Endangered Archives

EAP345: A survey of the endangered archives of St Vincent, West Indies, during the slavery era

Professor Kenneth Morgan, Brunel University
2010 award - Pilot project
£4,200 for 2 months

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Project Overview

This project involves surveying manuscript records for the slavery era in the St Vincent and the Grenadines Archives, West Indies; undertaking some sample digitisation of these records; and liaising with the archives in question over the selection and training of someone qualified to extend the digitisation for a major project. The manuscripts for this project have been neglected by researchers. Some have damage from insects, water and a tropical climate. The St Vincent and the Grenadines Archives has no funds for conservation and operates with a skeleton staff. The manuscripts are important for understanding the social, economic, legal and political context of the Windward Islands in the slavery era. The aims of the project are to provide an up-to-date survey of the records for use by historians and to preserve the records identified in digital format for their wider scholarly use.

It is hoped that this work will form the basis for a larger project that would digitise these records and thereby preserve and make them more widely available to researchers. St Vincent was acquired by Britain from France at the end of the Seven Years’ War as one of the Ceded (or Windward) Islands in the Caribbean. Over the next seventy years (1763-1833) the island imported thousands of African slaves (up to 1807) and English and Scottish planters invested extensively in land in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Thus, the small island of St Vincent was drawn into the commercial orbit of slavery in the British Empire. As the Caribbean was the wealthiest part of that empire in that period and as slavery has left an indelible legacy on the modern West Indies, the preservation and analysis of historical records relating to that era is of prime importance for British imperial historians and for scholars of slavery and the African Diaspora to the Americas.

The survey would cover five main types of document. First, there are the Colonial Secretary’s deed record books, which cover (with many gaps) the period 1770-1830. These include powers of attorney, substitutions, bonds, bills of exchange and slave manumissions. Second, there are the Registrar’s deed record books, covering 1776-1834, and mainly recording land and property ownership. Third, there are Powers of Attorney record books for 1778-1838 (including some indexes). These document landownership for sugar and coffee plantations in particular. Fourth, there are numerous series of Court Record books, including those for King’s Bench and Common Pleas, dealing with disputes over commerce, finance and real estate, and Court of Chancery Minute and Judgement Books, mainly concerning the recovery of debts. Finally, but not least, there are incoming and outgoing dispatches relating to the activities of the Governor of the Windward Islands in the first half of the nineteenth century. Altogether, around 100 bound volumes and a large set of bundles of loose papers would need investigation.

These documents have considerable potential for researchers investigating the social structure, patterns of slave and estate ownership, and commercial underpinnings of slave society in St Vincent during the final decades of slavery. If made more widely available, these records would be used extensively by social, economic, legal and cultural historians of the Caribbean and by genealogists. Their preservation and digitisation would enhance the study of St Vincent and the Windward Islands in conjunction with parallel documents deposited elsewhere. This would serve to promote the use of these somewhat neglected but rich archives.

Project Outcome

The most important documents for the project work were held not in the relatively modern building of the St Vincent & Grenadines Archives building, but in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court House under the jurisdiction of the Registrar. This is where legal documents such as deeds and wills are held.

Conditions at the Supreme Court House were difficult. It is an old stone building, cramped and noisy with inadequate conditions for storage of manuscript records. The project identified a set of endangered records that were of historical importance but little used by historians; all relevant volumes were surveyed and one of the volumes digitised. The Registrar’s Deed books was selected for detailed investigation.

Deed books survive for several former British Caribbean islands, but they have only been lightly used by historians, even by those scholars resident in the Caribbean and affiliated with the University of the West Indies. Deed books record land and property transactions in comprehensive detail: they give the names of the people involved, their occupation and residence; descriptions of land and property; and detailed information on finance. Sums are specified in sterling or in island currency; credit transactions are specified; and mortgages are outlined with all the parties concerned. Bonds, annuities, powers of attorney, substitutions and bills of exchange are frequently noted. All persons connected to these transactions are named: white residents and free blacks in Saint Vincent; property owners resident in other West Indian islands; and absentee proprietors in Britain. The Deed books also contain much material on slave sales between individuals connected with Saint Vincent. Slave manumissions are also recorded. Where slave plantations occur in the property transactions, the numbers, and sometimes the names and valuations, of slaves are given. Thus the Deed books allow a comprehensive reconstruction of the economic life of Saint Vincent over the last six decades of slavery on the island.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP345/1 Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court Registrar's Records

The catalogue is available here.

Survey report (PDF document 325KB)