Category Archives: Lectures

Lecture video: Diana Paton, ‘Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’

From the Royal Historical Society site:

This is a fascinating lecture about a letter brought to Prof. Paton, written by a ‘brown’ Jamaican woman complaining about the treatment of slaves on a plantation from which she had been forced to return. The abstract reads:

“I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.” Thus begins Mary Williamson’s letter, which for decades sat unexamined in an attic in Scotland until a history student became interested in her family’s papers, and showed it to Diana Paton. In this lecture, Paton will use the letter to 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. 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.

I like the way that she closes her lecture by reflecting on the forces that led to the preservation of this extraordinary letter, albeit within the archives of the owner in Scotland and not the family or homeland Mary Williamson herself.  As a result, it has been made available to her as a researcher in Edinburgh, but would not have been for a researcher in Kingston Jamaica.