner Mongolian region of China. This was initially scheduled for 1994, but Cyrillic was re-confirmed as the national script by the Mongolian parliament in 1995.

Twenty years later, in February 2015, the Mongolian government passed a new law which asserted that the traditional Mongolian script, found in these two newspapers, should once again be the national script by 2025. But it may not be that simple.

As I discovered when cataloguing this project, implementing this policy requires technical change as well as political will. It had been our intention to catalogue the collection using the traditional Mongolian script that the newspapers were predominantly written in. However, while the traditional Mongolian script was added to the unicode standard in 1999, there are several design issues that remain unfixed and a lack of support for fonts required to display the script correctly. The 2025 target has provided renewed motivation to address these  issues. But it remains to be seen if and when the existing technical problems will be resolved.

For now, therefore, the titles for these collections appear in the EAP catalogue only in the modern Mongolian Cyrillic script and transliterated Latin script.

But once you get beyond the name, the digitised content is there to be explored in the traditional Mongolian script - providing a window into the past and possibly the very near future of Mongolia and the significance of its national script.

By Graham Jevon

With thanks to the EAP890 project team led by Bayasgalan Bayanbat for digitising this content, and to Eleanor Cooper with whom discussions about the language and scripts inspired this post.

Further reading

Charles Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia, (2002).

Henry S Badsher, 'The Sovietization of Mongolia', Foreign Affairs (April 1972), pp. 545-553.

Uradyn E Bulag, Nationalism and Hybridity in Mongolia (1998).

Stephane Grivelet, 'The Latinization Attempt in Mongolia', http://acta.bibl.u-szeged.hu/16597/1/altaica_039_115-120.pdf

Stephane Grivelet, 'Reintroducing the Uighur-Mongolian Script in  Mongolia Today', Mongolian Studies, Vol. 18 (1995), pp. 49-60.

30 September 2020

New Collections Online - September 2020

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As the UK transitions from summer to autumn, EAP continues to publish newly digitised content. So as autumn leaves drift by your window, why not let these digital collections keep your curiosity warm?

From religious and mathematical manuscripts in South Asia and West Africa to colonial administration in East Africa and slavery related records in the Caribbean, these recently published collections once again represent the wide breadth of material that has and continues to be digitised by EAP project teams all over the world.

EAP913 - Arabic manuscripts from the Yattara Family Library, Timbuktu, Mali

Three photos of the digitsation process

The Yattara family library is a private manuscript collection that has been developed over centuries by a prominent family from the Malian city of Timbuktu. It consists of approximately 4,000 largely uncatalogued manuscripts ranging from single folio letters and historical documents to 100+ folio texts from diverse fields of Islamic studies.

This pilot project aimed to orchestrate initial cataloguing and triage preservation for the collection and to digitise a representative sample of the library’s holdings. The project team digitised 50 manuscripts, which are now free to access on the EAP website.

Although the collection originates from Timbuktu,  the manuscripts themselves were widely traded and have likely been produced in various parts of the regions surrounding that historical centre of scholarship. Most of the works date from the late 18th to the early 20th century and show the varied nature of manufacture and preservation of manuscripts from this region.

Currently, the material is located in Bamako after the library was moved for protection when Timbuktu was occupied by jihadist insurgents in 2012.

EAP1013 - Wills, Deed Books, and Power of Attorney records from the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, St Vincent

EAP1013_1_4_SEGMENT

This project sought to digitise documents relating to slavery and the immediate post-slavery era held at the Eastern Caribbean Courthouse, Kingstown, Saint Vincent. The digital collection includes:

Saint Vincent was an important sugar producing colony of the British Empire and the documents contain extensive information on land transactions, plantation ownership, testamentary practices, and slaveholding. These records are essential for investigation of slavery and plantation life on Saint Vincent and the post-slavery period from 1834 to 1865.

This pilot project was an extension of two previously completed investigations (EAP345 and EAP688) that digitised Deed Books for Saint Vincent.

EAP1063 - Mathematical Manuscripts from Pre-Modern India

Three photos of the digitsation process

This pilot project created a survey of historical Tamil and Malayalam language sources concerning mathematical practices among various occupations, communities, and institutions of teaching and learning. It digitised seven collections of manuscripts identified by the survey.

