Untold lives blog

16 posts categorized "Africa"

08 March 2021

Mūzah bint Aḥmad Āl Bū Sa‘īd - The Protector of Muscat

In early 19th century Oman, one of the Imam of Muscat’s trusted advisors was a woman – his paternal aunt, Mūzah bint Aḥmad Āl Bū Sa‘īd.

9 April 1832: Muscat was in disarray.  Reuben Aslan, the East India Company’s agent in the city, wrote to his superior, Samuel Hennell, Resident in the Persian Gulf, that citizens on the city’s outskirts had retreated inside its walls for protection, the markets had closed and the people were ‘in the greatest terror’ (IOR/F/4/1435/56726, f. 242v).  The Imam of Muscat, Sayyid Sa‘īd bin Sulṭān Āl Bū Sa‘īd, was in East Africa furthering his colonial projects in Zanzibar.  He had left three relatives in charge.  One of them – Sa‘ūd bin ‘Alī bin Sa‘īd, Shaikh of Barka – had imprisoned the other two in his fort at Barka.  Together with the Shaikh of Al Suwayq, Shaikh Sa‘ūd then launched an attempted takeover of the Imam’s territories along the Al Bāţinah coast, situated to the west of Muscat.

The town of Muscat photographed in the late 19th centuryThe town of Muscat photographed in the late 19th century. Photo 355/1(44) [Public Domain] 

Amongst this chaos, the Imam’s respected and influential aunt, Mūzah, took charge as interim leader.  On receiving the news of her great nephews’ imprisonment, Mūzah took action, requesting British support and writing an urgent letter to the Imam.  She began recruiting troops and reinforcing Muscat’s defences by distributing gunpowder and shot to the city’s fortresses.  She dispatched three envoys to Barka to find out more information on Shaikh Sa‘ūd’s plans and sent reinforcements to Muḥammad bin Sālim Āl Bū Sa‘īd’s fort at Masnaah, against which Shaikh Sa‘ūd and the Shaikh of Al Suwayq had launched a siege.

Letter written by Muzā to the Governor of BombayHeading to the letter written by Muzā to the Governor of Bombay [Mumbai] requesting support, 8 April 1832. IOR/F/4/1435/56726, f. 235v [Crown copyright]

Within a few weeks, Mūzah’s actions bore fruit.  The EIC’s agent in Muscat provided updates in further letters on 24 and 27 April, writing that Shaikh Sa‘ūd’s siege at Masnaah had proved unsuccessful and that, thanks to ‘…the courage of the Imaum’s [sic] aunt, Muscat is in perfect peace’ (IOR/F/4/1435/56727, f 545v).

Whilst the eventful spring of 1832 is recorded in the IOR/F/4 papers, further research shows that this was not Mūzah’s first time defending her family’s territory and control.  Mūzah first became well known thanks to her role in helping to secure power for Sayyid Sa‘īd and his brother Salim in 1806 (Ibn Ruzayq, Arab.D.490, pp. 266-283).  Emilie Ruete, Sayyid Sa‘īd’s daughter, went further and referred to Mūzah as his regent for the first few years of his reign (Ruete, pp. 159-162).  In fact, Ruete claimed that Sayyid Sa‘īd was able to develop his colonies in East Africa because of the peaceful realm in Oman which Mūzah handed over to him (Ruete, p. 162).  The revenue from East Africa, including the Indian Ocean Slave Trade, formed a significant part of Sayyid Sa‘īd’s wealth and power.

Primary sources which mention Mūzah are sparse and, to date, little else has been written about her in English or Arabic.  Projects, like the BLQFP, which provide the time and resources for cataloguing to an intermediate level, help influential women who operated in patriarchal societies, such as Mūzah, to be brought to light.

