2 February 2024

Heather Freund's Visit to the Boston Archives

By Heather Freund.

I presented at the Empire and its Discontent Conference December 1-2 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Before the conference, I took advantage of the opportunity to use the MHS’s collections. The MHS contains “diaries, letters, and other personal papers of individuals and families, as well as the records of institutions and organizations that document the history of Massachusetts and the nation.”[i] While you may wonder what Massachusetts has to do with Caribbean history, many people from North America went to the Caribbean. These included people looking for a fresh start, younger sons from large families trying to make their way in the world, and those wanting to make their fortune. The papers held at the MHS reveal personal perspectives rather than the positive or dramatic spin that colonial officials sometimes put on crises in correspondence with their home governments. I was interested in two sets of papers at the MHS: those of Samuel Cary and Mather Byles. Both were originally from Massachusetts and both ended up in Grenada.


Massachusetts Historical Society.


I was glad for the opportunity to finally get to Boston to look at the Samuel Cary papers. They have been well-explored by Susan Clair Imbarrato in her book, Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada, but I was interested less in the management of the family and more in the management of the Carys’ plantations, particularly the enslaved people who worked on them. Samuel Cary (1742-1812), of Charlestown, Massachusetts, first went to St. Kitts (St. Christopher) in 1764, right after the end of the Seven Years’ War. There he developed contacts and gained experience managing plantations before relocating to Grenada, which had just been taken from the French. His wife Sarah moved to Grenada in 1772, leaving their first child, Samuel Jr., a mere three months old, with his maternal grandparents. The couple had twelve more children and lived full time in Grenada, aside from visits to England and Boston. This made them different from British absentee planters, who lived in Britain and had managers running their estates. Samuel was such a manager for the Simon estate. In looking at the Cary papers, I hoped to find commentary on the prevalence of marronage (enslaved people who fled their bondage) in his part of the island and on Grenada more generally. I did not find much on this, unfortunately. But the papers do contain a lot of material on plantation management, which is useful when trying to contextualize the lives of the enslaved. While plantation ownership and the management of enslaved laborers had similarities across British islands, Grenada differed from most other islands in the British Caribbean in that much of the free and enslaved population remained French-speaking long after the British took possession of the island.


Accounts of Samuel Cary, 1798.


In Grenada, Cary was involved in planting sugar and dispensed advice on plantership. He managed the Simon plantation, a sugar estate, and owned Mount Pleasant estate, which was a coffee estate, but he eventually converted it to sugar.[ii] In addition to insights regarding the operation of a plantation in the Windward Islands, Cary’s letters provide a rare glimpse of life under French occupation (1779-1783) during the American Revolution. After the island was returned to the British, he noted people leaving for Trinidad, a Spanish island that recruited French Catholic settlers with promises of land.[iii] In April 1790, the oldest two Cary children, Samuel (1773-1810) and Margaret (1775-1868), arrived from England, where they had been educated, as would all the Cary children. Young Samuel spoke French fluently, which would have been useful on the island in transacting business with the French population. He also knew Spanish, which would be useful when trading with Trinidad. When Samuel Cary Sr. left Grenada in 1791 to return home to Massachusetts, he left Mt. Pleasant in the hands of his son. It was a tumultuous time. Samuel Jr. was on the island during the massive revolt led by free man of color Julien Fédon, and joined by over 7000 enslaved people. Father, mother, and son exchanged letters about the insurrection and the general unrest in the region. Samuel fought in the militia and defended the family estate. He went to England at some point, returning in 1799, then joined by his brother Lucius. Both young men took advantage of the British occupation of French Martinique during the Napoleonic Wars to transact business. They sold the family plantation in 1809 and invested in Demerara, newly captured by the British from the Dutch. We see through one family the connectivity of the Atlantic World and connections within Grenada through their business dealings. We also see how planters moved on from what Barry Higman has called ‘second phase colonies’ (Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, Tobago) to ‘third phase colonies’ (e.g. Trinidad, Demerara, Berbice, Essequibo, St. Lucia).

The smaller set of papers I went through were for Mather Byles III (1764-1802), who was Commissary General at Grenada and Lieutenant Governor Ninian Home’s personal secretary. In these papers, I most wanted to learn of his time as the governor’s secretary, as Home was one of the original British settlers in the island, and had been a mostly resident planter and major figure in island politics. Byles was from a Loyalist family, some of whom relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, after 1783. His father, Mather Byles Jr., was a clergyman. Most of Mather III’s letters are to his family there. He seems to have gone to Grenada in 1789. He eventually married Mary Bridgewater, daughter of Grenada’s attorney general, and had a family. He mostly seems to have been engaged in business such as bookkeeping. Like Cary, he commented on the upheaval during Fédon’s Rebellion and the use of Black troops in it, but not nearly as much. In all likelihood, the letters simply do not survive. There is little of his time serving as the lieutenant governor’s secretary, though Home was taken hostage at the beginning of Fédon’s Rebellion and later executed by the insurgents. As often happens in historical research, the documents did not reveal what I hoped. Byles’s papers nonetheless show connections within the Caribbean and Atlantic World and offer another perspective from the island during the events of Fédon’s Rebellion and the French Revolution.

Digitized sources have made archival research convenient and more accessible, especially when they are keyword searchable. But they cannot replace the experience of sitting in a quiet reading room and immersing yourself in an old volume or opening up archival boxes and folders and reading letters between family members. Seldom do we have both sides of a correspondence. Sitting in an archive or research library and reading (and photographing) is the fun part of being a historian for me, and the MHS is a lovely place to work. My week concluded with a great conference, where papers mostly focused on empire in colonial North America, but I was pleased to see the Caribbean well represented. The small, collegial conference included both early career and established scholars. I presented a paper on “The Proclamation of 1763 in the Caribbean.” A keynote panel: “Could the Empire be Saved?” featured Serena Zabin, Patrick Griffin, and Christopher Brown. It all made for a great week in Boston.



[i] Massachusetts Historical Society, “Our Collection,” https://www.masshist.org/collections, accessed 31 January 2024.

[ii] Imbarrato, Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada, 55.

[iii] Samuel Cary papers, 1784-1790, 1789 folder.