Inspiration Roundtable: Haunting Sources

Today, Lindsay O’Neill, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California, joins our weeklong discussion about sources and inspiration. Her first book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2015. Today she shares the sources that inspired (or haunted) her book-in-progress, titled “Barbarous Country: The Delogaon Princes and the British Empire, 1715-1725.”

photo_1023589 O'Neill

I do not remember precisely when the princes began to haunt me. It might have been when I called up the ominous sounding “Book of Strangers” at the Huntington Library. This turned out to simply be a list of dinner guests at the Duke of Chandos’ estate of Cannons, but what I found inside was rather extraordinary. Listed at the Duke’s table on 24 September 1721 were “Two African Princes.” Intriguing, I thought. However, this must not have been the first time I came across a reference to them, for I remember knowing who these men were. I had, or would, read about them in letters from the Duke of Chandos who hosted the dinner. I would encounter them again in the letters of Sir John Perceval. And then again in the letters of Sir Hans Sloane. I told you these two men were haunting me. Now, there was no reason for them to. At the time, I was not interested in African princes. I was interested in letters since I was working on what would become my first book: The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World. But it turned out that the loosely linked letter writers whose correspondence I was working my way through were interested in African princes and soon so was I.

Part of the draw was the drama of the story itself. In their letters, Chandos and Perceval revealed a story that sounded more like the plot of an eighteenth century novel than reality (In fact, one of the most frequent questions I get after telling their story is “But is it true?”). According to these letters, the two men were from a place the British called Delagoa, on the eastern coast of Africa, and they had boarded a ship to “see England,” but had been sold into slavery in Jamaica by the nefarious captain of their vessel. But then, miraculously to my mind, they learned English and found a lawyer who freed them. Next, they boarded a ship to London, which was wrecked in a hurricane. They survived, but they had arrived in England in need of patrons and they would find two in the Duke of Chandos and Sir John Perceval. In fact, the only letters that I have from the princes are two that Perceval recorded in his letterbook. As I researched my first project, new details about the princes would spring up in one in these men’s correspondence. I learned about the attempts of the Royal African Company, of which Chandos was a big mover and shaker, to send the men home. I would read letters from Marmaduke Penwell, the princes’ instructor, to John Perceval about their voyage home. From these letters, I learned that one of the men, Prince James, would commit suicide right before they left for Africa. I would learn that that the other prince, Prince John, would make it home, or as Perceval recorded “he was set ashore in a barbarous country.”

But as dramatic and thrilling as the story was itself, it was its strangeness, the way it went against my expectations of how the British world worked, that made me want to write a book based on it. These men did not come from west Africa, they came from east Africa. This was the realm of the East India Company. We do not hear much about the East India Company’s interactions with Africa or with the slave trade. And while the princes were not slave traders, the boat they boarded was a slave ship that stopped at Madagascar for slaves before heading for Jamaica. Then there was the fact that they were freed. Slaves in Jamaica were not supposed to be easily freed. This puzzled me. They were also, if we discount the fictional Oroonoko, the first wrongly enslaved princes known in London. Furthermore, when the Royal African Company sent them home, its members were not interested in trading for slaves with the Delagoans, but rather in trading for gold or other goods. So, while part of me was simply raring to tell rollicking tale, another part of me knew there was a historical tale that needed to be told as well.

I remember a professor of mine once saying something to the effect of “you do not always find your books, sometimes they find you.” I could add to that, sometimes they don’t find you, they haunt you and demand to be told.

One comment on “Inspiration Roundtable: Haunting Sources

  1. […] Previous contributors to the roundtable include Whitney Robles, Rachel Herrmann, and Lindsay O’Neill with Ken Owen’s final post of the roundtable coming […]

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