Category Archives: Blog

Exciting news! I won a Huntington fellowship!

On the 6th of March I learnt I’d been awarded a four-week fellowship by the Huntington Library in California to research the Black family papers. I immediately began planning a four-week stay in Pasadena in April 2021… but it soon became clear that Covid19 would prevent me travelling for some time. Happily, the Huntington has allowed fellowships to be deferred to the next academic year, so I hope to visit in late 2021. As well as the fabulous research opportunity and the amazing surroundings, I am so looking forward to the luxury of being an historian for a whole month with no interruptions.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m currently working on a book proposal based on my PhD thesis. There are some avenues of research that I’m keen to go down to ‘elevate’ my thesis, and one of those is exploring the Black family more broadly. John Black was a Belfast-born slave trader and plantation owner who lived in Grenada and then Trinidad. Rather than framing him as an isolated outpost in the Caribbean, the Huntington letters will enable me to better understand his venture to Grenada in the 1770s within the context of his well-connected Atlantic family. The letters might shed some light on his move to Spanish Trinidad in the 1780s too.

In the meantime, I need to get back to my book proposal. Wish me luck!

What I’ve been reading and listening to: March

Sunday 1 March feels like a year ago! That was the day my family explored a suburb of Sydney we’d never been to before (Haberfield) and vowed to explore more every couple of weeks… fast forward to 1 April and we’re staying home except for my local #walk20in20 and the occasional grocery shopping trip.

To reading though…I read a lot about the COVID19 pandemic for a couple of weeks, but am now limiting myself to one news fix per day.

My reading this month wasn’t that inspiring to be honest, but the trajectory is kind of interesting. I started with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island, which is beautifully written, but got me down in a climate change/end of the world way. Little did I know a pandemic was just around the corner, to put my fear of the damage of climate change on the back burner!! Next was The War that Saved my Life which I read on my 12 year old’s recommendation. It was a nice change of pace from Treloar’s book (although the subject matter is quite sad). It was also illuminating to see what ‘the kids’ are reading about historical events these days.

I went to a bookshop to buy Dan Ziffer’s A Wunch of Bankers, couldn’t find it and picked up Too Big to Fail instead. I thought it’d be interesting to read about the last global financial fiasco, ten years down the track. I speed-read much of it (too much detail and breathless gossip) and now I can’t bring myself to finish it. I know how it ends, and now that we’re in the midst of another fiasco, I’ve lost interest!

A Different Kind of Subject is my nod to academic reading this month, which has been completely disrupted by all the upheaval of transiting to full-time work and school from home. Hunter’s book on colonial law in Aboriginal-European relations in 19th century Western Australia is really useful for the research I’m doing on Richard Madden’s time in Western Australia.

In addition to my regular podcasts*, I enjoyed The Eleventh this month. It’s an Australian version of Slate’s Slow Burn series about Nixon and Watergate. The Eleventh that delves into the events leading up to the dramatic dismissal of the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975. Most Australians have heard Whitlam’s ‘Well may we say God save the Queen…’ quote. Despite knowing probably more than your average person about the events, I learnt a lot from the podcast, and it was fascinating hearing extended interviews with people involved at the time.

*My regulars include: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Happier in Hollywood, the Daily and Satellite Sisters. I’m loving all of these at the moment… particularly the Satellite Sisters who are keeping me sane with lots of laughs 🙂

Like history? Now’s your chance to explore historical sites, public institutions and archives from home

The COVID19 pandemic has forced public institutions & tourist attractions around the world to close their doors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit. If you’re interested in history, now’s your chance to do more than read historical novels or watch dodgy historical re-enactments on TV (not that there’s anything wrong with doing that). Many institutions and attractions have excellent online offerings, and others are working hard to make their collections open access (ie free). Most of us just never had the time to explore them before now.

I’ll update this page as often as I can. I hope that the links here can inspire you to explore historical sites, go down research rabbit holes or just wander around and forget about the walls around you for a while. Please let me know if you discover something wonderful via the links here, or if you have other links to share. Wishing everyone the very best, Jennifer.

Free Online Events – ongoing

  • Watch interviews with historians and join in with questions at The Public History Hour from the Australian Centre for Public History at UTS. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1-2pm Australian Eastern Time.
  • Visit historian/hacker Tim Sherratt’s Ozglam Info page – it has reams of links to activities from Australian galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

Historic & Cultural Sites

Podcasts & Audio

Free Short Courses

Open Access Digital Archives

I have also been documenting free online content in relation to Caribbean history for a few years – go to the Caribbean History Resources tab to explore further.

What I’ve been reading and listening to: February

I didn’t read much this month, but I did listen to more podcast series than usual.

Gaiutra Bahadur is an American journalist, born in Guyana. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture revolves around the story of Bahadur’s great-grandmother (Sujaria) who travelled from India to Guyana in 1903 as an indentured labourer. Bahadur acknowledges that the book’s title may offend some, but she explains that the word (which originated from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire) is ‘true to her subject’. Sujaria left India as a high-caste Hindu, but being swept up in a mass movement of people, the power of her colonizers to name and misname her formed a key part of her story. According to Bahadur, the word coolie ‘carries the baggage of colonialism on its back.’

Bahadur’s research is exemplary, but the book suffers from her desire to include what seems like all of her findings, rather than to pick out a few examples. This makes the book a ‘dense’ read. I found myself skipping over sections, trying to pick out the memoir aspects (I was fascinated by the author’s own story of emigration from Guyana to New York), and Sujaria’s storyline. The reality is that Sujaria left little trace in her village in India, or even on the journey and in her new life in the Caribbean. So Bahadur does what any good historian would do, and researches around the life that Sujaria lived to permit some educated speculation. The result is a brilliant history of indenture-era Guyana and late nineteenth-century India, with a focus on women’s lives in both places. I was interested in the history of Guyana post-slavery, and was also fascinated in the more modern-day insights into relations between different elements of the Indian diaspora.

