Wee Beleeve


Map of Jamaica, 1671

From Historical Research:

In its 24 October 1651 issue the London newsbook Faithfull Scout triumphantly announced that English Commonwealth troops had suppressed the recent royalist rebellion on Barbados. ‘By several Letters’, the report explained, ‘it is certainly confirmed, that the Inhabitants have submitted themselves to the obedience of the Parliament, and surrendered all their Forts and places of strength to be disposed of as they in their wisdome shall think fit’. Two weeks later the government-sponsored newsbook Mercurius Politicus also carried news of the submission of Barbados. ‘Severall Letters’, which editor Marchamont Nedham described as ‘fresh and fresh’, declared an end to the rebellion and ‘the Barbadas to be surrender’d up to Sr. George Aiscough’. Nedham had considerable access to government documents and restricted information through his ties to the Commonwealth’s council of state and to Thomas Scot, its head of intelligence (and after 1653 to Scot’s successor John Thurloe). Nedham’s position and connections thus could add the weight of insider knowledge to the material printed in Politicus. In contrast to Faithfull Scout, however, Politicus was more restrained. After informing readers of the news of Parliament’s victory, Politicus acknowledged that corroboration had yet to arrive: ‘We cannot assure it, though wee beleeve, and hope well’. With this qualification Nedham achieved several tasks. He provided ‘fresh’ news, which was vital for a commercial publication in a competitive marketplace, one with an average of about six to ten weekly newsbooks and a host of popular pamphlets. The expressions of confidence and hope offered support for the republic’s military ventures and subjugation of royalist opposition. Conceding the need for verification enabled Nedham to serve as a news authority without sacrificing his reputation or credibility as an editor and journalist. It also functioned as a means to entice readers to turn to future issues of his weekly paper for updates. Readers had good reason for, depending on their sympathies, either cautious optimism or nervous dread that the news of the republic’s suppression of colonial rebellion would receive confirmation. In this same issue, and indeed on the same page, Politicus reported other Commonwealth victories at Jersey and Wexford and anticipated further successes elsewhere, including at Limerick and on the Isle of Man. In this manner, news coverage positioned the still fledgling English republic in a transatlantic theatre of war, fighting royalist enemies at home and the colonies overseas.

British news culture in the 1650s, formerly an understudied topic, is now attracting robust scholarly interest. Recent studies of mid seventeenth-century news in Britain and on the continent have explored the distribution and circulation of pamphlets and newsbooks, the responsiveness of writers, printers and publishers to current events, and the engagement of readers with printed material. The study of news and the spread of information across the British Atlantic in the 1650s, however, has lagged rather behind. In recent years a wealth of scholarship on imperialism and the Atlantic world has enriched our understanding of the interconnectedness of institutions, people, trade and commodities. The relationship between metropole and colony, historians have amply demonstrated, was complex, dynamic, multidimensional and multidirectional, as circumstances or events in one area or region affected another and could resonate across the empire. Detailed examinations of legal and political institutions, religious, intellectual and ideological currents, merchant and trade networks, and migration have traced these transatlantic connections and their development and evolution.

Much work still remains to be done on British news networks and news culture in the 1650s in general and the Atlantic world in particular. One characteristic of transatlantic news that distinguished it from that circulating within and across Britain, Ireland and much of the continent was distance, which in turn influenced news presentation, context and interpretation. Newsbooks organized reports not by topic but by day of the week, usually according to the date of receipt of letters or information. Readers were informed about events as they unfolded. This structure helped produce what Daniel Woolf has termed the ‘construction of the present’ and Brendan Dooley has called ‘the emergence of contemporaneity’. Yet Atlantic news in the 1650s and its coverage of war and empire often underscored the impact of temporal and geographical distance. At its quickest, the post would take five weeks to cross the Atlantic. Once it reached English shores, news, in the form of verbal gossip, rumour and information, as well as manuscript letters and reports from Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean, could be printed, summarized, redacted and edited in newsbooks and pamphlets. Depending on the publication cycle, it could take another week or two to reach print.

“Barbados, Jamaica and the development of news culture in the mid seventeenth century”, Nicole Greenspan, Historical Research

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