What is an Early American Treaty? – Rachel B. Herrmann

In the summer of 2011, I was in the National Archives in Kew, London, to read papers in the Sierra Leone Original Correspondence collection. I was researching a dissertation that became a book about hunger and the American Revolution, when I did something that most historians have done.1 I read a document that was peripherally related to my research, recorded some initial observations, and moved on because I didn’t know what to say about it. In the years since, I’ve come to interpret this document, in combination with another manuscript, as an 1800 treaty between Sierra Leone Company officials and Jamaican Maroons from Trelawney Town. (I call it “The Terms” in my winter 2023 article for Early American Studies). A negotiation and multiple manuscript documents produced the treaty that laid out the conditions for the Maroons’ resettlement in Sierra Leone after their exile from Jamaica to Nova Scotia. In 2011, I didn’t recognize this document as a treaty; I had to team-teach an undergraduate lecture to clarify my thinking about what it was, and why it mattered. 

Figure 1. This is likely close to what the Maroons saw at the end of September 1800, when they arrived in Freetown. Two days later they negotiated a treaty of settlement with the Sierra Leone Council. Their arrival would have been near the end of the rainy season, so the view may have been sunnier. Thomas Masterson Winterbottom, “A View of Free-town, on the River Sierra Leone” (London, 1803) An account of the native Africans in the neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, to which is added an account of the present state of medicine among them, Wikimedia Commons, Accessed January 13, 2023.

Seven years later, I was a lecturer at Cardiff University. One of my jobs was convening a team-taught undergraduate class on how we practice history. In a co-taught session on sources and the written and unwritten past, my colleague Jenny Benham and I thought out loud about what constituted a treaty, and discussed how our primary-source research informed our understanding of scholarship on treaties. Benham is a historian of diplomacy and international law in the medieval period, and I am a historian of food and hunger who is interested in diplomatic relations between colonists, Native Americans, and people of African descent. We assigned students two articles, one by Benham on the characteristics of medieval treaties, and another by the early American historian James Merrell on the challenges of interpreting British colonial council meetings with Delaware and Haudenosaunee negotiators.2

After the session ended, I started wondering whether the material that I’d taken notes on in 2011 was really part of a treaty because of similarities in form and name. I was familiar with the formulaic components of early American treaties.3 They usually consist of a preamble describing who attended and who interpreted the negotiations; a list of signatories; and a set of numbered articles, or terms, indicating the points agreed upon. My document had “Terms” in its title.4 Sierra Leone Company founder Henry Thornton, one of the document’s authors (I explain in my winter 2023 EAS article why Maroons also co-authored the document), titled the document “Terms on which the Sierra Leone Company propose to receive under their Protection and Government the Maroons now in Nova Scotia, about to be removed thence to the Coast of Africa.” It included twelve articles. Trelawney Town Maroon captains and Sierra Leone governor Thomas Ludlam also negotiated the treaty. I realized I had read a short mention of this negotiation when I returned to my notes from a different collection in the same archive: the Sierra Leone Sessional papers, which contain minutes of Sierra Leone Council meetings. 

Figure 2. It is important to understand the Maroons’ lives in Jamaica to contextualize the agreement that they made in 1800. This image is useful for thinking about the violent crop and animal destruction that characterized the Second Maroon War of 1795–96. It also depicts Maroon homes, crops, land, and animal use in Jamaica. Bryan Edwards, “Trelawney Town, the Chief Residence of the Maroons,” (London, 1801),  The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, Wikimedia Commons, Accessed January 16, 2023.

By drawing on work about speech practices and composite and fragmented archival documents, I was able to read these manuscript collections together to recover the original treaty, contextualize the negotiation that took place to change certain treaty articles, and draw conclusions about the final version that emerged—even though it does not exist in the archives.5 Thanks to suggestions from reviewers, my interpretation evolved from a discussion that contrasted the written with the unwritten to a comparison of the written and the spoken. I argue in Early American Studies that recognizing the document as a treaty is important because it expands our knowledge of Maroons’ diplomacy and their attitudes about past treaties. The Maroons in Freetown remembered past British treaty-breaking, and refused to sign the Terms in 1800 because of this history. I interpret their polite refusal as evidence that identifies the document as a treaty. I also use the agreement to explore how the themes of settlement, alliance, and antislavery in Maroon treaties changed in Jamaica and Sierra Leone in the eighteenth century.

My EAS article started life as a brief note I made in the archives. Time, teaching, and additional research allowed me to more fully “consider the source,” and to adopt a more flexible notion of the geography, form, and structure of early American treaties. An early American treaty probably has terms or articles, but may lack signatories and may not exist in single, final form. Ultimately, I think it advisable that early Americanists consider a wide geography when thinking about treaties and treaty diplomacy. Sierra Leone may seem not to fit into this geography, but it became home to people from what is currently Jamaica, the United States, and Canada. 

Rachel B. Herrmann is a Senior Lecturer in Modern American History at Cardiff University. She is a historian of food, hunger, water, and borders. Her books include No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution and To Feast on Us as Their Prey: Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic.

Twitter: @Raherrmann.

Mastodon: @Raherrmann@historians.social

Read Herrmann’s article “Consider the Source: A 1800 Maroon Treaty” at no cost in EAS’s Winter 2023 issue. Thanks to Penn Press for providing open access to this article.

  1. Rachel B. Herrmann, No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution (New York: Cornell University Press, 2019).
  2. Jenny Benham, “Law or treaty? Defining the edge of legal studies in the early and high medieval periods,” Historical Research, 86, no. 233 (2013), 487–97; James H. Merrell, “‘I Desire All That I Have Said…May Be Taken down Aright’: Revisiting Teedyuscung’s 1756 Treaty Council Speeches,” William and Mary Quarterly, 63, no. 4 (2006): 777–826.
  3. My document, though it dealt with Sierra Leone and not early America, related to a colony on the Upper Guinea Coast colonized by Nova Scotians. These Nova Scotians were formerly enslaved people who had migrated out of the United States and to Nova Scotia, before migrating again to Sierra Leone in 1791. The Jamaican Maroons had also lived in Nova Scotia before migrating to Sierra Leone.
  4. “Terms on which the Sierra Leone Company propose to receive under their Protection and Government the Maroons now in Nova Scotia, about to be removed thence to the Coast of Africa” (enclosed in Henry Thornton to the Duke of Portland, Oct. 5, 1799), CO 267/10, ff. 223–24, The National Archives, London.
  5. Miles Ogborn, “A War of Words: Speech, Script and Print in the Maroon War of 1795–6,” Journal of Historical Geography 37, no. 2 (2011): 203–15; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Ogborn, The Freedom of Speech: Talk and Slavery in the Anglo-Caribbean World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).