This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.
Annabelle Gilmore is a third year PhD student at the University of Birmingham, funded by AHRC Midlands4Cities, in collaboration with the National Trust. Her thesis explores how Asian imperialism and slavery in Jamaica can be traced through art objects collected and displayed at the country house, Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. She continues to work on exploring Black British history in eighteenth-century Warwickshire.
Habib’s succinct methodology in tracing Black lives in the English archives for the sixteenth and seventeenth century is a framework that still holds strong today. His model of painstakingly viewing the parochial archives is something I feel nearly all historians working in this field have had to contend with. What Habib points out is that the very nature of these records can be considered “a key of identity, whereby the nature and history of each kind of record is a clue to the social knowledge and hence communal imprint of the black individual cited by it.” This drives home the point that when searching for the lives of Black people in Britain, it is necessary to read the silences left by the modicum of information harvested from the archives.
Habib’s work has been insightful for my own efforts in trying to illuminate Black lives in Warwickshire in the long eighteenth century. This has its own challenges, as Habib points out in his chapter on Black people outside London. It is a simple fact that the numbers are just not as plentiful outside London, for Habib’s dates as well as my own. But it is certain that they matter just as much. While Habib uses the provincial records to “offer important confirmations as well as modifications of the black history of the London citation”, I believe this still anchors the provinces to London as the centre for the Black experience. It is true that it is all connected. London’s socio-political influence did spread across the country but centring it risks missing the specificity of provincial records.
Nevertheless, Habib’s work is extremely insightful for tracing London’s economic influences through the eighteenth century. He notes that one of the tracks for Black people to be found in the provinces was through merchant traders, who were often gentry and aristocrats who made “astronomical profits” from trading and slaving in Africa. Habib states this directly led to rapid cash profits and subsequently investments in English provincial land. Ultimately, these lands were transformed into conspicuous estates, seen in the “great burst of country house construction” that occurred between 1575 and 1625, and captive Black people could be found on these estates as a symbol of their owner’s wealth. The eighteenth-century country house is often adorned with paintings depicting a member of the gentry or aristocracy with a Black servant. Black people identified in Warwickshire in the eighteenth century are connected to country estates or found in nearby locations. Habib’s work shows that this phenomenon began as early as the Elizabethan era and it highlights the intrinsic relationship between the countryside, wealth, and Black people inhabiting the provinces in the early modern era. Habib’s work is useful in showing how this pathway of wealth through the forced migration of Africans, transitioned to Atlantic slavery. From Africa to the Caribbean, then from the Caribbean to Britain, Black people were moved without their consent. They would remain as status symbols for white people living in country houses.
This raises another issue that Habib mentions: that it is a common feature outside of London for citations of Black people to be mentioned only in relation to the white enslaver, rather than some of the London-based individuals where there is more information about them as a person. This has been a problem that I have faced with Warwickshire’s Black people in the eighteenth century. The mentions in parochial records are minimal, sometimes just a name and their status as Black. Those with further descriptors are related to who has enslaved them. Whilst Habib’s records give a story, albeit anchored to a white individual, the records for Warwickshire are less detailed. The frustration I have experienced around this was compounded when reading Habib’s chapter on Black people outside London, and discovering that so much is dedicated to the south of England. It is understandable, and his records on Anthony and James Chappell in Northamptonshire exemplify what Habib terms the “vaporous” lives of the figures in the Warwickshire archive. In my experience, I have been left with a few names, a painting, and an offhand, unsourced sentence in the biography of a gentry family. I am aware that these few people across the eighteenth century do not constitute a community like that found in London or the south of England, but each of their stories, like Anthony and James Chappell, have been denied and diminished by traditional histories.
In many ways, this highlights the progression in historiography since Habib’s work was originally published in 2008. Recently, Simon Newman’s book Freedom Seekers followed a similar method to Habib in documenting enslaved people liberating themselves in Restoration London. However, Newman’s approach borrowed from a growing methodology developed by Black Feminist scholars such as Marisa Fuentes and Saidiya Hartman, and employs a creative element to reconstruct the lives of the freedom seekers found in newspapers and diary entries. This is in an effort to recognise the apocryphal information that Habib discusses but also breaks the mould of traditional history that Habib describes in his chapter on lives outside London. This combats the issue of a sole focus on the white enslaver by redirecting analysis onto Black individuals.
Anyone taking this approach would need to accept many of the unconfirmed aspects of Black lives in the archives. Within my own work with the Warwickshire archive, this would open up possible analysis, extending it beyond the spare parish records. Particularly, in broadening the scope of British history to include the Caribbean, intricate connections can be explored and expressed within the lives of these Black individuals in Warwick. Whilst Habib was wary of this in his own work, I believe that analysing the “vaporous” facets of the archive and using imaginative exploration grounded in known historical understanding will develop a rich history from these Black lives to fill the silences left behind.
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