Early bards

By John T. Gilmore

Caribbean Treasure: A Trove of 18th Century Barbadian
Poetry and Prose, Volume 1
, ed. Kevyn Alan Arthur
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1-84523-010-4, 396 pp

Born in London in 1689, Samuel Keimer was a printer of unorthodox religious opinions, whose scant respect for convention was shown by his wearing a full beard in an age when nearly all Englishmen were clean-shaven. After several periods spent in prison, as a result of publishing pamphlets which displeased the authorities, he left England for North America. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1722 and set up a printing shop, where one of his employees was Benjamin Franklin, who was later to describe Keimer in unflattering terms in his Autobiography. Keimer published a number of books and pamphlets, and in 1728 started a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette. This did not do well financially, and Keimer ended up selling it to Franklin and a partner, who had set up a rival printing business. For reasons which are not clear (though there were long-standing commercial connections between the island and Philadelphia), Keimer went off to Barbados, where he arrived probably early in 1730, and where he remained until his death in 1742.

On 9 October, 1733, Keimer brought out the first issue of the Barbados Gazette, and continued as its editor, printer, and publisher (roles which were virtually indistinguishable in the period) until he sold it in 1738, though it continued to appear under different ownership until the end of the century. As Kevyn Arthur points out, the Barbados Gazette was “the first newspaper, in any language, in the eastern Caribbean, and only the seventh in all the Americas.” (The first newspaper in Jamaica, the Jamaica Courant, began in 1718.) It did indeed contain news, of the sort that remains basic to any modern newspaper: politics, business (with issues relating to the exchange rate between Barbados and London featuring prominently), obituaries, and reports of cases in the law courts (such as the sensational killing of Thomas Keeling by Gelasius MacMahon, who, having disarmed his opponent in a sword-fight, pursued him into a Bridgetown warehouse and ran him through while he was cowering defenceless under a staircase and begging for mercy — MacMahon was eventually convicted of manslaughter, but, as he had good connections who were able to secure him a pardon, he escaped all punishment). However, the Gazette also published a lot of what would now be called features and opinion pieces, and a considerable amount of poetry (something seldom found in the pages of a modern newspaper).

The appeal of this to contemporaries can be seen by the fact that a number of pieces from the Barbados Gazette in its early years were reprinted in London newspapers, and in pamphlets published in Britain and North America, and many more were gathered together in a two-volume collection of nearly eight hundred pages, published in London in 1741 under the title Caribbeana. The anonymous editor of that collection explained in his preface the reasons that he thought his readers would find its contents of more than purely local interest, suggesting that human nature was universal, and that a small and relatively self-contained society like Barbados was an ideal place to study it:

Here, indeed, they may see Great Britain itself in Miniature; observe the direful Effects of the same unruly Passions, discover the same Springs of Action, the same Inclination to Parties and Factions, kept up too by the same Motives, all centering [sic] in Self-Interest, which alike governs throughout the World. And we have been told by sensible and ingenious Men, whose Affairs have carried them into that little, but valuable Spot we are speaking of, that the Knowledge of Mankind (a very useful one) is no where [sic] better or sooner to be learnt than there.

It is largely from Caribbeana that Kevyn Arthur has drawn the contents of the present volume, the first of a projected series of three which are the result of several decades’ work on the older newspapers of Barbados and Trinidad. It is safe to say that this material will be unfamiliar to most modern readers. Original Caribbean newspapers of any date before the twentieth century are scarce, those before the nineteenth extremely rare, and often found in libraries in Europe and North America rather than in the Caribbean itself. The two volumes of the 1741 edition of Caribbeana can be seen in only a few libraries, and are not otherwise easy to come by — as this review is being written, a single set is being offered for sale on the Internet, at a price of US$15,950. There was a facsimile edition produced in 1978, but even this is virtually unobtainable.

