By Tessa Jillson
History is always changing. It is change, through the emergence of new perspectives and sources, that constructs “the creation of our world,” said Lissa Bollettino, associate history professor.
Bollettino discussed her research on “the meaning of the Seven Years’ War for enslaved and free blacks in the British-Atlantic world” during the Lyceum Lecture on Oct. 23 in the Forum.
She focused on Jamaica and a petition written by Samuel Stuard, a slave owned by the British crown.
Junior Mike Brule said, “History is so important, especially for today’s society. It’s more important now, with the recent events on this campus, that we study the history of people of color more in-depth.”
According to Bollettino, by the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1765, “Jamaica was experiencing a period of remarkable growth.” The enslaved black population “exploded” with a record of 192,787 slaves in 1774 – for every white person, there were eighteen black people.
Jamaica was seen as “the jewel of the British Empire,” she said.
The Seven Years’ War was a global imperial conflict, influencing other underrepresented groups to take up arms around the world, said Bollettino.
“Enslaved blacks took advantage of the context of the imperial war to revolt. They did this in a widescale slave rebellion,” she said.
Crown slaves and slaves owned by masters had two completely different experiences. Bollettino said British crown slaves in Jamaica, like Stuard, traditionally were put to work cleaning and re-fitting ships at navy courtyards, while non-crown slaves worked on sugar plantations. Since crown slaves were “set on higher footing,” they had better opportunities in life.
During his time working under white naval officers, Stuard was baptized and became literate, she said.
Even though crown slaves were better accommodated, that doesn’t mean they were treated as any other white laborer. In a petition written by Stuard, he informed the crown he was injured and requested freedom. The navy board accepted his request “to give the man his liberty,” but did so without supporting Stuard with compensation, said Bollettino.
“He is claiming on behalf of his service to the empire to be a subject of that empire. He uses those words, he claims himself to be a ‘Vassal of his Majesty’s,’ someone who has served nobly and loyally and deserves recompense for that service. It’s really significant that an enslaved black man would claim this and found to be deserving of recognition for that service,” she said.
The structure and forms of petitions back in the 18th century were particular, Bollettino said. Usually a lawyer, trade employer or petition writer wrote petitions. They required a statement of contributions to the empire, a statement of grievances, a statement for demand of rights and privileges and another statement expressing loyalty to the monarch.
Regarding Stuard’s petition, Bollettino said, “It follows the form, but not as beautifully as others. ... It doesn’t have all of those literary conventions,” alluding to the fact he may have written the petition himself or had help from a naval officer.
Stuard’s voice is prevalent in the petition whether or not he wrote it. Specific phrases such as, “like another man” indicate that Stuard “considered himself their equal” and was deserving of liberty, said Bollettino.
“Stuard is just one voice. He’s just one man,” but he demanded rights. He demanded recognition. He demanded “to be seen as a subject of the king,” said Bollettino.
Stuard “sees himself as a supporter and extender of the empire,” and therefore thinks his “reciprocal relationship to be a vassal” since he “extends the interest of the king” as a British subject, she said.
“I think it’s important to tell Stuard’s story as an act of recovery. To really tell this one man’s story because of his struggle,” said Bollettino. “... It also helps us see how the actions of one particular man, ... have repercussions beyond his individual life and I feel like he shifted the terms of what was possible. In terms of how race would be defined, what path slavery would take, and the end of slavery as an institution. I think this is the value of history.”