Last weekend the full archive of the Old Bailey court records from 1674-1913 went live. It’s freely accessible and full-text searchable. It’s an incredible resource – and it ground to an expected but gratifying halt due to the volume of traffic at launch.
The digital promise
The great thing about digital archives for historians is that peripheral sources that are normally too time consuming to track down can be used with the same ease as those from a subject- or location-specific archive. The history of Britain’s African colonies, for example, relies on a canon of missionary and government sources held in the UK, and national and regional archives in Africa. Other archival sources are underused because the ratio of useful material to research hours is too unrewarding. With searchable archives, data-mining etc., the potential cost of research could become trivial.
As an experiment, I spent half an hour looking for African history in the records of a London courtroom – and it’s there alright. I ran searches on place names, personal names, ethnic epithets and racial slurs. Even that wasn’t very time-consuming, but it’s easy to imagine APIs that would allow you to query a digital archive, or set of archives, with a set of keywords relevant to your research, and return a group of potential files. This kind of stuff has enormous potential.
The African diaspora: crime and respectability
Using a series of fairly obvious search terms, for example, threw up some intriguing material on African history. Most obviously, there is information on the lives of Africans or their descendants in London, of whom there were many. The defence of highwayman Joseph Guy in 1767 was that ‘There are a thousand black men in London besides me’. Unsurprisingly, most appear in criminal contexts. Poor Thomas Robinson (‘a Negro Black Boy ‘), for example, was sentenced to death for house-breaking and stealing ‘divers Goods’ in 1724. But others were respectable citizens. John Bardoe was bought as a slave in Lagos by a Genoese sea-captain and, when their ship docked in London in 1859, Bardoe apparently freed himself with the aid of a fellow countryman and began working for another Italian. Bardoe then fell ill and, in a feverish state, assumed he was being recaptured. He first barricaded himself into his room, then made a break for it and stabbed a policeman in a rooftop chase. An interesting story in itself – but the translator at the trial was ‘Miss. M. B. Servano, a native of Yorubah, and educated in England’. There are lots of interesting analytical details there: social networks among Africans in London, the continuation of slavery at sea, perceptions of freedom, and the education of African women. Bardoe was found to have acted in self-defence and judged not guilty.
But the Old Bailey material also has the potential to feed back into research on Africa itself. One area of my research that looks particularly promising is the migration of children within and to the Gold Coast. The detailed records I have of this phenomenon date from after WWII, so I was fascinated to discover the story of John Prince, a West African who in 1908 was working as a servant in London. A Doctor Bayfield had employed Prince, then aged about sixteen, in West Africa and brought him to London on his return to Europe. Prince later defrauded Bayfield and was imprisoned for one day before being seen off to Liverpool by the court missionary. I have no idea what court missionaries do, so I’m not sure if Prince’s treatment was normal – or if this was exceptional treatment doled out to an African.
The great ship robbery
Conditions on the West African coast also make an appearance because some crimes at sea seem to have been prosecuted in London rather than locally. In 1848, for example, the prominent Gold Coast merchant Andrew Swanzy had chests containing 1760 ounces of gold dust – now worth a cool $1.5 million – stolen from the brig Lemuel while it was anchored offshore close to the town of Cormantine. Three crew members struck out in a longboat laden with booty. They were captured on a beach eastwards of Cormantine, where ‘a great number of natives’ were hauling the booty away from the surf. This is an interesting crime. Was it pre-arranged? How much contact did European crews have with locals in African port towns? Was this a criminal alliance where class (or greed) was more important than colour? Or were the ‘natives’ robbing the robbers?
There are, I’m sure, a lot more intriguing cases in these archives that would illuminate history far beyond the parochial borders of London or Britain. Digital history is so exciting because it provides the potential for a truly global history – a history not just written about the whole world, but that draws its evidence from a global store of knowledge, and is written, researched and distributed using methods that are independent of place.