However, most modern readers are likely to ask themselves why they should be interested. In the period when Keimer was publishing the Barbados Gazette, education in the Caribbean was almost exclusively the preserve of the white upper classes, who normally sent their children out of the region to attend schools and universities in Britain. A few local schools catered to the children of poor whites, but the children of the enslaved and free blacks who made up the majority of the population had little opportunity to learn to read, let alone of any more advanced education. Some mixed-race children of wealthy white fathers were educated, but such cases were rare before the second half of the eighteenth century. Arthur suggests that it is just possible there may have been such writers among the contributors whose work appears in Caribbeana, but it is impossible to be certain of this, as contributions are anonymous or pseudonymous, and he has to admit that “We can therefore assume that all of the writers represented here were either white or did not wish to be regarded as black.”

The very fact of the publication of Caribbeana in London shows that the literary culture in Barbados was part of the British literary polysystem, something confirmed by the most cursory perusal of their contents, with their fondness for rhyming couplets, assumption of classical knowledge among their readers (including quotations and entire poems in Latin), and frequent reference to established British authors from Chaucer to Pope. An important aspect of this is Keimer’s inclusion of a significant number of love poems by anonymous female writers, twenty-six of which are by a single author who is stated to have been English, though the poems were apparently addressed to a man who later came to be living in Barbados, which was how Keimer got hold of them. As Arthur points out, these poems are of a high literary quality. They were singled out by the editor of Caribbeana in his preface as one of the significant attractions of his anthology, and it was there suggested, without naming names, that they were by a female writer who would have been well known to the British reading public. Modern research has identified her with Martha Fowke Sansom (1689–1736), and the poems in Caribbeana have attracted critical attention in recent years — see A Letter to my Love: Love Poems by Women first published in the Barbados Gazette, 1731–37, edited by Bill Overton (2001).

Martha Fowke Sansom may never have set foot in Barbados, but nevertheless Arthur argues convincingly that we should not be too quick to allow a nationalistic view of culture to dismiss Caribbeana as of no interest to the modern Barbadian or Caribbean reader. Most of the material is written by authors resident in Barbados, some of whom specifically identify themselves as born in the island. There is evidence of a feeling that the political and economic interests of Barbados were not necessarily the same as those of Britain, and even in poems like “The Barbados Beauties” and “The Belles of Barbados”, with their praises of white upper-class young ladies, there is a developing sense of local identity and pride, something which is firmly established by the end of the century, as can be seen in a work like John Poyer’s History of Barbados (1808). Some items are tantalising, such as the essays on slavery by “Sempronius”, which deal entirely with slavery in Roman law, before concluding:

I might now proceed to mention several other Matters concerning Slavery in general, and also to take into particular Consideration the present Trade to Africa, were I not apprehensive that my Notions on that Head are too unpopular for this Part of the World . . .

Others, such as the various essays on marriage and relations between the sexes, offer remarkable insights into local ideas on such topics as rivalries between Barbados-born and foreign whites, and relations between white men and slave women. It remains obvious that we are dealing with the views and outlook of a small portion of the island’s population, of the slave-owners and not of the enslaved, but these are clearly of importance for our understanding of the society as a whole.

Arthur has made a major contribution to the study of the literary and cultural history of the eighteenth-century Caribbean by making this material more widely available. The volume is produced to the usual high standards of Peepal Tree Press, and there are only a very few typos. Arthur’s annotation is extensive and useful. I have spotted only two minor errors: the defence council in the once famous case of John Peter Zenger (relating to the freedom of the press, and tried in New York in 1735) was Andrew Hamilton (c. 1676–1741), not the more famous, and somewhat later, Nevis-born Alexander Hamilton. The naming of a character as “Fur” in an epigram is probably not a reference to the trimming of judges’ robes, but to the Latin for a thief.

The forthcoming volumes of Caribbean Treasure will include material from Barbadian newspapers of the later eighteenth century, and from Trinidadian newspapers of the nineteenth. They will be eagerly awaited by all serious students of Caribbean literary history.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

John T. Gilmore is an associate professor at the University of Warwick, where he teaches at the Centre for Caribbean Studies. He is a former managing editor of Caribbean Week.