Enjoying a month as a virtual Folger Fellow

Dr Judith Spicksley

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

In January 2022 I finally managed to take up a virtual Folger Fellowship, and enjoy a month long virtual ‘visit’ to the Folger Library in Washington DC. My original plan had been to hold the fellowship in August 2021, but I contracted Covid-19 at the end of July, and had to take a month’s sick leave to recuperate. The Folger were happy to reschedule, as long as I could arrange it within the 2021-22 fellowship year. Given work commitments, and Institute events, I decided to reschedule for January 2022, when I would have the time to explore their collections.

Folger Library, Washington DC. Image at https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/DC-01-CH15

The Folger Library Fellowships are a well-established and much sought after part of the academic ‘scene’, and are usually held onsite at the home of the Folger Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Library was established ‘as a gift to the American people’ in 1932 by the industrialist Henry Folger and his wife Emily, with the original design for the building being drawn by the architect Paul Philippe Cret, the French born industrial designer from Philadelphia. Numbering 82, the Library’s collection of Shakespeare’s First Folio is the world’s largest: published in 1623, the Folio included plays that up until that point had never appeared in print, including As You Like ItJulius CaesarMacbeth, and The Tempest.

The Folger Shakespeare Folio. Image at: https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare/first-folio

The Library is dedicated to the study of Shakespeare, his works, and the society he lived in. The founding collection consisted of rare books and manuscripts as well as more recent writings, art, and ephemera related to Shakespeare and the English drama of his age. It included prints, photographs, playbills, promptbooks, paintings, and reference books of many kinds.

But from the start, Henry and Emily Folger understood that neither Shakespeare nor the English drama of his age could be studied in isolation. The Library’s holdings were augmented to include numerous items bearing on Renaissance English culture and civilization as well as materials from continental Europe that influenced or reflected English thought and values. Over the years the field of acquisition has broadened further, to include materials on English culture into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

Fellowships have been offered to support research and writing at the Library since 1935. Usually held onsite, the initiation of a major building renovation project in 2020 – to expand public space, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all visitors – encouraged the Library to consider offering virtual fellowships for research and writing whilst the Reading Room was closed for renovation.

Folger Library Reading Room. Image by David Reeve at https://www.folger.edu/reading-room-tour

Included in the Library’s collections are a number of electronic resources, some of which are freely available. This includes the Folger Shakespeare, where you can explore all Shakespeare’s plays, poems and sonnets online, read plot synopses and brief textual histories, and see selected images from the Library’s impressive collection. Usefully there is a concordance for searching across all Shakespeare’s works for specific words, names or places for example, or any other term you might be interested in. I, for example, was keen to examine all the contexts in which the terms ‘slave’ and/or ‘slavery’ appeared.

Additional electronic resources are available by subscription to registered users of the Folger. These are normally only accessible onsite at the Library, but a big part of the attraction of the virtual fellowship was the opportunity to access all these resources from my desktop here in the UK. I enjoyed four lovely weeks of largely uninterrupted research mining data related to my topic: the language of slavery in early modern England, and more especially as it appeared in the works of Shakespeare.

Folger Fellows usually get to spend a month in Washington where they can explore the Library (and the capital!) and meet and talk with other Folger Fellows. This year there are nearly forty, and the breadth of their interests is quite staggering. As things turned out, the global impact of Covid-19 would have made travel to Washington difficult at best, so on balance I got a great deal – a month away from Institute duties, access to all the Library’s digital resources, individual online support from the Folger librarian, and an introduction to a new community of scholars, coordinated by the fellowship programme assistant via Slack, the virtual communication platform.

Aside from the missed opportunities associated with a visit to one of America’s leading cultural gems, my only disappointment was not having enough time to explore the vast amount of material in the Folger collections. A month flew by in no time! However, I can recommend the experience without hesitation. I would like to thank everyone at the Folger for their help and support, and I am hugely grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. If your research is in this area, and you are interested, why don’t you think about applying for a fellowship? This year’s competition (again for virtual fellowships) closed in mid-January, but the Folger has big plans in the works for their fellowships when the Folger reopens. You can subscribe to their Research Bulletin if you would like to keep informed.

