Explore Your Archive: A Caribbean slave song from Gloucestershire Archives

By Rosemary Collins, 16 November 2017 - 10:48am

Rosemary Collins talks to Kate Maisey of Gloucestershire Archives about a document in their collection which sheds a unique light on the horrors of slavery

The song was written down by abolitionist Granville Sharp. Credit: Gloucestershire Archives

Explore Your Archive is a campaign coordinated jointly by The National Archives (UK) and the Archives and Records Association (UK & Ireland), with and on behalf of the archives and records sector, across the UK and Ireland which aims to raise awareness of archives, their value to society and the impact they have, every day, on individual lives.

The campaign runs from Saturday 18 November to Sunday 26 November with archives all around the country putting on exhibitions, having open days, hosting seminars and talks and allowing communities to "explore" the amazing things they hold.

As part of the campaign, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine has teamed up with The National Archives to bring you a week of interviews with some of the archivists taking part around the country to discover just a few of the fascinating historic gems they hold.

We're starting by talking to Kate Maisey, archives development officer at Gloucestershire Archives, about a rare record of the songs sung by Caribbean slaves.

What gem have you chosen?

Our gem is an African slave song from Barbados. It is a single page, hand-written document containing the melody and words to a work song chanted by the enslaved in the sugar fields of Barbados.

It dates from the late 18th century, when the Transatlantic slave trade was at its height. The song was written down by Granville Sharp, a founder of the British anti-slavery movement, from first-hand information provided by fellow abolitionist Dr. William Dickson, who lived on Barbados for several years as secretary to the island’s governor.

The melody is written in a minor key and takes the form of call and response. The verse was sung by the (male) leader with the members of the work gang in the field singing the chorus in response. The words are written in Barbadian Creole and tell of the slaves’ brutal treatment at the whim of their owner, “Massa”.

Why did you choose it?

The document was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World register earlier this month in recognition of its outstanding international importance. It is the only known transcription of an African work song and a unique legacy of the African heritage in Barbados.

The words of the song allow us to hear the voices of the slaves themselves as they reflect on their situation. The system of enslavement on Barbados was particularly harsh and the terrain offered few places for runaway slaves to hide. This song represents one of the tools that the oppressed used in their resistance and as a survival strategy.

The song is of great interest to musicologists and is an extremely rare example of pre 20th century Barbadian music. The score is complete, including both words and music, which means it can be studied and played in full. You can find out more and hear a recording of it here.

Tell us more about your archive...

Gloucestershire Archives holds millions of unique documents ranging from a tiny parchment deed recording land transfer in the mid 12th century to oral history interviews from the 21st century.

The focus of our collections is Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire, telling the story of local people and places. But - as the slave song shows - Gloucestershire connections can extend far beyond county boundaries. London born Granville Sharp’s papers came to Gloucestershire through the marriage of his niece to a local man, Thomas J Lloyd Baker.

It’s an exciting time for our service as we transform into the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, which will see us in a re-modelled building along with key partners including the Gloucestershire Family History Society. And we’re also building a virtual ‘Heritage Hub’ community which will have an online presence via a website and social media. Visit “For the Record” on our website to find out more.


Gloucestershire Archives will be demonstrating Know Your Place West of England, the new digital mapping resource, at Roots Community CafĂ©, Alvin Street, Gloucester, on 2.30-4pm,  Saturday 18 November 2017. The event is free, with no need to book. For further details, email sally.middleton@gloucestershire.gov.uk.

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