Under the Deep Blue of Moonlight

If, like me, you are interested in film, then you have probably already seen Moonlight. If you haven’t, then I suspect you will be hearing a lot more about it in the near future – and not only during awards season, but in years to come.

Moonlight chronicles the life of a young boy named Chiron (nicknamed “Little” and “Black” at different points in his life) as he grows up in a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in Miami. In three chapters – from childhood, adolescence, and finally, adulthood – we see Chiron tread the murky waters of identity and isolation, navigating his differences as he tries to find his place in the world.

Visually stunning and poignantly poetic, Moonlight already has a few things to be proud of, including: box office success, top ratings, and several awards.

Some say it is a film of many ‘firsts‘: The first Black filmmaker to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture (Barry Jenkins), the first Academy Award nomination of a Black woman for film editing (Joi McMillon), and some say, it could be the first ‘LGBTQ’ film to win Best Picture, not to mention a ‘Black LGBTQ’ film.

While these are all impressive achievements and certainly indicate a step in the right direction for (American) award ceremonies (re: the #OscarsSoWhite outrage just last year), I do not wish to dwell too much on these formal declarations of excellence, but rather on the cinematic artistry and social underpinnings that are really at the heart of Moonlight’s achievement.

Moonlight is more than a “queer love story” or a well-done “black movie,” as it has been labeled in headlines and award season chatter — though it is also very much a well-done black, queer love story …

“The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story” (McCraney quoted in Anderson, “L.A. Times”)

Moonlight was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

This title also works its way into the film’s dialogue, spoken by a drug dealer turned father figure to young Chiron, or “Little,” as he is called during this chapter of his life. It was a line that stuck with me long after I left the theatre.

In moonlight black boys look blue.

It’s probably under the moonlight that we see that black boys can be blue, can be sad and sullen and intimate … It’s under starlight that we see them differently, or that we get the chance to.

Because we rarely see ourselves in those hues or under that gauze. We see ourselves in the harsh police light or the amber of street lights, but what is it when the reflection of the sun in the moon is sitting on these bodies. What beauty can we see? (McCraney in “L.A. Times”)

Bodies under light. Bodies under watchful eyes.

The body is the place of captivity (Brand 35).

In thinking of bodies, I think again to Dionne Brand, who says, “the Black body is one of the most regulated bodies in the Diaspora” (37).

How then, does moonlight affect this bodily captivity? How does it reject regulation?

As McCraney argues, Black boys are used to seeing themselves under the flashing lights of cop cars, or under the urban artificiality of street lights. But what of the deep, natural, blue of moonlight? Can this help ‘denaturalize’ the overregulation of Black bodies?

Under moonlight, bodies change. Beings change.

In the film, some of Chiron’s most pivotal moments occur under moonlight. In a way, it is when Chiron is under that cloak of blue that he really starts to accept himself. He can begin to embrace his differences while defying other people’s definitions and expectations of who he should be.

Whether he is “Little,” “Black,” or “Chiron,” under the moonlight, he can just be.

This self which is unobservable is a mystery. It is imprisoned in the observed. It is constantly struggling to wrest itself from the warp of its public ownerships. Its own language is plain yet secret. Rather, obscured (Brand 51).

What I also noticed, however, was that where there was moonlight, there was often water. The beach, for one, becomes a particularly significant setting for Chiron’s personal growth.

The beach: where water meets land, and where man is caught somewhere in between. Between the rolling waves and the sinking sand, it is a transformative space – between beginnings and endings, there are becomings.

In a way, moonlight reflects most strongly alongside bodies of water. Blues become bluest between sky and water, away from the neon lights of urban life.

And blue, too, are bodies by water.

I’m thinking of one particular shot where we see “Little” standing alone, shirtless, staring out into the water. The blue of the moon reaches from the sky, tinting the waves as they roll forwards and backwards, and finally casting its cerulean colour across Chiron’s bare shoulders.


“Little” (Alex Hibbert) in Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016

The sea would forever be larger than me. My eyes hit only its waist. I saw a wave’s belly looking backwards. I saw froth rolling toward my feet as the sea moved into my spot on the beach. It always came in a jagged circle, frothing and steaming. It reduced all life to unimportant random meaning. Only we were changing and struggling, living as if everything was urgent, feeling – the ocean was bigger than feeling (Brand 11-12).

Against the sea, one life might seem small, perhaps powerless, in comparison. But when you see “Little” standing along the shore, he is not diminished.

Although the sea is at once threatening, it is also transformative. It holds potential – both positive and negative. Caught between the sand and the waves, Chiron acknowledges the formidable nature of the sea.

Formidable, but not insurmountable.

Chiron’s place in the world might not be clear – caught between acceptance and isolation, between protection and persecution, between conformity and conflict. But one’s life is never truly little, even against a seemingly endless saltwater horizion. What is one’s life, if not for one’s becomings? There is no destination without a journey. And in Moonlight, the journey becomes the destination (Brand 203).

Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water (Brand 6).

Under the deep blue of moonlight, we see bodies differently.

We see beauty.

Or more importantly, under moonlight, we get the chance to.



Anderson, Tre’vell. “Before the buzz began on ‘Moonlight,’ the coming-of-age story           started with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-moonlight-playwright-tarell-mccraney-20161017-snap-story.html.

Berman, Eliza. “Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First.” Time, http://time.com/4656493/moonlight-barry-jenkins-interview/.

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins. A24, 2016.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

[caution: image-rich post ahead!]

Middelburg, the capital city of Zeeland located on the southwestern island of Walcheren, seduced me from the moment I stepped off the train in 2014. It didn’t matter that it was grey and rainy. It didn’t matter that my hotel room felt a bit like a cheap remake of a late nineteenth-century boudoir (the staff were lovely, it was clean, and the breakfast was lovely, I should add). What mattered was that Middleburg drew me in. It enticed me. It beckoned. It puts its arm around me and said, “Come with me and let me whisper some secrets into your ear.”


I was there for only three days, to spend time with the archives of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, a commodity-trading company turned slave-trading company active in the eighteenth century. And so I spent most of my days indoors at the Zeeuws Archief, handling the most traditional of archival materials: historical documents that outlined the inner workings of the slave trade. But before the archives opened, and after they closed, I explored the streets of this city of 48,000, eagerly following its seductive call….

When I think of archives, I think of paper documents; that is, I think of text and image and of the stories they transmit. But recently I’ve been considering archives of a very different sort. In early June 2016, I travelled back to Middelburg. This time I wasn’t there to focus on the paper documents (which are no longer accessible since the Zeeuws Archief digitized them all); I was there to hone in on the city and its stories.

