Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Beyond America: The East India Papers of Lords North and Cornwallis," by Adam Nadeau

Guest blogger Adam Nadeau is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He recently completed a four week residency as a 2018-19 David Library Fellow conducting research for his dissertation examining British imperial reform during the Revolutionary era.   

My project seeks to explore the crisis of empire leading up to, during, and immediately following the American Revolutionary War from a British imperial perspective, as well as it intends to incorporate the story of contemporaneous events in British East India into a transoceanic narrative spanning the years from roughly 1763 to about 1793. As such, I had sought out a fellowship at the David Library in order to work through parts of the Library’s vast microfilmed collection of eighteenth-century British imperial papers. 

Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton
 Copley, c. 1795. Wikimedia   
While many researchers venture to the David Library to utilize its British imperial holdings, I was particularly drawn to the Library’s copies of the papers of Lords North and Cornwallis, and I was hopeful that such collections contained materials relating to British rule in India during the 1770s, 80s, and 90s. In this respect, the David Library far exceeded my expectations. Upon my arrival, I realized that not only did the David Library have the few East India documents that were intermixed with Cornwallis’s American materials; they held the entire Cornwallis collection, much of which concern the general’s career beyond America. 

The English (later British) East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600 and granted a monopoly on English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope in an effort to compete with England’s main commercial rival at the time, the Dutch republic. After about a decade or so of activity in Southeast Asia, however, English merchants recognized that Company profits would be greatly increased by shifting their commercial focus to the textile-rich markets of the Indian subcontinent, and where English commerce went English diplomacy followed. 

By the turn of the eighteenth century, Britain had become thoroughly drawn into Indian dynastic politics, and the entry of the French East India Company into subcontinental affairs in the 1720s ensured that the imperial wars fought between France and England during the first half of the eighteenth century would play out in the East Indian theatre as well.
Lord Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757, 
by Francis Hayman, c. 1760. National Portrait Gallery, London.
During the Seven Years’ War, France and Britain exchanged victories up and down India’s Coromandel Coast until in June 1757, British East India Company troops faced a combined French and Bengali force at Plassey on the banks of the Hooghly River. There, Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, and installed Mir Jafar as nawab in exchange for £1 million for the defrayment of troops and almost £700,000 in loot. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 barred the French from making any further military incursions into Bengal, and in August 1765, the Company acquired from Mughal emperor Shah Alam II the diwani, or right to collect the imperial revenue of Bengal, valued at some £3 million annually.

A series of parliamentary regulations during the 1770s and 80s integrated the presidencies of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal under the civil jurisdiction of the Governor General and Supreme Council of Bengal and placed the Company under the oversight of a ministerial Board of Control in London. All the while, Company influence continued to expand in India as British officials negotiated subsidiary alliances with a series of Indian rulers, oftentimes carving up autochthonous territories in the process.

 The East India papers present in the David Library’s North and Cornwallis collections cover this crucial period of Company reform and imperial expansion in India during the 1770s and 80s, including documents relating to the administrations of governors Warren Hastings and John Macpherson, which cast light on the civil affairs of British India and on the various military operations against hostile Indian polities that are coterminous with the chronology of the American Revolutionary War. 

A scan of a letter to the Governor General of 
Bengal from the court of the Nawab,  
May 2, 1785. PRO 30/11/7, fol. 360.
Cornwallis’s papers are especially illuminating. Four years after returning to Britain, Cornwallis accepted the position of Governor General of Bengal in 1786 on the condition that he also be made Commander-in-Chief of British India, becoming the first governor to hold both posts simultaneously from 1786 to 1793 and again in 1805. Cornwallis amassed a significant amount of materials during his time in India, and it appears to me that the bulk of Cornwallis’s papers in fact relate to his career in the East, covering the period of two of the wars fought between the Company and the kingdom of Mysore in the 1780s and 90s.

The Anglo-Mysore Wars were partially a theatre of the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe in that they saw the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan backed by France and republican Europe against monarchical Britain. The result of the Anglo-Mysore Wars, however, was the defeat of one of the last remaining Indian polities that was capable of resisting Company rule, leaving the Indian subcontinent open to British territorial expansion which would persist into the twentieth century. 

The East India papers of Lords North and Cornwallis are a hidden gem among the David Library’s collections and may very well be the largest assortment of such materials on this side of the Atlantic. These documents will become increasingly relevant as trends in scholarship continue to move towards transoceanic analyses of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire and as historians of colonial America and the West Indies begin to expound upon the fiscal and military interconnectedness of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.

Further Reading

Bowen, H. V., Elizabeth Mancke, and John G. Reid, eds. Britain’s Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550–1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Marshall, P. J. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wickwire, Franklin and Mary. Cornwallis: The Imperial Years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Real Houswives of Worcester County

 Guest blogger Ken Miller tells us about his research on three Massachusetts women during the American Revolution. 

The American Revolution carried grave consequences for Bathsheba Spooner, a suspected loyalist in Worcester County, Massachusetts. The daughter of the reviled Tory, Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, the thirty-two-year-old Spooner orchestrated the murder of her well-to-do husband, Joshua, in early March 1778 with the help of three co-conspirators—her young lover, the teenaged Continental soldier, Ezra Ross, and William Brooks and James Buchanan, two British prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Saratoga. After beating their victim to death and disposing of his corpse in the family well, his assailants hastily divided their spoils. Apprehended, tried, and convicted for the grisly crime soon thereafter, all four malefactors perished at the gallows on July 2, 1778. Tragically, revolutionary authorities chose to disregard legal precedent and hang Spooner even though she had reached an advanced stage of pregnancy, with her post-mortem exam revealing a five-month old fetus.

