Documenting resistance and confronting legacies. Working with British missionary archive collections from the Caribbean region.

By Special Collections|29th November 2023|Collections & Research|0 comments

Content advice: Please note that this blog discusses sensitive subject matter relating to enslavement and the transatlantic slave trade, which may be triggering or difficult to read.

In today’s blog, we consider the question of how, as archivists, researchers, and communities, we might critically engage with colonial histories in the archives to understand and acknowledge the legacies of enslavement and the transatlantic slave trade. By looking at some recent initiatives around 19th century missionary archives held by SOAS Special Collections, we reflect on how we might explore histories of resistance and begin to respond to the silences in the historical record.

AI recreation of Quamina (1778-1823), a key figure in the history of the church in Guyana and the Demerara Rebellion of 1823.

Mandisa Baptiste, QUAMINA, 2023, Fine Art Photo Al on Canvas, 52 x 52 inches. Copyright: Mandisa Baptiste (2023)

Recovering voices from the archives

While invaluable for historical research and evidencing the past, sources in colonial archives are unquestionably biased towards the voices of those in positions of power. The gaps and the silences are tangible. Acknowledging the difficulty of working with these sources, which document violence and oppression, it is our responsibility as archivists and researchers to recover the voices of those who were subject to colonial exploitation wherever possible, hidden as they often are in the materials and the catalogues that describe them.

If we consider the archives of British missionary societies working in the Caribbean in the early 19th century, the evidence that they provide can inform our understanding of the history of enslavement and the transatlantic slave trade. Missionaries were not impartial, being an integral part of colonial networks and systems of power, but in their encounters with enslaved Africans on plantations in the region they bore witness to acts of resistance as well as acts of violence.

An initiative to digitise the archives of the London Missionary Society’s West Indies mission, including 19th century letters and journals written from Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana, along with contemporary newspapers, has been made possible with funding from the Council for World Mission, the successor body to the original Missionary Society. With open access to these materials now possible through SOAS Digital Collections, we hope to facilitate meaningful opportunities for engagement, including with communities in the Caribbean whose history they document. Some of these initiatives are detailed below and others will be highlighted in future blogs.

Documenting resistance

This November, SOAS Library welcomed a delegation from Guyana, led by Mr Charles Ramson, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in Guyana (pictured below). This was the second visit from Guyana this year, with a delegation in June led by Mr Eric Phillips, Chair of Guyana Reparations Committee and Vice Chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, and accompanied by representatives from the Council for World Mission. The visits were in connection with Bicentennial events planned in Guyana this year to mark the 1823 Demerara Rebellion, recognised as a key moment in the struggle for emancipation of enslaved Africans. Events through 2023 will include a year-long exhibition of artefacts and documents hosted at the Museum of African Heritage, Georgetown, Guyana, promoted through schools, the University of Guyana, and the media. 

Guyana delegation, led by Charles Ramson, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in Guyana (centre left), with Karen Budhram Guyana National Archives, Ronald Burch-Smith, Alex Graham, Tamika Boatswain, Director of Culture, and Professor David Dabydeen, Ambassador, Republic  of Guyana.

Delegates were particularly interested in the role of Christianised Africans and the Church in the Rebellion and engaged with a display of materials in Special Collections drawn from the archives of the London Missionary Society (LMS). This included letters written by missionaries from the plantations in Demerara which became the focus for the uprising, letters from notable Africans including Quamina, hand-written journals including eye-witness accounts of events, contemporary regional newspapers reporting on the Rebellion and its aftermath including important testimonies in the subsequent trials, and visual materials. 

Quamina (1778-1823), was an enslaved Guyanese man on an estate owned by John Gladstone. He also served as a deacon of the mission church established by the LMS missionary, John Wray, at ‘Le Resouvenir’. Quamina, his son Jack and other senior members of their church group were accused of leading the Demerara Rebellion, along with a British missionary, John Smith, who was found guilty of inciting the rebels and died in prison before his death sentence could be enacted. Quamina was killed by British soldiers on 16th September 1823. He is commemorated as a national hero in Guyana.

A letter from Quamina (pictured below) to the London Missionary Society Directors, dated December 14th 1817, can be seen on our Digital Library, along with other materials on Guyana at Copies of materials from the archive feature in the exhibition in Guyana.

Silences in the archive

In many cases, however, the archive is silent on the experiences of enslaved men and women in the Caribbean. It sometimes therefore lies within the realm of others to address these silences, including through instances of creative expression. SOAS recently welcomed Esther Phillips, First Poet Laureate of Barbados, who was based in London over the summer as a Visiting Fellow. While she was with us, Esther spent some time conducting research using the library’s missionary archives, unearthing the experiences of those who endured the horrors of slavery, and seeking to honour their narratives. She was particularly interested in locating the voices of enslaved women and giving them a voice through her poems. She gave a powerful reading of her current work at SOAS on 27th September.

Esther Phillips, Poet Laureate of Barbados, who read from her forthcoming poetry collection, ‘Plantation’, at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery on 27th September 2023

Confronting legacies

Research in their archives, held by SOAS Library since the early 1970s, has been at the core of work undertaken by the Council for World Mission (CWM) to acknowledge and examine its own historical roots. The Onesimus Project, previously known as the Legacies of Slavery Project was initiated by CWM in 2017. Bearing in mind its origins as the London Missionary Society (LMS), which was founded before slavery was abolished, CWM has sought to assess its story and complicity with the systems of slavery, while finding ways to advocate reparation with its member churches. This has included four Legacies of Slavery hearings based in several countries in 2017 and 2018, with follow up recommendations submitted to the CWM Board outlining a commitment towards financial reparation, among other initiatives. More information on the Council’s work in this area can be found in their magazine, INSiGHT, Issue 26 (November 2022). Research on legacies of slavery using the missionary archives is ongoing and has been highlighted as part of a recent CWM seminar series hosted by SOAS Library entitled ‘Decolonizing Mission Studies’.

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