Scotland, the Amazon and the Archives!

Juanita Barreto Monje
Thursday 26 July 2018

Hello Laidlaw scholars, during the last five weeks I was working on a project called “Scotland and The Amazon” with my supervisor Dr. Mark Harris, in the department of Social Anthropology. My project in a nutshell focuses on the welcoming, mixing and adjustment of Scottish families and the British role in the Amazon in Brazil in the 19th century. I became   particularly in this topic because if anthropology is what is to be a human, there is not a better reflection of it than the processes that occur in a migration process where there was, and arguably still exist, a clear power  relation between the then “English empire” and a so called “new world”.

My first two weeks spend in St. Andrews consisted of gathering enough background information about the British involvement in Brazil, and its relationship with Portugal, the Amazon, in relation to slavery and trade. I focused  particularly on the state of  Para in northern Brazil, to understand the context surrounding the ups and and downs of the British, specially after the “Cabanagem” revolt (1835-1840).  The variety and diversity of documents was greater than I expected so I decided to focused on three 19th century chronicles – The Naturalist on the River Amazon, by Henry Walter Bates (1863), A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, with an account of the native tribes by Alfred Wallace (1889), Journal of a passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic crossing the Andes in the Northern provinces of Peru and descending the River Amazon by Henry Maw (1829). Their personal accounts shaded light onto specific families of merchants living in Para, such as the Campbells and the Henderson (later researched at the archives), the weather conditions, features of the buildings and houses which recreated a clear image of Para in the 19th century as well as pointing to greater general topics such as the promises of wealth from an exotic and ‘savage’ place within a context of the rich and so called advanced Europeans and the natives in The Americas’. As it is a historical project books such as Our men in Brazil by, Brazil Empire and Republic 1822-1930 (1989),  The Abolition of Brazilian slave trade (1970) by Leslie Bethell and Rebellion on the Amazon: The Cabanagem, Race and Popular culture in Northern Brazil (2010) by Mark Harris, ended up building a strong bridge before moving to my next three weeks working at the archives.

The next three weeks of my projects where dedicated to research various records at the Archives of Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, which for me where the most challenging part of my Laidlaw project. Working at the archives requires patience and perseverance which I thought were quite tricky to maintain for three weeks as most of my time was spent in finding related records from the hundred available at the catalogues and then the time deciphering copies of manuscripts from 19th century individuals make the task even more difficult, to which the conditions of the documents added a little bit more. It was during these three weeks that I felt the aspect of the leadership part of the program came upfront, not only because I needed to be selective on the records I was ordering to read as time was pressing, but also because I had to learn to be flexible and adapt to external factor that constrain or change my initial timetable such as closing times, days, or, in the case of family records be conditioned to those families accepting my request to view documents, which could easily take between 2-3 weeks.

However, the gains from learning how to use an archive, and of all the tools one has to use when looking through them, such as the gloves to avoid greasy hands from damaging the documents, or the plastic bags to check that no records leave the archives or the supporters for the book’s spine, made me fell lucky to be able to continue the process of conservation of other people’s lives, experiences, love stories and diverse personal correspondence  were greater than the difficulties. It was specially rewarding when I could realise the progress that I had made, being able to read quicker, finding the information that I needed or records such as “Papers relating to the British cemetery in Para”, or 15 letters from “James Henderson to his family from Para’ or “Para Claims” among others, all of which shaded light not only about particular individuals, but also among the British community in Para and the natives and in a larger picture the relationship between the Empire and the subjects living in foreign colonies

After working at the archives for three weeks and having gathered new information, making new links between different people, their lives and experiences abroad new questions and cases have come to light which I am very excited to be developing next summer at the archives in Brazil. I am very grateful to Lord Laidlaw for this opportunity that has given me to explore and develop new leadership skills in a project that very much reflects the reason why I am studying “what is to be a human”, always with the constant support from my supervisor Mark, Harris, thank you very much!

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