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Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection

Collection MS-2009-030: Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection


  • Creation: 1654-1937, undated
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1770-1860 and 1931-1932

Scope and Contents

This collection contains materials created and compiled by Joseph J. Williams, SJ and reflects his academic interests in the Caribbean and Africa.

The bulk of the collection consists of the Anansi stories, approximately four thousand handwritten tales about a folk character which originated in Africa and became part of Jamaican traditions. The stories were written by Jamaican school children in 1930 in response to a contest Williams ran, and are accompanied by transcriptions.

The collection also contains manuscripts of anthropological works by Williams and others working in Africa and the Carribbean. Williams collected additional materials documenting these regions which span the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. They include: broadsides; correspondence; engravings; financial, legal, and shipping documents; newspapers; and reports. Their topics comprise the history, culture, and religious practices of the Caribbean (particularly Jamaica) and Africa; abolition and the slave trade; piracy; colonialism; and the Jesuit order. Some highlights of the collection are an eighteenth-century indenture (a legal contract, in this case for the lease of an estate); a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wills; a letter written by Sir William Penn (an English navy admiral and the father of William Penn, the founder of the state of Pennsylvania); and a unique handmade scrapbook entitled “Souvenir of the Isle of Springs."


Language of Materials

The collection contains materials in English, French, Spanish, and Latin.

Restrictions on Access

Collection open for research except for Series I, which is closed due to fragility. However, portions of the collection--including Series I-- are available digitally.

Restrictions on Use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Biographical note

Joseph J. Williams, SJ was born on December 1, 1875, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Nicholas and Mary Jane Williams. Williams attended Boston College High School, the College of St. Francis Xavier, Woodstock College, and Loyola School, New York and became a member of the Society of Jesus in 1895. In 1907 he was ordained.

In 1912 Williams traveled to Jamaica as a missionary. This appointment proved influential to him, as he became fascinated by anthropology and Jamaican and African folklore and cultural beliefs. He spent five years in the country, years which laid the groundwork for his future studies.

Williams returned to the United States in 1918, working at Woodstock College and College of the Holy Cross. In the 1920s and 1930s, he published a number of scholarly works concerning African and Caribbean history and belief systems, including Whisperings of the Caribbean (1925), Whence the Black Irish of Jamaica (1930), Hebrewisms of West Africa (1930), and Voodoo and Obeah in Jamaica (1932). In 1930, he launched a contest encouraging Jamaican school children to submit stories about the trickster character Anansi. In the early 1930s he became a lecturer in anthropology at Boston College.

Williams intended to travel to Africa to research his next project in the mid-1930s, but he became ill and spent the next few years bedridden, before dying on October 28, 1940 from a heart attack.


“Father Joseph J. Williams, 1875-1940,” Woodstock Letters, vol. 69 (1940).

McLaughlin, G. L., “Father Joseph John Williams (1875-1940), ‘Duppy Williams’,” (1993).


21 Linear Feet (28 containers)


The Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection documents the research interests of Williams, a Jesuit priest who studied the history and culture of the Caribbean and Africa. It includes over four thousand handwritten stories about the African folk character Anansi, as well as anthropological manuscripts; correspondence; engravings; financial, legal, and shipping documents; newspapers; and government reports, all dating from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.


The Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection is arranged into four series: I. Anansi stories, II. Anthropology manuscripts, III. Collected Caribbeana, and IV. Collected Africana.

Series II is further arranged into two subseries: A. By Williams and B. By others.

Series III. is arranged into nine subseries: A. Broadsides, B. Correspondence, C. Finance, D. Illustrations, E. Newspapers, F. Religious, G. Reports, H. Shipping, and I. Wills and estates.

Series IV is arranged into two subseries: A. Illustrations, and B. Manuscripts.

All materials are arranged alphabetically withing series/subseries.


Because the current accessioning system was not used until January 1986, it is not possible to know exactly the dates of acquisition of materials received before that time.

Existence of digital copies

Portions of this collection are available digitally. Links are included in the inventory.

Separated Materials

Published works associated with this collection have been transferred within the Burns Library and can be found in the Boston College Library catalog. This includes the maps that were previously described in this collection.

Processing Information

The name of the folk character Anansi has multiple spellings. We have used the spelling "Anansi" in our description because it is the Library of Congress authorized form. The spelling "Anancy" is also common in the Caribbean, and that spelling is frequently found on the materials in this collection.

Many materials in this collection have manuscript numbers believed to have been assigned by Williams. They are noted in parenthesis after the titles of the materials where known.

Joseph J. Williams, SJ Ethnological Collection
1654-1937, undated (bulk 1770-1860 and 1931-1932)
Annalisa Moretti
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States