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Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

IMG_2187There’s frost on the window. Yesterday I went to a sweater shop in the covered market here in Oxford and asked the owner if locals find this windy weather cold. I’d been shivering all day but noticed plenty of people walking around without a coat—one student even wore shorts and flip flops. “It’s been unseasonably warm,” she told me and then added, “We’re bracing for the storm.” I turned on BBC News once I got back to my hotel and sure enough—“hurricane force winds and heavy rain” are predicted for later today. I bring bad weather with me wherever I go! Or hurricanes follow me: Ivan, Katrina, Sandy. Right now it’s sunny and there are blue skies overhead. I’ve been sleeping at odd hours—crashed yesterday after taking two two-hour walking tours to get acquainted with the city and its history. I don’t know what people do at night here in Oxford but there are some loud parties and/or pub crawls near my hotel that last until dawn. Hopefully the storm will keep things quiet tonight.

I had all kinds of ideas for a blog post yesterday but didn’t feel like writing when I got back to the hotel. Yesterday was my birthday and, as is my custom, I spent it on my own. I wasn’t alone necessarily but I was unknown and that’s the best part of travel: anonymity. There were plenty of other foreigners on the first tour; our guide had us share our country of origin and I was the only American in the group (I said I was from NYC to keep things simple). Others were from India, Pakistan, Colombia, Finland, and Australia. Every so often the guide would stop to tell us some interesting fact about Oxford’s 38 colleges, and she would look at me or the Indian tourists and say, “Well, in 1208 no one here even knew about America or India.” Which prompted me to start keeping a mental chronology. When did the English first travel to Africa? To Nevis? To Canada? What were “those indexassholes” doing in 1713? Because that’s how I divide the Brits in my mind. There are the lovely people living their quaint, lovely lives in England and then there are “those assholes” who bought and sold enslaved Africans and transported them to the Americas. I tend to think of my personal history starting at that point and it was something of a relief to come back to the hotel last night and watch an episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring Hugh Quarshie, a Black British actor whose Dutch great-great-grandfather had married an African vendor (right) and left property to his mixed-race children. There are no simple divisions in reality—I do know that. But it’s not always easy to reconcile the warring impulses within. Being in England stirs an awkward blend of bliss and shame. I feel at ease because so much of the culture is familiar, yet I also feel enraged and excluded and invisible. As we walked around the city yesterday morning I kept feeling the urge to photograph the old medieval walls. There’s something about a wall that’s alluring even as—or perhaps because—it shuts me out. IMG_2197And that’s how exclusivity works, right? You have to believe that what lies on the other side of the wall is better than the space you currently occupy. And it’s that belief that drives you to search for an opening, a door in the wall. I’ve been a medieval geek for a long time. I think it started in the 5th grade when Mrs. Wistow introduced us to a novel about a boy living in a walled city as the plague swept across Europe. We also learned to sing “Scarborough Fair.” That year was pivotal for me—we also watched a BBC adaptation of E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet, which made a lasting impression on me. That was my first year at that school; my parents had divorced, we moved out of my spacious childhood home and into a townhouse in the adjacent city of Scarborough, and I entered a new school where I was not recognized as a gifted student. Maybe that was my first wall. I encountered other forms of racism at that school, so perhaps I tried that much harder to fit in. Or maybe I would have loved medieval history no matter what.

Time to venture out to forage for food. Will bundle up and face the cold sunshine…