Building on my visceral response to this place in 2014, I wanted my body to fully experience and understand this space. I wanted to consider the archives of space and place and how they interacted. What could town planning reveal? How might cobbled streets work to shape ways of knowing? What of the sound and feel of wooden shoes on cobblestones? What could I learn from the kinds of house-naming patterns? What could I glean from the distances between properties? Or the sizes of streets?

Further, what could I learn about the way that the slave trade and in relation to this, products from the Caribbean, shaped the not only the economic fortunes of the inhabitants of this place, but also its landscape: What of the offices? What of the homes with names that hearkened to Caribbean holdings? What of the vast storehouses into which products like sugar, coffee, and cocoa beans were loaded? What of the ever-increasing number of cocoa mills in town?

I needed to walk this place. I needed to feel it in my bones, my muscles, my tendons. I needed to feel the air, to smell it, to taste it. And to be honest, I needed to be seduced again.

And so I left my B&B in the morning and allowed my feet to take me where they felt like going. I turned right and then left and then wandered down an alleyway that caught my fancy….

And just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer.


the Kuiperspoort in the morning fog. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Looking the other way down the Kuiperspoort. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Later in the day when the fog lifted. Just because I had to go back and be there again. Photo: Sonja Boon

This is the Kuiperspoort, a group of sixteenth-century buildings that used to house the Coopers’ guild. Today, part of this row of buildings houses an art school and the Zeeuws Muziekschool. As I listened to students practicing, my body relaxed into familiar territory. This, I thought, I know.

And then I walked some more. And some more. I walked for eight hours straight. I listened to the town. I smelled it. I felt it underfoot. I listened for the whispers of ghosts. I mapped it into my body.

The city told me about weather, and about the damp that seeps through Middelburg. The cobbled stones are mossy, green. So, too is stonework.


Oosterkerk, back entrance. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


The fog didn’t lift until well into the morning, and while to a certain extent this felt familiar – June is, after all, fog season in St. John’s – it lasted longer, and instead of fog fingers moving in and out of the harbour, this was a damp but light fog that settled over the whole town, making it almost like a dreamspace – eerily quiet and never quite in focus.

Sound echoes in strange ways in the fog. The church bells ring on the quarter hour (pop-like songs, mostly, and played on a 50-year old carillon in a tower rebuilt after the war, so very different from what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Middelburgers would have heard, but the acoustics would have been very similar). I listened to echoes just out of sync but still remarkably resonant.

The city told me about the relationships between bodies and spaces. People were – and still are – close together. Many of the streets in the oldest parts of the town are narrow. This isn’t necessarily unusual for old European towns (and is certainly not unusual for The Netherlands), but Middelburg seems to have more than its fair share of streets that are really nothing more than glorified walking paths. There’s no way a car could even go through, let alone park. These are streets where your business was everyone’s business; privacy is a dream. The houses – and the people in them – are on top of each other.



And, while today, the city presents itself as a gracious, genteel place with a busy weekend marketplace with lots of cafés, it would have felt quite different went it was a busy town organized around maritime trade (including privateering, piracy, and the slave trade). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC) both had offices here, as did – later – the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC), and these companies employed many locals in a range of roles. So, too, would there have been local merchants, whose goods provisioned the ships, and seamen. Indeed, the MCC collection at the Zeeuws Archief gives insight into just how long the tentacles of these trading companies were. Middelburg would have been a bustling, busy, market-driven place.


VOC logo on a harbour front building that was once….

Along the grachten – or canals – there are grand houses that speak to the immense wealth in this area (especially during the seventeenth century). The houses rise, stately, three and even four storeys high.

And they are not shallow houses, but deep. Indeed, my own bed and breakfast, near the Dam, is a spacious place with stairs that go up and up and up and up past the family’s living quarters until you reach the top two B&B rooms, and even these are not fully in the attic area. These houses were built to make an impression, and an impression I’m sure they made.



So, too, did I get a bit of insight into the imaginative engagement with space through house-naming practices. House-naming was common in the era before house numbers, but fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century as numbers took over. But dedicated volunteers and researchers – in a project entitled “Huisnamen en documentatie van huizen in Middelburg” – have done much to revive the original names, and now many houses carry both a number and a name. These names, part of the material history of this place, can give us a bit of insight into the way that people thought, what they valued, and how their imaginations shaped their understandings of place and space. Looking for house names quickly became a game, and I found myself taking photo after photo after photo after photo, and wondering how and why certain names were chosen and how they related to the individuals who lived there, and to the houses themselves.

It would take a whole research project to work all of this out at a detailed level, but a few patterns emerged during my short visit.

First, real or fictional animals were a common theme – the city abounds with lions, chickens, cats and roosters.


The black cat.


The white turtledove


The turkey


The white rooster


On the left, The Playing Lion. On the right, The Skipper’s House



I even encountered a phoenix…



and a rooster on a horse!



So, too, did naming practices reference exotica: names recall Persia, Constantinople, pomegranate. And, of course, house names reference the slave trade and Zeeland’s economic interests overseas: “De Bogt Van Guinee” references the African Gold Coast. “Demerarij,” meanwhile, brings to mind Demerara and the cane sugar harvested there.



Some names are humorous. Thus, Groote Clocke house is right across the street from Kleyne Clocke house.

Other names are descriptive: the “house on the Spui Bridge,” for example, is – unsurprisingly – next to what was formerly a bridge.

One name, meanwhile, returned me right back to the world of eighteenth-century music.


While “Het Misverstand” – “The Misunderstanding” – could link me back to the seventeenth-century Carte de Tendre, my brain more immediately dropped into a musical frame of mind: gallant eighteenth-century French character pieces designed to flatter and tease the ear. I played many of these during my years as a professional early musician, and flatter my ears they definitely did.

Finally, the town’s buildings told me about the ubiquity of the slave trade in this part of Holland. The town’s core is littered with buildings directly linked to the various trading companies engaged in the transatlantic trade in commodities and humans: the WIC had offices here, as did the VOC. So, too, was the MCC – whose archives are listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register due to the thoroughness of their extant records – based here. Pakhuizen – storehouses – are still easy to locate.




Embedded above the door of the big storehouse above.



There is also physical evidence of the secondary industries that flourished as a result of these trading companies’ work. In the eighteenth century, Zeeland became known for its chocolate, and Middelburg proper had 12 cocoa mills processing Caribbean cocoa beans. While these mills have now disappeared, their stories remain in the landscape. It would be interesting to track down the addresses of other businesses whose fortunes were shaped by the slave trade: bakers, coopers, smiths, liquor merchants, textile merchants, and more.

By walking the town, I can get a sense of the distance between places. I can also think about smell and how it travelled in this town: what did a cocoa milling operation smell like, I wonder, and how did it operate? I can think about how sound travelled, and about the impossibility of a silent arrival on cobblestones. And I can think of a life shaped by the workings of the sea, on the one hand, and the regular tolling of the church bells on the other.

