Writing the biography of Sarah Bell for the St John’s Cemetery Project

One of my writing projects this year has been a biography of Sarah Bell, an Irish immigrant to colonial New South Wales who worked as the Matron of the Parramatta Female Factory between 1836 and 1843. My biography forms part of the St John’s Cemetery Project, an online database for Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery.

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The grave of Sarah Bell in Section I, Row E, No.8, St John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Photo: Jennifer McLaren, 2019.

Researching the lives of women in the past is challenging. During her tenure at the Factory, Sarah was a visible presence in the archives. As Matron, she was one of only a small number of women in the early colony of New South Wales with an official government role and salary.[1] I managed to track her time at the Factory from government records and newspaper articles without too much trouble. Most of these documents (some press reports aside) were dry and functional—useful for piecing together details but revealing little about Sarah as an individual. One document was different however. In August 1843, Sarah felt compelled to write to the Factory’s supervising magistrate, describing the ‘outrageous and extraordinary conduct’ (her words) of the sub-matron at the Factory, and the effect this was having on her and her family. If you read my biography you’ll see that this letter was no dry work of officialdom.

Sarah’s early years and her life after the Factory were far more difficult to uncover. Genealogical details were hard to come by, although fortunately her death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the name of her father and where in Ireland he was from. I am very grateful to Sue Bell (one of Sarah’s descendants) for her research on Sarah’s origins. Sue published a fascinating blogpost about her quest to find Sarah’s birthplace in County Galway, Ireland.

In order to reconstruct the kind of life Sarah and her family led in the early colony, I followed Professor Noeline Kyle’s advice and searched for traces of the men around Sarah—it was often the men who were named in official documents or newspaper reports.  I investigated the career of her husband Thomas at various government posts in Sydney, some of which came with living quarters for the family. Thomas’ legal travails were frequent fodder for the colonial press. Then I followed the trace of Sarah’s eldest son Joshua (later Sir Joshua), who was a long-serving member of the Queensland parliament.  I even found a reference to Sarah’s daughter (Mary)’s fiancée in newspaper articles. Sadly he perished on board the Sovereign in 1847.  Precious little of this research mentioned Sarah by name, but it all helped me to build a picture of her family’s life: where and how they lived; how their children were educated and cared for; the ins and outs of their work at the Factory; even the sadness of comforting a bereaved adult daughter.

Historians use biography to illuminate the past and to learn something new about the world our biographical subjects inhabited. This requires both a focus on the micro, or the individual life, but also on the context in which they lived. As Andy Wood has argued, the intensive nature of case studies (such as the St John’s biographies) often produces ‘fresh archival finds in which moments of contestation, embarrassment, anger and inversion…reveal something of wider social structures, sensibilities and understandings.'[2]   In constructing my biography of Sarah, I paired this focus on archival sources with an exploration of the spaces and places she and her family inhabited. The geopolitics of 1820s Ireland and colonial Sydney were the backdrops against which they lived their lives. But we learn a lot about Sarah and her world by zooming into the spaces her family moved through – workplaces at the Lumber Yards, Carters’ Barracks and the Factory; Joshua’s schoolrooms at Sydney College and the King’s School; the courtrooms of Parramatta and Sydney; and even the streets between the Factory and the children’s daycare.

The details inscribed on Sarah’s tombstone at St John’s Cemetery are sparse. But by combining archival research on Sarah and the men around her with research into the spaces and places they inhabited, I managed to uncover far more about Sarah—and colonial Sydney and Parramatta—than I expected.

Read the biography of Sarah Bell on the St John’s Cemetery Project site here:

Sarah Bell: Female Factory Matron

[1] Hilary Golder, Politics, Patronage and Public Works: The Administration of New South Wales, Vol. 1 1842–1900, (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005), p. 84.

[2] Andy Wood, ‘Small places, big questions: reintegrating social and economic history, c.1350-1750,’ in Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society, eds. J.P. Bowen and A.T. Brown (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), 251.

‘Master of My Fate’ by Sienna Brown – from Jamaica to Sydney

Master of my Fate by Sienna Brown, Penguin Random House Australia, 2019.