Curstaidh Reid
Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
London, British Library, 'Affairs of the Persian Gulf. Vol: 3'. IOR/F/4/1399/55442
London, British Library, ‘Affairs of the Persian Gulf. Vol:I’. IOR/F/4/1435/56726
Emilie Ruete, Memoirs of an Arabian princess, an autobiography (New York: D. Appleton and company, 1888) 
The Runaway Princess
Hamid ibn Muhammad ibn Ruzayq, History of the imams and seyyids of ‘Oman by Salil-ibn-Razik, from A.D. 661-1856; translated from the original Arabic, and edited with notes, appendices, and an introduction, continuing the history down to 1870, trans. by George Percy Badger F.R.G.S. (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1871) Arab.D.490

 

21 January 2021

Isabella Keiskamma Frend - a challenging life

Isabella Keiskamma Frend was born 5 July 1829 at Fort Wiltshire, Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).  She was the daughter of Captain Albert Frend, HM 55th Regiment and his wife Ellen, née Last.  Her unusual middle name was taken from the Keiskamma River on which the Fort stood.

 View of the Cape of Good Hope; a tall, peaked mountain on the right with ships in the Table Bay below on the left and Cape Town on the rightView of Cape Town and highlands by F. Jukes published 1794 Maps K.Top.117.116.e.2 Images Online

As an Army family the Frends moved around frequently.  Their first child Ellen was born in Essex in 1815, and their two sons Albert and John were born in Jersey in 1815 and 1819 respectively.  Albert senior and Ellen didn’t marry until 14 August 1820 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where their daughter Jane was born in September that year.  The family then travelled to the Cape of Good Hope where daughters Hester Tew (1823), Eliza (1824), Maria (1826) and Isabella herself were all born.  By 1832 the family were in India and their final child, Sarah, was born in Bellary, Madras, on 22 August 1832.

On 12 February 1833 tragedy struck the family.  Albert died in Bellary, Madras, and Ellen, who had set out with her children for Madras intending to return home to England, died on route at Cuddapah on 25 April 1833.  The nine Frend children found themselves orphaned, with only the eldest daughter Ellen already married and in a position to care for her siblings.

Isabella and Sarah were the only two not to remain in India.  They were adopted by Joseph and Emily Clulow and by 1841 were living in St Andrew, Devon.  Joseph passed away shortly afterwards and Emily moved with Isabella and Sarah to Brighton where both girls married.

On 13 August 1852 Isabella married Octavius Child, a Volunteer in the Indian Navy.  The couple had three children: Isabella Emily Sarah born 1853 in Aranjuez, Spain; Georgina Elizabeth born 1855 in Brighton; and Albert Octavius born 1857 in Santander, Spain.  Octavius died in Brighton 9 April 1858 age 31, after just six years of marriage.

Isabella married for a second time on 5 April 1862 in Gloucestershire to widower Francis Lawford, a Captain in the Madras Army.  As well as their children from their first marriages, they had a further three children together: Margaret Frances Isabella born in 1863; Bessie Ellen born 1865, died 1866; and Lionel Francis born in 1867.  Francis died on 28 August 1870, after eight years of marriage.  As a Madras Army Officer he subscribed to the Madras Military Fund Pension scheme.  Following his death not only did Isabella receive an annual pension, but so did all of Francis’s children who at the time of his death were unmarried (in the case of the girls) or under the age of 21 (in the case of the boys).

Isabella continued to live in Gloucestershire and on 15 September 1880 she married for a third time to the Baptist Minister William Millard.  There were no children from this marriage, which lasted for twelve years until William’s death in 1892.

After William's death Isabella was re-admitted to the Madras Military Fund as Captain Lawford’s widow.  Isabella moved to Ilfracombe, Devon where she remained until her own death on 14 September 1902.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records


Further Reading:
IOR/L/AG/3/10/1-2 Registers of subscribers to the Madras Military Fund and their widows and dependents.
IOR/L/AG/23/10/11, Part 2 No. 222 Certificates submitted in connection with Captain Francis Lawford’s subscription to the Madras Military Fund, including his marriage certificate to Isabella Keiskamma Child.
IOR/L/AG/23/10/13A, Part 3 No. 1103 Certificates submitted in connection to Mrs Isabella Keiskamma Millard’s eligibility for re-admission to the Madras Military Fund as the widow of Captain Francis Lawford.

