Archive Talk – Birth dates and the British Empire

Archive Talk – Birth dates and the British Empire

I always feel a mild sense of archivist euphoria when I encounter a document bearing my birth date: 9 July. Certainly the oldest such document I’ve uncovered while working on the ARCHIVE project lives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library: a 9 July, 1657 letter written to John Thurloe, British secretary of state under Oliver Cromwell, from one of his officials on the island of Jamaica. “Imagine,” I thought, staring at the letter, “this was written 330 years to the date before I was born!”

Then, when I read a bit of the letter and discovered it was a sobering missive relating early British colonizers’ attempts to “subdue” the island’s indigenous population. The letter-writer—apparently a British soldier named William Brayne—requests that Thurloe dispatch to the island “bloodhounds” to assist soldiers in “finding and killing” Jamaica’s “wild negroes.” The letter continues:

“I am Confident [that] if his Highness did but know how useful they [the bloodhounds] might be here he would cause some to be speedily sent” (Volume 3, p. 121).

Rosenbach - Thurloe

The topic of the letter, though cold and detached, even clinical in the way in which Brayne discusses the topic made me appreciate how the Caribbean islands have grown and developed through a hard history even more. It’s not every day that you read a coolly written letter requesting the tools by which to police (some would say subjugate) an unstable civilization.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised, given the years covered by the John Thurloe papers—1655 to 1660. By this time, the British Empire had established its dominion: in parts of the present-day United States, in many of the smaller Caribbean islands, and in Asia, Africa, and other regions. It had also, by this time, established and consolidated a number of trading companies, like the British East India Company, to administer the colonies and capitalize upon their economic possibilities. Furthermore, the Empire had just signed the Treaty of Westminster, ending the first conflicts in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, and was well-embroiled in the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660), which was sparked by commercial rivalry and resulted in the English takeover of Jamaica in 1655.

As an aside, more of a note of fact, the “wild negroes” referred to were a people traveling the smaller islands, stretching from St. Thomas to Tobago, a warlike and indomitable race, collectively known as “Charaibes” or “Caribs,” who resisted every attempt at colonization on the part of Europeans, and preferred death to the withering slavery that became the fate of the natives of the larger islands. So stubborn was the resistance offered by these dauntless people that settlements in the places held by them were not effected until long after the other islands begun their flourishing plantation and civilized communities.  The group should not be confused with the race of people, who at this same period, lived Cuba, San Domingo, Jamaica, and the other larger islands in the West Indies, they were a mild and timid race, generally called Arouagues by Labat, Du Tetre and other French historians of the 17th century.

By the time the Protectorate collapsed and Thurloe lost his job in 1660, paving the way for the return of the monarchy and the further expansion of the British Empire, the “wild negroes” of Jamaica had been sold into slavery, exploited by British trade groups as free labor for the burgeoning sugar cane and coffee industries. (Enslaved Africans were also transported to the island.) A century later, the Jamaican slaves—who by then well outnumbered their white masters—mounted Tacky’s Revolt, an attempt to overthrown the colonial government. Untypically of many Caribbean islands, Jamaica have more than two centuries of violence and political upheaval.  However, with the changing politics of the Sugar world Jamaica, as with most Caribbean islands, could finally become independent and they achieved this on 6 August, 1962—a mere twenty-five years before my birth, in 1987.

The Thurloe papers at Rosenbach are chock-a-block full of interesting insights into Protectorate-era England (at least for those who can decipher seventeenth-century script).

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