I have returned today to the task of transcribing Macintosh’s Caribbean letterbook. This job, which I have been undertaking with the kind assistance of my dad, has become trickier in recent weeks as a result of a change that occurred almost 250 years ago. In 1772, for reasons that go unrecorded, Macintosh employed a new amanuensis to copy his outgoing correspondence. The previous scribe, whose writing was, for the most part, gratifyingly legible was replaced by one who favoured a rather more impenetrable scrawl. Pages that used to take me or my dad 20 or 30 minutes to transcribe now take close to an hour and, try as we might, there is no “getting your eye in” with this particular scribe—every word has to be wrestled from the page.
One of the consequences of the shift to the difficult-to-decipher scribe is that there is no opportunity for quickly scanning the pages of the letterbook for key terms or interesting-seeming snippets; it necessitates word-by-word, line-by-line interrogation. The unintended benefit of this approach, however, is that it is possible to identify short, but important, snippets of text that otherwise might easily be overlooked. One such example cropped up today in a long letter Macintosh sent to his close friend, the London merchant and later MP, John Townson in 1772. In the letter, Macintosh thanks Townson for sending out newspapers and “Junius’s Letters”. This is a reference to a famous series of letters—critical of the government and the crown—published between 1769 and 1772 in the Public Advertiser under the pseudonym Junius. The first authorised collection of these letters was issued as a two-volume set by the publisher of the Public Advertiser, Henry Sampson Woodfall, in 1772.
Junius’s letters were a cause célèbre (in much the same way that the letters that made up Macintosh’s Travels became a decade later). In addition to their incendiary content and compelling rhetorical style, considerable interest was generated by their uncertain authorship. In the two-and-a-half centuries since their publication, a scholarly industry has emerged around the question of attribution. While the list of suspects is long, the consensus has favoured Sir Philip Francis. There is, of course, an obvious connection here with Macintosh in that many contemporary critics attributed the content of Travels, particularly its criticism of Warren Hastings and the East India Company, to Francis. To his opponents, Macintosh was simply “an agent employed by Mr. Francis to traduce the character of Governor Hastings“.
It is interesting to speculate on what Macintosh’s might have made of Junius’s letters and how they shaped his own views and political writing. It is certainly possible that they provided, if not a model to follow, at least a goal to aspire to. In any event, this goes to show how important even a two-word phrase can be in shaping my understanding of Macintosh.