 

14 January 2021

Bibee Zuhoorun: Women’s Voices in the Indian Indenture Trade

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of 1.3 million Indian labourers recruited in Caribbean and Indian Ocean sugar plantations after slave-labour was abolished in the British Empire.  She migrated to Mauritius in the 1830s and on her return to India, testified in an official inquiry committee set up to investigate transgressions in the Indian indenture trade.  As the earliest voice of female indentured labourers, Zuhoorun’s testimony offers a rare insight into early migration—painting a story of deception, ill-treatment and injustice.

Title page of Report of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry 1839 containing Zuhoorun’s testimonyReport of the Calcutta Committee of Inquiry, 1839, containing Zuhoorun’s testimony 

In Calcutta, she was persuaded by a labour-recruiter to travel to Mauritius and work as a servant.  After her departure, however, she realised she had been deceived: ‘I got no clothes given to me, nor blankets, nor brass pots’.   Nor did she receive the quality of wages, or the six-month wage advance that the recruiter had promised.

In Mauritius, she spoke of the injustice meted out to fellow labourers—a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment.  Labourers were often confined within plantations, and denied wages if they refused to work.  She felt stuck in a foreign land with no means of returning to her homeland, urging ‘every one would leave if there was a land journey; not one would advise any of their friends to go there’.

View looking towards a ground of labourers' huts on a sugar plantation in the Plaines Wilhelms district of Mauritius, with a small group of labourers posed in the foreground and a mountain rising against the skyline in the background.‘Indian huts on a sugar plantation, Plain William near Port Louis’ c. 1853. Photographer: Frederick Fiebig. British Library Photo 250(25) Images Online

Zuhoorun’s testimony attested to the gendered experience of indentured migrants.  While men tended to cultivate and process sugar, women often worked in the households of plantation-owners.  Zuhoorun testified to ‘making salt, climbing tamarind trees to pick them, sweeping the house, and cutting grass for cattle’.  She even learnt French to communicate with her French ‘master’.

Her testimony also highlighted instances of sexual harassment and the expectation of sexual favours—a common occurrence in plantations.  Zuhoorun complained that her plantation-owner Dr. Boileau asked her to be his mistress.  She refused, saying ‘I have degraded myself by going on board ship; I would not further degrade myself’'.  Her attempts to complain to the police were met with a three-month stint at a house of correction, and then a return to Boileau’s house, where she was beaten and harassed further.  Eventually, she decided to return to India before the end of her five-year contract, even if it meant not receiving any wages for her 2.5 years of service.

Zuhoorun’s bitterness towards the indenture system is evident in her testimony.  She urged: ‘I would not return to Mauritius on any account; it is a country of slaves; […] I would rather beg my bread here’.  Overseas migration had also damaged her social position.  She implored, ‘even my mother will not drink water from my hand or eat with me’; a sign of social ostracization tied to a taboo on crossing the Indian Ocean.

Indian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British GuianaIndian and Chinese Indentured Labourers in British Guiana. Image from Edward Jenkins, The Coolie, His Rights and Wrongs (1871) from Wikimedia commons

Zuhoorun’s story is not just one of tragedy, injustice and violence, but also strength and resilience.  She not only resisted Boileau’s advances and ended her contract early, but even complained to his wife, sacrificing her livelihood at the same time.  Although relegated to the footnotes of history, her testimony remains the earliest account of a female indentured migrant, characterised by its strength, detail and passionate criticism of the indenture system.

Purba Hossain
University of Leeds

Further reading:

Read the testimonies of Zuhoorun and other indentured migrants in Letter from Secretary to Government of India to Committee on Exportation of Hill Coolies: Report of Committee and Evidence. Parliamentary Papers (House of Commons) 1841, Vol. 16, No. 45

Discover the life stories of indentured labourers -
‘Becoming Coolies’ - Life Stories and From the Archive
The Indentured Archipelago 

Marina Carter, Voices from Indenture: Experiences of Indian Migrants in the British Empire (London; New York: Leicester University Press, 1996).
Marina Carter, Servants, Sirdars, and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius, 1834-1874 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

 

15 December 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 4 Women’s Lives

When members of the black Nova Scotian community expressed interest in going to Sierra Leone, it was not just men that applied - applicants also included single women.  Unmarried women who applied for land in Sierra Leone were given ten acres of their own.  The following certificates were issued just before the journey to Sierra Leone and show the allocation of land given to women on receipt of their satisfactory character references.