So, too, can I get a sense of the old harbour through which ships had to pass on their journeys out.


“Gezicht vanaf de Punt op de haven van Middelburg,” Jan Luyken, Johannes Meertens, Abraham van Someren, 1696. Illustratie uit: Smallegange, Mattheus. Nieuwe cronyk van Zeeland, eerste deel. Amsterdam en Middelburg: Abraham van Someren en Johannes Meertens, 1696. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.144017


Water – the rivers, the sea – remains an important part of Middelburg’s identity. The Saturday after I arrived was Watersportdag and the old harbour area – right next to the original VOC office building – was busy with activity, with people of all ages enjoying themselves on the water. Dutch beer tent music (or at least that’s what I call it!) blared from speakers and smoked fish was on sale.


Poems on building walls, with a large number of them in some way about the sea.


On the surface, Middelburg is a town that appears to exist outside of – or beyond – time. Consider, for example, this 1746 print of the Oosterkerk.


“Gezicht op de Oostkerk te Middelburg,” Jan Caspar Philips, Isaak Tirion, Staten van Holland en West-Friesland, 1746. Prent ook gebruikt als illustratie in: Boddaert, Pieter, e.a., Tegenwoordige staat der Vereenigde Nederlanden; negende deel, behelzende eene beschryving van Zeeland. Amsterdam: Isaak Tirion, 1751. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.164126


Now consider my own rendition (taken at closer range).


Apart from the people in eighteenth-century dress in the print and the cars and streetlamp in my photo, this view has not changed in over 250 years. Given that the church was built in the mid-seventeenth century (and that its construction had required the demolition of seventeen houses), this neighbourhood was already well established by the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to live in a town that had looked (virtually) the same for a century? And what might it mean for Middelburgers today that their vistas are almost exactly the same vistas seen and experienced by all those who have walked these streets over the last 350 years?

Middelburg has over 1100 registered heritage structures (take note, City of St. John’s). But this seemingly timeless city also carries its secrets. Bombed extensively during the Second World War, Middelburg had to rebuild much of its historic centre. These photos  show the extent of the devastation. But Middelburg rebuilt itself, and it followed the original plans so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.

The magnificent abbey, home to the Zeeuws Museum as well as other regional offices, was substantially damaged; the restoration is indistinguishable from the original.


Abdij van Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij in the rain, at the entrance to the Zeeuws Museum. Photo: Sonja Boon.n


The St. Joris Doelen, just next to the Abbey, was also almost fully destroyed.


St. Joris Doelen, Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it masquerades – at least to outsiders – as a gracious, late sixteenth-century structure, complete with its construction date. But as the immediate post-war photos reveal, its building history is much more complex.


St. Joris Doelen in the sun, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


St. Joris Doelen in the rain, 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

Middelburg is not, therefore, the timeless, untouched place it seems to be. Its façade, although seductive, is deceptive. There are many, many stories behind the varnished beauty of the Vermeer painting of the city.

After two days of walking and thinking and writing, I know more about this city and its stories. I would have to stay much longer to find all of its nooks and crannies. But I can better situate my conventional archival materials; I know how these texts and images fit into the bigger picture. I can build connections between the various merchants commissioned to provision ships. I can imagine how people lived in relation to one another, and how they moved through this town – from the squares, to the churches, and down the narrow streets. I can begin to envision the shape of the slave trade in this place.

Middelburg continues to bewitch; it continues to seduce. And like an eager suitor, I welcome the seduction.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016  sboon @ mun.ca



“Gros Morne Lookout Trail’ (2016) by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

“We have no maps without the maps that came before. Lift one map of the body
and find another. Navigating back. Mapping through.”

Barrie Jean Borich, Body Geographic, 71.

 “All maps tell stories: the story their maker intended and the story they tell
about their making – that is, how, why, what purpose they served and their impact.”

Judith A. Tyner,
Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, 6)

 Years ago, as a grade 6 student learning Canadian geography, I remember telling my teacher that I could easily remember Quebec because “it looks like a witch.” This was no negative statement towards Quebec, I’ll hasten to add. As a child, I loved witches and all things ghoulish, and I could find them in all sorts of places…including, apparently, a map of Canada. Years later, during the Quebec referendum of 1995, I wondered how that map might change should Quebec have received a mandate to separate. Would the whole witch disappear from the map of Canada? Or would there be a re-partitioning? What would this new map look like, and what story – and stories – might it tell?

Thanks to the questions of a probing graduate student (thanks, Laura!), I’ve been thinking a lot about space and how space operates on a ship. The Ship’s Logs at the Maritime History Archive mark space and time with precision, notating the exact date and time alongside specific geographic coordinates. While some locations can easily be fixed – Isle of St. Helena, for example, or River Hooghly, or Cape of Good Hope – others, in the middle of the Atlantic, cannot. Here, the Master resorts to measurements, notating the numbers that mark points on the invisible grid that organizes ocean spaces. In this sense, the coordinates can provide comfort; security in a space otherwise almost completely devoid of conventional place markers. If I wanted to, I could – like researchers working out of the Zeeuws Archief – plot a ship’s journey almost perfectly.

Such projects are fascinating, in that, much like the Flight Aware app that my teenage son obsesses over, they can reveal much about how ships moved through space. But such mapping projects can’t tell us about what happened in that space, not really, anyway.

Maps, as numerous scholars have observed, are representations that reveal much more about the beholder than they do about what they purport to represent. As Jeremy Black writes, “A map is a show, a representation. What is shown is real, but that does not imply completeness or entail any absence of choice in selection and representation” (11). Why is the global South comparatively small? Why is Europe at the centre? Why are Australia and New Zealand down at the bottom? Why, on an English-language map, is the Faroe Islands spelled in the Danish way, rather than the Faroese way? How did Quebec come to look like a witch? How come Alberta looks like a piece of sliced cheese with a corner crumbled off? And why didn’t Indigenous territories make the cut? All of these represent choices, and each of these choices can reveal something about the map’s creators, and further, about the map’s intended audience.


“The Romantic Archipelago,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

The map on my older son’s wall, pilfered from a stash of wall maps abandoned in a hallway by a retiring professor, shows major shipping routes around the world. The ‘world’ itself looks geographically similar, at least on the surface, to the ‘world’ I see on contemporary maps. But over the last half century since the map was produced, borders and boundaries have shifted, countries have appeared and disappeared, names have changed and, in some cases, changed back again.