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roots

IMG_1927It’s hotter in NYC than it is here in Nevis. For the past three mornings I’ve woken before dawn to the sound of pouring rain. Then the rain stops as suddenly as it started, the clouds pass, the sun comes out, and when I finally open the door there’s a beautiful breeze blowing in off the blue, blue sea. I realized a few days ago that I painted my front room the color of the sea. I don’t have many vibrant colors in my home, nothing that might look distinctly Caribbean. Yesterday evening my cousin Charlene drove us around the island and I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the homes are—they’re immaculately painted in sorbet colors and most yards are very tidy with lots of flowering shrubs. Land is a big deal here in Nevis—owning it, buying it, selling it. Land is a form of legitimacy; I can remember my father grumbling about the land he never inherited from his grandfather and father. Buying land wouldn’t make me an automatic insider; lots of expats come here and earn citizenship by purchasing million-dollar villas that they only occupy for a couple of weeks. But my other cousin is looking to sell some of her land and there’s a part of me that would like to hold onto land that’s been in my family for generations—land that somehow eluded my father’s grasp. We passed my great-grandparents’ house last night, the house my father grew up in, and it’s fallen into total disrepair since being sold. That never would have happened had it stayed in “family hands.” The other part of me doesn’t want to be a landowner—not here, not anywhere. I don’t want to be bound to any one place. I still have my dream of opening a slavery museum here in Nevis, but for the most part I lack that very Caribbean drive to own a IMG_1896home. Or in the case of Nevis, to buy some land and build a home. Yesterday my cousin Beverley and I took a guided tour of the Montravers Estate (once managed by the infamous Huggins who ordered 32 enslaved people to be taken to town and publicly whipped). It was amazing to follow the path into the rainforest and suddenly come upon evidence of another era—a stone bridge or crumbling wall. The Huggins family eventually sold the estate to the Pinney family (another prominent slave- and landowning family) but over time it fell into other hands. Now a descendant of the Pinney family has bought the estate back and there’s talk of turning it into a hotel. Will they preserve the existing structures? I’d hate to see them destroyed and yet I don’t want white tourists living out their Gone with the Wind fantasies on this terrain. It’s sacred ground—to me, at any rate. As we walked along the rock-strewn path I couldn’t help but wonder who had walked there centuries ago. This was myIMG_1906 second hike in the rainforest and once again I was struck by the quiet. The estate is secluded and so the 90-minute walk was rather serene and largely bug-free except for ants and donkey spiders, which fortunately remained hidden inside their burrows. We stopped for a mango break and then went on until we were standing before the ruins of a three-storey stone building. The counting house was also standing and the kitchen’s brick chimney. We walked without talking so as not to disturb the nearby hive and saw the rusted iron evidence of sugar production (a plow, coppers for boiling), all overgrown by plants and vines. What does it mean to own a piece of the past? If it were up to me, I’d have the estate designated a national heritage site. I’d love for there to be a working sugar plantation in Nevis. It would be a huge tourist draw but unlike a hotel, it wouldn’t cast Afro-Caribbean people in the role of servants to wealthy whites. Instead they would serve as docents who could educate tourists (and locals) about plantation life—the reality, not the fantasy.

I’m running out of energy. I haven’t written enough since I’ve been here and perhaps that explains my lingering headache. This morning I got up and took the ferry to the National Archives in St. Kitts. As I crossed the courtyard I noticed boxes and files stacked along the wall and I wondered to myself if they ever got wet during a sudden downpour. Then I met a woman who told me that when she first started working there, workers were using records to stand on as they fixed the building’s wiring. She found no trace of Rosetta in her files but gave me some good suggestions and I agree with her conclusion that oral history will likely provide more information than official records. There’s more to share but I need to crash. Once I write up my notes for this conference in St. Lucia, I’ll be sure to post the paper in here for those who are interested. This has been a great week but I am ready to go home. Back to the heat and humidity of Brooklyn, which has its own pockets of serenity…

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Uncle Fred

IMG_1890I’m nearing overload…woke with another headache that blossomed into a migraine later in the afternoon, but still managed to enjoy lunch on the terrace with my cousin at The Hermitage Plantation Inn. The owners weren’t around, unfortunately, but the receptionist kindly gave me an information sheet that shed some light on the site. There were 17 enslaved people listed for The Hermitage Estate in 1817, and that doesn’t seem like enough people to run a sugar plantation. It seems the estate originally farmed tobacco, indigo, cotton, and spices before eventually turning to sugar. That might explain the small number of slaves. The Pembertons eventually owned larger plantations but kept the old homestead for invalid members of the family. “Black Dog” might haveIMG_1891 been a house servant or she might have worked in the garden or with the crops (or all of the above). Of course, I had to ask all the employees I saw if they had ever seen a ghost. The first two said, “No–and I don’t want to!” But then they directed me to the receptionist and she had many sightings to report. Another employee told us about the tamarind tree (above) where slaves were apparently sold (or punished?)—the tree is covered in fruit but apparently none of it is edible…