Promise of land to Margaret Halstead

Promise of land to Grace Pool

Promise of land to Mary

Promise of land to Hannah TighePromises of land in Sierra Leone to single women including Grace Pool, Add MS 41262 A, f.47, f.48, f.53, f.58. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Freetown a high proportion of householders were women.  Their independent status was recognised to the point that they could vote for their local representatives.  They were also instrumental in establishing trades in the new settlement: three of the six first shops to open in Freetown were run by women.

The following manuscript shows the allocations of eggs to women on Christmas Day 1792. It gives us many of the names of the women within the settlement.

Allocations of eggs to women  25 December 1792Allocations of eggs to women, 25 December 1792, Add MS 41263, f.218. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Dinah Weeks, named on this list, is recorded as having being enslaved to a man called Robert Bruce in New York before the American Revolution.  He apparently granted her freedom and in 1783 she left New York for Nova Scotia on the ship L’Abondance.  On the same ship was Harry Washington, who had been one of George Washington’s slaves, but who had escaped to fight with the British.

The final name on this list is that of Elizabeth Black.  She was a mixed-race women who had been born in Madagascar and described as living in indentured servitude in America to a Mrs Courtland.  When she was finally released she travelled to Nova Scotia and came to live with the black community in Birchtown, before moving to Sierra Leone with many others.

The diary and notes of Dr Taylor offer more insights into some of the women who travelled to Freetown.  The Sierra Leone Company doctor kept notes on the patients he treated. These appear to run from shortly before departing to Sierra Leone in December 1791 and the early months of the settlement in the spring of 1792.

Entry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notesEntry for Sarah Wilkinson in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.37.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Listed in this manuscript volume is the case of Sarah Wilkinson, who is described as having a fever after catching a cold after suffering a miscarriage.  She received treatment from Taylor, but died shortly afterwards.  Dr Taylor notes that, by 11 April 1792, 41 women had died, mainly from fevers.  He also notes that fourteen babies had been born since embarking.

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes

Entry for Mima Henry in Dr Taylor’s medical notes, Add MS 41264, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mima Henry was also listed as having a fever.  We find that she lived in Birchtown, Nova Scotia before moving to Sierra Leone.  We know that Mima survived her fever because she is listed above in the allocations of eggs document that is dated later in 1792.

These documents may appear insignificant, but they give us the names, ages, backgrounds and land allocations of a number of black women who not only survived slavery, but strived to contribute to a free black society of their own, where they would play a foundational part in the beginnings of Freetown.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
The Clarkson Papers, Add MS 41262-41267. British Library.
Black Loyalist: Our Freedom, Our People: Documents
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

 

24 November 2020

The Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 3 Cato Perkins and Nathaniel Snowball

The previous blog post in this series explored the written legacy of Thomas Peters.  This post explores letters from two other figures who travelled to Sierra Leone in late 1791.  These letters are addressed to John Clarkson after he had returned to England in December 1792.

Cato Perkins

Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson  26 October 1793Letter to John Clarkson from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson, 26 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.97  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Cato Perkins was born into slavery around 1739.  He was given the name Perkins after his enslaver, John Perkins of Charleston, South Carolina.  At the age of 39, he ran away from the plantation and joined the British forces at the Siege of Charleston.  In 1783, he left the USA on the ship Briton for Nova Scotia.  By 1792, he had joined others in the relocation to Sierra Leone where he became a vocal member of the settlers’ community.

In 1793 Perkins wrote that the management of the settlement was unacceptable.  Perkins was nominated to travel alongside Isaac Anderson to London to deliver a petition of grievances to the Sierra Leone Company and to ask that Clarkson be reinstalled as governor, but Clarkson had been dismissed from the Company.  Perkins stayed at 13 Finch Lane and from there would continue to lobby the Company.  He expresses his disappointment at not meeting Clarkson given how ‘all the people have been much put upon since you came away’.

