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.

sarah-bell-grave-st.-johns-cemetery-parramatta-2019
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.

 

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

 

 

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

Fierce Girls Podcast

Fierce Girls is a podcast aimed at primary school girls, produced by ABC Radio in Australia. Each episode narrates the story of an Australian girl or woman—some historical figures, some in the recent past—who has somehow pushed beyond boundaries and achieved more than was expected of her.

The episodes are narrated by well-known Australian women, and include sound effects and some voice actors playing the role of the protagonist. This is at times a bit grating to the adult ear, but the variety of voices seems to keep children interested and propels the narrative along.

The standout episodes for me have been the historical ones—about World War II spy Nancy Wake, pilot Nancy Bird-Walton and ground-breaking Olympic swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie. Episodes about more recent events include Jessica Watson’s solo sailing voyage around the world and Cathy Freeman’s (brilliant!) run at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. I’ve mentioned a number of sportswomen and girls here, but Series 1 also covered social activists, indigenous women and women in education and the arts.

I recommend the podcast for children and adults—and I would say it is certainly not just for girls. The themes and issues raised (subtly) are universal. Children can spot a ‘moral of the story’ a mile away. For the most part, this podcast manages to tell great stories in an engaging way, raise some questions, and provide good fodder for discussion afterwards. Australian boys deserve to know about the exploits of these fierce girls just as much as Australian girls do.* We’re all in this together!

Series 2 is currently in production.

*Also no reason why this podcast wouldn’t translate internationally.

 

The Irish Passport: A Podcast on Irish Culture, History and Politics

The Irish Passport, hosted by historian Tim McInerney and journalist Naomi O’Leary, is now into its second series. The aim of the podcast is to tie current events in Ireland to the history and culture that explain them. As a result, there is an underlying thread of politics to the series—think Brexit (primarily!) and more recently the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution.

McInerney and O’Leary do a brilliant job, however, of unravelling the misconceptions which often swirl around Irish history and culture. In Series 1, the podcast investigated Britain’s ‘knowledge gap’ about Ireland, and in so doing provided a potted history of British/Irish relations going back hundreds of years. They also delved into the 1916 Easter Rising, the Great Hunger, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the recently uncovered scandal at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Other episodes focused on cultural issues such as the Irish language and folklore.

A word of warning about The Irish Passport—the episodes are long! Most episodes are about an hour long, although recently McInerney and O’Leary have begun publishing shorter Halfpint episodes, available only to subscribers.

I highly recommend the podcast for anyone interested in understanding the deeply complicated history of the island of Ireland, and its relationship with Britain, Europe and the Atlantic world. As well as providing a solid grounding in Irish history and culture, the podcast will entertain you. The hosts may be rigorous in their research, but they are charming in their delivery.  After a while, I suspect most listeners don’t mind the hour+ running time!

 

Ben Franklin’s World, a podcast about early American history

Ben Franklin’s World is a weekly podcast hosted by Dr Liz Covart which focuses on the early American colonial period, broadly conceived. The topics covered over the 3+ years of the podcast are varied, and are only rarely connected with the subject of Benjamin Franklin himself.

Most episodes take the form of a detailed interview with an academic historian, usually centred around a book the historian has published. Covart’s skill as a podcaster is in keeping the conversation accessible to a generalist audience, but also in delving deep into the historical issues at play. The breadth of historical approaches (eg. social history, cultural history, history of ideas) covered by the podcast is impressive, exposing listeners to a variety of historical methodologies as well as some downright fascinating stories. There have been occasional interviews with public historians – one of which was the very first episode in which Covart went behind the stacks at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731.

In conjunction with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture Covart has released two Doing History series within the podcast. Season 1 (2016) was entitled How Historians Work and focused on how scholars frame historical problems; research in different kinds of archives; analyse primary materials including text, objects, and images; synthesize and critically engage secondary literature; present their work for collaborative feedback; and work with editors and publishers. Series 2 (2017), To The Revolution, built on Season 1’s discussions and demonstrated how differently scholars approach, understand, and portray the events comprising the American Revolution. I highly recommend the Doing History Series to undergraduate and postgraduate students, but also to those pursuing their own non-academic research and writing.

