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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 10, 2020

Finding Susannah Mingo

WMQ 9 min read

In this post, WMQ author Jenny Shaw recounts how she came to research and write the story of Susannah Mingo for the April 2020 issue.

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By Jenny Shaw

Susannah Mingo’s story was a long time in the making. I first encountered her on a trip to Barbados in May 2011 when I was finishing up some research for my first book. Reading the Christchurch parish register to count baptized people of color (of whom there were very few), I stopped abruptly when I came to an entry on 13th August 1683:

“Judith 8½ yrs, Richard 5 yrs, Hester 2½ yrs, ch[ildre]n of John Peers begotten of a mul[att]o woman named Susanna

“Richard 7 yrs, Elizabeth 4 yrs, Edward 1½ yrs, ch[ildre]n of John Peers begotten of a mul[att]o woman named Elizabeth

“Frances 6 yrs, Ann 4 yrs, John 2½ yrs, ch[ildre]n of John Peers begotten of Dorothy Spendlove.”

Six enslaved children baptized on the same day, alongside another three presumably white children, and all fathered by the same man. While the notion that a planter would have children with enslaved women was not any surprise, the fact that he acknowledged his paternity and that he baptized them was highly unusual for Barbados in this period. In fact, the island’s Assembly pushed back hard on requests from London that they consider Christianizing enslaved laborers. As I moved back and forth through the records, I found Susannah and Elizabeth’s own baptism in 1670 as well as information about John Peers’ white family. I learned much more when I discovered that his will was extant. It was here that Susannah was listed with her second name, “Mingo” and described as “a Black.” Although I had to return to the purpose for which I was in Barbados, I could not shake her name, nor stop wondering about her life. From the first day I encountered the Rendezvous plantation and the women who had children with John, hers was the story I was most drawn to tell.

It took years for me to work out whether I would ever be able to write a history of Susannah’s life.

In my naiveite I assumed that because John was one of Barbados’s largest landowners and enslavers that I would be able to track down lots of information about him. But this turned out not to be the case. As I slowly identified material connected to the Peers property the story that emerged was the early modern Atlantic World in microcosm: the rise of racial slavery and the plantation complex, the contest of meanings of freedom in the metropole and the colonies, the role of intimacy in colonial spaces, and the foundational importance of family to England’s imperial project. The book I’m writing at the moment investigates these themes, each chapter framed through the experiences of one of the women with whom John had children, including his two English wives.

And yet it was to Susannah that I continuously returned. One of the most surprising things was how much information I was able to amass about her, something I did not expect for a woman of color in the early modern English Atlantic world. She appeared in deeds, wills, Chancery Court records, parish registers, and estate inventories. Given the lack of biographies of women like her, writing her story seemed important simply because I had the evidence to do it. Hers was the life that seemed most on the margins of the Rendezvous household. Hers was the story I wanted to tell first.

I don’t have words of wisdom about how I made the decision to focus my WMQ essay on Susannah, because it didn’t feel like a decision at all. Instead it was the result of years of support and encouragement by friends and colleagues. I had clearly absorbed my mentor’s mantra of “go where the sources take you,” but I might have given up altogether had it not been for some key conversations. Every time I voiced my concerns about whether there was enough “there there” someone persuaded me that the only way to know was to keep going, to keep writing to see what happened. And so I did.

The first iteration of the essay fell far short on Susannah’s London experiences as the members of the University of Illinois’ Premodern Workshop helpfully explained. After much research and rewriting, friends in my writing group at the University of Alabama provided great ideas about structure and advice on how to deepen the contextual elements of the narrative. The members of NYU’s Atlantic History Workshop challenged me to be more explicit about how telling Susannah’s story was important in and of itself. And that was all before the WMQ reports pushed me about everything from the ways I framed the significance of my essay, to the status of Susannah’s eldest daughter.

At every stage of the process each snippet of information in the sources led to a dive into the context of Susannah’s circumstances. The name “Mingo” necessitated research into West African naming practices. Birthing children fathered by her master meant that I needed to think deep and hard about how to present the violence and coercion of their interactions. Her son’s occupation as a midshipman invited me to immerse myself in knowledge about the British Navy at the turn of the eighteenth century. I dove into the literature on single women and the spinning industry to respond to a WMQ reader suggestion. Pulling on these, and scores of other threads, allowed me to unravel the narrow and prescriptive view of Susannah offered by the colonial archive and instead, I hope, reconstruct a version of her life that centers her perspective instead. “In the Name of the Mother” is the result.

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