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. For James, this achievement rests on a dramatic transformation, alteration, or re-articulation of economic and political ideology, specifically in regards […]
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.
A collection of more than 70 historical photographs go on display later this month in a free exhibition at Rivington Place in London. ‘Making Jamaica’ explores how a new image of Jamaica was created through photography in the 1890s. The images are being exhibited in London for the first time, and are drawn from the Caribbean Photo Archive. If you’re in London and get to the exhibition, please report back! It looks well worth visiting.