As part of a regular series, we ask one of the researchers using the Historic Collections Reading Room to describe how they are using the collections in their research. Katherine Johnston, a visiting PhD researcher from Columbia University has been using the microfilm collection Plantation Life in the Caribbean, which reproduces material from the Vanneck-Arcedekne papers, held at Cambridge, and the Simon Taylor Papers (ICS120), part of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies collections at Senate House Library. As well as bringing together two important archive collections, the microfilm is also important as a surrogate for the fragile original papers.
I have been reading the papers of Simon Taylor, a planter who lived in Jamaica in the late eighteenth century. He wrote numerous letters to a friend and absentee planter in England, and this week I’ve been looking through about thirty years of correspondence. This material is incredibly rich, filled with accounts of the weather, plantation management, and the health care of the enslaved populations. I find his letters to be of interest in part because he discussed political issues, such as debates about the abolition of the slave trade and the French and Haitian revolutions, but mostly because he provides some excellent accounts of health care on Jamaican plantations. My research focuses on concerns about health in the eighteenth-century West Indies and Taylor’s letters provide the most comprehensive source I have seen to date. He was not a doctor himself, but was preoccupied with combating illnesses such as yaws and lockjaw that severely affected enslaved people.
The collection is part of a range of archival material in Historic Collections on slavery and plantations; other important collections include the Newton family Papers (MS523), the Hewitt Papers (MS522) and the Castle Wemyss Estate papers (ICS101). These resources are complemented by print holdings on slavery and abolitionism in the Goldsmiths Library and Porteus Library.