I spent the month of February at the David Library researching the Spooner case as a short-term residential fellow. I’m approaching the controversy as the centerpiece of an anticipated microhistory designed to illuminate the perils of loyalism across Massachusetts during the initial years of the Revolutionary War. To contextualize the murder, I conducted extensive research in Britain’s loyalist claims and colonial office records, the British headquarters papers, and the correspondence of the Massachusetts general, William Heath. I also perused the papers of Robert Treat Paine, the case’s prosecuting attorney, uncovering long neglected trial testimony.

My investigations ultimately shed light on the wartime travails of Spooner’s more obscure Worcester County neighbors, underscoring the painful costs of allegiance for Whig and Tory alike. Among the loyalist claims, for example, I located the petition of the widow Ann Greenleaf, a Bolton resident who courageously defied local Whigs by carrying intelligence to the enemy until she was finally discovered and forced to take refuge behind British lines in late 1778. Sarah Duncan, by contrast, the wife of a loyalist merchant, refused to abandon her home and family, prompting her devoted husband to remain in Worcester and brave the wrath of vengeful patriots. The stories of these diverse Massachusetts women illustrate the wide range of female experiences during Americans’ first civil war.

As for Bathsheba, the site of her husband’s slaying, the infamous Spooner well, remains an historic landmark, located just off East Main Street in Brookfield, Massachusetts. Alas, two hundred and forty years after the crime that sent her to the gallows, Bathsheba’s final resting place remains unknown.

Ken Miller is associate professor of early American history at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and the author of "Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence," just released in paperback by Cornell University Press.

Friday, February 23, 2018

For Black History Month, The Story of Elizabeth Freeman, or "Mumbet"

W. E. B. DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868 and is celebrated as a sociologist, historian, educator and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.  

DuBois' maternal great great grandfather was Tom Burghardt, a slave born in West Africa around 1730, who briefly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  DuBois also liked to claim that he was a descendent of Elizabeth Freeman, the first enslaved African American woman in Massachusetts to sue for and win her freedom. It's more likely, though that they were only vaguely related by marriage (perhaps Elizabeth Freeman was Tom Burghardt's mother-in-law).  Nonetheless, one cannot blame DuBois for wanting to claim Freeman as an ancestor, because she is an exceptional figure.   

Elizabeth Freeman
Born into slavery and known as "Mumbet," or sometimes just "Bett," the woman who would later choose to rename herself Elizabeth Freeman was given to John and Hannah Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts in her early teens. During her enslavement to the Ashleys, she had a child called Betsy. (It is Betsy who may have become the later life second wife of DuBois's ancestor Burghardt, but Betsy was not the mother of any of Burghardt's children, and therefore no relation to DuBois.)

In 1780, Hannah Ashley struck at Betsy with a heated shovel.  Bett intervened, shielded her daughter, and receive the blow intended for Betsy.  This resulted in a deep wound on her arm that left her scarred for life.  She later said, "I had a bad arm all winter, but Madam had the worst of it. I never covered the wound, and when people said to me, before Madam, 'Betty, what ails your arm?' I only answered,  'ask missis!'" 

Around the same time, Bett heard the Massachusetts Constitution read aloud, either at a public gathering in Sheffield, or perhaps at a meeting John Ashley held in his home.  These words from Article 1 captured her imagination:

“All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

Inspired, she sought out Theodore Sedgwick, a Stockbridge attorney and abolitionist, to represent her as she sued for her freedom under the newly ratified state constitution. The case was heard in the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in August 1781.  When the jury ruled in Bett’s favor, she became the first African American woman to be set free under the Massachusetts constitution.  Her case, Brom and Bett v. Ashley, served as precedent in the State Supreme Court case that brought an end to the practice of slavery in Massachusetts.

After Freeman won the lawsuit, the Ashley family asked her to return to work for them for wages, but she refused.  Instead she was employed by Thomas Sedgwick as governess to his children.  Additionally, she became a well known midwife in Stockbridge, and a practitioner of the healing arts.  When the Sedgwick children were all grown, Freeman retired and moved to her own house in Stockbridge near Betsy, and Betsy's children.  

Catherine Maria Sedgwick
One of Sedgwick's daughters was the popular novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick, who remained devoted to her old caregiver, and wrote about her.  When Freeman died, Catherine Sedgwick arranged for her to be buried in the Sedgwick family plot in the Stockbridge Cemetery, in a section called "The Sedgwick Pie" because of its shape and layout.  Freeman is the only non-family member interred there. 

Catherine Sedgwick composed Freeman's epitaph, which reads, 

"ELIZABETH FREEMAN, also known by the name of MUMBET died Dec. 28th 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly thirty years; She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell."

Fun facts:  When Freeman's story was told in the animated children's series Liberty's Kids, her voice was provided by actress Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Among the modern-day descendants of the Sedgwicks are actresses Edie Sedgwick (of  Warhol Factory fame) and Edie's cousin Kyra Sedgwick (one degree from her husband, actor Kevin Bacon).

Interesting Legacy: A women's shelter in Berkshire County, Massachusetts that serves victims of domestic violence is called the Elizabeth Freeman Center in honor of Freeman's spirit of righteousness.   

Elizabeth Freeman's headstone in the "Sedgwick Pie" at Stockbridge Cemetery.

UPDATE, April 3, 2018:  It has been announced that Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer ("The Help," "The Shape of Water, "Hidden Figures") will serve as Executive Producer of a feature film about Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman.  The screenplay, tentatively titled "Mumbet," is by Stephen Glantz, and is based on the book “A Free Woman on God’s Earth” by Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes. Casting has not been announced, but Ms. Spencer seems a good choice to play Elizabeth Freeman.