Thursday, 1 February 2018

"I was a few years back a slave on your property..."

 ... and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.”
Thus opens a letter written in 1809 by Mary Williamson, recently discovered in a family archive. 

It's the subject of a lecture by professor Diana Paton at UCL on Friday 9 February:

’Mary Wiliamson’s Letter, or: Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’
Prof. Diana Paton (Edinburgh)
according to the blurb, the lecture will reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Prof Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.

this single piece of correspondence raises far more questions than can be answered, as Diana Paton elaborated.
Its substance is that Mary Williamson, a freed woman on the estate of Haughton James in western Jamaica, asked the absentee owner in London UK to order the restoration of her house and provision ground that the overseers had destroyed, leaving her homeless and unable to provide food for herself and two sisters, still enslaved.
According to Paton, this and other complaints of harsh treatment coincided with the abolition of the slave trade, the ending of new imported labour and declining income from the estate.
In the archive where Mary Williamson's letter was discovered there is no surviving evidence of a reply from Haughton James, He was aged 71 and of course may have instructed a relative or agent to do so.  The scanty details suggest that Mary W was resourceful, but one would so like to know how she and her sisters fared.

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