History Research Seminar: Dr Eleanor Bird (Lancaster), 'Held in Slavery, Indentured or Free? Recovering the Black Voices in John Clarkson's Halifax Notebook'

Thursday 18 January 2024, 1:00pm to 1:50pm


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Open to

All Lancaster University (non-partner) students, Postgraduates, Staff, Undergraduates


Registration not required - just turn up

Event Details

Eleanor Bird is a Research Associate in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing

This paper will consider a pocket notebook owned by the British abolitionist John Clarkson and used in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1791, while Clarkson was assisting with the Black Loyalist relocation to Sierra Leone as an agent of the Sierra Leone Company. With the handwritten title on its cover ‘Remarks Halifax’, the notebook was used during the period of the Loyalist exodus and an intensification of slavery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The manuscript notebook contains a mixture of Clarkson’s drafts of notes for conversations to be had with the Black Loyalists, fragments of responses, snatches of the conversations he had with individuals about their statuses questioning whether they were free. There are stories of parents whose children had been bound out, and accounts of the racism and feelings that they were still ‘in a state of slavery’, and a list of items to be taken on board ship. The paper will consider the notebook holistically for its range of Black voices and as a notebook for the first time. It builds on early excellent research by James W. St. G. Walker that looked at several of Clarkson’s entries that highlighted the grievances of the Black Loyalists and the experiences of a few individuals. The key questions considered are is there something about the notebook genre that creates space for particular kinds of oral accounts and what does it mean to examine its contents holistically? How can the snips of stories in the notebook be read from a decolonising viewpoint that foregrounds Black liberation and resistance and identifies a new set of narratives of the Black Loyalists and people held in slavery? Should we pull them out and look at them alongside the better-known narratives for example of Boston King and David George? Considering the notebook alongside the other manuscript and printed texts that we have such as Black petitions and Clarkson’s 1792 Journal, the paper will argue the notebook provides fragmented and mediated but vital narratives of self-liberated individuals, people held in slavery, and the disappointments, hopes and dreams of the Black Loyalists. These reveal the commitment to family and extended family networks, how Black Loyalists conceptualised their own ‘freedom’, and the precariousness and variety of experiences of individuals that often did not fit neatly within the binary of being held in slavery or free.

Eleanor Bird is a Research Associate on the AHRC-funded Davy Notebooks Project, based in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Her book project, Beyond the Underground Railroad: Slavery in Early Canadian Print Culture, 1789-1889, has been accepted for publication with Manchester University Press in 2023. This gets beyond an overly simplified idea of Canada as an antislavery haven for self-liberated people from the United States, to examine a far more complicated relationship between Canada, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and abolition. Eleanor completed her PhD on Canada and slavery in transatlantic print culture at the University of Sheffield in 2018, as a collaborative doctoral award with the British Library. During this she received funding from the Nova Scotia Museum to carry out research newspapers held at the Nova Scotia Archives for two months. Eleanor has published articles on slavery in Quebec’s newspapers in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Mary Prince and Susanna Moodie in Notes & Queries, on and on women’s antislavery writing and manuscript culture in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies. Along with her book project, she is currently working on a paper on slave narratives in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for American Periodicals.

Contact Details

Name Professor James Taylor


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