A map on a New Zealand friend’s wall told a very different story: here the map was, to my eyes, upside down. I don’t have access to that particular map anymore, but similar maps are easily searchable online. Centering New Zealand/Aotearoa where the map I’ve grown up with centers Europe, it has the South Pole on top and the North Pole at the bottom. Where the map I’ve grown up with centers the Atlantic Ocean, this one centers the Pacific. North America has taken on – in a curious way – the contours of South America, its tail stretching down towards the Arctic. I look once. I look twice. And I have to keep looking again and again and again, my coordinates undone by this process of unmapping and remapping.

The colonial maps of Suriname with rectangular strips along all the rivers, tell stories of land claims, plantations, and colonial power. They tell, too, of different waves of settlement: plantations with Dutch names clustered along one river; those as yet unclaimed, and which would later have English names proliferating along another.


Alexander de Lavaux, Landkaart (van Suriname). twee aan elkaar geplakte bladen, ingekleurde gravure; de plantages aan de verschillende rivieren staan aangegeven. Links en rechts: kolom met de “Naamlijst der Eigenaars van de Plantagien”, totaal 519 nummers. L.b.: Kaart van de wijdere omgeving van het gebied. l.m.: cartouche met de schaal. r.b.: cartouche met de titel en het wapen van Suriname. Gesigneerd; rechts boven in cartouche. Amsterdam, 1737-1757. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain. http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.262962


But maps have not only told stories of physical and political geography. They’ve also revealed intimate geographies. The Carte de Tendre that accompanied Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century novel, Clélie (and later reproduced by many other members of the French intelligentsia), for example, revealed the various waypoints along the journey from new friendship towards intimate friendship or love (tendre). Obedience. Constancy. Sincerity. Care. Generosity – all of these are marked on the map. But so too are the possible dangers: Perfidity. Inequality. Indifference. Negligence. Indiscretion. This maps lays out the complexities of social relationships, and the care that one must take in order to nurture them.

Mapping – as process – has also served pedagogical purposes. In a 2015 book, Judith A. Tyner examines the little known history of map samplers and needlepoint globes, considering these projects not as scientific tools to be used by voyagers, but rather, as pedagogical tools designed to teach geography. As a scientific tool, a map’s purpose lies in its completion; that is, the map as finished product. The map as a pedagogical tool, however, gains its purpose from the process; that is, it becomes meaningful only the making or doing of geography, in the mapping process itself. Here, Tyner makes an important distinction between using and creating maps, a point that she then develops as she considers the role of map-making to girls’ education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

An artist friend of mine, Bettina Matzkuhn – whose work visually maps this whole blog post (thanks, Bettina!) – has spent many years working with maps: geographical maps, bike routes, body maps, and more. Each of her embroidered maps tells a story, but none of them maps mere geography. She’s mapped her bike route to work, complete with the various characters and scenery that she encounters along the way.


“Commute,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photograph by Bettina Matzkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

She’s mapped a suffering body, offering viewers a heat map that identifies points of pain. More recently, in a  tribute to a mother who is losing her memory, she’s developed a work that brings geography and memory together, telling the stories of their family boat travels in and out of the small harbours and coves along British Columbia’s west coast.


“A childhood in Howe Sound,” by Bettina Matzkuhn (bettinamatzkuhn.ca). Photo by Bettina Matkuhn. Permission granted by the artist.

But Bettina’s maps are not restricted to the terrestrial. A project undertaken with a weather specialist has seen her map weather, with embroidery, music, text and video. You can watch The Zoology of Weather here.

So, too, has Barrie Jean Borich taken up a more metaphorical engagement with the idea of geography. In her memoir, Body Geographic, Borich considers the body itself as geography, a “geography of memory” (5). As she writes:

Maps obscure more than they reveal because their flatness is contrary to the layered experience of living. Maps are representational, but life is lived in the body, is dimensional, has voice and history. So every map can’t help but contain other maps, areas of detail requiring special attention, even when the insets don’t show. The body, my body, is a stacked atlas of memory. If we think the idle of our lives are flat we mistake surface for substance. (7)

Space, geographer Doreen Massey has observed, can be understood as a “meeting up of histories” (qtd. in Goeman 5). It is “a product of interrelations,” a “[sphere] of possibilities,” “always under construction,” and “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (qtd. in Goeman 5-6). Space, therefore, is a site of contestation, collaboration, struggle, dialogue, resistance…. Like the maps that result from these encounters, space is itself inherently political. As Mishuana Goeman observes, “Ultimately, we must question our mental and material maps” (204).

In a poignant episode near the end of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the heroine, Aminata Diallo, finds herself in a map room at Government House in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

From the portfolio marked Guinea, I removed the first map and spread it out on a table with two burning candles. It showed the typical painting of half-dressed African men and naked African women, usually with baboons and elephants nearby.

Reaching again into the Guinea portfolio, I pulled out a piece of paper with flower handwriting: “Copied from On Poetry: A Rhapsody, by Jonathan Swift, 1733.” And then I found the lines:

So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o’er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

Elephants for want of towns. I found it comforting to know that nearly sixty years earlier, before I was ever born, Swift had expressed the very thing I was feeling now. These weren’t maps of Africa. In the ornate cartouches of elephants and of women with huge breasts that rose in unlikely salute, every stroke of paint told me that the map-mapers had little to say about my land.

These maps do not tell Aminata Diallo’s story; they cannot capture how she organized and understood her world. These are the stories of European colonizers and slave traders, the same people who would put African women in travelling exhibitions (and later, after their deaths, thoroughly examine and then preserve their bodies) and set up human zoos in the centers of their cities.

Can we learn to see differently? Can we make different maps? Imagine new ways of organizing our worlds?



Black, Jeremy., Maps and Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Borich, Barrie Jean. Body Geographic. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Electronic book, ca. 2010. Accessed via Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries

Tyner, Judith A. Stitching the World: Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education. Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2015.


With deepest thanks to Bettina Matzkuhn for sharing her artwork – and her thinking about maps!

Embroidered Images © Bettina Matzkuhn.
Text © Sonja Boon.





Something happened aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. But what?

I started my explorations with a short news article in the 15 February 1874 edition of the Algemeen Handelsblad (delpher.nl) about a disturbance aboard the Kate Kellock in late 1873. Now, a few months later, I’ve found myself down a rabbit hole of my own making….

There are at least four accounts of unrest aboard the Kate Kellock in December 1873. One from the ship’s Master, George H. A. Bevan, as written in the Ship’s Log currently housed in the UK National Archives. One from Edmund Fremantle, a Royal Navy officer called upon to convene an inquiry, as published in his memoirs. One from Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, the Surgeon Superintendent aboard the ship, as articulated in documents held in the National Archives of India and cited by Anil Persaud. And one included in the Dutch colonial archives, as referenced by Rajinder Bhagwanbali.

