To Avignon with Macintosh

Archives départementales de Vaucluse

Archives départementales de Vaucluse, Palais des Papes, Avignon.

I am a little more than halfway through an exciting week of research at the Archives départementales de Vaucluse (housed in the splendid Papal Palace at the centre of Avignon’s old town). This is home to, as far as I can tell, the largest single collection of primary material relating to William Macintosh. For reasons that still remain mysterious, Macintosh spent most of the 1780s in Avignon, where he traded and ran a lodging house. Forced to leave the city during the Revolution, his papers were seized and deposited here. To my knowledge, they have never previously been referred to by any scholar working in English, so there is a distinct thrill in looking through what is, in effect, virgin material.

There is, it is fair to say, much more here than I was expecting. Spread across six large bundles are, I would estimate, nearly 3,000 individual items of correspondence, memoranda, invoices, and legal documents. They cover part of Macintosh’s time as a planter in Grenada, his journeys around India in the late 1770s, and his residence in Avignon in the 1780s. Rather disappointingly, I have seen no reference so far to the book he published in 1782 based upon his travels in India, although there are preliminary notes and memoranda that eventually found their form in the book.

Archival bundle

One of the six bundles of Macintosh material.

Given that so little has previously been written about Macintosh, most of what I am encountering is coming as a surprise, particularly the extent and complexity of his business dealings in the West Indies. Rather than simply a plantation manager, Macintosh had a number of official positions and governmental roles in the colony, including being Comptroller of His Majesty’s Customs in Grenada. In addition to his own business dealings, Macintosh served as attorney for several friends, and executor for others, so seems continually to have been involved in the purchase or disposal of land and assets.

There is evidence to suggest that, at certain times, Macintosh and his family (wife, son, and daughter) were together in Grenada, but it is clear that for the most part they were separated. One long and rather touching letter sent from Macintosh to his son, then aged 11, shows that, for Macintosh, parenting was something done at a distance, and most often by the written word. Although correspondence exits between Macintosh and his son and daughter, there seems to be nothing to or from Mrs Macintosh (although invoices for her domestic purchases, as well as clothing and jewellery attest to her existence).

Macintosh's commonplace book.

Macintosh's commonplace book for 1778.

Macintosh was an ideas man, and had strong opinions about (as well as proposed solutions to) the various political problems of the late eighteenth century. Many of these took first written form in Macintosh’s letters and his commonplace book. The one for 1778 outlines various schemes, including a “Plan for preserving the health & lives, & for the better regulation of British seamen; for defending and securing the British commerce, and for manning the Royal Navy” and one (which has a clear contemporary relevance) for “reducing the national debt, without increasing taxes, & without exposing Government to any fixed or temporary inconveniences”. I feel sure the latter was a pyramid scheme.

Given the unexpected size of the collection, my work this week is really only one of surveying and cataloguing, and the targeted transcription of key texts. There is much to be examined in detail at a later time. It seems clear, though, that Macintosh’s politics were shaped in the West Indies and particularly by what he saw as the corruption and mismanagement of British colonies there. Aside from the big questions of politics and economics, there are plenty of quotidian snippets in the archive too. One particular favourite is a long series of correspondence, culminating in legal proceedings, concerning a dispute between Macintosh and his French builder who, it seems, was a cowboy. Rogue traders were as much a feature of eighteenth-century life as they are today.