Cracking the code

Reading Macintosh’s letters from the distance of some two-and-a-half centuries can often feel like trying to crack a code; the names, places, and events whose significance would have been obvious to their author and original recipients are, for the modern reader, clues that must be deciphered and interpreted. Things could, however, be much worse; the could literally have been written in code.

In the middle of last week, as I was distracted by the unfolding events of the US election, a number of interesting scanned letters arrived from the Bodleian Library. These letters, exchanged between Macintosh and the spy James Talbot during 1798, were sent to and from Bern at a time of intense counterrevolutionary activity in that city. Macintosh’s letters to Talbot, usually addressed to his alias Monsieur Tindal, are rich with reportage on current events as well as Macintosh’s own views and opinions as to the course of, and correct responses to, the French Revolution, just then finding new life in the form of the Irish Rebellion.

In one letter Macintosh laments that fact that he and Talbot had not “composed a short cypher for the names of a few persons, places & things” before Talbot’s departure from Bern. “[T]he want of it,” Macintosh confided, “is now become a restraint, at least on my communication to you”. For want of a cypher, Macintosh occasionally disguised some names in his letters by means of dashes, but, on the whole, his correspondence with Talbot remains legible, if not always immediately understandable. And thank goodness for that.

While the political convulsions of the present can often feel overwhelming, the turbulence of the world in which Macintosh lived and which he experienced at first hand—spanning the Jacobite rebellion, the Seven Years’ War, decades of sectarian division on Grenada, the Siege of Pondicherry, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars—were exhausting and can help to put things into some perspective.

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