One surprising aspect of the survey was the large amount of manuscripts concerning architecture, which are often called the Manaiyadi Sastiram or Manai Alankaram and have hitherto received little attention from historians.

EAP1231 - District Administration Reports from the Colonial Territory Nyasaland (Malawi)

Image of the archive building and a digitised document
The National Archives of Malawi (left); EAP1231/1/4, Annual Report for Cholo District, 1934 (right)

This project digitised the annual reports produced by colonial administrators in the various districts of the Nyasaland [Malawi], between 1934-1935. These reports cover a wide range of topics including:

  • Agriculture
  • Cinema
  • Commerce
  • Crime
  • Education
  • Finance
  • Forestry
  • Health and Medicine
  • Industries
  • Land usage and boundaries
  • Law and legal affairs
  • Migration
  • Missionaries
  • Nature conservation
  • Weather

We will be publishing more digitised collections in the coming days, weeks, and months. To keep up-to-date, follow us on Twitter @bl_eap

28 August 2020

New Collections Online - August 2020

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August has been another busy month for EAP with newspapers, manuscripts, books, and archival documents all being made available. Here is a summary of four of the most recent EAP projects to go online:

EAP498 - Provincial Newspapers in Peru (19th -20th century)

This project digitised 176 different newspaper titles from five regions of Peru:

Across the five collections, a total of 2,133 newspaper editions have been digitised and made freely available.

Two newspaper front pages
Dona Filo, 31 Agosto 1959 (EAP498/2/8/1); El Sol de Los Andes, 4 Abril 1889 (EAP498/1/13/5).

These unique collections offer important material that will help generate new research into the history of Peru, particularly the regions outside the largest cities. The Tacna collection, for example, includes important coverage of the the area's occupation by Chile between 1880-1929.

These collections contain a wide variety of topics, including satire, labour movements, literature, and education. 

 

EAP918 - Rare Books in Grantha script from South India

The EAP918 project team digitised ten collections owned by institutions and private scholars, containing a total of 1,112 books printed in Grantha script.

Two book pages
Srīraṅkanāta Pātukācahasram: uttarapākam, EAP918/1/13 (left); Āpastampa Kruhaya Sūtram, EAP918/5/12 (right).

Grantha script has mainly being used for reading Sanskrit in South India since the 6th century, but during the 20th century it became almost obsolete. Very few people use it and very few libraries continue to hold books written in Grantha script, which include accounts of topics including astrology, astronomy, history, philosophy, rituals, language and grammar, poetry, music, yoga, and society.

This digitisation project was therefore vital to help preserve this once widely used script and to make the knowledge it contains available to a new generation of researchers.

 

EAP922 - British Indian Association Archive

The British Indian Association, founded in 1851, was one of the earliest political associations of Indian colonial subjects. It was the first political body of the nation and can challenge the Indian National Congress for the title of the Grand Old Party.

The Association was largely composed of landholders who maintained a combination of conservatism and progress in their efforts to obtain freedom for colonial India.

Spanning the period 1851-1948, this collection contains a wealth of material relating to the British Indian Association and the wider political situation in India. The collection is divided into 11 series:

Newspaper front page and Police Report front cover
Hindoo Patriot, 18 January 1892 (EAP922/1/5/11, image 24); Report on the Police Administration of Burma, 1890 (EAP922/1/10/9).

 

EAP1023 - Rare Medieval Manuscripts from Newari Settlements in Nepal

Building on the work of previous projects EAP676 and EAP790, this latest project digitised 28 collections of manuscripts located in Newār settlements in Rural Kathmandu and hill areas of Nepal.

These Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts range from the 12th-18th centuries and cover a wide range of topics including:

  • Literature
  • Medicine
  • Music
  • Rituals
  • Epic stories
  • Narratives
  • Tantra
  • Shashtra
  • Iconography
  • Glorification
  • Eulogy
  • Grammar
  • Mahatmya
  • Puja
  • Indigenous Kiranta texts.
Manuscript page
सन्ध्योपासना बिधि [Sandhyopasana Vidhi], 17th century (EAP1023/27/18, image 2)

They are written in a wide range of languages and scripts. Languages include:

  • Kiranti
  • Mara
  • Nepali
  • Newari
  • Sanskrit
  • Tibetan.

Scripts include:

  • Bengali
  • Bhujimol
  • Devanagari
  • Lepcha
  • Limbu
  • Newari
  • Proto-Bengali
  • Tibetan.