The letter below introduces the petition and declares that the settlers ‘want nothing but what you promised us’.  Clarkson would reply that despite his insistence the Company meet with Perkins that they had refused to.  Perkins returned to Sierra Leone where he continued to protest against conditions in Freetown.

Letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson  30 October 1793A letter from Cato Perkins and Isaac Anderson to John Clarkson, 30 October 1793, Add MS 41263, f.101 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Nathaniel Snowball
Nathaniel Snowball was 39 years old when he was evacuated from New York to Port Roseway, Nova Scotia.  He was a slave in Virginia before escaping to the British lines in the Revolutionary War.  His wife Violet, son Nathaniel and his 3-month-old daughter Mary, all travelled to Nova Scotia.  He travelled with his family to resettle in Sierra Leone.  There he became particularly dissatisfied with the lack of good farmland and the management by the Sierra Leone Company.  His objections eventually led him to lead a group of settlers out of Freetown into a new location at Pirate's Bay.  The letter below explains his intentions to take ‘departure as the Ezerlities did’ to escape the ‘boundage of this tyranious crew’.  He explains that he negotiated the new land from King Jimmy, a local tribal leader.

Letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay  24 May 1796A letter to John Clarkson from Nathaniel Snowball describing his reasons for leading some settlers out of Freetown to a new settlement at Pirate’s Bay, 24 May 1796. Add MS 41263, f.129  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan  29 July 1796The signatures of Nathaniel Snowball and Luke Jordan 29 July 1796, Add MS 41263, f.131.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Clarkson Papers contain many more letters from members of the Freetown settlement.  These were written by members of the community who enjoyed positions of importance, such as preachers and elected representatives.  Up to thirty people seem to have been responsible for authoring the surviving letters.  Among the authors are Boston King, Moses Murray, Isaac Anderson and James Liaster, but absent are the voices of the women of the settlement.  The next post in this series will explore what we know of the women who travelled to Sierra Leone in 1792.

Signatories of a letter to John Clarkson  all members of the Freetown settlement  including Luke Jordon  Moses Wilkinson (preacher)  American Tolbert  Rubin SimmonsSignatories of a letter to John Clarkson, all members of the Freetown settlement, including Luke Jordon, Moses Wilkinson (preacher), American Tolbert, Rubin Simmons and many more. Add MS 41263, f.115.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Jessica Gregory,
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

 

03 November 2020

Tracing the Lives and Letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 2 Thomas Peters

This blog post explores some of the documents within the British Library collection relating to Thomas Peters.  Peters was a former slave who had joined the British Army Regiment, the Black Pioneers, during the American Revolutionary War.  Like many other ex-slaves, he was evacuated to British Territory in Nova Scotia after the British had lost the war.  These documents relate Peters’ campaign to secure better lives for his black community in Nova Scotia, where conditions were inhospitable both environmentally and socially.

Peters formed a petition which outlined the grievances of the community in Nova Scotia and he sailed to England in the aim of presenting it to the British government.  There he met Granville Sharp, abolitionist and activist, who had previously relocated some of the ‘London black poor’ to Sierra Leone as part of a philanthropic project.  Granville probably helped Peters to meet Sierra Leone Company directors.  The following document records the essence of Peters’ petition and gives an account of the meeting.  It describes how the Company was willing to instigate a relocation of the ‘free blacks’ of Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, and how Peters was given a set of terms upon which people would be considered for the trip.

A record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officialsA record of Thomas Peters meeting the Sierra Leone Company officials, Add MS 41263, f.158.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On return to Nova Scotia Peters took on the task of finding people who would be willing to re-locate to Sierra Leone.  In this letter, Peters writes to Lawrence Hartshorne outlining his progress.  He describes people as in ‘high spirits’ and expresses his eagerness to see John Clarkson, the Company Agent who was in charge of the mission to Sierra Leone.

A letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne  written from Saint John  New BrunswickA letter from Thomas Peters to Lawrence Hartshorne, written from Saint John, New Brunswick, [which at the time, was part of Nova Scotia] October 1791, Add MS 41262, f.13.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Peters writes again to the Company in the letter below.  This letter was sent shortly before the departure of the ships to Sierra Leone for a new life.  In the letter,  Peters and his friend David Edmon[d]s ask humbly that the ‘black people of Halifax bound for Sierra Leone’ have some ‘frish beef for Christmas diner’ for their last Christmas Day in America.

Letter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David EdmondsLetter requesting provisions for Christmas from Thomas Peters and David Edmonds, December 1791. Add MS 41262, f.24.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The handwriting differs between these two letters, so it seems that one of them was drafted on behalf of Peters.  The extent of Peters’ literacy is difficult to determine.  It is noted that his petition of grievances was redrafted to correct his spelling and grammar before it reached the British Government – implying a general level of literary.  However, putting the physical penmanship aside, these letters record the words of an individual who had lived through kidnap from Africa, the horror of the journey through the middle-passage, enslavement in South Carolina and the American Revolutionary War.  Peters was then influential in establishing a colony of free black people in Sierra Leone, where today is he remembered as one of the founding fathers of Freetown.  These few documents are therefore a rare and important recorded legacy of a voice so regularly absent from the written record.

The next blog post in this series will expand on this written legacy by examining some of the other letters written by the Sierra Leone settlers.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

15 October 2020

Tracing the lives and letters of the Black Loyalists – Part 1 The Journey to Sierra Leone

With the outbreak of the American War of Independence in April 1775, the British Army soon realised that it lacked the manpower it needed to prosecute the war.  One action taken was the issuing of the Dunmore Proclamation in November 1775 which decreed that slaves who joined the British to fight against the American revolutionaries would be freed from slavery.  Thousands of slaves joined the British forces in response where they became known as the Black Loyalists and were formed into a number of military units such as the Black Pioneers and the Ethiopians.   The Black Pioneers accompanied General Henry Clinton to Rhode Island when he was tasked with taking Newport in 1776.

Map of Rhode Island in 1776 marked with the positions of British RegimentsMap of Rhode Island in 1776, Add MS 57715, f.3. The map is marked with the positions of British Regiments. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With the conclusion of hostilities, the future of the Black Loyalists remained uncertain and they were under threat of re-enslavement.  General Washington demanded that the British obey the Treaty of Paris (1783) which had specified that all American property, including slaves, be returned.  The British instead attempted to keep their original promise by relocating thousands of ex-slaves outside of the United States.  Sir Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in North America, oversaw the evacuation of Black Loyalists and many other black individuals living behind British lines – some runaway slaves, some born free men, as well as their families - to British territory including Jamaica, London (where many became known as London Black Poor), and Nova Scotia.

A manuscript record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of IndependenceA record of some of the orders issued by Sir Guy Carleton during the American War of Independence. Add MS 21743, f.2. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In Nova Scotia the Black Loyalists were promised land and freedom, but Nova Scotia proved to be hostile both environmentally and socially.  A description of the relocation to Nova Scotia is given in a report commissioned by Sir Carleton.

Title page of the manuscript report on Nova ScotiaTitle page of the report on Nova Scotia, Kings MS 208, f.1. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Page from manuscript report showing increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arriveThis page traces the increase in population in Nova Scotia as ‘New Inhabitants’ arrive. Kings MS 208, 24 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report made direct reference to the Black Loyalists settling in Nova Scotia and stated that they numbered around 3000 at the point of writing in 1784.

The following page of the report explains the difficulties that have arisen already with lack of land to cultivate and insists that provisions be made for the new settlers lest they ‘perish – they have no other country to go to – no other asylum'.

Manuscript document giving description of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova ScotiaDescription of the shortcomings of resettlement in Nova Scotia. Kings MS 208, f.32 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

With many of the black settlers feeling betrayed, an unusual and challenging plan was devised: to relocate these families from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone, to form a new colony of free people, who would govern themselves.  The decision to relocate the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia developed upon an earlier project that had relocated a number of the ‘black poor’ of London to Sierra Leone.  Granville Sharp, philanthropist and abolitionist was a seminal figure in the original plan.  The recently formed Sierra Leone Company would orchestrate the new project and instigated John Clarkson - the younger brother of abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson - as the agent in charge of the mission.  However, the figure who was instrumental in devising the plan was the former slave and Black Pioneer, Thomas Peters.

