The University of Newcastle, Australia

Fabled and true: Tales of slavery, savagery and survival in the lost worlds

An authority on all things American, Dr Kit Candlin is seeking to unearth – and solve – some of its history's most devilish mysteries.

Kit CandlinDr Kit Candlin's job is not for the fainthearted. A self-described "historian of violence," the passionate pioneer is used to detailing some of "the worst, unimaginable punishments" and social arrangements in the Age of Exploration to the early 21stcentury, reconstructing the rise of Europe, Africa and the Americas through chillingly illustrative racial and spatial lenses.

"Basically, we're talking about the empires that looked out on the Atlantic Ocean from 1400-1840," he explains about the latter.

"These include the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and a small number of other interesting inhabitants."

I like this frame of understanding because there is room to investigate issues on micro and macro levels, such as individual colonies and the differences between cultures and the people who lived between them.

"You can't be as specific with global history or as contextual with national history."

Equally grim, though no less intriguing, Kit also specialises in the Old World slave trade. A walking talking chronology of its origins, abolition and emancipation, the University of Newcastle lecturer concedes his niche is analogous, in many ways, to Holocaust studies.

"Both are very grim," he acknowledges.

"We have to try and stay cheerful and objective."

Against the grain

Kit began his research career with a first class Honours degree at the University of Sydney in 2005. Chiefly focusing on late 18th century India during the one-year probe, he looked to provide a "revisionist history" of the biography of one of its Colonial administrators.

"I then undertook a PhD in 2006," the energetic scholar states.

"Eventually I settled on the conflict and contestation inherent in the southern Caribbean during what we call the Age of Revolutions (1760-1820), particularly in the colonies of Trinidad, Grenada and Demerara."

"I thought it was a great, really interesting region to study for my candidature," he shares.

"During the Age of Revolution (1760-1820), Trinidad for example was originally a Spanish colony filled with French immigrants and their slaves, lots of Republicans, and a few Germans and Portuguese – a real melting pot!"

"Then in 1797 the British seized it from the Iberians"

Painting Trinidad as a "very frontier colony," like Grenada and Demerara in South America, Kit argues the island was also the last part of the Caribbean to be settled.

"I went through documents in London's National Archives as well as archives in the Caribbean to uncover this information," he confirms.

"My findings led to the publication of a few articles and my first book."

Freedom and a farm

Kit stayed on at the University of Sydney after receiving his award in 2009, employed as a Research Associate to work on the celebrated 'Black Loyalist Project.' A story about people wanting to join the Empire, the creative collaboration saw the dedicated historian trace the life journeys of more than 3,000 ex-slaves.

"A lot escaped from their plantations in America's south to join the British frontline in the War of Independence," he advises.

"Then they were granted their freedom, which meant repostings to Nova Scotia, London and eventually Africa."

"Some of those sent to London were even on the First Fleet to Australia as well."

"So the settlement of Australia was a little more multicultural than most would imagine."

Locating a handful of "fantastic resources" throughout the long-term online endeavour, Kit and the team were able to rebuild and articulate the intricacies of slave family life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

"We looked at the 'Book of Negroes,' which lists all of the vital statistics, such as owners, origins and first and last names," he reveals.

"We used Virginia's taxation records too."

Reuniting with research partners Professor Iain McCalman and Professor Cassandra Pybus a couple of years later in 2011, Kit decided to pursue another hidden history – this time in rural England. The trio produced a documentary on the famed 'Wuthering Heights' novel during their stint abroad, seeking to learn the root of inspiration for its tortured romantic hero and protagonist, Heathcliff.

"It was pretty clear to us from the get-go that he was an Afro-Caribbean man of mixed race," the dedicated academic clarifies.

"We think the author was influenced by her minister father, who was an anti-slave advocate, and by the Sills family in Dentdale, Yorkshire, who were wealthy Jamaican plantation owners with servants."

"The Bronte sisters passed their farm on route to the Clergy Daughters' School in Cowan Bridge."

From slavery to wealth

In early 2015, the British native penned another book with Cassandra Pybus on the "free people of colour" between slaves and white plantation owners. Called 'Enterprising Women: Gender, Race and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic', the popular hardback was funded by Kit's Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdoctoral Fellowship and examines self-emancipation, violence and volatility in regional slave societies during the Age of Revolution.

"This particular population usually had white fathers or grandfathers and slave mothers who were possibly freed as well," he divulges.

"A lot of them inherited and a lot of them were quite entrepreneurial, which meant they contributed to the economy by becoming slave owners."

"They also tended to be very mobile, moving around colonies and having their children educated in schools overseas."

A prolific publisher, Kit is also in the process of submitting an ARC grant application for a third book on the New World. Animated and ambitious in equal measure, the multiple award-winner is hoping to explore the transference of brutal regimes from the wider Atlantic to modern American colonies in the lead up to the War of Independence (1740-1765). 

"I'm going to tell the story of George Washington too," he discloses.

"My project will put the United States in context – there were definite, outside influences that impacted upon its invention."

Digging deep

A master at multitasking, Kit is simultaneously writing an article about Fédon's Rebellion in Grenada. Bravely launched against the British in 1795, the uprising has since largely been lost in the French Revolutionary wars.

"People just haven't heard of it, let alone talked about it in the context of other slave revolts," he affirms.

"But it's exceptionally significant."

"Around 8,000 slaves died, which is, by some margin, the largest slave rebellion in terms of casualties in the Caribbean."

Firmly believing in the scholastic value of the Atlantic World, Kit is also set to write an article for 'Agora,' the Journal of the Victorian Teachers' Association.

"Educators are looking for ways to approach global history," he suggests.

"If you can learn regional history first, you get the best of both worlds."