Follow us on Twitter @bl_eap to keep up-to-date with the latest new collections going online.

We will be uploading many more collections from all over the world in the coming weeks and months.

03 July 2020

New Projects Online - June 2020

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In recent weeks we have continued to put new collections online. Here is a summary of  four of the most recent projects to be made available.

EAP703 - Notary Books of Bahia, Brazil, 1664-1910

Until 1763, Bahia was the seat of the Portuguese colonial government in the Americas and a major sugar plantation economy based on African enslaved labour. Bahia received 33% of the Brazilian trade and 14.5% of the total. Being an administrative and economic centre, and until the late eighteenth century the most important port of trade in the South Atlantic, the production of documents in Bahia was intense. In Brazil, the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (Bahia State Archives) is considered to be second in importance only to the National Archives in Rio de Janeiro.

This project digitised 1,329 volumes of Notary Books deposited at the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia. In total 306,416 pages were digitised as part of the project.

Project team digitising notary books
The EAP703 project team digitising the notary books in Bahia

The dates  for the volumes ranges from 1664 to 1910. They therefore include the first two decades of the republican and post-emancipation period. 

These documents represent perhaps the most dependable source for the study of the social and economic history of colonial and post-colonial Bahia up until the end of the 19th century. The notary books include records such as:

  • Bills of sale (for plantations, land, houses, ships, slaves, etc)
  • Wills and testaments
  • Inheritance partition
  • Power of attorney letters
  • Marriage
  • Dowry
  • Labour and business contracts
  • Children’s legitimisation papers
  • Slave manumission papers.
A notary book page
Livro de Notas do Tabelião [3 May 1680-19 Jun 1680] (EAP703/1/2/2)

 

EAP896 - Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu

EAP does not only fund the digitisation of manuscripts and documents that can be held in the hand. EAP supports digitisation of almost any at-risk historical material. The digitisation of temple art in Tamil Nadu is a prime example.

The rich cultural heritage of temple art in India is rapidly deteriorating because of vandalism, weather conditions, and practices such as burning camphor for ritual purposes. By digitising the artwork that adorns eight temples in Tamil Nadu, India, the EAP896 project team have helped preserve this art for research, enjoyment, and education.

Project Team Digitising a Temple Wall
The EAP896 project team digitising a temple wall

The drawing lines found on the temple walls represent abstract forms painted several centuries ago. In the evolution of human cognitive expressions, painting is a significant milestone. The paintings are essentially made up of lines and colours and the figures that are represented are mostly mythical.

Art on temple wall
Bodinayakkanur Zamin Palace, West Hall, North wall, top row (EAP896/1/2)

This project has resulted in a plethora of visually striking images.

 

EAP1150 - Fragile Palm Leaves Digitisation Initiative

In partnership with the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation and the Buddhist Digital Resource Centre, this project digitised 300 Pali and vernacular manuscripts in Burmese script.

Bound palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 1)

Mostly created in the 18th and 19th century, these manuscripts contain approximately 1,000 discrete Buddhist texts on a variety of topics. These include:

  • Law
  • Poetry
  • Stories of the Buddha
  • Grammar
  • Religious rituals
A palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 15)

These manuscripts provide an invaluable primary resource for the study of Burmese and Theravada Buddhism, Pali philology, history, literature, regional codicology, pre-modern textual and scribal practices, and manuscript culture.

 

EAP1167 - Safeguarding Colonial Plantation Records of Malawi

This pilot project surveyed tea and tobacco plantation records from the colonial era in Nyasaland [Malawi]. The team located relevant records and created an inventory, which is available as an Excel spreadsheet.

A plan showing plots on a tobacco estate
Nchenga and Falls Dairy (EAP1167/1/11/1, image 1)

The team also digitised a sample of records from 13 estates (1922-1966), which are freely available to view. These include:

  • Title deeds
  • Legal agreements
  • Memoranda
  • Correspondence
  • Articles of association.

 

These four projects include a diverse range of content types and span three continents across several centuries. Combined, they aptly showcase the rich diversity of EAP projects.

Look out for even more diverse projects going online in the weeks in months ahead!

17 June 2020

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

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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 masters 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 owners 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 masters 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).