The next blog post in this series will examine Thomas Peters’ role in the establishment of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and the letters in the British Library that were composed by him.

A view from the sea of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone 1790 with a sailing ship in the foregroundA View of the New Settlement in Sierra Leone by Cornelis Apostool. 1790, before the re-settlement of the Nova Scotian Black Loyalists. British Library Maps.K.Top.117.100 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Our Children, Free and Happy : letters from black settlers in Africa in the 1790's. Edited by Christopher Fyfe with a contribution by Charles Jones. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
The Black Loyalists : the search for a promised land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870. James W.St.G. Walker. (London: Longman, 1976)

17 September 2020

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Toilet Papers

The panic bulk buying of toilet paper and dried pasta?  Or Captain Tom Moore’s long march for the NHS?  It’s too soon to tell which aspects of 2020 historians will focus on.  However, as Sylvia Pankhurst’s biographer, my own obsession with toilet paper began a few years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and it began in the British Library.

Many people remember Sylvia Pankhurst as the suffragette sister from the first family of feminism who stayed true to its socialist beginnings throughout her great life.  Fewer reflect upon the whole arc of that life; one of art and resistance against war, fascism, racism, colonialism, and inequality.

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst 1938

Head and shoulders portrait photograph of Sylvia Pankhurst by Howard Coster, 1938 NPG x24529 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Sylvia was the most incarcerated and tortured of the Pankhursts, but her prison career did not end there.  In 1921 she was once more His Majesty’s guest in Holloway Prison.  This time her crime was not the struggle for women’s equality but sedition, in publishing anti-war articles in her newspaper the Workers’ Dreadnought.  Her health compromised by previous imprisonment and torture, and suffering from endometriosis, one of the bravest Britons of the 20th century served another prison term, this time as a newspaper publisher defending freedom of the press.

Sylvia used her six-month solitary sentence to write.  A political prisoner, her only permitted writing materials were a small slate and chalk.  Yet she was prolific during this period.  On release, she published the poetry anthology Writ on Cold Slate, whose title sonnet agonizes about writing under such conditions.

Whilst many a poet to his love hath writ,
Boasting that thus he gave immortal life,
My faithful lines upon inconstant slate,
Destined to swift extinction reach not thee.

So, I wondered, how did these faithful lines reach us?

My excavation of British Library manuscripts revealed that artist and writer came up with a practical means of transcribing her writing and smuggling it out of Holloway.  Sylvia drafted her ideas with chalk on slate, then reworked them with soft pencil on standard issue HM Prison toilet paper, concealed in the underclothes of her uniform.  These contraband manuscripts were smuggled out by her friend Norah Smyth on prison visits, and other prisoners on release.  Sylvia’s suggestive wipe-away slate metaphor led me to the discovery of the fragile toilet paper reality.  The compressed, previously unsorted bundles surviving today in the BL contain not only poetry but a previously unknown and nearly complete five act play and clandestine correspondence that I spent six months painstakingly transcribing and putting in order for future researchers.

Sylvia complained to Norah that ‘the stuff I write all rubs off because it flops around in my pocket,’ but this line has survived for a century on its little square of rough toilet roll, along with hundreds of other sheets of beige, perforated prison issue toilet paper.  Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, honoured with a state funeral.  When an earthquake and coup followed, her son unsuccessfully attempted to give a portion of her extensive papers to the British Library for safekeeping.  Refuge was instead found in Amsterdam.  Years later, Richard Pankhurst once again offered the BL the opportunity of a further cache of his mother’s papers, including – bundled up in bulging brown envelopes – this toilet paper in which I have found such treasure.  Thank goodness for second chances and for writing under lockdown.

Rachel Holmes
Author 

Further reading:
Pankhurst Papers - British Library Add MS 88925
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury, 2020).

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