Four accounts. Some overlap. But still, several distinct stories:

The Surgeon Superintendent incited the emigrants to mutiny by “telling them that [the Master] had no power or command over them” (Bevan)

The emigrants believed that “their throats would be cut and that they would be thrown overboard” once they arrived in Suriname (Fremantle; also in Bevan)

The Third Officer, one John Evans, seduced two women emigrants (“Bnef van de gouverneur van Suriname aan de minister van koloniën,” Dutch National Archives, referenced in Bhagwanbali)

Crew members “were pelting [emigrants] with bones” on Christmas Eve (“Conduct of Dr. Bepin Behari Dutt, Surgeon Superintendent of the ship “Kate Kellock,” bound with emigrants from Calcutta to Surinam,” National Archives of India, quoted in Persaud)

The Surgeon Superintendent misappropriated ship stores, causing drunkenness among crew and emigrants (Bevan).

But which story is true?
Will we ever know?
Do ‘the facts’ actually matter?

Or is this range of stories more interesting for what it might reveal about the complexity of colonial encounters in the intimate spaces of emigrant ships?

In the end, the Surgeon Superintendent, Bepin Behari Dutt, an Edinburgh-trained doctor born in Calcutta, was expelled from the ship and sent back to the UK, and from that point on, all Surgeon Superintendents travelling on emigrant ships were to be European.

Today, over 140 years later, only the avalanche of paperwork – now housed in archives in three different countries – remains.


Works Cited

Bevan, George H.A. “Official Log Book #1” Catalogue Reference: BT 99/1016
National Archives, UK.

Bhagwanbali, Rajinder. “Contracten voor Suriname: Arbeidsmigratie vanuit Brits Indië onder het indentured-labour stelsel, 1873-1916,” PhD thesis. Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1996.

Fremantle, Edmund. The Navy As I Have Known It, 1849-1899. London: Cassell & Co., 1904.

Klerk, C.J.M de. De Immigratie der Hindostanen in Suriname by C.J.M de Klerk, Amsterdam: Urbi et ORbi, 1953.

Persaud, Anil. “The problem of origin: the politics of indigeneity in post- 1830′ British Guiana.” PhD thesis. Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2007.



© Sonja Boon, 2016
sboon @ mun.ca


birth on board

birth on board

It was Christmas on Tuesday.

Well, not really, but it felt like it because of an email I received: 85 pages of scanned materials from the UK National Archives, all relating to the 1873-4 voyage of the Kate Kellock, a journey of 11 months from Liverpool to Calcutta to Suriname to New York and then back to Liverpool. I’ve already been working with the Dutch colonial immigration records relating to this voyage, tracing the stories of those who sailed on this ship on their way to take up indenture contracts in Suriname (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). I’ve read through the records of the Kate Kellock housed here in St. John’s, at the Maritime History Archive. I’ve also tracked the Kate Kellock in newspaper records in The Netherlands and Australia.

But this is different. This is the ship that two of my ancestors sailed on. And these records – the Log Book and Crew Agreement – can give me insight into the nature of the journey itself. This is my chance to see what happened on board; to consider the ecology of the ship.

I’ve only barely had a chance to look at them (buried as I am in grading and meetings), but here’s one tidbit that I discovered…


From reading the colonial immigration records, I had already been struck by the number of births aboard the ship. I’d wondered about what it was like to travel while heavily pregnant, and then, to labour and deliver on a ship, far from home; indeed, in many instances, far from land. I had wondered what this might have been like: Who attended these births? Where did they take place? Was the ship’s doctor involved? Were other women indenturees present? What kinds of rituals accompanied such deliveries? And how might those involved have imagined the newborn’s connection to place and space, given that they were likely very far from land? I’d also considered a question put to me by a graduate student at a recent colloquium – how would time itself have been experienced and imagined aboard the ship?

The Agreement and Account of Crew required the Ship’s Master to enter the following information into the Birth Record: Date of Birth, Name of Child, Sex, Christian and Surname of Father, Name and Maiden Surname of Mother, and Profession or Occupation of Father. These categories are themselves interesting in terms of what they reveal about British understandings of family and respectability at the time, but these aren’t yet the focus of my thoughts…rather, right now I’m interested in the babies themselves.

Seven babies were born during the 11 month voyage of the Kate Kellock, six girls and one boy. Of these, six – all girls – were born to British Indian indenturees between October 1873 and January 1874. Two died very soon after birth: one was premature and the other is listed as dying of starvation.

But what of that final baby – a boy – the one born to someone other than an indenturee? Who gave birth to this child? And what happened to him?

This final child, name “None Yet Given,” was the son of the ship’s master, George H. A. Bevan, delivered by his wife on February 7, 1874.


I knew that wives sometimes travelled with their husbands; after all the 1878 wreck report for the Kate Kellock makes specific mention of the Master – Charles Ricker – and his wife, both of whom were praying below deck as things went awry. It also mentions the Master’s child. But none of the other records of the Kate Kellock that I have accessed make any mention of women other than the “emigrants” or “coolies.” Would Bevan’s wife have been mentioned at all if she hadn’t given birth?

More to explore… I just need to get the grading and meetings out of the way…


© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016


the heart of the past

the heart of the past



St. John’s in the early morning light (July 2014). Newfoundland – and St. John’s, Bonavista, and Trinity in particular – figure in Alison Light’s Common People. And so I’m adding visual interest to this post by including photos of these three places. Photo: Sonja Boon.

“She lifts another letter. She is hungry not for the past’s facts but for its heart”
(Beth Powning, The Hatbox Letters, 128)

Over the past few months, I’ve been a (very long distance) part of the new Storying the Past (#storypast) initiative, a virtual, Twitter-based reading group that exists to consider the ways that history with a capital H might be written. #storypast folks (are we members? I’m not sure…) read on their own, and then, on a given day, comment on the book via Twitter. For the March 2016 installment, both a Twitter and live event as part of the Social History Society Conference at Lancaster University, we read Alison Light’s book Common People. While I was reading Common People, I also had my nose in Beth Powning’s 2005 novel, The Hatbox Letters, one of the (many) books I’d picked up at the great CFUW used book sale.

On the surface, there is little that unites Beth Powning’s novel and Alison Light’s non-fiction bestseller. One is a fictional retelling of a journey through and with grief, woman’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her husband. The other, meanwhile, uses family history as a basis for telling a much broader history of Britain’s “common people” over the last two centuries. One was written by a novelist and memoirist living in Atlantic Canada. And the other by a scholar living in Britain.


The view from Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. July 2015. Photo: Sonja Boon

And yet I found myself reading the books through one another, and using both to think through my own research.

