Down the rabbit hole to Switzerland; or, was Macintosh a spy?

The French invasion of Bern in 1798. Indiana University Libraries (VAC1755-01109).

Although my main task this week has been to consolidate the archival photographs I took in Avignon between 2012 and 2018 (an eye-watering 4,141 in total) in order to help me identify and prioritise the next stages of my reading and analysis, I couldn’t help returning to consider some of the many unanswered questions about Macintosh’s life that have been piquing my curiosity.

I have long been interested in what happened to Macintosh between his exile from Avignon in the mid 1790s and the point at which he appears in the historical record as a resident of Eisenach. I was aware that Macintosh had some dealings with the British spymasters William Wickham and James Talbot in this intervening period, and that he had spent some time in Switzerland (specifically at Estavayer on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel), but my earlier attempts to identify surviving correspondence came to naught. The work of Michael Durey and Elizabeth Sparrow on Britain’s spy network during the French Revolution has, however, allowed me to narrow my focus and to identity some surviving correspondence in the Hampshire Record Office and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which I look forward to consulting. The footnotes in Durey and Sparrow’s work are sufficient, in the meantime, to lead me to understand that Macintosh was, indeed, part of Wickham and Talbot’s circle and that, moreover, he was supporting the counter-revolutionary cause from Bern.

Much to my surprise, I have learned that Macintosh was, in effect, the de facto British ambassador to Bern from 1797. As one historian of the period has noted, after Wickham (Minister Plenipotentiary) and Talbot (Chargé d’affaires) were compelled to leave the country, British representation in Bern fell—during the crucial period leading up to the French invasion—to “einem Agenten ohne diplomatischen Charakter William MacIntosh [an agent without diplomatic character William MacIntosh]”.

Knowing that Macintosh was in Bern in 1797 has allowed me to identify a range of other interesting snippets of information, such as his dealings with the journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan whose periodical, the Mercure Britannique, was established on Macintosh’s suggestion. More interesting, perhaps, is that Macintosh’s activities in Bern had come to the attention of the Revolutionary authorities in Paris. One dispatch from Switzerland (now in the Archives nationales in Paris) describes Macintosh as an “agent de Wickham” who was “autrefois séjournant dans le Midi et y jouant les patriotes [formerly staying in the South and playing the patriots there]”.

It is evident that the author of the finding aid at the Archives nationales was intrigued about Macintosh’s identity, noting that he “semble plutôt être français qu’anglais [seems to be French rather than English]” and that he was evidently not the more famous James Mackintosh, who had not been in Switzerland at that time. A week ago, I knew none of this. Even after more than eight years on Macintosh’s archival trail, I’m constantly amazed by his ability to take me by surprise.

So, was Macintosh a spy? The revolutionary authorities certainly thought so and he moved in the same circles as Wickham and Talbot. On the basis of the “If it walks like a duck…” logic, then, yes, Macintosh was a spy. The question is, What kind of spy? What, exactly, did he do for Wickham and Talbot? How did he take his vodka martini? As ever, more digging is required!

1 thought on “Down the rabbit hole to Switzerland; or, was Macintosh a spy?

  1. Pingback: October in review | On the archival trail of William Macintosh

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