Jamaica Research Trip

By: Kate Donington

Primary Research Undertaken at the National Archives of Jamaica

I recently spent five weeks in Jamaica. The majority of my time was spent visiting the National Archives of Jamaica in Spanish Town. The National Archives contain   relevant material for forming the building blocks of the next phase of the database for slave-owners with links to Jamaica in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries. They give us an important data set from 1763 until 1809 when the Jamaica Almanacs begin to list the plantations and by whom they were registered. Last year I spent three months working on the Crop Accounts and I returned this year to continue working on this set of documents. They are a rich source for reconstructing the management structure and personnel on the plantations. The Crop Accounts were initially used as a mechanism to stop fraud on the estates of ‘vulnerable’ people who were defined as those owners who were absent from the island, women, children, and the recently deceased. The documents tell you who owned the estate, who filed the account (usually the overseer but sometimes the book keeper) and on whose order (usually the attorney / guardian / administrator / executor / trustee), as well as the name of the estate, its location, what it produced, the amount of produce, the value of the produce and sometimes who it was shipped to and sold by in Britain. These records give us the basic detail we need to establish ownership of Jamaican plantations.

This research was really brought to life with a tour around St Iago de la Vega in Spanish Town by the wonderfully knowledgeable Bill Poinsett. The building, which is located just behind Emancipation Square, contains the memorial inscriptions and tombs of some of the most powerful planter families in Jamaica. Inside it is easy to imagine the ‘notables and worthies’ of the parish vying for space to display their status and wealth to the congregation. There are also two John Bacon sculptures in the church. The engraving that I found the most interesting was located at the back of the church by the entrance for the less illustrious attendees. Alongside the faces of medieval lords and ladies, rendered in the gothic fashion, was the face of an African carved into the stonework. Bill considered that this might have been an acknowledgment of the enslaved and free Africans who had helped to build the cathedral.

Association of Caribbean Historians Conference
College of the Bahamas

As this trip occurred towards the end of my time with the project, it was a privilege to present some of our research to audiences in the Caribbean as well as to listen to academics from the region who have been working on these issues for many years. Three project members gave papers at the Association of Caribbean Historians which took place 17 May – 22 May at the College of the Bahamas. The scope of research taking place on the Caribbean was incredibly exciting. Placing slavery within this broad church of topics and chronologies is demonstrative of the fact that the institution represents an important, but not the only, story to be told about Caribbean history. The opening panel considered the issue of reparations for slavery – an indication of the impact of CARICOM’s decision to pursue reparations from the European governments involved in benefitting from slavery. The panel that I presented on included papers from Nick Draper, Kristy Warren and Margaret Williamson. Kristy, Nick and I had planned to address different aspects of the experience of slavery; Nick focused on the relationship between slavery and the state, Kristy looked at the lives of enslaved children in St. Kitts and my paper looked at the ways in which slavery impacted on the family. Margaret’s paper complimented those from the Legacies project by offering an analysis of the practice of naming enslaved people on a single estate in Jamaica.

History Workshop in Jamaica

History Workshop Jamaica

On 2 June the Legacies project, in partnership with the History department at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus presented a workshop on the ‘Structure and significance of British Caribbean Slave-ownership 1763-1833.’ We were very lucky to have had the support and assistance of the staff at UWI and the event was very well attended throughout the day. Presenters from UWI included Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, Ms. Nicole Plummer, Dr. James Robertson , Professor Veront Satchell, and Ms. Louisiana Vernon. They gave papers on the history of Hope, Papine and Mona estates, the display of wealth in Kingston, the development of business culture during the period of slavery and a case study of Robert Sewell who was Agent for Jamaica. It was great to hear from both staff and PhD students who are working on histories of the slavery era.

For this event the Legacies team focused on Jamaica. Nick gave a detailed background of what the compensation records can tell us about the nature of slave-ownership in Jamaica. I, and PhD student James Dawkins, focused on case studies of particular Jamaican families – the Hibberts and the Dawkins respectively. Catherine Hall gave two papers – the first set out the thinking that underpinned the Legacies project. The second was based on her research into Edward Long and his seminal text The History of Jamaica. She outlined the ways in which his work continued to shape notions of race and place – her intervention moved the conversation away from simply considering the impact of slavery on wealth accumulation and instead critiqued its pernicious effects on the systems of thought that structure our human relationships. I also gave a paper on the outreach and educational work we have been doing – part of which is aimed at combatting some of the damaging ideas about race, identity, home and belonging that have their roots in the kind of thinking propagated by Edward Long and the proslavery supporters.

The workshop was a much needed opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues in Jamaica and listen to each other’s research. As Professor Matthew Smith pointed out – we collectively work on a transatlantic history and it is only by examining both sides of the story that we can move towards a better understanding of what it meant and continues to mean.