Monthly Archives: July 2020

Turtles to Roehampton (and the Crisis of 1772)

The maintenance of friendships, alliances, and business relationships across the vast Atlantic occasionally saw Macintosh sending gifts to his correspondents. On 20 March 1772, Macintosh wrote to his friend Alexander Fordyce to say that he was sending him “a small family Turtle” and, for his wife (Lady Margaret Lindsay, whom Fordyce had married two years earlier), a few yards of “India Gauze”. Although Macintosh reckoned the fabric “may not be qualified for use in London”, he felt sure that “she at Roehampton may grace it”.

Portrait miniature of Lady Margaret Janet Fordyce (1753–1814), by Anne Mee (née Foldsone), undated.

At that point, Fordyce and Lady Margaret were perhaps Macintosh’s highest-status correspondents; Fordyce had carved out a successful career in banking and his speculations on East India Company stock had netted him a fortune, enabling the purchase of the Roehampton Park estate to the west of London.

What Macintosh could not know was that Fordyce’s success was built on sand. From 1771 Fordyce had begun to accrue losses which he concealed from his partners. By the middle of 1772, Fordyce’s losses could no longer be hidden and, on 10 June, he absconded to France, precipitating the collapse of the bank. A domino effect was triggered, resulting in the failure of a score of banks and a liquidity crisis that significantly affected Britain and other parts of Europe. In triggering the Crisis of 1772, Fordyce was the Nick Leeson cum Fred Goodwin of his day.

“A [four dice] Macaroni. Gambler”, Matthew Darly, 2 July 1772. British Museum 1915,0313.151.

In addition to becoming a subject for satire (as in the print above), Fordyce was a lightning rod for public anger. The global geopolitical consequences of Fordyce’s actions have long been debated, but it is clear that they had a direct impact on Macintosh when lines of credit dried up and he was unable to turn his Caribbean investments into a profit. The 1772 crisis marked the beginning of the end of Macintosh’s time in the Caribbean; his world, and the world in general, was beginning to tilt on its axis.

What became of the turtle is, of course, a mystery.

Travelling in style

I have written before about Macintosh’s desire to travel in comfort whilst at sea and this trait is exemplified in a long shopping list Macintosh sent to his friend Anthony Richardson on 1 March 1772. “Friendship”, Mackintosh noted, “is pleasing, but it exposes one to trouble”. This was, indeed, true for Richardson who was required, at Macintosh’s behest, to hunt down a wide range of goods: everything from “2 Guernsey Shirts, the largest sizes from Waller hosier, nearly opposite to St. Katherine Street” to “a Machine for examining the Qualities of Soil, without the labour of digging up it will penetrate into the Earth & when taken out may be opened, & each Strata of Mold is discovered within the Machine”. Macintosh’s request for a travelling case is, however, particularly interesting for what it reveals about his personal preferences and quotidian activities (especially as they relate to eating and drinking).

To bring him out, a neat & strong Travelling Case, on which Mr. R must prove his fancy, to contain a sizeable Tea Pot, a small Coffee Pot, A Milk Pot, 6 ½ Pint Cups and Saucers, 2 Pint Basons & Saucers, 6 Shallow, & 6 Soap Plates, 3 small Dishes, all of China; A Tea Bottle with a wide Mouth, a Sugar Bottle with Do., 6 pint decanters, engraved one for Syrop [sic], two for Liquor, two for Madeira & one for Claret, a Mustard, Vinegar, Pepper & oil Cruets engraved also, all with ground Stoppers; A Salt Seller contrived with a Top to preserve the Salt at Sea; 6 neat short Wine Glasses & 1 Do. wine & water Glasses, 6 Table & Tea spoons, with his Crest engraved on them; 6 Ivory handled Knives and Forks; a Pint Bottle for Bitters, with a ground Stopper, & Bitters engraved on it; several spare appartments [sic] for Towels, Medicines & fishing apparatus; two razors, & shaving utensils Combs, if a neat small Tureen of any figure could be stow’d away in it, it would be pleasing, and in that case a small Tureen silver Ladle. A small drawer to contain Ink, Sand, Wafers, Pens, and a quire of 4t Paper.—

Bibliothèque municipale d’Avignon, MS.1297, Macintosh to Anthony Richardson, 1 March 1772, fo. 233

Slow and steady

Screenshot showing the transcription of one of William Macintosh's letters.

In the last week or so the normal torrent of work-related emails has eased sufficiently (famous last words) for me to join Team Macintosh 3.0 (aka my dad, Alex) in transcribing William Macintosh’s Caribbean letter book. Of the 498 pages in the book, we are now well past the half-way point, with 204 pages left to transcribe. Among much else, these letters offer a unique insight into Macintosh’s political apprenticeship in the Caribbean and show how his ideas about the management of empire and the nature of subjecthood were shaped.

One letter—sent to a fellow Grenadian planter, Thomas Proudfoot, on 16 November 1771—is typical in this respect. It describes Macintosh’s meeting with William Leybourne (1744—1775), the Island’s newly appointed Governor. Leybourne had been appointed to replace Robert Melvill (1723–1809) with whom Macintosh had clashed over the rights of the island’s French Catholics. Ultimately Leybourne would prove no more successful than Melvill in his attempts to ensure the effective governance of Grenada, but it is evident that Macintosh was cautiously optimistic at this stage about Leybourne’s arrival, not least because it irritated Melvill’s supporters. Read from the perspective of 2020, it would seem that Leybourne was, in his demeanour and behaviour, practised in the art of social distancing:

Governor Leybourne arrived about a fortnight ago, carries very great state, has Levee days, & shakes no hands; but he prudently keeps all at an equal distance, and is very prudently reserved. I have made my Bow, did not exchange two words with him, nor am I ambitious of a nearer intimacy[.] The Melvillians are staggering by reason of his absolute Powers over his Council, and the indispensable power of Indulgence to the R[oman]. C[atholic]. Subjects, but they threaten violently[.] I shall be steady untill the return of my friends, and then adieu Politics.—

Bibliothèque municipale d’Avignon, MS.1297, Macintosh to Thomas Proudfoot, 16 November 1771, fo. 217

Revealing as these letters are about Macintosh’s political awakening, they are equally (if much less palatably) illuminating about his status as a slaveholder. I have long grappled with the difficultly such material presents but this issue has, very obviously, been thrown into sharper relief by recent debates about the legacies of British slavery. Although Macintosh was, by contemporary standards, somewhat egalitarian, this characteristic certainly did not stretch to include the Black Africans on whose enslaved labour he depended. This is not something I will ignore and, indeed, is vitally important when it comes to understanding how Macintosh’s ideas about individual rights fell, more often than not, along lines of racial prejudice.

It is worth mentioning, of course, that Macintosh’s letters occasionally deal with more quotidian and less contentious matters and that he possessed a rather dry sense of humour, as is evidenced in this account of a near-death experience:

I had like to have kicked the Bucket the day before yesterday by a mistake in making Creme Tarter Whey; instead of that Drug they put about 150 Grains in of Tartar Emetic into it, my Salvation was miraculous, without any Assistance than a hot Bath to soften the pangs of the Cramp & Convulsions.—

Bibliothèque municipale d’Avignon, MS.1297, Macintosh to Thomas Proudfoot, 16 November 1771, fo. 217