Island archivists welcome digital records project
Archivists in Bermuda have welcomed a digital project to bring together records of early enslavement as a potential “game changer” but urged those behind it to ensure they considered the big picture.
Karla Ingemann, Ellen Hollis and Joanne Brangman spoke with The Royal Gazette about the Heirs to Slavery online archives scheme, conceived by former BBC World News America anchor Laura Trevelyan, who is now an honorary associate fellow at the PJ Patterson Institute for African-Caribbean Advocacy at the University of the West Indies.
The idea is still very much in its infancy, but Ms Trevelyan told The RoyalGazette by e-mail last month that she was speaking to British universities and institutions about “linking their Caribbean archives to a wider online archive of the early period of enslavement”, including bringing together the extensive national archives in Jamaica and Barbados under the leadership of the UWI.
Ms Ingemann, acting archivist at the Bermuda Archives, said she was excited to read about the project and would love the island to be involved.
“This is going to be a game changer because it will have all the names of all the enslavers and the enslaved people in one spot,” she said, explaining that at present there is no single repository for such information.
“We have people come here to find their family, then they go to Turks [and Caicos] to find about their family. They can go all over the world.
“This will help it be in one spot. It will help genealogists and archivists. It will help citizen archivists do research more easily.”
Local studies librarian Ms Hollis said some information from the Bermuda Archives was already online — such as the transcribed enslavement registers first published on the Bermuda National Trust website last year — as was some from Jamaica and Barbados.
"Not all of it, but some of it is there,“ she said. ”So, the struggle next for all of us is to make sure we are not creating pocket silos.
“As a project manager, that’s what I’m most concerned about.”
Ms Hollis said Ms Trevelyan’s idea, if still in the planning stages, sounded “awesome” because it would be an opportunity to consider how to best collate all the records in one digital space and provide ease of access.
“As a project manager, I’d love to know what her process is and what’s she’s looking at doing and how it is going to be brought forward and presented globally,” said Ms Hollis.
“Almost every cultural institution that I’m following right now is doing something to get things up online and getting people to add information and just trying to get the information out there, which is fantastic.”
Ms Ingemann said: “Bermuda should be a part of this endeavour, but perhaps they haven't reached out [yet] because although we are often grouped with the Caribbean, we are not in the Caribbean.”
She added: “Our links to our sister islands on this topic are critical.
“When enslaved Bermudians got their freedom, they had 30 days to get off the island and usually that meant relocating to other Caribbean islands.
“Also, Bermuda once ‘colonised’, I guess is a good enough word, the Turks Islands, so we share a lot of the same DNA/culture/architecture, etc with them.
“This work will help to find the branches that have dropped off the family tree, so to speak.”
The first newsletter from Heirs of Slavery, issued last month, described it as an “important reparative project, which will give descendants of enslaved Africans in the various diasporas invaluable access to information about their ancestors”.
It requested “anyone who has their own family records, which could potentially be digitised and placed online as part of this project” to e-mail Ms Trevelyan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A timeline of Bermuda’s Black history by the group Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda dates the start of enslavement here to between 1616 and 1619.
Ms Hollis, who also sits on the executive committee of Bermuda Historical Society, said descendants of enslavers in Bermuda would often “destroy or hide forever” records, though not in every case.
She cited the example of a family who passed a letter to the society from a father bequeathing an enslaved person to his son.
“Bermuda has had a history of putting extremely large rose-coloured glasses on our history, especially about enslavement and so we were quite impressed that they were willing to turn that over to us,” she said.
The letter is on display in the society’s museum in Hamilton.
Ms Ingemann said any initiatives to shine a light on the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade could only benefit Bermuda, even if some preferred not to look back.
"Sorry your feelings are hurt but, you know what, it was your ancestors, it was my ancestors, and we have to face the past so we can move forward,“ she said.
“Even though [the Heirs to Slavery project] is in the early stages, it has the potential to be huge, a game changer for all of us.
“I think it’s good for England as well, because they are in such denial that they had anything to do with slavery. It’s like, no, you were slavery corporate headquarters.
“That’s why these records need to be together, so we can have the complete story.”
Ms Ingemann added that she “caught” hell for allowing the National Trust to have the slave registers, adding: “I was like ‘you know that was 1834?’.
“If we can’t tell the truth about that, how are we going to go on to handle stuff like [the 1977 hanging of] Buck Burrows.
“How are we going to move forward on these other things if we can’t even handle the basic facts that the whole world has accepted happened.”
Ms Hollis agreed. “Bermuda is really, really good at keeping secrets,” she said.
Other digital projects on enslavement include the University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery’s online database of those paid compensation by British taxpayers after the abolition of slavery.
The repository includes names from the island, including Donald McPhee Lee, The Royal Gazette’s first Editor, who claimed £41 9s 10d in 1836 as compensation for three enslaved people.
Ms Brangman, director of the Department of Libraries & Archives, said Bermuda was recently invited to join the British Library’s Endangered Archives programme, which digitises archives from all over the world that are in danger of destruction.
Ms Ingemann’s team at the Archives will go to a workshop on the programme’s Caribbean Perspectives project at UWI in Jamaica next month.
“I'm so excited to meet other Caribbean archivists and records managers so we can exchange ideas and learn from one another and hopefully collaborate in the future,” she said.
She urged anyone interested in the island’s history to do some digging of their own.
“Everyone says we don’t know our history but if you want to come [and learn more], we are here and we are free. You have to do your part as well.”
* See Related Media for Curb’s timeline of Black History in Bermuda.