44587913I found Sienna Brown’s debut novel riveting. I was completely swept up in William Buchanan’s journey from Jamaica, where he was born into slavery, to his arrival as a convict in Sydney in 1835. I relished the early chapters as Brown carefully recreated the rhythm and characters of the plantation. Then I couldn’t put the book down as William entered adulthood and began to buck against the chains of his enslavement. We know from the outset that he will be sent to Australia, but I desperately wanted to know whether William tasted emancipation in Jamaica first and why he was transported. What became of his family? How did his life in colonial New South Wales turn out?

The novel is based on a real man and a true story. When Sienna Brown came across William in the records at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, she recognised a kindred spirit, a lost man far from home. She too was far from her island home. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Brown moved first to Canada and then to Sydney. William’s story resonated with her own feelings of displacement.

She tells William’s story in three parts. Part One recounts his childhood and early adult life on Rock Pleasant, a sugar plantation. In Part Two, we follow William to Ginger Hill plantation, after Rock Pleasant (and its enslaved inhabitants) is sold. Finally, we travel to the colony of New South Wales with William on board a convict transport—his life in the ‘new world’ is also action-packed.

Brown narrates her novel through William’s eyes and in his voice. I’ll admit this voice grated with me initially, but as I became accustomed to it I recognised in it the voices I had read and ‘heard’ in my own research on Jamaica. In a post-script to the novel, Brown explains her process in attempting to emulate the plantation patois. She acknowledges that she has perhaps only partially succeeded, but she describes how she put her own twist on it, to allow William’s story to shine. As a novelist, I think we can allow her some leeway. Ultimately, the narrative voice works well.

Through William’s eyes, we witness the horror of plantation slavery and experience the intense inner conflict between survival instinct and compliance with the brutal rhythms of the plantation. But we see too, the desire for personal freedom—whether in a quotidian sense within the confines of the plantation, or the flight-of-fancy of true emancipation. Stories of runaway slaves, and the maroon Robert McKellar give us a glimpse of the possibility of escape, although perhaps not of true freedom.

Brown accurately evokes the minutiae of plantation life—the sound of ‘shell-blow’ that marked time; the alternating seasons of sugar cultivation; the remnants of African traditions and spirituality. Also the power dynamics at play within the enslaved community; between those who work in the Great House and those out in the fields. We even glimpse the conflict between the resident planter and his more liberal relatives visiting from Britain. We see, too, the slaves’ living arrangements and the nature of sexual relationships on the plantation—within the enslaved and coloured communities, as well as the planter urge to capitalise on his female property for economic gain.

Brown’s research on the wider context of Jamaica (and of course, Sydney) is evident throughout. I particularly enjoyed the way she weaved William’s story with the wider history of both places. In Jamaica the novel encompasses the spread of Christianity, hints at the debate over emancipation in ‘the Mother Country,’ and the influence of the charismatic Native Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe. In Sydney, Brown beautifully evokes the emerging European city and the wilds of the surrounding bush that now heaves with traffic.

Finally, Brown respects her characters. Relationships are not sentimentalised, but nor is life an unrelenting horror. She hints at her own answer to the question of how the characters in her novel (and the real people that the story reflects) continually picked themselves up and carried on.

I recommend the book. If there is something I would have liked Brown to do differently it is to spend a little more time on the Australian part of William’s story—Part Three feels somewhat rushed in comparison to the pace of Parts One and Two, and we see less of the historical backdrop than we do of Jamaica. But this is a minor criticism, the book is a wonderful debut achievement.

 

 

Caribbean Bookshelf 2018 from the New West Indian Guide

This review article by the long-time book review editors of the New West Indian Guide is a fascinating read — both because it details the hard work involved in co-ordinating book reviews in a journal, and for the wonderful survey they have compiled of publishing in and of the Caribbean for 2018. I’ve added quite a few works of fiction and non-fiction to my holiday reading list… The review is open-access – click here to read the Prices’ Bookshelf 2018.

 

Teaching the Haitian Revolution

In a recent article in The History Teacher, Dr Erica Johnson Edwards argued that the Haitian Revolution should be taught not simply as an extension of the French Revolution or as a part of the revolutionary Atlantic World, but as a world historical event in its own right. The article contains a useful review of the literature regarding teaching the Haitian Revolution, and clearly explains the pitfalls and benefits of different approaches. The History Teacher is an open-access journal – I recommend the article to anyone interested in thinking about what the Haitian Revolution can teach us. 

