Honorary Research Fellow
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
The Europa left Jamaica for London in November 1756. It was the start of the Seven Years’ War, and the vessel was taken by a French privateer on the 21st December, and then retaken by the British two days later. When the British retook the Europa, they found its letter bag from Jamaica hidden under a gun in the Captain’s cabin. The bag of letters – written by planters, merchants, ships’ captains, attorneys, artisans, ordinary sailors, and even some women, and sent to people in London, Bristol, Dublin and Liverpool – was taken as evidence for the Prize Courts in the High Court of Admiralty, as was usual, along with the vessel and its cargo. Those letters were never delivered. The cache of c.350 letters, covering September to November 1756, is preserved at The National Archives (HCA/32/189/22 and HCA 30/259). This is unique, because none of the original post bags of letters of the thirteen other vessels which were retaken as prizes returning from the British Caribbean during this conflict have been found.
I first discovered these letters in 2016 by accident, when I was looking for additional material for an article on privateering. I knew they were exciting, but had no idea what for, so I just photographed them all, including all the bills of lading, bills of exchange, ephemera and envelopes. It was about a year later that I realised that whilst others had used these documents for specific purposes such as prices of enslaved people and the processes of the prize courts, no one had used the letters as a discreet data set. Yet here were letters from people from a wide range of social backgrounds, writing on a vast array of topics. They provided a prism of Jamaican history – even of British imperial history – at a moment in time. Moreover, given that the Seven Years’ War would end with British hegemony in the Atlantic, and that Jamaican attitudes towards the enslaved would harden considerably after Tacky’s Revolt in 1756, they spoke to how life was experienced by ordinary people, white, black and of colour, men and women, free and enslaved, at this important moment in Jamaican history.
I decided to let the letters speak for themselves. Not knowing where to start I transcribed all the letters, associated documents, envelopes, ephemera – everything. This started possibly my largest academic journey. By following the letters I followed the themes they spoke to: trade and finance (okay I was fine with that) but the remaining themes pushed me into areas of history with which I was unfamiliar: war and politics; love, family and friendship; death and disease; consumerism. One area, if not missing entirely – but certainly unrepresented in the letters – were the enslaved. How was I to deal with this glaring omission of ninety percent of the population? In fact I dealt with this issue in the same way I had in fleshing out the lives of the white letter writers. I adopted an iterative methodology in which I used every source I could find for 1756 in conjunction with the letters. This has included: accounts of produce (statements of crops produced on estates of absentee planters); manumission records; court records; mercantile papers; wills; probate documents; and state and government records in Jamaica, Dublin, London, and many regional British archives. I also looked for further information beyond 1756 to tell me more about some of the people who either wrote the letters, were written to, or written about. I used the letters of the elite, but only for what they told me about others, rather than themselves. This methodology has enabled me to furnish far more information on the lives of the enslaved and ordinary whites than would otherwise have been possible.
I enjoyed the challenge of learning about all these areas of history that were new to me immensely. The only thing I have enjoyed more has been getting to know the characters that appeared to me from the pages of these letters: Captain William Clutsam, aptly named given the various travails he encountered; Edward Magnar who deserted a slave ship to go privateering; Sarah Folkes who could not bear to think that her child in England was dead; carpenter Ewbank Ogle, grateful that his brother had survived a fever; Rachel and Manoel Mendes ordering kosher beef brisket for a taste of home; and Amelia, who had to wait fourteen years for her promised manumission to be realised. I like to think that in some small way, not only have I told their stories, but that their letters have finally been delivered.
My book on this project, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times: Living the British Empire in Jamaica 1756 is under contract with McGill-Queen’s University Press and will hopefully be published in 2022.