Exploring the Past: What Is and Isn’t Documented

Professor Elena Schneider shares her favorite primary source with Berkeley Connect History

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Last Tuesday, Professor Elena Schneider came to speak to Berkeley Connect History students about her research – and her current favorite find. Professor Schneider studies war, trade, and slavery in colonial Latin America, particularly 18th century Cuba. “We don’t know much about that period of Cuban history,” she noted, adding that few have studied that particular time period in the country. “The activities that might have been going on – like smuggling – don’t generate the kinds of documents found in most archives.” It was for this reason that she was excited to find a rare descriptive account of Cuba written in 1713. She found it in an unlikely place: in a journal written by an anonymous British sailor, which she discovered while browsing an archive in London. The journal chronicles his journey from London to Barbados between 1713 and 1717, and includes a detailed account of his stay in Cuba.

As she passed out pages from the journal, Professor Schneider spoke of the many things historians consider when they find their sources. “The material condition – how it was written, for example – can say a lot about what it was intended for,” she said. “In this particular case, there is an inscription that indicates it was written for someone to read. Maybe his sister.”

Berkeley Connect students read the pages and discussed them in groups, practicing thinking like historians as they pondered the details of the text. One student noticed the handwriting. “It’s very nice,” she said. “It might indicate that the sailor was fairly educated.” Another student chimed in, “It might even have been transcribed.” Another student brought the group’s attention to the account of slaves on the ship, who were largely female. “That’s pretty unusual,” the student noted.

Professor Schneider spoke about the different, often unconventional sources she uses for her research. “Much of a slave’s experience is not written,” she said. “In order to piece their stories together, I often have to look in places other than archives.” In some cases, official documents, such as baptismal records and wills, hold surprising amounts of information. “Slaves from the same culture were often forcibly separated; we don’t know how successful they were in holding on to their culture and forming communities. Looking at a marriage certificate of a wife and husband [freed slaves] who were both from the same culture indicates that some did.” Other times, the evidence is not in the form of documents at all. “Dance and music that have been passed on through generations also reveal a lot, as do artifacts,” Professor Schneider said.

“What I love most about history is that it is very interdisciplinary,” she remarked. “History is based on written documents, but the trick is reading them and then taking a step back. Ask yourself: what is not said and where can I look next?”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant