February 16, 2022
From Archive to Article
7 min read
by Nathaniel Millett
Nathaniel Millett (St Louis University) is the author of “Law, Lineage, Gender, and the Lives of Enslaved Indigenous People on the Edge of the Nineteenth-century Caribbean” in the October 2021 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
I remember vividly when I sat down and first created the Word document for my WMQ article, “Law, Lineage, Gender, and the Lives of Enslaved Indigenous People on the Edge of the Nineteenth-century Caribbean” (October 2021). It was in the waning days of an extraordinary residential fellowship at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico. While sad to leave, we were packed up and ready to return to St Louis, fingers crossed that my wife would not go into labor in an Amarillo rest stop. Happily, Isolde waited until we returned to St Louis to be born. She turned four just recently. Suffice it to say, the intervening four years have been eventful—a young family, a vast book project, teaching, editing a journal myself, and a global pandemic all competed for my time. However, writing, waiting, revising, waiting, re-revising, waiting, rejoicing, and then copyediting this article has been a prominent part of my life over the past few years. While an arduous and painstaking journey that was full of twists and turns, seeing this article through to publication has been a singular experience that was well worth the time and effort.
I first encountered the case of the Belizian freedom-seekers in the National Archives of the United Kingdom in Kew. At the time, I was in the midst of a twelve month stay in Britain, conducting research for my current book project. Tentatively titled Native Sea: An Indigenous History of the Anglo-Caribbean during the Age of Slavery and Empire, the project has required painstaking attention to a vast amount of primary sources to overcome the power of archival erasure which so often renders Indigenous people invisible or difficult to detect. This case and the documents that it produced were different, however. Because of the actions of the freedom-seekers and ensuing investigation into their claims, a remarkably clear window was opened through which one can view an Indigenous slave trade, slaveholding, the experience of the enslaved, and the role that they played in two colonial societies (the Mosquito Shore and Belize) between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s. Furthermore, the documents revealed much about gender, lineages, and identity within the enslaved Indigenous community of British Central America. Particularly exciting is the fact that investigators interviewed a number of the freedom-seekers and supporting witnesses, recording their responses and thus allowing historians the exceedingly rare opportunity to hear the voices of enslaved Indigenous people.
I first submitted the article to the WMQ in March of 2019. While I checked in with Josh Piker on a couple of occasions, I did not receive a formal decision (essentially ‘revise and re-submit’) until mid-October. According to Josh, the far-longer than normal wait was due to a perfect storm of reviewer-related issues. Indeed, the wait was so long that Josh actually referenced it in an Uncommon Sense post! Nonetheless, the reviews—which ranged from accept to revise and resubmit to reject—were uniformly engaged, thoughtful, and constructive. Indeed, it is impossible to understate the extent to which the reviews strengthened the article and, ultimately, the larger project on which it is based. Particularly helpful was the collective breadth of the reviewers’ knowledge and recommendations. For example, one reviewer urged me to place gender more squarely at the center of my analysis while another reviewer made valuable recommendations of Spanish language secondary literature.
With much to consider, I embarked upon revisions. I did not resubmit the article until August of 2020, in part because of the significant changes that were required, but even more so due to the onset of COVID in a house with two small children. When I finally re-submitted, reports came back from some, but not all, of the initial reviewers along with one from a new reviewer. Based on these equally constructive reviews, Josh gave the article a ‘conditional accept’ contingent on a few revisions. This became an ‘accept’ in mid-June of this year and the article was scheduled to appear just a few months later in the October issue!
With the tortoise becoming the hare in the blink of an eye, the article entered the WMQ’s extraordinary copyediting process. This consisted of extensive comments from Josh and then multiple forensic readings of the article by Meg Musselwhite and her support staff in which they edited the text for style and checked it for accuracy. Even as a journal editor myself, I was left in awe of the rigor and professionalism of the editorial team. Between their work, the reader reports, and Josh’s oversight, the final article very much represents a collective effort that would be a shadow of what appears in print without the help of so many people.