The show notes accompanying each episode summarise the interview and include links to the interviewee’s work and other resources discussed during the episode. The show notes also helpfully link to complementary episodes of Ben Franklin’s World, allowing listeners to delve into other discussions around the topic.

Ben Franklin’s World has won many awards. It currently stands as the reigning best history podcast and performs in the top 7 percent of all podcasts. A key to the show’s success  is its accessibility. The podcast can be enjoyed by those inside and outside of academia. Covart’s goal with Ben Franklin’s World has always been to make great scholarly history available to people outside the profession—she has certainly achieved that goal, and the show goes from strength to strength.

 

A month of history podcasts: May 2017

The past month for me has involved trying out a few new history-related podcasts, some better than others, some more Trump-focused than others. I salute the efforts by historians to attempt to integrate the current seismic shift in American diplomacy, policy & the presidency by drawing historical parallels (and contrasts) – but I must admit I’ve actively sought to escape current affairs of late.  I’ll list a couple of podcasts here which do seek to historicise the current US administration, as well as some others I’ve discovered this month.

Letters of Complaint. This is a series of short episodes, part live-action, part discussion, which explore the grievances of Sydney’s 19th century residents. The City of Sydney historian Dr Lisa Murray delves into the City’s archives to reveal the best, worst and most bizarre letters of complaint. Click here for the website for the podcast, but you can also download the series on iTunes and elsewhere.

Just Words. This Australian series was released a few months ago amidst the (repeated) debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The podcast examines a number of the legal cases  which have been brought under the section. It seems the debate has now been put to rest (fingers crossed), but these episodes serve as a really interesting examination of the history of a piece of Australian legislation, and its impact on the litigants and the wider public. I highly recommend the podcast – in particular the first few episodes. Click here for the podcast on iTunes, although it’s available via all the usual apps as well.

The Outlander Podcast, Episode 199 is an interview with the cast and production team for 1745. I wrote about this film in a post on my Caribbean Histories blog. That post also has links to the work of a team of historians at the University of Glasgow investigating runaway slaves in Scotland. The podcast interview is well worth a listen. The story in the film is fascinating, and as the writers mention, there is so much research yet to be done. I think it’s brilliant that this invisible history is being brought to the big screen.

The Whiskey Rebellion. This is a podcast series hosted by Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat, both historians of America based at the University of Edinburgh. The episodes I’ve listened to do tend to draw upon the current American presidency, but then explore events and figures in the American past. Click here for the Whiskey Rebellion site.

The Lawfare Podcast. This is for when I do want to hear about the goings-on at the White House. The episodes tend to be long, but in-depth, and feature some senior and experienced people with seemingly considered viewpoints. The podcast series is hosted by Lawfare, a website devoted to American national security, law and policy. This isn’t a history podcast, but appeals to the ex-lawyer/regulator in me. Click here for the Lawfare podcast site

I have to say my favourite find this month was this short interview with Jill Lepore about the evolution of Wonder Woman and her connection to feminism. Lepore is a brilliant writer and historian (one of my favourites), and is the author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Lepore is probably the best historian I know at relating the excitement of the process of archival research and the moment of discovery. She’s a very entertaining speaker—this is the kind of escapism I’d been seeking all month!

 

How to subscribe to a podcast. Subscribing simply means that whenever a new episode of a podcast is released, it will appear on your podcast app of choice, on your phone, iPad, computer etc. Click here to go to a how-to article written by one of my favourite (non-history) podcasters, Gretchen Rubin. The article explains how to subscribe to Rubin’s Happier podcast, but the steps she describes can be followed for any podcast. The article explains how to subscribe on iTunes and Soundcloud, using either your computer or your iPhone or android phone. I hope this helps!