Click here to read the article

Slavery and Britain’s infrastructure — Legacies of British Slave-ownership

by Nick Draper On Wednesday 8th May, I gave a presentation on ‘Slavery and Britain’s Infrastructure’ to staff at the National Infrastructure Commission’s secretariat in Holborn. The NIC was established in 2017 as an executive agency of HM Treasury with a charter to provide advice and make independent recommendations to government on national infrastructure priorities, […]

via Slavery and Britain’s infrastructure — Legacies of British Slave-ownership

Resources for studying Caribbean history

A couple of years ago I started a blog that I called ‘Caribbean Histories: Resources for learning about the Caribbean past,’ with the aim of sharing some of the amazing digital resources out there dedicated to Caribbean history. I also shared links to digital projects and collections, to exhibitions, academic research projects, books and audio content.

I’ve had a consistent core of visitors to the Caribbean Histories site, but have decided to collapse that blog into this blog.  I’ve migrated all posts from the old blog over here and I’ll still share links to new Caribbean content – just look under ‘Caribbean History Resources‘ on the main menu for this site.

As always – please get in touch if you have any comments, want some direction with your research or if there’s something that I shared that helped you out.

Cheers

Jennifer

 

 

A Paris art gallery renames paintings to focus on their black subjects

The Musée d’Orsay in Paris has just opened an exhibition entitled ‘Le modèle noir De Géricault à Matisse,’ which attempts to restore the identities and perspectives of black figures depicted on canvas but largely written out of history. This article from the Washington Post focuses on one artwork in the exhibition. The painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist has hung in the Louvre for decades under the title ‘Portrait of a black woman.’ In the new exhibition, the subject of the painting is named – it is entitled ‘Portrait of Madeleine’ because it is a portrait of an emancipated, formerly enslaved woman from Guadeloupe who worked in the home of the artist’s brother-in-law.  The exhibition addresses France’s role in the slave trade and the manifestation of the debate over slavery in the arts of the period.

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Marie-Guillemine Benoist, ‘Portrait d’une femme noire’ (1800), © Musée du Louvre

For more – click here for the Washington post article  and here for the exhibition website.

 

 

Barbados Mercury digitised by the British Library

In December 2018, the British Library completed the digitisation of The Barbados Mercury Gazette, funded through the endangered archives project. The digitisation team have previously written about different stages of the project; in this post the team divulge some more about the process of digitising this vital piece of Barbadian history.

The Mercury is a fantastic resource for exploring everyday life in eighteenth and nineteenth century Barbados – each issue is about 4 pages long and is replete with advertisements for consumer goods and real estate; runaway slave advertisements; shipping news; reports of community meetings and social events, and news cut-and-pasted from around the Atlantic world. To access the database, follow this link: Link to the Barbados Mercury onlineScreen Shot 2019-03-20 at 10.41.39 pm.png

Manumission in Eighteenth Century Jamaica

Quantitative History

David Beck Ryden, “Manumission in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 92:3-4  (2018): 211–244.

I’m very pleased that my most recent research on manumission in late-eighteenth century Jamaica has been published in the New West Indian Guide, the oldest scholarly journal with a focus on the Caribbean.

Manumission (the liberation of individual slaves) took place in many slave societies throughout history for a variety of reasons.  In this article, I use over 300 manumission deeds from Jamaica to explore the rationale for freedom grants, demography of the manumitted population, characteristics of the manumitters, and prices paid for freedom, when cash was exchanged.  In Jamaica, the proportion of slaves who were manumitted was very small, but one has to keep in mind that the entire population of bondsmen and women was very large on the island.  Nonetheless, manumission occurred on a regular basis and had…

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Special Announcement: A Create NSW Grant for the St. John’s Cemetery Project

The New South Wales government has given Dr Cameron and the project a $66,290 Arts and Cultural grant through ‘Create NSW.’ The grant will be used to produce a collection of fifty new biographical essays for the St. John’s Cemetery Project (SJCP) website on “Notable Parramattans” buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Parramatta: Australia’s oldest surviving European cemetery (est. 1790).

I’m delighted to be a part of this project. I will be contributing a biography of the Irish-born matron of the Parramatta Female Factory. Watch my blog, and the St. John’s Cemetery Project site for updates.  Particular congratulations to Dr Cameron for her work in obtaining a grant and gathering a team of historians to bring this early colonial history back to ‘life!’

via Special Announcement: A Create NSW Grant for St. John’s Cemetery Project — The St. John’s Cemetery Project