With the generous support of the British Library and BAAS I have been able to dive into the cultural and material histories of the first Caribbean newspapers edited by free men of colour prior to the abolition of slavery, writes Johanna Seibert. The unique newspaper and special collections at the British Library enabled me to trace the Atlantic entanglements of the crucial papers Weekly Register (1827-33) and Watchman and Jamaica Free Press (1829-38).
In January 2017, I finally seized the opportunity to immerse myself in the unique newspaper and special collections at the British Library – a research trip I was only able to realize owing to the generous support of the British Library and the British Association for American Studies (BAAS). As a Ph.D. candidate at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at the University of Mainz in Germany, I work on a dissertation on “Network of Taste: The Early African Caribbean Press in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World” (working title). Drawing on and expanding on the work of Roderick Cave, Andrew Lewis, and Alpen Razi, my project sets out to challenge the ways in
which we still tend to historicize, anthologize, and theorize early African Caribbean print culture by turning toward two of the first Caribbean newspapers edited by free men of color prior to the abolition of slavery in 1833: Henry Loving and William Hill’s Weekly Register (1827-33) and Edward Jordon and Robert Osborn’s Watchman and Jamaica Free Press (1829-38). Complicating rigid binary oppositions that divide publics into Black and white, print agents into in- and outsiders, and markets into centers and peripheries, my dissertation proposes an Atlantic, decentralized model for conceptualizing the early Black press. The Register and the Watchman were part of a network that stretched far beyond the shores of Antigua and Jamaica and that traversed both racial and national demarcations. In fact, the editors of the two early Black papers allied with Wesleyan Methodists, benevolent societies, and abolitionists from different parts of the Atlantic world, from Britain as well as from America. What bound this more than heterogeneous collective together was neither racial nor national affiliation. Similarly, the controversy over abolition seemed to split rather than to unify the group. I argue that the Atlantic network in which the Register and the Watchman participated was based first and foremost on a set of shared tastes. Here, affiliation worked through cultivating similar aesthetic and moral sentiments. More specifically, the editors of the two periodicals had a remarkable sense of prevailing literary and print cultural tastes as well as of their distinct readerships throughout the Atlantic. They knew how to effectively employ taste, as part of a larger editorial strategy, in the times of political strife and on a highly competitive print market. For Loving, Hill, Jordon, and Osborn, to circulate a set of textual and material tastes meant to establish coalitions across national and racial boundaries that were instrumental in the struggle against the repressive plantocracy and for social, racial, and economic emancipation.
In this larger critical enterprise, my research trip to the British Library concluded the first phase of archival work, serving to build up a personal archive of relevant material, to dive into the cultural and material histories of the two Black papers, and to trace the Atlantic entanglements of the Register and the Watchman. While I was able to engage with Wesleyan Methodist print at the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to particularize those circum-Atlantic connections, I had the chance to consult the substantial collections of early Caribbean newspapers housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, dating from 1716 to 1876 and entailing not merely more than 100 issues of each the Register and the Watchman, but also comprising runs of contemporary competing planter papers such as the Jamaica Courant and the Kingston Chronicle. The holdings at the British Library allowed me to deepen the previously gained knowledge of the planter press and the respective planter editors operating in cities like Kingston and St. John’s, thereby tackling questions that are indispensable for developing a sense of the newspaper market at the time and are thus essential for the study of African Caribbean papers in the early decades of the nineteenth century: How did the local planter papers on Antigua and Jamaica, virtually monopolizing the newspaper market up until the 1820s, function, not just as texts, but as mediums, print objects, and newspaper businesses? And who were the editors, printers, publishers, and proprietors of those publications?
The special as well as the newspaper collections at the British Library have helped me to deal with the internal and external mechanisms of the planter press in abstract terms and with Augustus Hardin Beaumont more concretely. Beaumont, one of the most prominent antagonists of Edward Jordon and Robert Osborn, was a major public figure in Kingston in the late 1820s and early 1830s, when he held several political offices in Jamaica, such as elected common councilman of Jamaica, magistrate, and member of the House of Assembly for the parish of Westmoreland. At the same time, the former slave-owner founded the Public Advertiser in 1823 that, three years later, merged with the Courant and was re-launched as the Jamaica Courant and Public Advertiser. The British Library holds various printings that shed light on Beaumont as a public man and, more importantly, as a print entrepreneur in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. A printing entitled The Consolidated Slave Law from 1827 had been published for Beaumont by the Courant office and shows that Beaumont, as it was common practice for newspaper owners of the time, produced a whole range of print products at his office. A newspaper alone was rarely lucrative enough to guarantee the economic survival of a printing office. In 1826, for example, Beaumont had his treatise Compensation to Slave Owners in an Appeal to the Common Sense of the People of England published by Effingham Wilson in London. Here, Beaumont argued on the basis of individual property rights and demanded compensation, being, in his view, the precondition for emancipation: “Refuse this just – this not denied , but admitted – more than admitted – proved right to compensation, then adieu to your Plans of Reform and gradual emancipation. You may make Laws, but we will break them: You may Usurp, we will never yield our rights. Execute Justice yourselves – we will shew Mercy” (23). Concluding his pamphlet, Beaumont’s fervent appeal to the British public in general and to the British government in particular documents how a prominent representative of the Jamaican planter class lobbied aggressively for the interests of the local plantocracy.
