‘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.

 

 

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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‘Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833’ by Daniel Livesay – Q&A and a book review

Q&A with Daniel Livesay, author of Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833

Click here to visit the Junto website and read the Q&A

The book has also been reviewed in detail at the Institute of Historical Research ‘Reviews in History’ site: Click here for the review

A letter from Mary Williamson to her former owner: History Workshop

History Workshop has published an 1809 letter written by a formerly enslaved woman, Mary Williamson, to her former owner in Jamaica. I know from my own research that uncovering the voices of women in the Caribbean past is extremely difficult, and it is even more so when it comes to enslaved women. Take a look at the letter over on the History Workshop website here

Archives Diary: Stephen Fuller Letterbooks

This 2011 blog post from the John J. Burns Library at Boston College describes two eighteenth-century letterbooks held in the Library’s Collection. The letterbooks belonged to Stephen Fuller, a British agent for Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. If you click on the hyperlink towards the end of the blogpost, you’ll go to the finding aid for the Williams Ethnological Collection, of which the Fuller letterbooks are a part. This Collection seems to hold some fascinating primary sources, relating to eighteenth and nineteenth century Jamaica. This would be a great place to start for anyone seeking a Jamaican research topic.

 

John J. Burns Library's Blog

Time consuming and laborious, hand-written letterbooks were employed to keep a record of correspondence before modern technologies such as photocopiers, scanners and computers became commonplace tools.  As part of the Williams Ethnological Collection, the Burns Library holds two letterbooks that belonged to Stephen Fuller.  Fuller (1716 – 1808) was the British Agent for the Caribbean island of  Jamaica in the late 18th Century, which was under British colonial rule from 1655 until 1962.  Fuller held this post from 1765 to 1795 and these letterbooks cover his correspondence during the years 1762-1773 and 1776-1784. Thus, the books include transcriptions of letters regarding Fuller’s application for the position in the months leading up to his appointment.  Fuller cited many well-connected potential supporters, including William “Alderman” Beckford—Lord Mayor of London in 1762, owner of two lucrative plantations in Jamaica, and father of the important author William Thomas Beckford who was…

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Conference: Memory, Migration & Decolonisation in the Caribbean & Beyond, 1804 to the present

Registration is now open for this conference, to be held at Senate House, London, on 23 and 24 May this year.

The programme is varied, and encompasses academic presentations, ’roundtable’ discussions, and practical workshop sessions. For example, there’s a workshop entitled ‘Creating Memoirs and Recording Experience’ which will focus on how to produce podcasts and write memoirs.

 

The conference looks fascinating, but for those of us who can’t attend, it’s still worth taking a look at the programme. If a paper title sparks your interest, take a look at the presenter’s work online—that’s a great way to find out who is researching a particular issue, question or region.

As always, if any blog readers do attend the conference, let me know. It would be great to post a follow-up to the conference, or an individual paper or workshop.

This is a link to the conference web page and I’ve copied the programme below.

 

Day One

10.15-12.15     Title TBC: Roundtable discussion between Caribbean migrants to Britain. Chaired by Roderck Westmaas (Guyana Speaks).

13.00-14.30     Panel One: ‘Reconciling the Past: Memory and Testimony in the Caribbean and Beyond’.

Denise Noble (Birmingham City University), ‘The Decolonial Poetics of Memory and Re-Memorying’.

Kelly Delancy (National Museum of the Bahamas), ‘History to Heritage: A Heritage Assessment of Tarpum Bay, Eleuthera, The Bahamas’.

Joan Andzeuh Nche, (Goldsmiths, University of London), ‘Questioning Relation and the Poetics of Home in Derek Walcott’s The Arkansas Testament’.

14.30-15.30     Workshop One: Creating Memoirs and Recording Experience: This session on how to produce podcasts and write memoirs.

15.45-17.15     Panel Two: ‘The Transnational Caribbean: Sites of (Neo)Colonial Contact’.

Clara Rachel Eybalin Casséus (IMLR, University of London), ‘Debt and the Haitian Quake: Mapping Mobility Through the Memory of the French Port of La Rochelle’.

Simeon Simeonov (Brown University), ‘The Consular Caribbean in the Age of Revolution: The Role of US and British Consulates in the Spanish American Revolutions’.

Nadine Chambers (Independent Researcher), ‘Decolonial, Post-Colonial or Neo-Colonial? The Rocky, Hard Places Between First Peoples and Arrivants in the Caribbean and Beyond’.

17.15-18.15     Keynote: Matthew Smith (University of the West Indies, Mona), ‘Loving and Leaving the New Jamaica: Reckoning with the 1960s’.

Day Two

 

10.00-11.30     Panel Three: ‘The Language of (De)Colonisation: Literature and Education’.

