Back to the Past: Kiri Raber on Researching in London

Fri, 04/07/23
Kiri Raber British Library

My name is Kiri Raber, I am a fourth-year PhD candidate. I am in my first year of being ABD. My major advisor is Dr. Upchurch. I have been in London on research since the beginning of January. Ideally, I want to become a professor at a small liberal arts college. But I have some background in public history too and would love to work in the public-facing side of history education.

What is your project about?

My research focus is on families throughout the early modern British Empire. Specifically, I am looking at Jamaica in the 18th century and at non-normative elite families. I define non-normative families as those that are of mixed-race origins or families with illegitimate children. What I am interested in is that in Jamaica, a space that could be violent and untenable, there was also space for these families to flourish – because of that violence and untenableness.

I am finding that the white fathers of these mixed-race families were acknowledging their mixed-race children through specific legislative acts to give them the rights of white citizens. Mothers with illegitimate children were able to recognize their children through baptismal records. This was not something that they could have done in mainland Britain.

During my MA program, I got really interested in Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War. Cromwell conquered Jamaica in the 17th century. When I started working with Dr. Upchurch for my PhD, he helped me use databases to find families that had connections with Jamaica. I used, for example, the Catherine Hall Database, through which I could trace plantation owners and families. I decided to look at families in the context of the British Empire, to flesh out how these families reflected the Empire itself.

Jamaica was seen as the heart of the British Atlantic because of its sugar production. Because of my sources, I am focusing more on 18th-century periods of turmoil, the slave revolts and Maroon War of 1730s, Tacky’s revolt in the early 1760s, and the Haitian revolution in the 1790s. It is in these moments of contention that people on the island define and redefine racial categories more distinctly. Race becomes ever more clearly defined throughout the 18th century. Access to citizenship gets redefined in the 1760s too, when children from non-normative families no longer qualify for the same type of citizenship as their white equivalents do. Consequently, fewer and fewer legal acts are passed to allow for the citizenship of offspring from non-normative families.

How did you prepare for fieldwork?

Dr. Upchurch helped me prepare for fieldwork from very early on in the PhD program. His most important suggestion was to mine the footnotes of the reading I was doing for my comprehensive exams to identify what archival sources those authors had used. So, when I came to London, I already had a list of sources that I wanted to look at, and I knew where I had to go to find them. That then helped me discover more documents and start following more leads down further rabbit holes. In the beginning I was very overwhelmed about how to go about identifying sources. Having a list of potential documents to view helped me get over that hump.

What is it like to work in archives in the UK?

For my public history minor field, I had done an internship at the Florida State archives. So, I knew a bit of what to expect. The British archives are more regulated with many more rules to follow. To access the archives, I have to swipe in and out, I have to carry all my belongings in a clear plastic bag that gets examined when I leave, and all my papers are inspected to make sure that I am not stealing any of the documents. I understand why I need to do this, but it still felt weird in the beginning.

The archivists are very friendly and helpful. Because of my prior archival internship, I understand what is going on behind the scenes, and that made reaching out for help from the archival staff feel less intimidating.

What sort of sources are you working with?

I am working in the British Library and in the National Archives. I started out at the BL, where I was looking at published works: histories of Jamaica as well as a play about Jamaica, “The Mad Islanders.” It turned out that the BL held almost everything that I will need to write the first two chapters of my dissertation.

At the National Archives, I am looking at legal and governmental material: the correspondence of the Jamaican governors, the notes of the Jamaican assembly, and legislative proceedings conferring citizenship rights. Whenever I find an act conferring ‘white’ citizenship on a member of a non-normative family, I plug their name into the Catherine Hall database to find more information. I am also compiling a list of names to check up on in when I am back in Tallahassee.

What surprised you about doing research?

What surprised me most was how much material there is. I was really worried that there would not be enough sources for me to write a dissertation. But then, whenever I worked on one document, that would lead me to a second and third, and by following the leads from the different documents, I was able to build up a substantial source base.

I had also thought that I would be taking pictures of everything that I found, but that did not work so well for me. In taking notes by hand, I am being pulled into the narratives of these families, following their correspondence, and it is a much more immersive experience. I take pictures too; in case I need to go back to a document. I use my phone and email the pictures to myself every evening.

What major challenge/s did you have to deal with?

For once, that not all of my records are in Britain. If I had funding, I would love to go to Jamaica to look at the records that are held there: the baptismal records and the wills. But even before that, there are places in the U.S. that I would like to visit for research, the Huntington Library and the Folger Library. But that might have to wait until I turn this dissertation into a book manuscript.

The biggest challenge for me was learning to read the handwriting. I am dyslexic and trying to decipher the cursive handwriting was very disheartening in the beginning. My mom advised me to just keep going and trying, and it is true that over time I have become much better at reading the documents. But even so, there are moments when I have to take a picture of a page and ask my graduate cohort to help me read the text.

Lastly, research abroad can be an isolating experience. I am very lucky that two other graduate students of Dr. Upchurch are here at the same time, and I don’t have to face everything alone. They have helped me get organized for the two different places where I do my research.

What advice would you give to other graduate students before they start doing their research?

Firstly, start your research prepared with a list of sources to look at.

Secondly, set up a support network that you can turn to when things are getting a bit rough. I have people back in Tallahassee that I can reach out to when I need to chat.

Lastly, be aware that some of the mental health support services provided by FSU are not available when you go abroad.

And finally: what is life like for you in the UK?

Living in London was a huge adjustment. It is such a big city, so sprawling. Getting comfortable with the bus and tube system took a moment. I also needed to work out what was the best SIM card and data plan for me. With both these things, my two fellow graduate students helped immensely.

Make the most of being abroad. Sometimes it hits me, I am here in London, in this enormous, historic city, working in these amazing archives, and I can’t quite believe it. It is good to do the touristy stuff too and to go out and eat different ethnic foods. I am so happy to have this fantastic opportunity.