by Samantha Campbell
Digging through old files is like a treasure hunt for a historian or anyone who is really passionate about recovering historical data. As I set out to categorize some records on the UWI Museum origins and the history of the University (College) of the West Indies, I discovered several documents and pieces of information that made me erupt in oohs and aahs. I was so fascinated by the wealth of information housed by the museum that I forgot I was supposed to file – not pile up papers on my desk to read. Overpowered by my cravings for the knowledge I buried my eyes and nose in artifactual documents and records created over the years.
A folder labelled Early UWI History was laden with information on the site of the Mona and Papine estates over the decades, including a prize – the lease document for the campus. My imagination began to run wild as I read the description of the property over seventy years ago. I tried to situate the different spaces and pieces on the property prior to the establishment of the university; however, I couldn’t locate ‘Nigger House’. Based on the description implicit in the name, ‘Nigger House’ would have been a space occupied by individuals of African descent on the plantation. I was drawn to this particular location because I am intrigued by the sacred landscapes on the UWI’s Mona campus. I wanted to know the paths my ancestors walked so I can walk there too. The spirits might just whisper to me a story from the past and help recover something that was almost lost.
As my imagination exploded, my drive to locate this site grew stronger. I sought the help of UWI Museum Curator, Dr Brown, who showed me a 1915 survey map of Kingston where there is a ‘Nigger House Corner’. However, when we compared the description of the location of ‘Nigger House’ in the lease and ‘Nigger House Corner’ on the map, the locations do not match. In the lease it is situated between August Town and Dallas Road however, we are unable to locate Dallas Road on a current map. There is Dallas Castle and Dallas Mountain but where is/was “Dallas Road”?
It is interesting how one piece of information can spiral into something else. Many people who are unfamiliar with the job of a historian or researcher will consider history boring or static but history is quite dynamic. The stories of the past and about the past cannot die they only go into hibernation until they are awoken by a curious mind. All we need is a touch of the past – an artefact, maybe an administrative record or even a lease document, and you may be surprised to see how your interest can awaken.