James Williams (Queen Mary University), ‘“More baká than border”: Shibboleths in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’.

Marie Lily Cerat (The Graduate Center, City University of New York), ‘Decolonizing and (Re)Theorizing the Haitian Experience: Vision of a Haitian natifnatal Epistemology’.

Ruth Minott Egglestone (Independent Researcher), ‘Finding the Anancyesque in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the Decolonisation Project in Jamaica Between 1938 and 1958’.

11.45-12.45     Workshop Two: Organising for the Caribbean: session on how to campaign for change in the Caribbean.

13.30-15.00     Panel Four: ‘Arguing Around Decolonisation: De-colonial Futures’.

Karen Salt (University of Nottingham), ‘Decolonisation, States of Blackness and the Problem of Black Nullification’.

Laura Lomas (Rutgers University), ‘Lourdes Casal’s Decolonial Writing in Havana and New York’.

Miguel Gualdrón (DePaul University), ‘Memories of the Abyss: Glissant’s Philosophy of Caribbean History in the Context of Césaire and Fanon’.

15.15-16.15     Panel Five: ‘Shifting Perceptions of the Caribbean: Reconfiguring Family and Nation’.

Adom Philogene Heron (ILAS, University of London), ‘The Name of the Father in the Caribbean: Myth, Metaphor, Multiplicity’.

Maria A. Lee Strohmayer (Independent Researcher), ‘Curating the Nation: The Politics of Recognition in a Bahamian National Museum’.

16.15-16.45     Performance by Rubén Dávila, ‘El Vuelo del Golondrino’ on the experience of Caribbean and Andean migrants to New York.

16.45-17.45     Guest Speakers: Tina K. Ramnarine (Royal Holloway, University of London); William ‘Lez’ Henry (University of West London).

“The Paradise of the World:” conflict and society in the Caribbean

While doing some background research on the indigenous people of St.Vincent, I came across a great online exhibition on the King’s College London website. “The Paradise of the World:” conflict and society in the Caribbean” was originally held at KCL in 2011, but is now available as an online exhibition. This is such a great way to share resources and information—I love seeing exhibitions migrate from the real world to the online arena so that researchers can make use of the content for years afterwards.

edw262web
‘Chatoyer, the Chief of the Black Charaibes in St Vincent with his five wives,’ from Bryan Edwards, The history, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (London, 1807).

The exhibition drew largely upon the holdings of the historical library collection of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and explored the history of the Caribbean region from the sixteenth century to 1900. Because the exhibition is based on British documentation and literature, the exhibition clearly approaches the Caribbean form the perspective of British interaction with the region. The exhibition provides an overview of Britain’s relationship with Spain as it relates to the Caribbean, international rivalry, the sugar trade and revolts and revolution in Jamaica and Haiti. and the development of the sugar industry and trade. In relation to indigenous peoples in the Caribbean (which is how I stumbled across the exhibition), there is a very good overview of indigenous peoples of Guyana and St.Vincent as well as some material on Jacques Du Tetre’s interaction with indigenous people in the region and his writings. Finally, the exhibition covers emancipation, and nineteenth century Caribbean colonial life.

This exhibition would be very useful for introductory research on the Caribbean (particularly the British Caribbean), and it includes a number of primary sources such as books, artwork and documentation which are available online. Click here to go to the KCL exhibition.

 

Slavery, Freedom and the Jamaican Landscape | British Library – Picturing Places

The link below will take you to an article written by Miles Ogborn, Professor of Geography at Queen Mary University of London.

Jamaican Maroons fought two major wars against the British during the 18th century. With reference to maps and views in the King’s Topographical Collection, Miles Ogborn investigates this community of escaped slaves and their attempts to win back independence.

‘Driver, cold morning:’ A Jamaican sketch by William Berryman

I’ve mentioned before the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at University College London, which has been useful for my research. I came across this beautiful sketch on the project’s website under the ‘documents of interest’ section. According to the LBSO research, William Berryman was an English artist who lived in Jamaica between 1808 and 1815. He sketched and painted over 300 drawings of landscapes and enslaved people.

The Library of Congress, which owns Berryman’s collection, has digitised eighty-six of his drawings.  Click here to view the drawings on the Library of Congress website.

Click here to go to the LBSO website and for more information on William Berryman.

Revolutionary Jamaica: Interpreting the Politics of the Baptist War

By Gordon Barnes In the preface to C.L.R. James’s magnum opus and classic text on slave rebellion, The Black Jacobins, James forcefully points out that Saint-Domingue experienced the “the only successful” slave revolt in history.[1] For James, this achievement rests on a dramatic transformation, alteration, or re-articulation of economic and political ideology, specifically in regards […]

via Revolutionary Jamaica: Interpreting the Politics of the Baptist War — Age of Revolutions