Recovering enslaved lives in nineteenth-century British Guiana: reading sources ‘below the waterline’

Frederick Bricknell

PhD Student, Water Cultures Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull                                                        

f.j.bricknell-2021@hull.ac.uk

@fjbricknell

My PhD research focuses on the relationship between plantation slavery, indentured labour and water – both salt and fresh – in nineteenth-century British Guiana. It is a joint project between the Wilberforce Institute and the Centre for Water Cultures at the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, a new doctoral programme which seeks to shed light on the vital relationships between human communities and water both throughout history and in the present day.

Since embarking on my research in September 2021, I have found that water permeates many different kinds of historical source but rarely becomes their central subject. Its trace must often be found in the margins of records outwardly concerned with something different, and it frequently acts as a kind of foundation that conditions the actions and relationships of the people whose lives I am studying. There are two reasons why nineteenth-century British Guiana offers such a fertile ground for this sort of analysis: its great abundance of water, and its unusually rich set of archival records. Central to this documentation is the cache of records from the Office of the Fiscal, an institution founded by the initial Dutch colonists which persisted under British rule after the three colonies which comprised British Guiana – Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo – were captured in 1796.

Detail from A Map of Part of Dutch Guyana; Containing the Colonies of Essequebo, Demerary & Berbice, in which are Described all the Lands Granted under the Batavian Government. Surveyed in 1798, and 1802, by Major von Bouchenroeder, with Additions (London: William Faden, 1804). The Atlantic Ocean lies at the top edge of the image, with the River Berbice winding down from the coast in the centre. New Amsterdam, the capital of Berbice where the Fiscal was based, is indicated by a square. Prospect and Vrouw Johanna plantations are respectively indicated by a triangle and a circle.

The Fiscal was the second-ranking official in the colony after the lieutenant-governor, and heard the complaints free and enslaved inhabitants of the colony brought against one another in a court convened for the purpose in the capital. A few complaints of serious crimes like robbery or murder were brought by white planters and managers, but the overwhelming majority were civil complaints brought by the enslaved against their owners and overseers. These records are not unmediated: the speech of the enslaved was clearly edited by the clerk who transcribed it, in order to fit a preconceived template of appropriate register for the courtroom setting. Many cases involved slaves who primarily communicated using Dutch Creole, in which case a court-appointed translator further influenced the import of their words. Such manipulations of oral evidence were conducted in real time and most changes appear aimed at increasing legibility. Some entries seem hurried, with grammatical inconsistencies suggesting that the clerk was struggling to keep up with the pace of the exchange taking place before him. Meaning was doubtless somewhat altered by such refraction, but the intended message of the enslaved speaker still shines through in most cases. Most importantly for the nature of my research, these records are filled with incidental information about the lives of complainants and witnesses which allow us access to aspects of everyday life in nineteenth-century British Guiana which were not deemed consequential enough to record elsewhere.

An especially revealing example of this can be found through reading two Fiscal cases from Berbice in the autumn of 1824. Guyana, which became independent from Britain in 1966, experiences a second dry season in between its two annual wet seasons (the first stretching from May to August and the second from December to January), and in October and November 1824 the lack of rainfall brought on a drought. The labour regime imposed by managers and drivers upon the enslaved was backbreaking and violent in ideal climatic conditions, and the additional burden required to shepherd the sugar canes through the drought fell entirely upon the shoulders of the enslaved. Managers would brook no excuse for a reduction in output, as their usually distant absentee employers were not shy of replacing overseers they felt were not maximising the ‘efficiency’ of their estates. In turn, enslaved drivers who were responsible for maintaining the punishing pace of work risked losing their positions if the manager felt that they were no longer extracting the maximum value of labour from other enslaved people. This incentivised an intensification of the already brutal workload and system of punishments.

On 20 October 1824, a deputation of ten enslaved people from Prospect plantation, whose names were Vaness, Arance, Rodger, Secunda, Cook, Tambour, Titus, Frederick, Joe and Martin, showed the Fiscal’s investigators around the estate and complained of the harsh new workload imposed over the preceding few weeks. Their main grievance was that, in addition to novel tasks imposed by the estate’s new owners to combat the drought such as deepening irrigation trenches to draw in more water and spending more time watering the young cane due to be harvested in the spring, they were still expected to work until nearly midnight carrying timber from the canalside to the engine house to feed the furnaces. The estate manager, one J. Paterson, responded by claiming that the complainants were particularly resentful because ‘some are punt men and others fire men’, meaning slaves with respective responsibility for plying the rivers and canals in barges or maintaining the furnaces for which the timber was destined. In an all-too-common outcome the Fiscal sided with the testimony of the manager and declared sanctimoniously that the new tasks were a ‘necessity … without which the manufactory of sugar cannot be effected’; evidently he gave no thought at all to the fact that the material welfare of the enslaved people forced to cultivate the sugar may also be important to the process (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 16-29).

