Monthly Archives: February 2021

February in review

If January bucked the trend of months seeming to zip past in the blink of an eye, February has very much marked a return to business as usual. I can’t quite believe that four working weeks have passed and that it is now six months since I began my Fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust. Yikes!

As ever, this month has been a mixed bag: I feel like I’ve made good progress in some areas and have stalled in others. At the end of January, I set myself the goal of finishing my account of Macintosh’s two decades in the Caribbean by the end of February. That goal was, I now realise, hopelessly optimistic. As I neared 30,000 words of the book’s first empirical chapter, I had only got as far as 1768. I realised that, as I was only just over the half-way point in terms of what I wanted to say about Macintosh’s formation as a political actor in the Caribbean, I needed to split the chapter. Now, I have one chapter (25,863 inclusive of notes) that covers the period between Macintosh’s birth in 1737 and his return to Britain in 1768 to lobby the government over the rights of French Catholics in Grenada and attempt to unseat Robert Melvill as the island’s governor. The second empirical chapter (currently 5,287 inclusive of notes) will follow that story in London and then return with Macintosh to Grenada to witness the aftermath of that lobbying.

I feel happier now that I have restructured this element of the book—in many ways it is endlessly fascinating, but it is also really quite important in terms of understanding how and why Macintosh became drawn into political activity. At the same time, I have become aware that my productivity, if measured crudely in words per day, has been declining month on month. This is, I think, due to a combination of factors. The first, and most significant, is the time invested (20 hours per working week) on home schooling since the beginning of January. There are simply not enough hours in the day to write a book and educate a five-year-old, and the level of fatigue has been creeping up as a result. Still, my phonics and number bonds have come on in leaps and bounds.

Flattening the curve (but in the wrong way).

The second issue is that, as the complexity of the social and political contexts in which Macintosh was involved increases, I am spending proportionally more time researching than writing. This was especially true this month when, earlier than I had expected, I needed to start understanding and writing about the politics of the East India Company. The learning curve has been a steep one, but I think it has allowed me to understand Macintosh and his milieu more fully than I had before and to identify the centrality of Lauchlin Macleane to Macintosh’s activities in the West Indies and British India during the 1770s.

I have also drawn a great deal of inspiration from some of the work I have read this month, particularly Emma Rothschild’s An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries and Robert A. Caro’s Working.

Very early in my work on Macintosh, I had read Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (2011), ostensibly for a footnote reference to Macintosh that it contained, and was totally blown away by it—I thought it was wonderful. That book follows one Scottish family—the Johnstones—across Britain’s eighteenth-century empire. An Infinite History is also a family story, but one that focuses on five generations of a family from Angoulême in the south west of France (all descendants of one illiterate woman, Marie Aymard) from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Although the source material for An Infinite History is different—drawing largely from civic records and notarial acts and less from correspondence—it is equally compelling and in many ways quite beautiful. (I can also recommend the audiobook, which is excellent).

Macintosh serves as an interesting connection between Rothschild’s books, and the families she discusses; he was a friend of one Johnstone brother (Alexander) and a business partner of another (William) and was involved in Grenadian politics with the man who employed Marie Aymard’s husband, Jean-Alexandre Cazaud. Six degrees of separation, indeed! Together, Rothschild’s books represent the kind of history I aspire to write, but to which I know I will never come close. It matters, though, to have something to aim towards.

Caro’s book, on the other hand, is inspiring in a slightly different way. In his reflections on the lengthy (indeed, very lengthy) process of writing two biographies—one on the roguish “master builder” Robert Moses, the other on Lyndon B. Johnson—Caro makes the ultimate case for slow scholarship. Part of me wishes it were possible for me to follow his example, and to invest another decade in turning every page of Macintosh’s archive and in chasing down every lead, but part of me realises that my work, and this book I am writing, cannot be definitive. It can be as good as I can make it in the time and with the resources I have, but should start a conversation about Macintosh, not be the last word on him.

History hangs on a comma; Or, on the anatomy of an error

Last week, as often happens, I found myself disappearing down a scholarly rabbit hole as I tried to resolve a familiar problem: the issue that arises when two or more secondary sources conflict about a matter of historical fact. Divergence in the historical literature is, of course, entirely normal, but it does force any writer to make a decision about which “side” they think is the most reliable. In this instance, the divergence came down to a simple issue of whether or not a comma was present in the manuscript annotation of a 1765 letter. The annotation could be read in two different ways depending upon whether the comma was there or not. This was a puzzle that, as a perfectionist and a pedant, I couldn’t resist, even though it was not central to any of the arguments I was trying to make.

