For the past few months, I have been investigating the history of archaeology and archaeological collecting in the Caribbean island of Barbados in some detail. This is part of my current research project called "Narrating the Diverse Past" (of which more to come!).
As one of the oldest English colonies in the Caribbean, first established in the 1620s, Barbados's long historic connection to the UK pre-dates the Acts of Union which brought England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland together to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
These connections are becoming more visible in the heritage landscape in Britain today. Reports on historic properties and monuments connections to the Caribbean have been produced by English Heritage (2007,2013) and, most recently, the National Trust (2020) and the Colonial Countryside project. Work is ongoing in Scotland exposing the links between Scottish heritage sites and houses and slavery. The Legacies of British Slaveownership database is also an important resource for exploring links between Britain and Barbados, as it pulls together records on individuals who received compensation for the freeing of the enslaved people forced to make the Caribbean a profitable enterprise for others.
These projects have drawn much attention both to the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and to the diversity of the beneficiaries of the compensation, the debt for which the UK Treasury only paid off in 2015. But my primary area of focus has been on the period after slavery was abolished, and aspects of the continuation of the connection between Britain and Barbados during the rest of the colonial period (Barbados gained independence in 1966, and just this year the Barbados government announced it would no longer have the Queen as head of state).
One of the ways in which this post-slavery connection can be explored is through university records. Beyond Oxford and Cambridge these records can be difficult to source, depending on how universities recorded the student body over time, and how much effort (and resource) has been devoted historically to maintaining and researching these records. However, Oxford and Cambridge are a useful starting point, particularly because both Universities attracted students whose families had long-standing connections to Barbados (some established during the days of slavery and continued through sugar production after emancipation) and because many Oxford and Cambridge graduates were employed in various roles in administration, education, and the military, across the British Empire.
Cambridge University has developed an online searchable database for its student records, and these records comprise an illuminating dataset for British-Caribbean connections (see also the Black Cantabs project). Combining biographical details from published student records produced in the early 20th century, with lists of students attending Cambridge's women's colleges (women attending Cambridge could not be full members of the University, or get Cambridge degrees, until 1948), this database is a valuable historical resource.
The records it pulls together for Barbados, for example, show that Barbados' Cambridge connections stretch back to the late 17th century. The more than 320 records of students with links to Barbados cover various relationships to the island: students who were born there, whose parents were born there, who worked there, who inherited property there, who married someone from there, who died there – and sometimes a combination of all of these.
For my purposes, at least two of these student records are significant in the archaeological collecting history of Barbados (though I suspect there are probably more). Thomas Graham Briggs (1833-1887, B. A. 1856, M. A. 1862) and John Poyer Poyer (1843-1925, B. A. 1866, M. A. 1869) both exhibited artefacts from Barbados in the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition. Both men had family estates in Barbados.
At present I know nothing about John Poyer Poyer's collection, beyond the fact that his "Carib relics" were on display in the Barbados room of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. Historic records and artefacts from Barbados belonging to Thomas Graham Briggs were on display in various parts of the exhibition. A selection of Briggs' artefacts is now in the British Museum, acquired a year or so after his death in London in 1887. According to the Museum's Collections Online, these are not from Barbados but rather a smattering of other Caribbean islands, including Nevis, where Briggs owned three estates in addition to his estates in Barbados. (There will be more from me on Thomas Graham Briggs and his artefacts coming soon.)
These two individual stories are just the tip of the iceberg, as the saying goes, in exploring the educational connections between Britain and the Caribbean. I hope that more UK universities can put resources into investigating and publicising their institutional histories and student records to reveal these imperial connections. The University of Edinburgh has begun this work with its Uncover-Ed project; Pamela Roberts has been working at Oxford on the Black Oxford project.
Codrington College in Barbados (Thomas Graham Briggs' alma mater) had a historic tie with the University of Durham from 1875 to 1955, during which students could take degrees from Durham. In the 19th century the UK university sector expanded significantly as universities and university colleges opened in various cities and towns across England. I'd love to know how many Barbadians were able to take up opportunities to study here during that period, and what happened to them...