Just over two weeks later, on Friday, 5 November 1824 Piet, an enslaved carpenter on Vrouw Johanna coffee plantation, appeared before the Fiscal in New Amsterdam to protest an unfair flogging for allegedly having incompetently repaired the water mill on the estate. The mill would not grind the recently-harvested coffee, and Piet was punished for this in spite of his protestations that the trenches for feeding water toward the mill were completely dry. When questioned about this, the ‘part proprietor’ of the plantation, C. Favre, claimed that there was plentiful water, and that Piet was lying. Backed up by the driver who depended on him for his continued higher status, Favre did not have to try very hard to convince the Fiscal of his version of events (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, ff. 31-33).

This wrought-iron Christianburg Waterwheel in Linden, Guyana, was constructed in 1855 to power a sawmill. The waterwheel which powered the coffee mill on Vrouw Johanna plantation would have been smaller and almost certainly constructed from wood (image source: https://tourismguyana.gy/christianburg-waterwheel/)

As is often the case with complaints brought before British Guiana’s fiscals, both matters were dismissed out of hand. While the Fiscal’s relationship with the plantocracy was sometimes tense – any planter whose slave complained was automatically fined, and until 1816 the Fiscal was entitled to keep a proportion – the Fiscal was nonetheless a central part of the white supremacist regime. Like many of his forerunners and successors Berbice’s incumbent fiscal since 1819, M.S. Bennett, owned several estates and shared the prejudices of his peers. Complaints were declared to be spurious far more often than they were upheld, and the Fiscal regularly sentenced complainants to further brutal punishments. The man identified by the Prospect manager as the ringleader, Vaness, received 45 lashes for insubordination, while Piet the carpenter was sentenced to 37.

The examples I have described reveal the ways in which ecological disturbance of the plantation regime could exacerbate existing tensions. After all, unfair punishment and overwork, along with insufficient food, are some of the most frequent subjects of court proceedings in the colony and drought, combined with the vicious incentive structures created by the plantation economy, meant that the lives of the enslaved materially worsened in all three areas. The drought is not explicitly mentioned in either of these cases, and only passingly alluded to in a third which mentions ‘the great scarcity of grass owing to the heavy dry season’ (The National Archives, CO 116/140, ii, f. 51). Instead, it is submerged out of sight. It is only by reading these sources ‘below the waterline’ that the power of water to motivate  so many diverse aspects of life in nineteenth-century British Guiana becomes clear.

A silver lining: How Covid forced me to delve deeper into the archives

Saphia Fleury

PhD Student, Falling Through the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

S.Fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury reflects on the changes that had to be made to her research methodology as a result of Covid-19 and the questions this raised.

The ink was barely dry on my ethics approval form when the first Covid lockdown was announced. Overnight, my research plan – which involved extensive travel and face-to-face interviews with migrants and practitioners – became about as feasible as a voyage to the Moon. The focus of my investigation was the experiences of children during and after the volcanic eruptions on Montserrat. There was so little information about this period in the archives that conducting interviews with former evacuees had appeared to be the only possible methodology.

Covid forced me to turn the problem on its head and ask why the archival information was so scant. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, and its volcanic catastrophe took place less than 30 years ago. Around half of the island’s population had migrated to the UK in the later 1990s – up to 5,000 people. Why, then, did British repositories hold so little evidence as to the nature and impacts of the disaster? I am not a historian by training, but my background is in investigative human rights research. I approached the problem as a detective would, casting the net wide to gather all the extant evidence of what happened on the island during the volcanic crisis. This involved extensive scanning of diverse sources including Hansard, newspaper archives, scientific records, government evaluations and Select Committee hearings, MPs’ correspondence, orders of service for memorial events, children’s poetry, and even self-published autobiographical accounts of the disaster.

I became suspicious when my efforts were frequently thwarted. Key records were missing, or responses to Freedom of Information requests suggested they had never existed to begin with. Even lists of the names of the dead were inconsistent; sources could not agree on who had perished in the disaster. It struck me that this confusion over the identities of the deceased would be unthinkable had the crisis taken place on the British mainland. Following the Kings Cross fire in London in 1987, the British Transport Police spent 16 years conducting painstaking investigations to uncover the identity of the 31st victim. By contrast, the lack of a definitive record of events surrounding the deaths on Montserrat symbolised, for me, a lack of executive interest in the victims of the catastrophe, both living and dead.