I read the latest John le Carr̩ novel in a day. I love a good spy novel Рthis one is set in contemporary London, with forays into Eastern Europe. I highly recommend it.

I still haven’t read Kate Fullagar’s The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist in full yet, but I went to the launch this month, which was very exciting. I’m mentioned in the acknowledgments, and I feel as though I’ve read a lot of it, having seen Kate talk about the book at various points of its development. but I’m looking forward to putting it all together in March.

In addition to my regular podcasts*, I enjoyed these series:

  • The Catch and Kill Podcast – Great series which covers shocking material in relation to Ronan Farrow’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein, published in the New Yorker in 2017. The podcast is a great companion to She Said, the book written about a parallel investigation by two New York Times journalists.
  • A Podcast of One’s Own – Julia Gillard’s round-up of the first year of her podcast with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London… the interviews are always fascinating, I’m so pleased to hear it will continue through 2020.
  • WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork – shocking/hilarious/unbelievable – even if you know nothing about this outrageous story from the business world, this podcast is well worth a listen!
  • Broken: Jeffrey Epstein. Another shocking account of an utterly despicable person and the people around him. Like Catch and Kill and She Said, the podcast details the process of researching and breaking the news about Epstein. This is probably the strongest element of this particular podcast. Maybe I’m cynical, but I honestly didn’t find the extent to which people like Epstein are embedded in our society shocking in itself.

And to end on a high note – my favourite thing this month was watching Cheer on Netflix 🙂

*My regulars include: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Happier in Hollywood, the Daily and Satellite Sisters.

What I’ve been reading and listening to: January

As I usually do in January, I read lots of articles about goal-setting, New Year’s Resolutions and productivity  – and have since completely forgotten all of it. I read a lot about climate change and sustainability, desperately wanting to do more to help my poor burning country and this world we share. Less Stuff was interesting but I didn’t learn anything new, and I must admit I only dipped into Grit – I’ll return to it though, I’m sure. It’s been a busy month with holiday time, work, getting ready for the new school year – oh, and I took part in an online book proposal writing course. I will submit a proposal based on my PhD research to a couple of publishers soon – so watch this space!

I read Ophelia at my (12.5 year old) daughter’s insistence. I enjoyed it and it’s reminded me that one day I’d like to write for this age group/market – middle school readers interested in history.

While I’m ambivalent about Peter FitzSimons’ style of writing, I was interested to read The Catalpa Rescue as it covers John Boyle O’Reilly’s story, which I wrote about during my undergrad degree.  I’m writing a short review of the book for the Rottnest Island Voluntary Guides newsletter, as some of the Catalpa drama took place off the coast of Rottnest, Western Australia. My Mum is a Guide and we both think this story would liven up one of the (already excellent!) free walking tours on the island.

I’m also writing a review of Mark Quintanilla’s An Irishman Life, which is an edited arrangement of the letter book of Michael Keane, the Irish-born Attorney-General of St Vincent in the 1780s. I’ve been waiting for the book for ages, as I drew extensively on Quintanilla’s scholarly articles about Keane and St Vincent in my PhD thesis.

In addition to reading during January, I enjoyed these podcasts:

  • Dolly Parton’s America – I binged this, such a fun and uplifting podcast.
  • History Watch– a few years old now, but there are some fascinating episodes for those interested in Caribbean history and the work of historians in the Caribbean.
  • AML Talk Show – (AML = Anti-money laundering) This interview series is hosted by a former colleague of mine from London. I particularly enjoyed the interview with Bill Browder, the author of Red Notice and driving force behind the Magnitsky Act.
  • Russia, If You’re Listening, series 3 from the ABC Australia. Fascinating and entertaining.

Sally the Midwife: Enslaved Medical Practitioners and Historical Erasure

University of Glasgow Library Blog

Guest blog post by Linsey McMillan, PhD Student in History, University of Edinburgh.

This article was written by PhD student Linsey McMillan in conjunction with the current exhibition Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and Slavery. The exhibition seeks to explore the unknown or unexpected ways collections can be related to racial slavery, and continues the conversation by widening the range of responses to these historic legacies. McMillan’s research uniquely considers the role of undocumented histories and the impact that has on our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade today.

At first glance, this 1829 appraisal of the Invera Estate in Tobago appears to be nothing more than a cold, cursory account of the value attributed to the estate’s enslaved labourers, stock, and buildings. Alone it provides little to no evidence of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children included in it.

But it is a…

View original post 1,135 more words

What I’ve been reading: December

I’ve resolved to share what I’m reading, in the hope that this will encourage me to read even more.

I discovered Elizabeth Strout in 2019. I so admire her ability to convey so much of her characters and of ordinary life in so few words. ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ reminded me of Zadie Smith in her rendering of London, the book felt like an extended visit to one of my home cities. I only skimmed O’Mara’s book – it wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped.

In addition to reading during December, I binge-watched ‘Morning Wars’ (aka ‘The Morning Show’) and binge-listened to Tunnel 29, a fascinating podcast about an escape under the Berlin Wall.

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I’ve also signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020. The AWW Challenge aims to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books written by Australian women. I’m aiming to complete the ‘Franklin’ level of the challenge – to read 10 books by Australian women this year, and review at least 6 of those here on this blog. To learn more about the Challenge, visit their homepage here.

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.