I came home with a migraine but felt better after lying down for a while and went back out to meet three of my cousins. They took us to meet Uncle Fred who lives in Brown Hill, the village where my father grew up. I asked Uncle Fred if it was true that Brown Hill was the site of the first slave rebellion. He said when he was a boy, he used to gather up cannon balls that littered the side of the hill. Apparently when the slaves rebelled, the British called in naval reinforcements and the ship(s) bombarded the hill. He also told us that he once was in a field that had several holes, and when he asked another person what the holes were for, he was told that pregnant slaves had been laid belly down when they were whipped so that the unborn baby (property) would be protected. Oral history, y’all…

Tomorrow we’re going to 8:30 church service at St. John’s and then we’re meeting two cousins to have a traditional Nevisian breakfast—johnny cakes, saltfish, banana pancakes, ham, eggs….

Just heard the verdict. Glad I’m not in the US right now. Just too weary to write any more…

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touching history

Today I had breakfast with a feral cat. I was hoping a bananaquit would come and beg for sugar but instead a sleepy little stray came and begged for scraps. Since I was having pancakes I offered to pet him instead but he didn’t know what to do with himself—too giddy and skittish and hungry for attention. Finally he settled near my feet and dozed, and when I finished eating I got closer to try again; he was more settled but the poor thing was so desperate he ended up following me all the way back to my cabin, and when I closed the door he sat at the screen and yowled! I immediately washed my hands when I got inside since I’m allergic to cats, and then moments later felt so woozy I had to lie down. Was it the cat? I hate to blame the little guy but may have to avoid him for the rest of the week…

IMG_1862I can’t write about everything but I want to get some things down in here. I started the day at the historical society; the ladies who work there remembered me and were very helpful, immediately finding the documents I needed. I started by examining the slave registers since I wanted to find out whether “Black Dog” lived into her 60s. She was 60 in the 1817 slave register for the Hermitage Estate but sadly didn’t survive up until the next survey taken in 1823. I still don’t know why she was named “Black Dog” but the owners of The Hermitage Plantation Inn have agreed to talk to me about the history of the place. There were only 17 enslaved people on that estate so I wonder if she was a domestic slave rather than a field laborer. Did she have children? A lover? The house on the site is from the 1740s, thought to be the oldest wood structure in the Antilles. Based on her age, she may have been brought (or born) there when the house was still quite new. Did I mention that her owner was a man of the cloth? Reverend Joseph Herbert Pemberton and his brother Walter. By 1823 it looks like Walter didn’t own any slaves—maybe he saw the light?

IMG_1868Next I asked for information on the Huggins case, and believe it or not, that story just gets worse. So the “insurrection” that took place on the Montravers Estate was caused by an accusation of theft—an enslaved man allegedly stole something from a free man of color. He was confronted by Huggins, confessed supposedly, and was whipped on the spot. Women who were related to the man being whipped started to cry (or “cry out,” depending on the witness) and in response, Huggins decided to give them something to really cry about. In response to the whipping of these women, the rest of the slaves decided to stage a work stoppage, it seems. And so Huggins had 32 of them publicly whipped. One enslaved woman was pregnant and cried out for mercy but none was shown. I found the Montravers register for 1817 and found some of the named slaves (Catherine, Castile, Range, Quashie, the two Jubas). I also found a plain white envelope that was filled with tattered letters addressed to Edward Huggins, Jr.! They didn’t relate to the case and were from the 1850s but it still felt amazing to sift through them. I felt like I needed to be wearing those white felt gloves…

After the historical society I took the bus to my aunt’s house for a delicious bowl of soup. I also had a chance to test out my new video camera and boy, did my aunt have stories to tell! I learned things about my father that I never knew before, and more details about my grandmother’s short, mysterious life. Blackie, the funeral director here, is one of my cousins and apparently his mother Dovie may have information about Rosetta. So I need to find a way to meet them. Tomorrow I head to St. Kitts to meet Leonard Stapleton who is the person that told me about the Huggins case. He works at Brimstone Hill Fortress and is an expert on the island’s history so I’m looking forward to seeing his research. And while I’m there I’ll stop by the records office; hopefully they will have something on Rosetta’s medical history. The asylum in Antigua has no records from that era, but I found someone in the Registrar’s office who offered to do a search of the archives for a death certificate at least. I suppose there’s a remote chance that Rosetta is still alive, though she’d be nearing 100. Wherever she is, I hope she knows that people still speak her name. She was banished by not erased, not forgotten…

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