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Race history


The Borthwick's records, although they are mainly those of English institutions, include records about many races, and about institutional and individual attitudes to these peoples. These web pages will not cover all the available or relevant records. They will try to provide some information about the most important relevant collections and also give examples of records, which illustrate either important issues, or the stories of individuals.

Church records

The established Church

Through the records kept by the established Church in the diocese of York we can learn a great deal about establishment attitudes to different races. The evidence begins in the Middle Ages, when widely circulated documents, such as indulgences, royal letters or the request for a subsidy to fight in the Holy Land such as that shown on these web pages, were copied into the archbishops' registers (collections of administrative documents from the diocese). These often revealed the attitudes of English kings and bishops towards nations with whom they, or other nations with whom they were allied, were at war. They also demonstrate the links between race and religion at this date. Amongst less official documents, wills and the bequests in them also demonstrate how individuals responded to such events. From the many examples in the archive one medieval example concerning Holy war against the Turks is given here. Later diocesan and parish records also provide information, about, for example, the baptism of black servants or slaves in England in the eighteenth century, and the attitudes of their masters and the clergy to these baptisms, in registers, correspondence and returns from the archbishops' visitations of the parishes within their care. For more information follow the relevant link. Moving into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the diocese of York kept (and still keeps) records of the clergy it sent to serve abroad, these are now held at the Borthwick as the colonial clergy papers. The records of, for example, ordinations of clergy can also provide us with the life stories of individuals like Charles Williamson, the child of an Indian mother and English father who became a member of the clergy in York as deacon in 1814 and a priest in the following year. Follow the link to learn more about his story, and how his race seems to have had little if any affect upon his ordination. The recent records of individual archbishops of York also include many references to their work abroad, particularly in South Africa, in the twentieth century.

Other Anglican institutions and individuals also showed an interest in South Africa: Walter Cotton, a member of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, who spent many years in South Africa working to ordain black clergy. The Borthwick also holds papers of charities such as the Christian Faith Society. This charity began as The Society for Conversion, Religious Instruction and Education of Negro Slaves in the West India Islands, in 1788. The majority of the papers refer to the Society's estate at Brafferton in Yorkshire, but there are also a few papers of more general interest.


The records of non-conformist churches, such as the Methodist Church in York, also contain information about missionary work and particularly about the local missionary associations that supported this work in England. The records of Quaker individuals and organisations also frequently include copies of tracts and publications condemning slavery and the records of both the Tuke family and of the psychiatric hospital they founded in York, The Retreat, are no exception. Their archives contain pamphlets and tracts about slavery, which are discussed on these pages.

Business records

Many businesses in Britain had overseas trade links with plantations. As well as the information which may be obtained from advertising and the possibility of differential advertising for markets in different countries or for different target groups, companies' relationship with their suppliers of raw materials can be an interesting area of study. Amongst these, chocolate-producing companies often had their own cocoa plantations and Rowntree was no exception. The records of Rowntree & Co, include records about the administration of their plantations in Jamaica, Dominica and elsewhere as well as photographs dating from the nineteenth century onwards.

Family records

The papers of individuals or families can reveal a great deal of incidental information about attitudes to race. The diaries and letters of those who worked abroad, perhaps in government positions (such as Edward Wood, first earl of Halifax, who worked as Viceroy of India then British ambassador to America in the 1930s and 1940s) are likely to include their personal opinions of the people amongst whom they lived. Even the diaries and letters of those who did not leave England may provide useful information about current events, for example war or social change, which frequently include their attitudes to other nations and races. Additionally, the records of the administration of family estates outside Britain, plantations and merchant shipping from the eighteenth century on will provide valuable information, often including records about the slave trade.

South African studies

Amongst the collections held at the Borthwick are the papers collected by the former Department for South African Studies. These collections cover a wide variety of records, from an early-twentieth century missionary's photograph collection and the diary of a Boer War soldier from 1901 to publications produced by the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations later in the twentieth-century. Papers were given by writers, activists, churchmen and politicians. Many of these records have access restrictions on them, some placed at the wish of the donor, some because of legislation such as the Data Protection Act. Indexes to these records are available at the Borthwick, please contact an archivist if you think this collection may be of interest to you.