Home | Disputatious Societies | The Library | Research and Publications | Essays | Archives

Research Work

Disputatious Societies | Disputatious Authorities

Disputatious Societies: Centring research on the British Caribbean diaspora

logoThis is a major grant bid, designed to collect together into one central location the documents, means to read and analyse the documents and research on the documents relating to the development of the Anglophone Caribbean in the seventeenth century (c.1610-c.1720). The bid is framed to be made to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and apart from the principal investigator, is designed to employ two post-doctoral research assistants (one specialising in the material culture, architecture and visual survivals, and the other a specialist in Historical GIS, cartography and plan-making); two or three document data-inputters; a consultant expert in ModesXML, the database system used to catalogue and display the database; and three doctoral studentships for work relating to the major corpora of material collected. It is overseen by an advisory board of international experts in fields related to the bid.


Analysing the data

Three PhD studentships will be included within the bid, starting the process of analysing this material. Dependent on getting access to the deeds and permission to copy them onto a database, it is hoped that the first of the three students will be working on the Barbados deeds to map development and change on the island from c.1640 to c.1720. This will be based on the volumes of deeds, transcribed in the nineteenth century and housed at the Barbados Department of Archives (BDA), and will therefore include the first year of the three-year studentship based at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, and the doctorate will be jointly supervised by Sarah Barber and Hilary Beckles.

The second of the three studentships will work on the 58 microfilm reels of documents kept at the Jamaica National Archives in Spanish Town. These include some parish registers, but also inventories, plat-books and patents. This thesis will be jointly supervised by Sarah Barber and Trevor Burnard.

The topic of the third dissertation is yet to be decided, but one possibility would be a social history of medicine and health. It would include the development of medicine and surgery as a consequence of the ships' surgeons travelling to the Caribbean, the natural history of the region and its impact on philosophy, medicine and drugs, and the diseases and illnesses which travelled to and fro across the Atlantic and relative mortality rates.

In total, therefore, there will be a database, international network of established scholars, body of publications and other outputs, and the kernel of a postgraduate and postdoctoral community of scholars which might be brought together to form a Centre for the study of the early-modern Caribbean.

Disputatious Authorities: New Perspectives on the Torrid Zone

As I have accumulated experience of the range of documents which chart the development of the Caribbean region in the seventeenth century, a number of things have become apparent, or more apparent. It is clear how little the region is covered as a whole, and even those such as Richard Dunn or Richard Sheridan who have sought to explore the region holistically have really concentrated on the central 'British' islands - Jamaica, Barbados and to a lesser extent, the Leewards, though Sheridan and then Gaspar have done more work than most on Antigua. Since the region possessed an integrity to both the English metropolitan elite and to traders, migrants and settlers with webs of connections, I wanted to construct a history which gave due weight to all of the territories and their interactions. Therefore, this study will include the British-claimed eastern seaboard from Hatteras, thus including north Carolina, Bermuda and the Bahamas; south Carolina, the islands of the central Caribbean, Scottish and other outposts on the mainland of the central American isthmus; and English claims to territory in south America, particularly Surinam.

The next set of delineators is the dates of the study. I want to explore the under-researched period prior to that point at which the institutions, structures and frameworks of British imperial policy became fixed, operational and stabilised. In the period prior to c.1720 the region was a much more fluid, confused, and ad hoc experience and I want to avoid writing a history in which the narrative is already shaped before it is begun by the expectation that the point towards which we are travelling is the two pillars of the British Empire in the Caribbean - Plantation Society with its polarised population; and the Slave Trade. In other words, our very strong image of what constituted the eighteenth-century West Indies must not colour our seventeenth century narrative.

Operating the several Caribbean colonies together as a whole, also militates against the tendency to see this section of the Americas as part of the north American narrative and therefore as a continuous series of assertions of autonomy by the European settlers anxious to break free of metropolitan restrictions, which 'inevitably' (in this view) resulted in the struggle for independence and the victory of 1776. This, of course, would result in the Carolinas being shaved away from that previous Caribbean coherence.

I also wish to avoid determinism in another way. If the story is told chronologically then one gets the same two teleologies presented slightly differently. Despite Bermuda being the first of the Torrid Zone settlements, the real starting point would seem to be the development of Barbados. Thus if one anchors the study in Barbados, one tells a tale of the emergence of sugar as a staple crop and plantation society as its means. From the perspective of the British establishment, Barbados is the success story and other outposts of the region are measured from its perspective. If, on the other hand, the chronological narrative refers to political struggles against authority, one ends up with a series of rather anecdotal accounts of anti-gubernatorial activity, culminating in the only attempt on a governor to be 'successful', the assassination of Daniel Parke, Governor of the Leeward Islands, in 1710.
I wanted to tell a story of the Caribbean region from the perspective of those who lived there, rather than from the perspective of the British elite. This is aided by the use of the documents available in Caribbean repositories and those scattered around Britain, rather than relying for a framework on Colonial State Papers. However, these previous histories are all white histories and I want to find a means to narrate the region's history which gives due weight to the histories of African, American and European peoples living in the region.

The dawning realisation is, therefore, that all previous certainties have to be demolished. It does not mean that they will not re-emerge, but nothing can be taken for granted. Most of the terms with which we describe and define the region and its history were not coined at the time, and many of the terms which we may wish to employ were in the process of re-definition or re-conceptualisation in the century under the microscope. Thus, having originally thought of writing two parallel monographs, one on the politics of the region and one on its social history, I have decided, instead to elide the two. Can one really separate them in a period in which social and political bonds are being re-drawn. If I have a chapter on 'patriarchy', then that chapter has to encompass any aspect of patriarchy within and between any and all of the ethnic groupings. Rather than continuing to marginalise the subject of slavery by hiving it off into a separate and separable chapter of its own, this study will rather have a chapter on 'ethnicity' with all of the issues of race, ethnicity, prejudice, oppression, privilege, miscegenation, acculturation and community that implies.



Home | Disputatious Societies | The Library | Research and Publications | Essays | Archives