Taking account

Mastering the Niger

Lambert, David. Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African geography and the struggle over Atlantic slavery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

I have very much been enjoying David Lambert‘s new monograph, Mastering the Niger, which was published late last year by the University of Chicago Press. David’s book concerns a number of themes, including the production of geographical knowledge, the role of observation and testimony in the making of geographical fact, and the production and evaluation of credibility. His biographical focus is on the Scots Caribbean planter turned Glasgow merchant and businessman, James MacQueen (1778–1870).

Although Macintosh was born a generation earlier than MacQueen, there are a number of interesting parallels between their lives. Both were part of the wave of Scots who took the opportunities afforded by the Act of Union in 1707 to forge their careers in the British Empire; both were planters in Grenada; both had important dealings with Sir William Pulteney (1729–1805); both were skilled and enthusiastic proponents of double-entry bookkeeping. In Macintosh’s case, he had had, from the age of 18, “the highest charge of money, papers, & books of accounts”.

In Mastering the Niger, David offers a fascinating discussion about the parallels between double-entry bookkeeping and processes of geographical inscription and abstraction (see Chapter 3) and between the notion of “balance” and MacQueen’s own ideas about the nature and direction of the British imperial project. The analogy is an exciting and interesting one, not least because it so well captures William Macintosh’s own practices and perspectives in relation to these matters.

As I have mentioned previously, Macintosh was a thorough and committed record keeper (particularly so in relation to financial matters). This concern was not limited to his personal finances, but to those of Grenada, India, and the British Empire more widely. The day-to-day practices of taking account were so significant to Macintosh that he prescribed them in a letter to his son, in which he laid out what he considered the indispensable skills for his son’s life: “I would wish you to know…[a]ll the common rules of arithmetic. Book-keeping as practiced by merchants, with double entry. The principles of mathematics. Geography. A just idea of astronomy. The principles of laws. And ancient and modern histories. Indeed, a man of business, cannot be competent without them”.

Macintosh’s commitment to accounting means that we have a reasonably good insight into his own financial standing at various points in his life. For instance, in 1775 he applied to the Dutch bank Hope and Company (founded by Scots) for a loan of £20,000, and, in so doing, set out his financial position at that point. His collateral, detailed below, was calculated at more than £45,500, comprising plantations (or shares of them), various mortgages and bonds, a number of slaves, his house, and his annual salary of £300 for his role as Comptroller of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Grenville in Grenada.

Macintosh's collateral in 1775

Statement of Macintosh’s collateral in 1775. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 2 E Titres de famille 84, “Charles Wilson / et autres de Grenade / 1767–1776”. Macintosh to Hope and Co. 15 December 1775.

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