The annotation, which is typically attributed to Edmund Burke, appears on a copy of a circular letter that had been composed in concert between the Marquess of Rockingham, then Prime Minister, and merchant/political lobbyist Barlow Trecothick, in an effort to solicit petitions against the 1764 Stamp Act, which the pair were then seeking to repeal. The circular was very successful and prompted a deluge of petitions that significantly helped efforts to repeal the Act. Given the significance of the Stamp Act, and resistance to it, for historians of the American Revolution, this letter has been written about a great deal in the secondary literature, and the annotation which appears on it has been cited many, many times.

Detail from “General Letter from Comee. of North American Merchants (about Trade) to the outports & to the manufacturing Towns,” 6 December 1765, Sheffield City Archives, WWM/R1/535.

The annotation, above, reads:

N. B. This Letter concerted between the Marquess of R. & Mr. Trecothick The principal instrument in the happy repeal of the Stamp Act, wh. witht. giving up the British authority quieted the Empire

Although there is clearly not a comma after “Trecothick”, several sources—such as Kammen, writing in A Rope of Sand (1968), below—have assumed there was. In that case, the “principal instrument” becomes Trecothick, rather than the letter itself.

Michael G. Kammen, A Rope of Sand: The Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (1968), p. 29.

This is not, however, Kammen’s error. If we look at his footnotes, we see that he was, in fact, quoting from Carl B. Cone’s 1957 book Burke and the Nature of Politics: The Age of the American Revolution, see below.

Carl B. Cone, Burke and the Nature of Politics: The Age of the American Revolution (1957), p. 95.

As it turns out, the error was not in fact Cone’s; he was merely quoting from yet another source: the Earl of Albermarle’s Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, below. Here, Albemarle, despite referring to the original manuscript, had inserted a comma after “Trecothick”, changing the meaning of the quotation as a result.

George Thomas, Earl of Albemarle, Memoirs of the Marquis of Rockingham and His Contemporaries, vol. 1 (1852), p. 319.

In a way, none of this really matters, but it does highlight a problem that is almost impossible to avoid in writing history: since we never have the opportunity to trace everything back to primary sources, we must rely on the work of others. Sometimes that work will be mistaken, even in a tiny way as it is here, and we will inevitably, although unintentionally, replicate that error. Although doing so goes against every fibre of perfectionism in my body, I have gradually been making peace with the inescapable nature of this problem. It is impossible to be free from error in any historical research, and primary sources themselves are never straightforward mirrors of reality, so all we can do is to treat our sources critically, seek confirmation and corroboration where we can, and write with care rather than certainty.

A question of (mis)attribution

Joseph Price’s description of Macintosh in “Some observations and remarks on a late publication, intitled, Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa” (1782)

Shortly after the publication of Macintosh’s Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa, its explosive criticism of the East India Company under Warren Hastings attracted a vociferous counterblast from one of Hasting’s supporters, Joseph Price. Aside from seeking to refute Macintosh’s criticisms, Price also presented a number of ad-homenim attacks, one of which—that Macintosh was mixed race—was intended to undermine Macintosh’s credibility among a readership whose prejudices would have understood rationality and authority as running along racial lines.

Although Macintosh’s subsequent appearance in the historical literature is extremely patchy, it is remarkable how often Price’s mischaracterisation of him has been parroted uncritically in nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical scholarship. More than the reproduction of a factual error, however, the echoing of Price’s description often serves to bias scholars’ reading of Macintosh as a historical actor.

A related problem is the erroneous conflation of Macintosh with others of a similar name. This tendency has, for example, seen the authorship of Travels attributed to James Mackintosh (1765–1832)—rather improbable as Mackintosh would have been a precocious seventeen years old at the time of the book’s publication—and Macintosh confused with William Mackintosh, with whom Alexander Johnstone (1727–1783) seems to have quarrelled. A further conflation has occurred in relation to a “Captain Macintosh” who appears in the memoirs of William Hickey and was characterised by him as a lascivious drunkard, gambler, and persistent debtor. Whether Hickey’s Macintosh and Johnstone’s Mackintosh are one and the same is a question I shall leave for others.

