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

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