Blog: Once lost, now found

KITLV researcher Jessica Vance Roitman is just back from two weeks working in the National Archives of Curacao. She reflects on the art of history, working with archival material, and the glimpses she’s caught of the social history of the Dutch Windward islands.

I have to face facts. I’ve lost people again. I lose people all the time. I just got back from two weeks in the National Archive of Curacao, where I was continuing my research on the social history of the Dutch Windward islands of St. Eustatius, Saba, and St. Maarten for the Confronting Caribbean Challenges (CCC) project. Every trip to the archives means I meet a group of wonderful characters.

This visit I met Caroline Rowland who stole some flour from a warehouse on St. Maarten in 1868. She was sentenced to thirty lashes, a sentence she appealed – and kept appealing – for some years, with missive after missive pleading her poverty and her children’s hunger as mitigating factors for her crime.

I feel close to some people. I sympathize with them. I begin to like the unnamed clerk for his wonderful penmanship or the minor colonial official for the resigned tone and faint irony with which he dutifully reports the utterly dull goings on of St. Eustatius. I certainly have my favorites. And I have those who annoy me. The pedantic Protestant Minister who whines endlessly about the Catholic priest, the ambitious militia officer who keeps lobbying for a higher rank.

And then .  . . they’re gone. From one week’s correspondence to the next, the penmanship changes. Someone new is writing the Lt. Governor’s letters. I find myself resenting him. His documents are harder to read. They’re splotchy. He uses too much ink, which bleeds through to the other side of the paper, rendering some pages illegible. I miss Mr. Good Handwriting. Did his clear hand belie an alcohol problem? Or did he catch the pox and have to be sent away? I’ll most likely never know. And what about Caroline Rowland? Did she win her case? I hope so, though by 1872, there was still no resolution. I thought her sentence sounded entirely too harsh for her crime.

I catch glimpses of people and their lives, snippets of who they were, and then I lose them. And feel bereft.

People aren’t always lost. Sometimes I come across them again, albeit rarely.  I ran into John Francis again. It was like meeting an old friend. I thought I’d lost him but, no, here he was, in 1870, in the pages of a report from the local court on St. Maarten, getting into trouble, as usual. I shook my head ruefully. That old rascal. This time he got into a fight over another man’s wife. Last time I ran into him, in 1858, he had hit A.A. van Romondt, one of the most prominent men on the island of St. Maarten. For a free black man to do such a thing was a shock that reverberated down through more than a century and a half. I can’t help but like him.

Yet running into John Francis again was, alas, the exception. Mostly, people fall out of history, slip away in between the lines of facts and figures on salt production, shipping statistics, number of pupils attending school in a given year, or new regulations and decrees. They play around the edges, in the shadows, occasionally peeking out from behind the edifice of officialdom that hides them.

And this is the tragedy, the beauty, the art of being an historian. It is beautiful, and I feel so privileged to see, even if through a glass, darkly, the past. Not the past of government decrees and diplomatic correspondence, though these are fun in their own way, but, rather, these tantalizing tidbits of the actual people and their lives in a different time. The art is in finding these people, of teasing out their stories from the detritus of exhaustive and exhausting reports, dull statistics, and dry accounts books. The tragedy, of course, is that once I’ve finally met someone, it’s like coming into a theater, catching part of one scene in which she or she performs, from a distance, and leaving again. I rarely get to know how the play ends.

I lose people.

(Jessica Roitman is a researcher at KITLV working on Caribbean History. Her project, ‘The Dutch Windward Islands: Confronting the Contradictions of Belonging, 1815-2015,’ examines the intersection of migration, governance, and (hybridized) identities on the islands of Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Eustatius.)

  • Vance Tilton
    Posted at 23:46h, 11 April Reply

    Completely enchanting. Maybe John Francis could appear again in a novel………And how clever of you to get to do research in the Windward Islands and not cold and rainy Europe,

  • Leda Tilton
    Posted at 23:53h, 11 April Reply

    Take all these interesting and novelize them into the life you think they deserve.

  • Christiaan Heersink
    Posted at 20:03h, 15 April Reply

    That’s why I miss historical research…

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