26 May 2020

New projects online - May 2020

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May has been another busy month for new EAP projects going online. Here we showcase the first four now freely available, which cover a wide range of topics and regions.

EAP810 - Siddha Medicine Manuscripts, Tamil Nadu, India

Siddha refers to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, siddha medicine has not been systematically studied, partly due to the difficulty of access to its texts, mostly in form of manuscripts, kept in libraries or held by practitioners. This project makes these vital sources of traditional medicine available for research.

A bound palm leaf manuscript
A bound palm leaf manuscript, EAP810/6/1

These palm leaf manuscripts cover a large range of subjects, including general siddha medicine and medical specialities such as acupressure, baby and mother care, eye diseases or toxicology (snake and scorpion bites; food and medicine intoxication), and socio-cultural topics rooted in the siddha tradition such as mantra, philosophy, alchemy, spirituality, and astrology.

A palm leaf manuscript page with Tamil writing
அகத்தியர் கர்ம சூத்திரம் [Akattiyar Karma Cūttiram], EAP810/6/1/image 8

EAP 931 - Indigenous Memories of Land Privatisation in Mexico

The privatization of indigenous lands—the reparto de tierras—is an epochal but poorly understood process in Mexican history. It is largely trapped in narratives of liberal nation‐building or postcolonial despoilment. Yet how did indigenous people actually experience/navigate the reparto? Was it ethnocide, or ethnogenesis? As the one complete surviving record of a state-wide Mexican reparto, the hijuelas promise historians valuable insights into a major agrarian/economic transformation and a deeper understanding of changes in indigenous notions of property, agricultural practice, ethnic rule, and identity.

The Libros de Hijuelas (“deed books” or “bequest books” in English) consist of 196 leather-bound volumes containing 75,000 documents dating from 1719‐1929, with additional copies of earlier, 16th‐ or 17th‐century documents. All the documents pertain to, or are precursors of, a centrally important historical process: the dissolution and privatisation of indigenous corporate property under 19th‐century liberal governments, in this case in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico.

These books contain:

  • Legal acts
  • Cadastral surveys
  • Village censuses
  • Hand‐tinted maps
  • Letters

Many of the letters are written by indigenous michoacanos of Purépecha (Tarascan), Nahua, Mazahua, Matzatlinca, or Otomí descent.

EAP931 team in the digitisation room
The EAP931 project team

The hijuelas collection is unique in that it presents the pre‐history and a complete account of the privatisation process across a whole state, the collection as a whole being organized according to the 16 political districts into which Michoacán was divided.

EAP938 - Diplomatic archives of Merina Kingdom, Madagascar

This project digitised the diplomatic archives of the Merina Kingdom, which dominated Madagascar during the 19th century. These documents (1861-1897) which have been part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register since 2009 illustrate the encounter between the precolonial kingdom of Madagascar, the abolitionist and religious policies of the United Kingdom and the French territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

Both quantitatively and qualitatively, these documents are a rare and perfect example of the diplomacy of a non-Western State in the nineteenth century. These documents reveal the influence the kingdom tried to obtain among different Western governments and show the connection of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar with the rest of the world, prior to the advent of colonialism.

The availability will surely herald new insights on the pre-colonial period and the construction of the colonial state.

A folder of diplomatic correspondence between European individuals and the Malagasy government, and a treaty between Madagascar and the United States of America
Correspondence between European Individuals and the Malagasy government, EAP938/1/90 (left); Treaty between Madagascar and the United States, EAP938/1/7 (right)

EAP1114 - East African Islamic texts from the library of Maalim Muhammad Idris

Maalim Muhammad IdrisThis project digitised the library of the late Zanzibari scholar Maalim Muhammad Idris (d.2012) - 123 Islamic texts dating from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s.

This collection is invaluable because it contains printed material dating from the period of transition from manuscript to print in the Arabic/Islamic tradition. Its known provenance and diverse nature gives insight into the Islamic history of East Africa.

The materials range from locally printed pamphlets to books printed in Cairo, from basic instruction to legal manuals, many with handwritten commentary by East Africa's leading scholars, as well as early locally printed Arabic-Swahili translations. The collection is a "snapshot" of an intellectual tradition in transition and a cross-section of the nascent networks of print in Islamic Africa.

A colourful page from the Qur'an
The Qur'an, EAP1114/1/13/image 8