Radical Books

An Empire of Readers

Libraries, reading, and knowledge, have emerged as central tenets of the cultural history of the long eighteenth century. Scholars have emphasised the importance of libraries in Britain and North America to the emergence of a ‘polite’ Enlightenment culture. However, much less attention has been paid to the libraries which operated in the wealthy slave societies of Jamaica and Barbados, which formed part of the colonial thinking world. There is a troubling contradiction at the heart of ‘enlightened’ institutions which were embedded in societies built on enslavement. The image of the laurel grafted to the sugarcane in the bookplate of the Barbados Literary Society (below) highlights this paradox. Beneath the surface of their motto ‘Artibus, Ingenius, Religion, Fide’ (Skills, Genius, Religion, Faith) lay the brutal violence of enslavement. How and by what means did knowledge as a luxury good, in the form of books, come into the hands of its recipients across the British Empire? An investigation into an empire of readers requires us to broaden our geographical lens, transgressing national boundaries to trace the entanglement of slavery within the fabric of reading communities.

Bookplate to the Literary Society in Barbados established 1777. Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department.

Unpicking the literary networks of the Anglo-Caribbean world allows us to counter the assumption that the West Indian sugar colonies did not develop ‘the formal library institutions found elsewhere in the British Atlantic.’ There are few studies which consider the place of the Caribbean within the Anglophone reading community. The work of Roderick Cave, April Shelford, Hazel Bennet and Sterling Coleman Joseph Jr. provides a starting point for literary networks in Jamaica, but there has been even less work conducted on the vibrant literary culture of colonial Barbados. In part, a lack of surviving sources makes the reconstruction of Anglo-Caribbean literary networks an extremely difficult task. Some of the literary institutions which sprung up in eighteenth-century England as part of a wider subscription library movement, such as the Liverpool Athenaeum and the Bristol Library Society, have left behind extensive minute books, acquisition records, library catalogues and borrowing records. Such documentary evidence enables us to envisage quite clearly the kinds of borrowers who frequented the Bristol and Liverpool institutions.

For the literary community in Jamaica and Barbados, no minute book exists, there is no known full membership ledger for the entire period, and there are no borrowing records for any of the institutions. There is a surviving ledger for the Barbados Literary Society, housed in the Barbados National Archives. While the item has deteriorated, it contains hand-written pages from original ledgers relating to the Subscription Fee, Annual Admittance Fee, and Absence Fees of members, as well as a partial membership list. In addition, newspaper archives – an under-explored source – offer a wealth of material, including notices of meetings, Jamaican book imports, committee names and warnings placed for failure to pay subscriptions.

In importing a culture of civility, polite culture and associationalism into the Anglo-Caribbean World, the ruling elites of the colonies attempted to uphold an epistemological hierarchy which was governed along racial lines. When used as spaces of elitism and oppression, the libraries and their respective circulation of ideas maintained the power and imperial domination of the plantocracy who were constantly challenged by the rebellion and resistance of the people they enslaved. There were at least sixteen circulating libraries and literary clubs operating in Jamaica from as early as 1779. The Scotch-Jamaican Aikman family were particularly active in the literary world, with the brothers, William and Alexander Aikman Snr both holding the title of Printer to the House of Assembly. From William Aikman’s Circulating Library, which announced its closure in 1780, to St. James’s Circulating Library and St. Elizabeth’s Book Club, it is clear that these networks were not just confined to the urban port town of Kingston. Across the entire period, a total of 323 books can be traced in the newspaper archives as  named imports by the libraries of David Bower (1790); Stevenson and Aikman (1790- 91), by Smith & Kinnear in 1818, and later by Smith & Clarke in 1828. These works ranged from John Drinkwater’s history of the siege of Gibraltar, to the racist work of Lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man, to the philosophical writings of Burke and the Spanish novel Don Quixote. This was not a literary community primarily consuming texts concerning financial capital and mercantile pursuits, as we might expect from a society associated with a highly exploitative form of capitalism. Jamaican library owners tended to cater to a wide variety of tastes, with Law, History, Travel and Novels making up the top four genres in titles traced. Book imports by Jamaican librarians tend to favour the genres which we also find to be held most frequently by English, American, Irish and Scottish subscription libraries. These literary tastes suggest that there was a sustained effort to curate collections which tied the white creole identity to the wider transatlantic idea of Enlightenment knowledge.

 The percentage distribution of genre across all book imports traced in the British Newspaper Archive for Jamaica, 1779-1833. (C) Lucy Moyihan.

These libraries were not just as a site for readers to reproduce ideas of white civility through the books that they read. They were also enmeshed, socially and culturally, in enslavement. We can see the library operating as a site of oppression in an advertisement for the sale of a family of enslaved people in the Morant Bay Library on 24 March 1819:

FOR PUBLIC SALE, at the Library, Morant-Bay, on Friday the 9th day of April next, at 10 o’clock in the forenoon , a Family of Quadroon and Mestee slaves, levied on for Taxes due by Spring-Garden Estate.

                                                GEORGE PRESTWIDGE,

                                                ACTING FOR E. TAYLOR c.c.

This is a profound example of the entanglement of slavery, imperialism and racism with the pursuit of knowledge and capitalism. The space of the library – with all its associations of knowledge exchange and Enlightenment ideas – was used for the sale of people. In this advertisement, individuals’ personhood and agency was erased completely, as they were marketed as commodities in the same way as books, sugar and cattle.