Both are interested in the past, and in the stories the past might tell. Both are interested in historical documents. Both are interested in memory and its relationship to truth. And both are constructed through a connection to place. But they comment on this in different ways.

Beth Powning’s novel appeared in 2003 to lavish praise. The work is reflective and introspective, as the main character Kate Harding, works through the grief of losing her husband. As part of her journey, she decides to look through a series of hatboxes, bequeathed to her by her family, and in them she finds a treasure trove of archival artefacts, including letters and a diary. Over the course of a next several months, she reads these items, and slowly, piece by piece, reconstructs a hidden family grief that mirrors her own – a lost love from a century past.

Alison Light, appears on the surface to follow a similar method: she grows up hearing family stories and later, much later, uses historical documents to piece together the past. However, Lights’ goal is different. She uses her own family history – the genealogy of names and dates and locations – as a way of charting the broader terrain of a specific social and economic class. In this way, Light locates family history – often spoken disparagingly about by ‘real’ historians – within social history, and makes meaning out of the endless dates and details that fascinate family historians and genealogists by weaving them together with the family lore she grew up with. After all, as she writes, “…tall tales are emotional truths as revealing as the census. The facts of life, however shocking, may convey very little; they are flat and drained, the feeling has haemorrhaged from them” (130). What becomes quickly clear in this book about ‘common people’ – this book constructed out of facts turned into life stories – is how very fickle fortune was – economic security was elusive and, if ultimately achieved, fleeting. [1]


Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

The documents that form the basis of these two books – Powning’s Kate reads letters and a journal while Light works with broader scale population-based documents – lend themselves to different treatments; it is, after all, challenging to find the intimacy in a census record. But that’s not to say that Light’s version of “memory,” if you will, is less lively. In one scene of her book, she takes us on a tour of a particular neighbourhood, pointing to all the different kinds of work people on the street did, and how it all might have fit together. What emerges is a rich, lively story that, while it doesn’t reveal the inner workings of a single family, gives much insight into the nature of a community at a given period of time. While what remains in the archival record are largely impersonal documents, the stories that emerge are those of people who lived, loved, and died in webs of social relations; that is, these are intimate stories of everyday life lived in community. This aspect – the broader community history – is not possibly with the documents that Powning’s Kate Harding explores. Her narrator ‘s documents promote intimacy, in sometime illusory ways, and through them the narrator imagines family scenes, emotions, and feeling.

And yet, both works offer intriguing meditations on the past and the stories and myths we construct around that past. Light’s voice is largely that of an historian whose fictionalizing instinct is tempered by her ethical responsibility to her research subjects. “Every census starts a story,” she writes. “Not for the first time I feel the urge to fictionalize these people, these Edwardians. How did John Ashford, a metal sheet turner (finisher) born in Birmingham, about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in England, come to marry Nellie from Newcastle upon Tyne on the furthest edge of England’s north-east coast? Did they meet in Wolverhampton, where their oldest child was born? Was Jessie Gwilliam really Louisa Minton’s daughter? Did Louisa marry her mysterious lodger Yet ultimately I prefer the frustration of not knowing to the omniscience of a novelist. Whenever a reverie begins, chance encounters with other searchers in family history websites pull me up short; they remind me that each person, a name on the page, was somebody’s ancestor, great-grandfather, grandmother. There are limits to the liberties I can take” (45).

And I confess to similar urges in my own work – how to fill in the blanks that remain, make sense of fragments? How do I deal with an ancestor’s name on a Dutch Treasury document designed to assure proper compensation for a slave owner? How do I make sense of names and skin colours listed on colonial indenture records, or odd bits of family trees written in a plantation owner’s record book? How can I read the entries in a ship’s log? How can I make a full story out of something that resists an easy telling? And how do I do this while remaining true to those who lived those pasts? These are the things that I continue to struggle with in my current research project.


Boavista Lighthouse. Photo:  Sonja Boon

Beth Powning’s Kate Harding finds herself also struggling with the past and its stories: “the more often a story is told, the less of its feeling remains. Its quicksilver essence is lost, it becomes like a pressed rose, pale, with only the faintest scent. And it evolves, as stories do, with every telling. It becomes not memory but history” (138). Memory and history. For Powning’s lead character, one is fluid and alive; the other is fixed, permanent, and in this way, concrete. Memory remains something intangible, floating always just outside of reach, foggy. History, meanwhile, is something that can be measured, traced through facts, set down on paper. And yet, this binary is ultimately unsatisfying; this novel reveals that there’s a complex interplay between memory, history, and story. Kate Harding reads letters and a diary – fixed documents that leave “only the faintest scent” – but draws on them not only to imagine the past, but also to pull her own grief together. What is she doing when she cobbles fact (letters) and fiction (imagination) together? And how does this long past touch and shape her present, and further, change her memories of the ancestors whose words she has been reading?

It is, as numerous writers of fiction will tell you, much easier to create a story than to recreate one; fictional characters aren’t bound by history. But History is, itself, a problematic construction, the archives themselves shaped as they are by the politics of class, race, gender, and more. It’s easy to tell stories when the stories exist; those who leave diaries and journals and letters make storytelling a relatively straightforward affair. But what of those who had nothing to leave behind, those whose stories emerge only in immigration records, ships’ logs, census records, plantation compensation documents? How do we tell the stories of “those who do not write,” to follow Philippe Lejeune? And how do we tell such stories in robust, thoughtful, ethical ways?

As Katy Simpson Smith writes, in a blog post about the fictionalizing of the past, “[h]istorians of the marginalized have to get creative, to read between the lines, to be attuned to subtleties rather than statements. Sometimes, heaven help us, all that’s left to do is speculate. Recovering the full emotional lives of those who left few documents is an exercise in frustration, but we keep doing it because the alternative—erasure—is unacceptable.”


Boavista lighthouse. Photo: Sonja Boon

What, then, is the role of the historian – or the narrator – of these pasts? Where does the researcher fit in (and here, I include Powning’s lead character, Kate Harding, as a family historian, the researcher of her own past). Kate Harding allows herself to be seduced by the documents and through them, imagines her family history into being. At the very beginning of the book, Powning introduces the hat boxes that carry Harding’s family stories as sites of embodied memory: “Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents’ attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought vanished, like the past itself” (1).

Light treads….well… lightly. Sometimes she is actively present, but more often, she allows the documents to speak, and arranges them for us from somewhere behind the scenes, emerging for the reader through the knowledge that these are members of Light’s own family. A ‘behind-the-scenes’ approach has, to a large extent, been the rule for historical writing. It can work brilliantly, especially when the primary source documents themselves are lively. But such an approach can also, especially when the documents themselves are dull, also be stultifyingly boring (and this, even if the results that emerge from the researcher’s work are actually quite interesting).


