WMQ author Justin Roberts reflects on the unexpected route that led him to the article on British plantation management in Barbados that appears in the April issue.
by Justin Roberts
As I was writing my first book about British Atlantic plantation management in the late eighteenth century, I found myself burrowing back further in time with my research questions. As I dug into the early eighteenth and then the seventeenth century, I was frustrated to find the sources for plantation management becoming sparse and far less detailed than what I had been used to reading. I can remember asking a colleague how she managed to deal with such a limited evidentiary base for the seventeenth century. “Do I have to rely on psychics?” I said, nearly ready to throw my hands in the air.
I knew that the British system of plantation management had been forged in Barbados and that I should focus my efforts there. As I read through the literature on early Barbados and flipped through old volumes of the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, I came to realize that the narrative of Barbadian expansion I had learned in graduate school was far more complicated. I was fascinated by Barbadian expansion projects in Surinam and then St. Lucia before any efforts to settle South Carolina, the story we are more accustomed to hearing in narratives of early American history. I launched into a new study of what I was calling the Barbadian Diaspora, envisioning Barbadians swarming out of this hive all across the Americas.
At the same time, I had begun teaching survey courses at Dalhousie University and I was trying to formulate a narrative for a two-semester survey course on the Atlantic World. I found myself balancing precariously between sweeping imperial histories on the macroscale and micro-biographies of individuals on the ground as I bounced over four continents and tried to move forwards through the centuries from 1450 to 1812. I was struggling to find a framework that would keep the students engaged. It was clear that they craved consistent chronological progression rather than the thematic approach that I tended to give them. They needed a story.
One day, while staring at a stack of end-of-semester papers that needed to be marked, I decided to procrastinate by reading through the abstracts for the first six volumes of the Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series. I thought it might help me understand Barbadian expansion while also allowing me to more adeptly narrate the chronological development of at least the British Atlantic in my Atlantic World survey. As I read through the abstracts, I took only a few notes, simply trying absorb the bigger picture. That research process left me filled with new questions. People, places and events that had only dimly registered with me before were suddenly jumping out at me in new ways. One of the things that really caught my attention in the 1650s and 1660s was the English colony in Surinam and its connections to prominent Barbadians and to the Willoughby family. It seemed to be a flourishing colony before 1667. I knew so little about it wanted to know much more. I wandered down a rabbit hole that produced a series of conference papers, seminars and talks and finally my April article in the Quarterly on this forgotten Barbadian colony of Surinam. Along the way, I found a small community of other scholars such as Alison Games, Natalie Zemon Davis and Carolyn Arena working on Surinam.
The Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series has been a well-mined source for generations of Early America scholars and images of the many of the original documents are now available through an online database by paid subscription. The keyword searchable nature of that database, however, might discourage some readers from reading more methodically and chronologically through the Calendar and that proved to be a very useful exercise for me. I’ve since recommended to graduate students who are studying the seventeenth century that they read chronologically through the Calendar and then explore the originals of the documents that interest them in more detail, warning them of course that there are many errors, even in direct quotation in the old Calendar abstracts; they should always check the originals carefully. There’s certainly a danger in methodically and chronologically reading through the Calendar of imprinting an imperial-driven narrative on our understanding of seventeenth-century history but that exercise allowed to me avoid teleological temptations as I framed historical questions. I had started my research by digging back through the past to explain the origins of a plantation system that seemed to me to be fully formed in the late eighteenth century and I ended up stubbornly resisting the urge that comes with origins studies to project forward to what plantations or the empire itself would become. Instead, I went in an altogether different direction, embracing counterfactuals and seeing the empire for what it might have been.