Category Archives: Books & Reading

‘A Parcel of Ribbons’ by Anne M. Powers

A Parcel of Ribbons contains an extraordinary collection of letters, spanning over fifty years, together with Anne Powers’ editorial commentary. The Lee letters were preserved by Robert Cooper Lee, a child sailor who left England for Jamaica with a parcel of ribbons to sell in 1749. He returned to England 22 years later a very wealthy man, having made his fortune as an attorney.  The letters touch upon personal, family, business and political matters. Together with Powers’ commentary, they provide wide-ranging insights into the social, cultural and business history of Jamaica and England in the eighteenth century. The letters are held privately, but with their publication in this book, they comprise a valuable primary resource, now available to researchers.

Lee married a mixed-race creole woman. In a move very unusual at that time, he took her back to England with him where they married. Relationships between European men and coloured women were not unusual in Jamaica, and it was also relatively common to send the children of these relationships back to Britain for their schooling (as Lee did), but to marry was an unusual step. This is an interesting twist which makes these letters all the more compelling as a primary source. A note on the letters though, as I’ve discovered in the collections of letters I’ve read about Caribbean-based merchants and planters, there is very little discussion about slavery – this silence is in itself telling. Lee’s letters are almost entirely silent on slavery, although Powers does include editorial notes on the subject.

The book also contains some pictures—most notably the portrait of Frances (Lee’s daughter),  which graces the cover. As someone researching eighteenth century families, I have yet to come across a portrait of anyone I’ve researched, so I’m very envious of Powers in this regard!

This is a long book—the letters are voluminous, and Powers includes a lot of commentary and background-setting, at times a bit too much. Powers’ research is clearly formidable and she knows the era well, but I would have appreciated more referencing for some of the background information. There is a tendency to include too much information…I do understand the impulse to include every detail you come across as a researcher, but I was sometimes confused as to the connection between some of the information and the central characters of this story. This is a minor point, however. The book is very readable—perfect for dipping in and out of. It is an excellent resource for the letters alone, but it would also be very instructive for anyone wishing to learn about eighteenth-century life in London and in Jamaica, and the connections between the two places.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

Another Ivy League School Is Addressing Its Dark History With Slavery

Repeating Islands

Slave_selling_poster,_1812.jpg

A report by Danielle DeCourcey for ATTN.

Columbia University released a new report detailing its history with slavery, the latest prestigious school to publicly disclose how it profited from the sale of human beings.

“I think it’s critical universities do this,” Craig Steven Wilder, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor specializing in American institutions, told ATTN:. “We’re institutions that are founded to produce knowledge and pursue truth and we can’t be cowardly when those truths are uncomfortable for us.”

The preliminary report addresses Columbia’s ties to slavery before 1865, when the school was called King’s College, and how profits from the slave trade helped to fund the university’s early days.

Significant funding to launch the university came from donors who made money from the Atlantic slave trade, at a time when America was still a British colony.

“The initial list of 66 ‘subscribers,’ who donated a total of over 5,000 pounds to help launch King’s, included Atlantic slave traders…

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Sint Eustatius, Statia, Saint Eustatius…

This is just a short post to provide a link to a great series of 3 articles on Sint Eustatius, written by Elizabeth Covart, over at her blog. Elizabeth is a well-known historian of early America, and host of the fabulous early American history podcast Ben Franklin’s World. Enjoy!

Notes from the Field: Sint Eustatius, the “Golden Rock,” Part 1

Part 2  Part 3

‘The Caribbean: A Brief History,’ by Gad Heuman

This book is the best place to start for an overview of Caribbean history. It’s a quick, easy read, designed to take the reader from early modern times in the Caribbean, almost up to the present. This is no mean feat, as the Caribbean is a broad canvas – the histories of every island, let alone the wider region are varied and often tortured. Heuman’s years of studying and writing about the Caribbean have enabled him to draw together these many histories into a comprehensible narrative. This book includes the islands of the region, as well as the mainland territories of the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) and Belize in central America.

In this second edition, Heuman has included new material on indigenous Caribbean societies before the arrival of Columbus, which takes the starting point for this book back earlier than many histories of the region. Given Heuman’s specialisation, there are excellent chapters covering the slave societies of the Caribbean, resistance and race relations. The book brings us up to the twentieth century with chapters on ‘the American century,’ labour protests and the revolutionary Caribbean. The final chapters draw together contemporary themes in the wider Caribbean, reflecting Heuman’s interest in social and cultural history. Throughout the book, he focuses on the social and cultural history of the Caribbean—he is more interested in exploring how the people of the Caribbean have reacted to the colonial presence than with the structures of imperial authority.

The books is written in a clear, straight-forward and engaging style. It contains an extensive list of further reading, broken down by chapter–proving its worth as an introduction to deeper reading on Caribbean history.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

rjasAtlantic Studies has just released a Virtual Special Issue focused entirely on Caribbean themes. The special issue is only available online, and the best part is that it’s open access until the end of July 2017—that means that all the articles in the issue are free to read and download via this page.

The issue is a compilation of articles published between 2004 and 2014 focused on Caribbean themes. According to the editors, the strength of each of the articles lays in the fact that they all attempt to engage with recent and current debates that have shaped and continue to shape the fields of Caribbean history and Caribbean studies. The articles all share an Atlantic perspective, while keeping the Caribbean at their core.

Atlantic Studies is an academic journal that publishes cutting-edge research on the Atlantic World as a historical, cultural and conceptual space. The journal is usually behind a paywall, which means that it’s generally only accessible via an institution like a university or library—so the free access for 6 months is a fantastic offer. Don’t miss out!

‘Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day,’ by Carrie Gibson

Empire’s Crossroads provides a broad survey of modern Caribbean history, with a pleasing level of detail. Gibson zooms in to tell stories about the people and places of the Caribbean, but also guides the reader in making thematic connections across the region. She also places the Caribbean’s traumatic past in context. As she notes at the outset, the  modern Caribbean (from 1492 onwards) is the product of an encounter between Europeans and other peoples.

Over the course of this 350-page book, Gibson pieces together the history of the West Indies (which includes here not just the islands but the Latin American countries bordering the Caribbean Sea) – a history which has long since fragmented. As she explains, the history has been fragmented partly because historians are usually grouped by language or by their own imperial past – so the history of the formerly British, French and Spanish elements do not always take account of each other, and also because of the question of nationhood. As islands like Jamaica or Cuba make sense of their own histories, they push aside the wider Caribbean story in favour of a more focused one. Gibson ties together the histories of the region following a broadly chronological approach, and assigns a general theme to each time span. So there are chapters on Pirates and Protestants; Sugar; the Rise of Slavery; the Road to Independence (these are just a few examples). The book may bear the word ‘Empire’ in the title, but its span allows Gibson to cover the long period of European domination in the region, as well as the more recent histories of independence.

The book is beautifully produced, with maps, images, a detailed index and bibliography for further reading—and a very handy timeline of key events in the Caribbean. I have the original hardcopy, but for anyone taking the book on their travels in the region, the more recent paperback is a godsend! Gibson has a PhD in Caribbean/Spanish history from Cambridge University, and works as a journalist. This book showcases her skills as a researcher and an accessible writer. Empire’s Crossroads is recommended for the everyday reader with an interest in history, but would also be an excellent resource for students from high school through post-graduate. The footnotes and bibliography provide excellent pointers for further reading and resources.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price.