Trinity, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

Furthermore, in an age of much more critical reflexivity in many social science and humanities disciplines, does such distancing create the conditions of “objectivity” it is meant to perform?

As at least one participant in the ‘real life’ version of March’s #storypast pointed out (I’m basing this on the twitter feed, as I wasn’t there in person), oral historians, feminist scholars, and anthropologists, among those to embrace the critically reflexive voice early in the game, use reflexivity to acknowledge the researcher’s active role in shaping the narratives that emerge from the archives. After all, archives, as anyone working in them knows, are not neutral spaces. Once a researcher gets her grubby paws (or white gloves) on archival materials, they are even less so. It could then be argued that erasing the researcher’s presence in favour of “what the archival materials say” is a disingenuous, and possibly even ethically dishonest gesture, that transparency is only possible through ‘deep objectivity’ – that is, through the active positioning of the researcher within the research. (To be fair, I am not suggesting that this is what Light does; she does include her own voice, and she interrogates her own assumptions as she moves through the book; rather, this is a broader commentary on the methodological assumptions that still underpin much scholarly work).


The house across from the fish and chips place at the harbour in Trinity. Looks like a truly lovely place to call home. Photo: Sonja Boon.

And so, whither the researcher? Should she just hide behind the apparent objectivity of her data? Or should she be present, lumps, warts, and all? How much of her should we see, if we invite her in? Where do we as researchers fit into the bigger picture of the book? Where might we present ourselves and how? How much of the research process should be present in the book itself?

Light brings us into her research journey – she takes us on the train, and into archival spaces. But she also brings us into her mind, asking what role a researcher might play, and what responsibilities a researcher has to the past. Light also brings us her imagination – at least, as far as she feels comfortable. Powning’s narrator imagines the past, using her creative faculties to build stories that allow her to manage the grief of her present. Which stories are true? Which stories are fictional? What do we do with the spaces between the facts? Where does memory fit in? Finding this balance between memory, history, past, present, and story is, I think, something that all of us who work with archival materials need to tangle with. There’s no easy answer, as far as I can tell, and even if we were to find one, no answer that would suit all situations at all times. Perhaps, then, we might consider the critical – and creative – potential of remaining unfixed, unmoored, unsettled in our writing and our thinking…


gratuitous iceberg photo. Just because. Giant cathedral berg lodged off Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador, in June 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon.


[1] If there is one thing that disappoints in Light’s book, it is her limited engagement with the world beyond the British Isles. Thus, for example, she opens the book musing on the great distances her ancestors travelled to seek their fortunes, tracing journeys between different cities in the UK. So, too, does she give her readers fascinating insights into the underlife of nineteenth-century English cities, where the poor and working classes lived and toiled. The level of detail is remarkable and through it, we as readers come to understand the intricate web of inter-relations that shaped the social and economic lives of the “common people.” She does not, however, offer this same level of detail or insight into her ancestors’ journeys across the seas. Newfoundland remains surprisingly unexamined and unexplored, a fact I note, perhaps, because it’s where I live. The communities of St. John’s, Trinity and Bonavista, all thriving merchant communities throughout the nineteenth century, remain foreign, closed, remote. This whole section of the book lacks the critical and creative engagement of the rest. But if anyone with a historical bent is thinking of visiting, be aware that Newfoundland is alive with stories and histories, and often you can’t tell the difference!



Light, Alison. Common People: The History of an English Family. London & New York: Penguin, 2014.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Powning, Beth. The Hatbox Letters.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2005.

Smith, Katy Simpson. “Who Can Fictionalize Slavery?” Literary Hub (lithub.com). http://lithub.com/who-can-fictionalize-slavery/. Accessed 4 April 2016.

© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016



Playing in the Archives

I spent much of Friday in the archives, one of my favourite places to hang out. And really, who wouldn’t want to hang out at the archives: it’s quiet, there’s lots of old, yellowed paper, and your “interviewees” are unfailingly polite and don’t talk back. Add onto that interested and helpful staff members and giddy fellow archive dwellers, and it’s pretty much an ideal place to be.

And so, early on Friday morning, after dropping off kid #2 at school and picking up a hold at the library, I wandered over to the archival collection that is closest to my office: the Maritime History Archive. The MHA is buried in the bottom floor of the Henrietta Harvey Building and finding it involves walking into a veritable warren of offices and hallways. The basement location worried me at first, but it needn’t have. It’s perhaps more accurately a ground floor, for the room boasts large windows and lots of natural light.

I’d prepared online for my visit, so I knew exactly what I wanted to explore: some of the records of C.W. Kellock & Co., the large ship-brokering company that also owned the Kate Kellock, and the Kate Kellock’s crew agreements and log books (as an aside: the MHA has kilometers of this stuff – and I’m not joking – read this, from the MHA’s own website: “The Maritime History Archive holds approximately 75 percent of the surviving crew lists … and official log books of British registered vessels for the periods 1857-1942 … and 1951-1976”)

This is material that I’m not nearly as used to working with; my previous research has focused much more on what might be termed ‘intimate’ correspondence (although I’m not fully happy with that term, either). Basically, I’ve spent my days reading letters between individuals. I haven’t worked with sales contracts or to any large extent, with crew agreements and ships’ logs. And so the first few hours were really about acquainting myself with a new terrain, new stories, new language, new ideas. It was also about finding my researcher self in this space, and figuring out which stories I was reading resonated, and why, and also, which stories didn’t, and why not.

You’d think that after twenty-plus years of working in archives, things would come naturally by now, but this isn’t the case. You and your materials need to get to know one another, to tame one another, as the fox says in St. Exupéry’s Le petit prince. It’s a process of learning languages (not as simple as French or English, but rather, listening for the idiosyncrasies in language, how stories are told, what words are used, and what words are not present at all), listening to voices, figuring out where to find the stories that matter most. There are false starts, wrong turns. You order the wrong materials, ask the wrong questions, make incorrect assumptions. But slowly, you find your way in.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting things I learned on Friday. Right now they don’t have a lot of meaning; they’re just tidbits, teasers. And maybe they’ll never amount to anything. But they were important enough to hang onto and we’ll see where they go from here.

First: I’m not a fan of ship brokerage records. This one should have been obvious from the outset, but I wasn’t sure what I would find in the brokerage records, and it seemed important enough to figure out how C.W. Kellock & Co. operated. What I did learn was this: the brokerage records also trace ship acquisitions in North America: I saw agreements for ships in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and even Quebec. I also saw agreements for transatlantic purchases. And I learned that buyers were , at least in the 1850s, classified according to occupation and class: mariner, shipbuilder, farmer, merchant, banker, esequire and gentleman. All of this gave me a bit of insight into nineteenth-century ship sales.

