Monday, September 28, 2015

Palm Trees, Sugar, Slavery, and More

Post by Brian L. Dunnigan, Associate Director and Curator of Maps

The Clements Library is known to historians and scholars of other disciplines as a primary source repository of “Americana” dating between 1492 and 1900. For all too many members of the history and the University of Michigan communities, however, that word suggests collections documenting mainland, English-speaking North America, particularly the territory that became the United States. Admittedly, that is the part of the Americas most heavily represented in the Clements Library’s books, manuscripts, maps, and graphics. However, Canada, both French and British, is nearly as well documented and, as noted in our last electronic newsletter, it remains a priority area for collecting.

South and Central America, with their primarily Native/Hispanic colonial cultures, are best represented in the Library by printed works from the age of European exploration and their colonial history. The collection is not as strong in books and manuscript materials from later periods in South and Central America, but we do have numerous maps and a respectable sampling of graphic items. We also hold concentrations of titles published during times of crisis—the South American wars for independence and the Mexican-American War for example.

Rene Phelipeau's Plan de la plaine of Cap Francois en L'Isle de St. Domingue (Paris, 1786) provides details of property lines, names of planters, and locations of slave quarters on the fertile northern plain of Haiti.

In this issue we introduce the Library’s third best-documented region of the Americas—the Caribbean. The West Indian sugar islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles have a long and turbulent history. They were the arrival point of Christopher Columbus in the autumn of 1492. He was followed by other explorers and settlers, who exploited and soon destroyed much of the indigenous population. Needful of labor, the islands became the cradle of the practice of African slavery in the Americas. Politically, they were a cockpit of naval and military conflict from the colonial era through the Napoleonic Wars.

Documentation of the West Indies is to be found across the Library’s divisions, and the subject is an area of active acquisition by both gift and purchase. Much of our holdings relate to sugar production, trade, military and naval activities, and slavery. A fine example is Nicolas Ponce’s Recueil de Vues des lieux principaux de la colonie fran├žoise de Saint-Domingue,which provides a visual overview of France’s richest American colony. The book includes maps and highly detailed plans and views of the towns and countryside. Foreground figures in the views provide animation and details of daily life as they undertake activities ranging from surveying to dancing. Published in Paris in 1791, Ponce’s book of images depicts the colony as it was on the eve of the great slave uprisings of 1791 that would devastate the colony and turn the French planters’ way of life upside down. The turmoil would also lead to independence for Haiti, of course. Other published histories recount Haiti’s struggles and preserve accounts of observers, participants, and refugees (many of whom made their way to Philadelphia). Manuscript collections, such as the papers of Anne-Louis de Tousard, provide further useful documentation on this particular event in Caribbean history.

A French cartographer named Warin drew this manuscript map illustrating the progress of a French landing force that wrested the island of Grenada from the British in July 1779.

Evidence of slavery may be found in almost every part of our West Indies holdings. The manuscript letters of the Tousard Papers contain correspondence describing the treatment of slaves on Haiti, while the Tailyour Family correspondence records the activities of a Scottish merchant family, whose business ventures in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries included large holdings of land and slaves on Jamaica. All in all, a cursory search of Clements Library manuscript finding aids turns up 99 collections with substantial West Indian content.

The Library’s Graphics Division is also strong in images of the Caribbean, both photographic and pre-photographic, Most revolve around the production of sugar or the frequent outbreaks of warfare between European colonial powers that inevitably involved their American possessions. Fighting was particularly widespread during the Seven Years' War, the American Revolution, and the wars that followed the French Revolution. The Graphics Division holds visual material as diverse as a series of colorful prints from the 1830s showing the steps of sugar production on the island of Antigua to a group of five watercolor views of St. Lucia drawn by British Lieutenant Charles Forrest in 1780 and '81.

British engineer Henry Mercier carefully drew a plan of the British bombardment of Havana in 1762.

A particularly significant event late in the Seven Years’ War was the British siege and capture of Havana in 1762. British engravers produced celebratory portfolios of views of the campaign, notably Elias Durnford’s Six Views of the City, Harbour, and Country of Havana (London, 1764, later reproduced as part of the Scenographia Americana of 1768) and Philip Orsbridge’s Britannia’s Triumph (London, 1764).

The Clements collection is also rich in atlases—Dutch, German, French, and British—that contain printed maps depicting the Caribbean islands. The last three years has also seen a successful effort to expand our holdings of separate maps of the West Indian islands, both printed and manuscript. Recent additions include Daniel Paterson’s 1780 map of Grenada that reveals much detail on crops and mills as well as a French manuscript map showing how their forces captured the island from the British in 1779. Other new maps include a French manuscript of the chief harbor of St. Lucia at the time of its reoccupation by French forces in 1784; a 1753 manuscript plan (including slave quarters) of the Fleuriau plantation on Haiti; a 1793 plan of Cartagena, Colombia by a French engineer; and published plans of St. Domingue and Puerto Rico. 

This finely detailed plan shows the plantation of Aime-Benjamin Fleuriau as it was in 1753. The important production buildings and residence appear at center. At the bottom are two parallel rows of penciled rectangles -- quarters for Fleuriau's slaves.

The hunt for documentation continues, sometimes with surprising results. While in England in July, our manuscripts curator purchased a pair of letters dated 1762 and signed by “Alexander White Lieut. of York troops.” At a glance the letters seemed to be a plea by a British officer for assignment to America—promising additions to our Seven Years' War collection. But, as so often is the case, there proved to be much more of a story to these two brief letters.

One of the documents is dated (10th Octor, 1762); the other is undated but clearly part of the same exchange of correspondence. The dated letter was written from “ye Cap”—then known to the French as “Le Cap” (today Cap Hatien). From context, it is clear that Lieutenant White was an officer of the New York provincial battalion assigned to the British expedition against Spanish Havana. But why was he in St. Domingue (Haiti), a French possession? The answer, after limited research, seems to be that White’s transport, along with several others, had been captured at sea by the French frigate Opale. Soon after, the warship was wrecked on the north coast of Haiti and the prisoners apparently taken to Le Cap. White, in his letter, was actually pleading with a French official to be allowed to give his parole and return to his home in New York, where he could be with his wife and three small children rather than be transported to a prison in France. We have not yet discovered the result of White’s request.

The Clements Library collection holds much of interest for scholars studying the Caribbean. We encourage you and your students to make use of these resources following the reopening of the renovated Library building in January 2016.

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