Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black History Month

Education has played an important role in this national holiday, starting with its precursor, Negro History Week, in 1926. Black History Month has been soundly criticized on a number of fronts, including the charge that it is racist and that the history of a race cannot and should not be relegated to a single month. However, in the spirit of George Santayana's (1863-1956) famous quote: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Black History Month helps us to focus attention on several aspects of our history that we must not forget.

In 1772, John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), a soldier of Dutch and British parents, left his home in the Netherlands to travel to Suriname, on the northeast coast of South America,as a brevet captain with a corp of 800 Dutch volunteers. These volunteers joined the troops at Fort Amsterdam to attempt to quell marauding bands of escaped Black slaves that had established themselves in the eastern part of the colony.

Stedman was in Suriname for five years. While there he kept a journal and several diaries, wrote letters, and made watercolor sketches of what he saw and what he felt about it. He used these observations to craft a more formalized account of his time there, which was published by the radical British printer, Joseph Johnson, in 1796, with engravings based on Stedman's watercolors by William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi.

The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Slaves of Surinam contains vivid detailed descriptions of all aspects of life in the colony. While Stedman has been viewed as more sympathetic than most to the plight of the slaves, his sympathy is colored by both his status, his gender, and the times in which he lived. Nevertheless, his Narrative has been and continues to be the subject of intense study, particularly in Britain and the Netherlands.

The James Ford Bell Library is fortunate to have Stedman's diaries, journals, letters, and five of his original watercolors, as well as his own copy of his handwritten manuscript produced prior to publication. We have digitized all of this material; it is freely available through the University of Minnesota Libraries' UMedia Archive: Stedman Archive. Anyone visiting the Bell Library in person also is welcome to view and use these materials for research.

The James Ford Bell Library has extensive resources in the slave trade between Europe and the Caribbean and South America, with lesser holdings related to slavery in North America prior to 1800CE.

No comments: