The Lifeworld of Elizabeth Symons: Family biography and Atlantic geographies in a multigenerational letter collection

Karl Offen’s presentation explores a multigenerational family letter collection to illustrate the relationship between family biography and Atlantic geographies from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Among the 300 documents in the letter collection that he and a colleague tracked down from a distant heir and are now held by Special Collections at the University of Bristol Library. In this presentation, Karl will focus on 40 letters written by an upper-middle-class homemaker from Bristol, England, Elizabeth Symons.

Most of Elizabeth’s letters were sent to her brother, Robert Hodgson, a trader and the British superintendent on the Mosquito Shore in eastern Central America (1768-1775). Elizabeth’s daughter and son-in-law gathered and preserved the documents to press property claims on the shore following the family’s demise in the early nineteenth century.

Combining a broad range of domestic and Atlantic themes from the period, the intimate letters provide a rare opportunity to describe how an ordinary Bristolian woman experienced and contributed to transatlantic trade and Atlantic geographies in her everyday life, and how these interacted with developments in Mosquitia, a British enclave in eastern Central America.

About the Speaker

Karl Offen is a historical geographer and political ecologist whose research explores Atlantic environmental history, the history of cartography, and Afro-Amerindian interactions in Central America, Colombia, and the Caribbean basin. He has an MA in Latin American Studies and a PhD in Geography. He is currently a Professor of Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University.

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