But it also quickly became clear that if I ever had any pretensions to business history, those pretensions were dashed. Fortunately I’ve never had such pretensions. Equally fortunately, I’ve discovered that I’m a huge fan of Crew Agreements and Ships’ Logs.

Second – Grog: Grog meant the same in nineteenth century seafaring parlance as it does to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders. My Aussie and Kiwi friends all refer to alcoholic drinks as grog. They’re the only ones I know who use this term and I was, therefore, taken by surprise when I saw the word written with a flourish on a Crew Agreement. “No grog allowed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary Online came to the rescue. Grog, it confirmed, is “a drink consisting of spirits (originally rum) and water” They further observe that “seven-water grog” (a term that did not appear in the records, in case you were wondering) was “a contemptuous name among sailors for very weak grog.” Interesting to me in OED Online entries are the examples they give to illustrate the words. Consider this: a 1770 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine lists “groggy” as a word for having imbibed too much alcohol, and attributes this to the West Indies.

You learn something new every day.

Given that my preliminary perusal of the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 Ship’s Log includes reports of one William Petty who was regularly intoxicated and unable to work, as well as of other seamen who left the ship without permission to sample the tastes and flavours of New Orleans, perhaps this “dry” policy was warranted. [as an aside, I have not entirely forgiven the OED’s staff for their remarkably tone deaf initial response to reader reports about the sexism that permeates several of their entries, but that is a story for another day]

Third, seamen came from all over. This shouldn’t have been a surprise; after all, my perusal of Dutch eighteenth-century slaving ship logs revealed that ship personnel came from across Europe (you can virtually follow one Dutch slave ship on its journey here). And so I wasn’t too terribly surprised to find a Danish ship master and Norwegian, German, and Finnish crew members on the 1875-6 voyage.

What did surprise me, however, was the diversity of crew members on board the Kate Kellock’s 1872-3 voyage. This was, in some respects, a strange trip: one crew member was charged, convicted, and then jailed in Calcutta for “causing hurt” to a fellow seaman while three others – including the cook – died of cholera-like symptoms. Two further crew members were left behind in Calcutta due to illness (it’s unclear if these were the other two who died). While the ship may have been able to function with a few less crew members, the desertion of sixteen crew members sometime during their later stop in New Orleans would have been a much bigger blow.

And so the master, G.H.A. Bevan, had to bring more crew members aboard. And what a crew this ship then boasted: in addition to English seamen, there were seamen from Antigua, Germany, Tobago, Bermuda, Jersey, France, The Netherlands, Scotland, Trinidad, St. Vincent, Barbados, Mauritius, Dominica, Norway, Ireland and three different Canadian provinces: Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. For me, the strangest entry is that of a young man from landlocked Ohio. Where would he have picked up the seafaring skills necessary to take a position on board the Kate Kellock?

Fourth: The Kate Kellock ventured far and wide. While its official destination, in both Agreements that I examined, was Calcutta, the contract allowed for a much broader interpretation. Consider this, from the opening of the 1875-6 Agreement and Account of Crew: “Liverpool to Calcutta + any ports + places in the Indian, Pacific + Atlantic Oceans, China + Eastern Seas, thence to a port for orders + the continent of Europe if required, + back to a final port of discharge in the United Kingdom. Term not to exceed three years.” That covers most of the globe, basically. What might such a journey have been like, especially for the youngest seafarers, for whom this might have been their first voyage?

Fifth: There were tensions between the seamen and the emigrating labourers. Again, this is not new; I already read about this in secondary sources, but it’s interesting to read the accounts of trouble from the perspective of the ship’s master.

What’s more interesting even than this is getting glimpses into life aboard the ships: I learned, for example, that one man complained – in English – that a crew member had struck his wife. The violence I expected (sadly). The language I didn’t. After all, many emigrants came from remote regions distant from Calcutta and many had backgrounds as agricultural workers in their home districts; given this, I wouldn’t necessarily have expected them to speak English. But this particular man did, and he enlisted the support of the ship’s doctor in his cause.

And further, this particular incident led to the master cautioning his crew “against meddling in any way with the Emigrants, more especially handling them; as this, although possibly in some instances, meant in kindness may be misconstrued, and received as unkindness, made a subject of complaint, and renders [seamen] liable to punishment.” Am I wrong to read a warning in this text? He’s worded it carefully, but he has also made it clear that “meddling” of any sort is wrong. Small comfort, however, to those who found themselves assaulted or otherwise “meddled with” by the ship’s crew. The other tidbit to emerge from this particular incident: the labourers spent a reasonable amount of time on deck during the journeys and were not confined below decks.

Sixth: The ship itself was a death trap of pestilence. Deaths, particularly among the emigrants, occurred during every journey. But the mortality rate was particularly high during the 1872-3 journey from Calcutta to Demerara, so high, in fact, that it occasioned an investigation. Of the 411 passengers on board, 47 died on the journey, of whom 33 were children under the age of ten. Again, this is not new, but it is certainly made much more visceral when reading the archival materials.

The Ship’s Log and Agreement and Account of Crew detail these deaths, which began within a week of the vessel’s departure from Calcutta on 4 August 1872 and averaged about 1 per day over the first forty days of the journey. Almost all those who died suffered from cholera or cholera-like symptoms, including fevers and diarrhea. “[I]t seems very clear,” concluded a report into the high mortality rates on three vessels – including the Kate Kellock – transporting labourers to the West Indies, “that when a sailing vessel crowed with emigrants is sent off in the teeth of the monsoon, the infants and the children die in a horrible manner in the Bay of Bengal” (Colonial Emigration, 19th-20th Century: Proceedings, 1870-1873. Volume 5)

And finally, if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, while I am not a fan of ship brokerage records, I have discovered that I am a fan of ships’ logs and Crew Agreements. Fortunately, there are seven more housed here at the Maritime History Archive, and one more at the National Archives in the UK. There may even be one more beyond that. Together, they can give me a much better picture of life aboard a “coolie ship.”

Lots more things to uncover and to explore. And more visits to the archives. Of course.



“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1876. J.C. Krogh, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Agreement and Account of Crew,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“grog, n.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.qe2a-proxy.mun.ca/view/Entry/81688?rskey=hPWHCJ&result=1 (accessed March 12, 2016).

Kellock Papers, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

“Official Log Book No. 1,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University.

“Official Log Book No. 4,” Kate Kellock, 1873. G.H.A. Bevan, Master. Maritime History Archive. Memorial University

Sarup, Leela Gujahadur, ed.Colonial Emigration 19th-20th Century: Proceedings 1870-1873. Vol. 5. Kolkata: Aldrich International, 2010.


© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca),  2016