Moving eastwards across the Caribbean Sea, we find further evidence of a flourishing literary community in Barbados. There was a Literary Society (BLS) operating here from as early as 1777, eighteen years before an association of similar means was established in London. It can be said with certainty that, by 1807, the BLS had its own library in the ‘Old Church-yard’, with a committee presided over by an elected President and chaired by a secretary; replicating the typical subscription library model in Britain. The original Literary Society was met with a competing institution under the guise of the Library Association, founded in 1814 under the secretarial control of Abel Clinckett. These subscription libraries, and their dinners at Mason Hall and Hannah Lewis’ Hotel, provided a space for the elite white plantocracy of Barbados to exchange racial, commercial and literary ideas.


The committee for conducing the affairs of the Literary Society is requested to meet at the Society’s Rooms, at one o’clock precisely on Tuesday next, 28th instant, on very particular business; and the following Gentlemen will be pleased to take notice that they form the Committee for the present year: – viz.

The Hon. N. Lucas (President)                       Samuel Hinds

Hon Richard Cobham                                     Dr. Husbands

Con. A. Howell                                               W. M. Pinder

Wm. Oxley                                                     Jos. Wm. Jordan

Wm. Gill                                                         Thomas Stott

Dr. Caddell                                                     Wm. Walrond, Jun.

                                    By order,

March 25 – 1n                                                 Wm. Walrond, Sec.                                                    

Those elected to the BLS committee in March 1820, such as President Nathan Lucas and Joseph William Jordan, were both literary proprietors and integral members of the Barbados plantocracy. Indeed, these two men claimed ownership of at least 774 enslaved people between them, highlighting how these literary societies were embedded in a wider society founded on enslavement. More widely, at least, 80% of the Literary Society Committee in 1820 can be shown to have owned enslaved people (cumulatively at least 2,048 individuals were registered in the inventories of the committee). Using the UCL Legacies of British Slavery database, we can estimate that – in total – the proprietors of Barbados’s two literary associations were responsible for enslaving at least 4,974 people. Of the members who have been traced, at least £24,256 16s 3d was paid out to them following the 1837 Slave Compensation Act, a sum which would have been worth approximately £2,087,000 in November 2022. These figures reveal how enslavement was enmeshed with cultural institutions which profited from the subordination of Black lives.

Hakewill, Harbour Street, Kingston. Simon P. Newman, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Escaped Slaves in Late Eighteenth-And Early Nineteenth-Century Jamaica”. Additional artwork by Anthony King. Reproduced by permission of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

While knowledge and cultural institutions functioned as an oppressive force, we must also pay attention to the use of knowledge by enslaved people as a form of resistance to the plantation system. It is difficult to recover the voices of the enslaved from these elitist institutions, run by white enslavers. Nonetheless, enslaved people may have, periodically, had access to books.  For instance, the proprietors of literary societies may have employed enslaved people in order to attend to the keeping of the library. A telling incident occurred in Jamaica on 22 May 1824, during the trial of Mr. John Verdon, an enslaved man, for an assault on his enslaver, also named John Verdon. It was noted in the Jamaica Journal, in an account of the trial that, ‘Mr Robert Smith proved that Mr Verdon had frequently called with the prisoner at the Library, in King Street, for books’. The newspaper added that the prisoner ‘was in the habit of selecting books’ for his enslaver at Smith’s library on King-street. The use of the verb ‘selecting’ suggests that Mr. John Verdon was actively engaging with the literary texts of Smith’s circulating library, attuned to the tastes of his owner and perhaps with literary preferences of his own. The observations of English writer, Frederic William Naylor Bayler, in his Four Years’ Residence in the West Indies (1830) suggest that there is much more to be uncovered about the reading practices of enslaved people:

“Were I asked, I should give it as my opinion, that the colored people read more than any other class of inhabitants in the Antilles. They have an innate desire for information, and a wise to acquire knowledge, which is always most praiseworthy, and very often most successful.”

Historians of reading and libraries must do more to consider the consumption of knowledge in the British colonial world and its role in violently perpetuating the institution of slavery, culturally and economically. The upcoming AHRC project, Eighteenth-Century Libraries Online, for instance, promises to construct an immensely rich resource to trace the economic, social, political and cultural backgrounds of library subscribers as well as tracing their collective reading habits. As historians, moreover, we must be attentive to the problematic foundations of our own discipline. History books made up the top four books known to have been held by subscription libraries in Britain and America across the eighteenth-century, highlighting the flourishing of our discipline during the Enlightenment. In the Anglo-Caribbean literary communities of Jamaica and Barbados, these lovers of history were accruing their financial capital through an exploitative system of enslavement.

Literary institutions in Jamaica and Barbados join similar libraries and societies in Bombay, the East India Company, colonial South Africa and Tasmania, to form an expansive ‘imagined community’ of readers across the British empire. To this list we can also add Grenada, Calcutta, Bermuda, and even the Literary Society of Free People of Colour in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as countless colonial immigrants whose under-researched inventories detail their book collections. The future of library history must look at the uncomfortable and inextricable ties between Enlightenment and whiteness, which were at the centre of formal literary institutions across the British Empire. Books and education can empower people, but as Nicholas Thomas has aptly put it, ‘knowing was never a one-way activity’.

One Comment

  1. Wonderfully constructed and very informative.
    Covers issues we should all be aware of .

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