Upon first glance, the April 30, 1816 issue of the Barbados Mercury looks like a standard colonial newspaper. Nothing out of the ordinary. The usual announcements about ships departing and arriving, the opening of a dance academy, or the sale of striped muslins, cotton gloves, and coarse Irish linen–alongside ads for the sale of “negroes” and rewards for the capture of runaway slaves.
What is notable though is that this is the first issue printed following a two-week shutdown of the island after the slave revolt of April 13, 1816–and there is no mention of the revolt, or the interruption of the printing of the newspaper in the front page. Only on the second page do we find information about the “perfidious league of slaves” that went around pillaging and destroying the island, and about their fate (Paul, 2016).
This was the dystopian everyday reality of life in a Caribbean slave-holding society that participants in the collaborative finding aid workshop at the Barbados Archives Department were able to glimpse last December. This was the first in a series of workshops to launch the digitization of “The Mercury Gazette,” a project funded by a British Library Endangered Archives Programme grant.
The Mercury digitization team, alongside a group of scholars from the University of West Indies, Cave Hill campus, librarians, archivists and museum professionals had the opportunity to peruse the 7 volumes that the Archives Department staff graciously brought out of storage for the purposes of the workshop. Introductory presentations were purposefully kept short in order to maximize the time available for participants to study and discuss the volumes. Click here to see more photos of the workshop along with descriptions.
The workshop was meant as a brainstorming session focused on defining the significance of The Gazette in order to populate the finding aid. In view of transnational research on slavery, we are eager to explore The Gazette’s potential as a primary source. We aimed to go behind colonial narratives and unpack questions of power, authority, and the silences of the archival record. Furthermore, we aimed to explore and showcase opportunities for future research and scholarship through the newspaper and its digitization.
The pages of The Gazette were a veritable trove of information. They read like an early modern Twitter, containing short notices about everything imaginable going on in the island. It was fascinating to see the workshop participants, many of who saw and handled the newspaper for the first time, interact with The Gazette and among themselves.
Under the densely printed text, meant to be read by the upper classes in the island, another world surfaces: that of the enslaved constantly negotiating their existence in a brutal system of exploitation, fighting back to regain their freedom at every cost, or even to taste it for a short time, before being recaptured. We see men and women who under the naive, complacent gaze of their “masters,” put in place networks of resistance that lead to the 1816 revolt.
Reading through the pages, small tidbits of information, hidden in-between the lines, gave fascinating answers to the questions discussed. For example, a question that came up during the workshop was if enslaved people were employed in printing presses and the difficulty of proving this through available data. Shortly afterwards, miraculously, participants came upon a runaway ad (printed in the issue of May 17, 1783) about two slaves from Martinique: one of them, Charles, 23 years of age, was “printer by trade,” and had “a lowering ugly look.” They were to be apprehended and delivered to the “Keeper of the Cage.”
We look forward to unearthing these voices as the project progresses. When fully digitized, the Gazette will be a prime resource that can be the starting point of exciting digital humanities projects aiming to “lift” these lives off the pages.
* The point of the revolt and the interruption in the newspaper was first made by Prof. Lissa Paul (Brock University) at her talk “Dead Lives Matter: The People of Bussa’s Army,” Cave Hill History Forum, University of West Indies, 21 October 2016.
Photos credit: Lenora Williams.