Archives Bring History of St. Kitts and Nevis to Life

Image of the original Customs Building, Basseterre which later became the Former Treasury Building

St. Kitts, April 17, 2010 (SKNIS): The National Archives of St. Kitts and Nevis will present the inscription of the local Registry of Slaves into the UNESCO Memory of the World as well as launch the “Basseterre Past and Present” website, after years of research, planning and submissions.

The ceremony will take place Tuesday, April 20, at the National ICT Centre at 2:00 p.m. The St. Kitts and Nevis Information Service spoke with Archivist Mrs. Victoria Borg-O’Flaherty about the upcoming event. She explained that together, Archivists from the region were able to meet the requirements to have their slave registries listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World. She described the listing as being equivalent to a UNESCO World Heritage Site registration but in this instance it is specific to records and libraries.

The Archivist explained that the Registry was a reaction to the 1817 abolition of the slave trade.

“The abolitionists were trying to make sure there was no smuggling of new slaves,” Mrs. O’Flaherty emphasized. “In St Kitts, the first one was in 1817. Following that, it was triennial – almost – there are some gaps up to 1834, when Emancipation came into effect and the former enslaved became apprentices.”

Image of 1803 view of Basseterre

Only the names of slaves were listed in the Registries but after some research some of the stories of certain slaves have been documented by Mrs. O’Flaherty. She mentioned one Betto Douglas who she described as an amazing woman. When in her 50s Betto applied for her freedom from Lord Romney the owner of the Romney Estate. The Estate Manager at the time, Mr. Goldfrap said that Betto’s freedom had been approved, however, he left before it could be granted. Betto continued as a slave and under the new manager Mr. Cardin, she was given the responsibility of caring for his children. However, one day when she was informed of an injury to her son, she left the children unattended for a while. This resulted in mistreatment from Mr. Cardin who placed her in the stocks for several months. One day when she was allowed to go to the river to bathe she ran away. Mrs. O’Flaherty enthused that Betto’s case had been used as evidence of injustice during the British campaign for Slave Emancipation.

Mrs. O’Flaherty also mentioned Marcus of the Woods who ran away from Cunningham Estate, Cayon, and joined by other slaves he took up headquarters around the Stone Fort area, creating what could be termed the Maroons of St. Kitts. They would occasionally raid the plantations for food and supplies.

“The listing of the Registry is important for a number of reasons,” Mrs. O’Flaherty outlined. “Mainly because it will help us get conservation funding to have the Registry restored and also because it is a critical document in the history of St. Kitts. This was the first time that the enslaved were completely listed.”

“In terms of the website, we can see the different changes in Basseterre over the years coming through,” Mrs. O’Flaherty said. “We have lots of images from our collection, clippings from newspapers, lots of articles which are all going to be made available online. All this is material we collected and researched for earlier exhibitions and we think its time to get it out there for the public to use.”

Image of 1900s view of a developing Basseterre

The website will have documented stories based on localities or local heritage sites in Basseterre. Archivist O’Flaherty outlined that personalities linked with the history of Basseterre included Maria Riddell, the daughter of Governor Woodley who wrote a short description of Basseterre as it was in 1792. Ms. Riddell was connected to Robert Burns the Poet Laureate of Scotland. The Archivist noted that Ms. Ridel’s writing appeared to be describing a village rather than a town.

There are also stories of Government House temporarily housing an Archdeacon who was known for his unfulfilled promises of marriage. Sometime following his departure, the same dwelling was used to contain an overflow of recovering cholera patients, from the Cunningham Hospital.

“The Basseterre site has helped us find out why places are important,” Mrs. O’Flaherty stated. “We need to know what caused people to behave the way they did at different points in time. It’s a chance for children to explore and even play around because we have games on it. Students can look at original documents without having to physically visit the Archives. I think that knowing your history instills a certain amount of pride, it did that for me in Malta (where I grew up) and I am hoping that it will work the same way with children growing up here as well.”

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