The seditious, rebellious language used vis-à-vis the British metropolis is remarkable, especially once contrasted with the rhetoric of many free blacks in Jamaica at the time, including Edward Jordon and Robert Osborn. While many planter papers worked with a similar rhetoric to frame the concerns of a planter elite fearing both for their safety and their wealth – highly anti-British and openly revolutionary – the Watchman cultivated what Alpen Razi has aptly termed a form of “empire loyalism” (105), which was also strategic. The editors of the early African Caribbean paper positioned themselves repeatedly and explicitly as British subjects and as such claimed for themselves and for the class of free Blacks and free people of color the same set of civil rights to which all Britons are entitled qua constitution, independent of skin color. This form of strategic loyalism, the editors’ turning toward the larger Atlantic collides with the new localism of the planter lobbyists in the 1820s and early 1830s prior to emancipation in 1833. One of the precursors of this development was the Jamaica Journal, printed at the office of the Jamaica Courant. An advertisement from April 17, 1818 for the newly founded Jamaica Journal, edited and published by the educator, book author, and print entrepreneur John Rippingham, delineates the role of the planter editor in this enterprise, marketing Jamaica as a model colony, contrary to popular belief in Britain. In order to “enable the British nation to judge of Jamaica – not from assertion – but from a development and accumulation of indisputable facts” (Courant, April 17, 1818, 3), planter papers like the Journal blurred the boundaries between art and business and employed a range of genres, including, inter alia, anecdotes about “the chief family events of the Island” and allegedly “accurate and authentic” accounts of local plantations (Courant, April 17, 1818, 3). Clearly, the focus was a local one. The British Library has a copy of the first issue to appear in November 1818, including a preface setting the editorial agenda for what follows. Apart from the conventional request for subscriptions and the genre-typical performance of editorial humility, the preface features a brief but significant mission statement, focusing on the periodical’s “features of utility” (n. pag.). The Jamaica Journal, Rippingham suggests, is pragmatic and literary, useful and than entertaining, which the table of contents seems to substantiate. We find the “Introduction to a New Work on Fever” and “The Laws of Jamaica” next to original poetry and “Biographical Incidents.”
Certainly, the Caribbean material available at the British Library has enriched and complicated my perspective on the early Caribbean press in the 1820s and 1830s decidedly and my research time in London has accordingly advanced and shaped the overall project in significant ways. The inspiring, intellectually stimulating and challenging working and research environment at the British Library also contributed to the progress I made during and after my time at this unique archive. The British Library and the staff on the ground more specifically helped me to spend my limited research time as effectively and as efficiently as possible. Last but not least, the British Library facilitates a forum for scholars and researchers from all over world, allowing me for example to reconnect with a fellow I had met in Philadelphia to talk about the directions our projects are currently taking. I am grateful for this outstanding research experience and I would like to thank the British Library and its staff in general and the Eccles Centre in particular as well as the BAAS – thanks to both institutions not just for awarding me a postgraduate fellowship but for organizing and administering the overall process.
(1818, 3). “Mr. Rippingham having arranged.” [Ad]. Jamaica Courant 13 (92), April 17, 1818. 3. Caribbean Newspapers, Series 1, 1718-1876.
(1818, n. pag.). “.” [Table of Contents]. Jamaica Journal 1 (1), November 1818. n. pag. Copy of the British Library.
Beaumont, Augustus Hardin. Compensation to Slave Owners in an Appeal to the Common Sense of the People of England. London: Effingham Wilson, 1826. Copy of the British Library.
Cave, Roderick. “Early Printing and the Book Trade in the West Indies.” Library Quarterly 48.2 (1978): 163-92.
—. Printing and the Book Trade in the West Indies. London: Pindar Press, 1987.
Lewis, Andrew. “‘An Incendiary Press’: British West Indian Newspapers During the Struggle for Abolition.” Slavery & Abolition 16.3 (1995): 346-61.
Razi, Alpen. “‘Coloured Citizens of the World’: The Networks of Empire Loyalism in Emancipation-Era Jamaica and the Rise of the Transnational Black Press.” American Periodicals 23.2 (2013): 105-24.