Sugar, tobacco, porcelain, and cod. These worldly goods—that came to define early modern empires and networks of global trade—could all be found in the homes of Newfoundland women Sara Kirke and her sister Frances Hopkins. The Pool in Ferryland was their home throughout the middle and later decades of the seventeenth century. Their lives were shaped by English colonial and commercial expansion in this period, as well as the social, political, and religious tumult of the English Revolution. Both sisters suffered personal loss through their close ties to the Crown, but they lived long enough to witness the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. In fact, Frances was probably in London when Charles II returned to the city. During August 2019, when I arrived in St John’s, Newfoundland, for a three-week research trip, I knew very little about the sisters. But over the next few months, I’d become intimately acquainted with their families, their ideas, and the contents of their homes.
When I started my research in St John’s, I’d already been in Newfoundland for a couple of weeks—hiking and wild camping with my partner in Gros Morne and Terra Nova. At the end of our holiday, I drove him to the airport and settled into my rented studio loft, overlooking a tranquil pond. I’d come to Newfoundland with quite a bit of naïve expectation. Recently I’d spent a couple of weeks at the Barbados National Archives and was overwhelmed by the amount of material I’d found there, in wills and deeds, on English women and their role in the early colonial history of the island, including plantation slavery. I’d long been interested in English women’s investment in the Jamestown colony, Virginia, but during my three-year postdoc at the University of Manchester I was interested in venturing into new terrain, in multiple senses.
Newfoundland was a place that, for me, was constantly in my peripheral view when researching Virginia for my PhD. It usually received brief mention in renowned texts on Atlantic history and when I was scouring the archives, especially in southern England, I frequently stumbled across references to Newfoundland in the depositions of sailors and accounts of parish churchwardens. But Newfoundland wasn’t my focus, and I’d only occasionally make notes if something particularly caught my eye (like the time I read a Southampton deposition, in which sailors discussed the purchase of an enslaved African in Newfoundland).
My complacency—Newfoundland was, after all, always popping up—meant I was quite unprepared when I ventured to the provincial archives in St John’s for the first time. There I was told they had no records for seventeenth-century Newfoundland: I’d need to visit the National Archives and British Library in London. I decided that during my visit I would focus on the historic sites of Ferryland and Cupids Cove instead, where scholars and archaeologists Barry Gaulton and Bill Gilbert assured me there was a wealth of material available.
A few days later, I was at the Colony of Avalon, examining a pair of brass sugar tongs once owned by Sara Kirke. I wondered about (what appeared to me) leaf fronds on the design, which reminded me of the swaying green leaves of sugarcane I had recently seen growing in Barbados. I also scrutinised the case of a small snuff box, decorated with a man’s face, who had a prominent Roman nose—a typical Jacobean imperial motif. What immediately interested me about these objects, was that they spoke to the symbiotic relationship between sugar, tobacco, and cod in the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. Goods produced by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and Chesapeake colonies were consumed in Ferryland and in exchange lower-grade fish from the waters of Newfoundland would provide nourishment for the same unfree labourers. Also embedded within these goods was African and Indigenous knowledge and expertise, which made their cultivation possible. European consumers’ and colonial planters’ cognizance of the origins and associations of these luxuries was familiar to me. But I was uncertain how these meanings were changed, and understandings of them compromised, in Newfoundland—a colony where the English ‘planters’ seemed to be remote from slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
It was from these two objects that the seed of an idea began to grow: would it be possible to write about how Newfoundland colonists, women particularly, were embroiled in the violence of transatlantic slavery and how they embraced an imperial agenda through the things they consumed and acquired? I wanted to bring my experience of researching how English women engaged in seventeenth-century colonial projects to bear on these artefacts.
As I examined fragments of tin-glazed earthenware discovered at the homes of Sara Kirke and Frances Hopkins, who were the largest plantation owners in late seventeenth-century Ferryland, I continued to think about their comprehension of English imperial projects and their own gendered articulation of imperial ambition and desire. What drove their acquisition of Chinese porcelain, an East Asian Martaban jar, and motifs such as the cockatoo? How did their collecting relate to their consumption of slave-produced goods such as sugar and tobacco, which were traded from the Caribbean and North American colonies to Newfoundland? I knew that these were questions that I could never answer, in any complete and wholly satisfactory sense. Yet I hoped that I could, at the very least, draw some conclusions from the very rich material that had survived, as an alternative kind of documentary evidence of their ideas and feelings.
For me their accumulation and display of ceramics, alongside the acquisition of other items like the brass sugar tongs and a bird skull (which may have been that of a pet), went beyond issues of taste and sociability. Instead, I wanted to understand how they related to women’s fashioning of an imperial selfhood, something that scholars of European elite women’s collections had already articulated. My article, published in Cultural and Social History, was my attempt to make sense of this subject. Building on the scholarship of Peter Pope, and more recently Barry Gaulton and Tânia Manuel Casimiro, I wanted to restate the significance of Newfoundland, Sara Kirke, and Frances Hopkins for studies of women and empire in the early modern Atlantic world. Its title, ‘At the Edge of Empire?’, was my way of hinting at the treatment of Newfoundland in the wider history of the seventeenth-century British Atlantic world. I felt it had been siloed and its significance within the English imperial project remained underexplored.
On my return to London, I ordered up records in the British Library, which were the only surviving documents that included Kirke’s and Hopkins’ voices. One was a petition from Sara Kirke to Charles II, about her sons’ inheritance of the Newfoundland governorship, and the other a central government report that advised on the shaping of imperial policy for the new king, based on Frances Hopkins’ intelligence. Both myself, my research, and my subjects—Kirke and Hopkins themselves—seemed to have gone full circle and come home. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to encounter Sara Kirke, Frances Hopkins, and their world at Ferryland, for opening up my eyes to the potential riches of Newfoundland’s history.
Misha Ewen is a Curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the UK. Misha has published on women, seventeenth-century English trading companies and colonisation. Her first book, The Virginia Venture: American Colonization and English Society, 1580-1660, is forthcoming with University of Pennsylvania Press. You can find her on Twitter @mishaewen
This post is part of an occasional series on Material Histories. Using artifacts as a lens, frameworks from archaeology and other fields of material history can be extremely helpful for historians seeking to incorporate different, often non-literate, voices into their understanding of past societies. ~ Editors
Featured image: Tin-glazed dish with cockatoo, owned by Sara Kirke © Reproduced by permission of Barry Gaulton, Colony of Avalon Foundation.