This feeling was borne out by my unsuccessful requests to government ministries for official statistics on the numbers evacuated. A former UK Government employee involved in the emergency response on Montserrat helped me to explain the gaps in the statistics, stating that s/he had personally recorded the change in population using information from landing and departure forms:

“From this data it was possible to track the downward movement of the resident population and also small upward trends when Montserratians returned in order to enlist on the government Help schemes for migration to other islands or UK. Nobody requested this information and indeed no-one acknowledged it either. It was distributed to the Governor’s Office, Chief Minister, DFID [UK Department for International Development] and [my] immediate boss in London”.  (Anonymous interviewee)

In spite of their efforts, the information recorded by this individual did not appear in any of the official documents I uncovered. I was forced to conclude that poor record-keeping, including failure to record reported figures, stemmed from a combination of disinterest, ineptitude, and possibly also an attempt to hide certain facts from examination, despite, in some cases, the best efforts of civil servants to keep records. A serious charge, yes, but one upheld by further frustrating attempts to uncover the facts. Instead, I pieced together a picture of the evacuation from snippets of information in around a dozen disparate sources. To this day, it appears that nobody knows the true number, or ultimate destinations, of those evacuated.

Image: Island of Montserrat

Crucial to my research was an Evaluation Report commissioned by DFID in 1999 to evaluate the UK Government’s response to the crisis. Volume I of the Evaluation Report is available online. Volume II, however, was redacted from the online version; only its contents page remained visible. I made three separate requests to DFID, the Home Office, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the redacted information. On each occasion I was told that Volume II was not available. I traced a retired civil servant who was listed in Volume I as having been interviewed for the evaluation. They provided an ISBN number for Volume II, from a photocopy of the back cover of the report in their personal files. This allowed me to call up a copy from the British Library’s Boston Spa repository. It was unredacted. A query to the British Library research service confirmed that I was the first person to request the item, meaning it had not been previously viewed by researchers. It remains unclear to me why Volume II was redacted from the publicly available Evaluation Report, or why the government departments mentioned were unable or unwilling to provide a copy. Interestingly though, the findings of Volume II on the official response were highly critical of both the UK and Montserrat governments. Is this why they were withheld? Or was the omission accidental?

A further piece in the puzzle, which took some eighteen months to trace, was the conclusions to the Coroner’s Inquest report into the volcano deaths. I made numerous requests through official channels to government departments and officials, both on Montserrat and in the UK, to access the full report. Most of these were completely ignored. I also contacted numerous individuals, including the former Premier, Governor and Coroner of Montserrat. None were able to track down a copy. The Coroner’s concluding remarks were eventually provided via a further FoI request to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), which took five months to fulfil while officials ‘reached a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies’. My attempts to access the report in its entirety, which reportedly runs to several hundred pages and includes lengthy evidence and witness testimony, has thus far proved futile. The former Coroner who conducted the Inquest expressed to me his surprise that the report was not publicly available, since: ‘one of the purposes of Inquests is to make recommendations to avoid untimely deaths in future [so] their conclusions are meant to be available to all to read’.

Additional records documenting the evacuation and resettlement of Montserratians, held at the National Archives and Bishopsgate Institute, were opened to the public following further requests which I made in 2021. They had previously been closed to scrutiny.

Image: National Archives, Kew, UK.

The unusual lengths to which I had to go to trace documents related to this study are indicative of the elusiveness of information relating to Montserrat and the volcanic crisis, which suggests at best a deprioritisation of Montserrat by the UK authorities, and at worst a deliberate cover-up of policy decisions towards Montserrat. More positively, the success I eventually had in tracing these records is due to the many helpful individuals who assisted me, both in the UK and Montserrat.

Bringing these varied sources together for the first time allows a new story to be told about the evacuation of Montserrat, one which has remained hidden for almost three decades. The voices of the evacuees are still largely excluded, making this an incomplete picture. Nevertheless, it is thanks to the restrictions imposed on my primary research by Covid that the public now has access to a broader range of materials to aid future investigations into a significant period in Montserrat’s – and Britain’s – history.