Williams Ethnological Collection

The John J. Burns Library is home to the formerly named Nicholas M. Williams Ethnological Collection, now known at the library simply as the Williams Ethnological Collection. A large and important amount of material with especial strengths in Carribeana and Africana, the Williams Collection is made up of books, manuscripts, and maps covering a wide variety of subjects pertaining particularly to Jamaica and Africa. Previous blog posts and Flickr sets have provided insight into fascinating details of the collection including its sources on pirates, beautiful maps of the Caribbean, and travel guides. The history of the collection as a thoughtfully curated entirety helps pull these interesting pieces into a cohesive whole, providing insight into how the collection was put together, and the ways in which it might be useful to researchers.

The Williams Collection was developed by Joseph J. Williams, SJ, an anthropology lecturer at Boston College and a missionary to Jamaica. Williams was born in Boston in December of 1875. He was educated at home by his mother until he attended Boston College High School. He joined the Jesuit order in 1893 and was ordained at Woodstock College in 1907. He studied theology and served in several different positions including teaching at the College of Francis Xavier, Loyola School, and St.-Andrew-on-the-Hudson. Williams served as a missionary to Jamaica from 1912-1917 before returning to the States. It was during his time in Jamaica that Williams began gathering anthropological information on Jamaica and its inhabitants, a scholarly tradition that he would continue throughout his life. After his return, Williams continued amassing printed materials and

Anancy Images_Page_1

Bra Anancy and Bra Turkey by James Reid of Frankfield School, Box 12, Folder 2, Williams Ethnological Collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

manuscripts on the Caribbean and Africa, including over four thousand versions of Anancy tales solicited from over one thousand schoolchildren in a contest in 1930-31. The tales, written on notebook paper or in school blue books, were put on microfilm in 2003 and are accompanied by a guide and concordance that identifies Williams as “a prominent ethnologist with a strong interest in religious beliefs and psychic phenomena in Jamaica and their links to West African culture” (5). An author as well as a collector, Williams wrote several books

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Bra Anancy and Bra Peadove by James Reid, Box 12, Folder 2, Williams Ethnological Collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

including Whispering of the Caribbean (1925), Whence the “Black Irish” of Jamaica (1935), Voodoos and Obeahs (1932), Psychic Phenomena in Jamaica (1935), and Africa’s God (1937) some of which are now included in the book portion of the collection. Williams gave anthropology lectures at Boston College and helped establish a now defunct anthropology department. He also participated in the spiritual life of the campus, serving as the director for student retreats in the late 1920s. Williams, whose health began failing in the 1930s, retired to Shadowbrook, a Jesuit residence in the Berkshires, where he died on October 28, 1940. The collection that he left behind remains a legacy of his support and passion for anthropology.

The book collection is quite extensive, containing over seven thousand volumes from as early as the sixteenth century. It is especially rich in the history of Jamaica and Africa and includes books about geography, history, religion, customs, missionary

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Bra Anancy an Bra Fish by James Reid, Box 12, Folder 2, Williams Ethnological Collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

accounts, politics, slave trade and legislation, tourist information, and ecology. The manuscript collection is equally as varied as it is comprised of Anancy stories, manuscripts such as wills, indenture agreements, and other legal documents dated between 1771 and 1846, correspondence between London and the British colonial government in Jamaica, and even a letter by Toussaint Louverture, the famous

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Sketches & Music for Anancy Stories by Rebecca Dewdney of St. Theresa’s School, Jamaica, Box 13, Folder 1, Williams Ethnological Collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

leader of the Haitian Revolution that ended with the establishment of Haiti as a free state in 1804. Maps of Africa, Jamaica, and Caribbean islands, and lithographs, engravings, and woodcuts of locations in Jamaica and Africa conclude the manuscript collection. The combination of all of these parts, form a collection that is rich, varied, and unique. An excellent resource for researchers introduced in the history, folklore, and religion of Jamaica and Africa, the Williams collection is a collaboration of materials available in the Reading Room at the Burns Library. If you are interested in seeing any part of the collection, please contact the Burns Library at burnsref@bc.edu or (617)-552-4861.

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  • Rachel A. Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD Candidate in the English Department


Delaney, John J. Dictionary of American Catholic Biography. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1984.

Guide & Concordance to Spider Trickster Tales from Jamaica: The Anansi Folk Tales Collection. Boston College & Moran Micropublications, 2003.

“Toussaint Louverture.” Wikipedia. Accessed June 16, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toussaint_Louverture.

Williams Ethnological Collection Finding Aid. John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Woodstock Letters on the Jesuit Archives website, accessed June 6, 2016, http://jesuitarchives.org/woodstock-letters/ .

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1 Response to Williams Ethnological Collection

  1. Sheree Blakemore says:

    Thanks for your serve.

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