These twin problems of error and conflation are exemplified, to an almost parodic extent, in a biography of Lauchlin Macleane (1728/9–1778)—Reward is Secondary: The Life of a Political Adventurer and an Inquiry into the Mystery of ‘Junius’ (1962), by James N. M. Maclean—which I have been reading lately. The following extracts from the book illustrate the repetition of Price’s lie (or, in this case, a repetition of someone else’s repetition of it), the conflation of Macintosh with others, and the effect of these misattributions on the book’s analysis of him.

Before leaving the West Indies Lauchlin had chosen as his ‘attorney’ and land steward a rogue of the deepest dye. He was a quadroon [i.e., one quarter black] named William Macintosh—”a swarthy and ill-looking man as any that is to be seen on the Portuguese Walk in the Royal Exchange. He was a man of colour born in the West Indies and a great impostor, assuming acquaintance with all manner of distinguished persons.” This shifty son of a Highland Father and a mulatto mother was invaluable to the syndicate [i.e., Macleane’s land purchase in Grenada]. Macintosh knew how to control and get the best of out negro slave labour, he knew a lot about sugar crops and he was crooked and capable enough to falsify land titles. He was, however, too dangerous to be left without some sort of supervision. p. 90.

…William Macintosh, the villainous land steward… p. 176.

With these new appointments, Macleane’s personal domination of the West India land syndicate and its employees came to an end. Only the Scottish French-Creole quadroon William Macintosh, a rogue cast in the Macleane mould but without the master-adventurer’s powerful intellect, finesse and sense of timing, was left as a representative of the old gang. p. 251.

As Colonel Lauchlin Macleane left the shores of Britain for the East Indies, ‘Captain’ [here the author is conflating] William Macintosh was approaching them from the West Indies. Earlier in the year Macintosh had informed [Robert] Orme that young William Ridge was dead, that Thomas Vanderdussen was temporarily managing the Grenada estates, and that he, Macintosh, felt that the time had come for him to meet the trustees for whom he worked. Orme formed a high opinion of Macintosh and continued to hold that opinion. Nearly everyone else who met this unmitigated scoundrel were initially impressed by his plausible manners, fine clothes and bogus military rank but, unlike Orme, they quickly saw that he was a vainglorious mountebank without the necessary abilities to match his pretentions. p. 318.

…the disreputable William Macintosh, who had been making a thorough nuisance of himself… p. 432.

In William Hickey’s opinion nobody was ‘so mean and despicable a wretch as the dirty dog calling himself Captain Macintosh’. He was ‘an errant pickpocket blackguard’ and a ‘dirty vagabond’. To the end of his days Macintosh was an intriguer. As late as 1796 he was working in Berne, Switzerland, as a secret agent for George Chalmers. What happened to him after this date is not known, but he was getting old and probably did not live very much longer. His exploits in India as a henchman of Francis were exposed in a book produced by a fiery sea-captain named Joseph Price. p. 434.

The factual errors and erroneous conflations evidenced above are, from a practical point of view, frustrating since they introduce unreliability into what is otherwise a very detailed and well-supported biography of Maclean, but they are also illustrative of the broader historiographical processes by which Macintosh’s role as a historical actor have been distorted by fundamental uncertainties about who he was. In one way, this is all grist to the mill for my own research, but, in another, it is a reminder about the centrality of source criticism in my efforts to understand who Macintosh actually was.

Somewhat ironically, James N. M. Maclean was aware, in general, of the problems of conflation and misattribution; his entertaining and very honest introduction to the book highlights this issue: “Many of the men in this book have hitherto been confused with one another, or they have been merged to form a composite character” (p. xii). Plus ça change!

Introducing Team Macintosh 4.0

I have been fortunate, at various intervals during the nine-or-so years I have been working on this project, to be able to draw on the assistance of others—Team Macintosh, Team Macintosh 2.0, and Team Macintosh 3.0—in producing transcriptions of Macintosh’s correspondence. I am very pleased, therefore, to be able to introduce the latest recruit to the extended “Team Macintosh” family, Jaz Bigden.

Jaz Bigden (aka Team Macintosh 4.0)

Jaz is currently enrolled in the MSc in Global Futures in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and, as part of a placement module, will be working to produce transcriptions of letters Macintosh sent from Grenada in the mid 1770s. This is a period that followed Macintosh’s very public clashes with Grenada’s former governor, Robert Melvill, and encompassed his time as Comptroller of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Grenville. It was, in that sense, a time that saw Macintosh’s role evolve from being an agitator to a colonial authority. I very much look forward to seeing what Jaz’s work reveals.