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.

Laying a ghost to rest

Notice of the death of William Macintosh

It has long been a source of frustration and embarrassment that I have been unable to determine one basic fact of Macintosh’s life: where and when he died. I knew that it had to have happened during a particular window of time, specifically between 18 October 1810, when he added a codicil to his will, and 13 April 1816, when his will was proved in London. From secondary sources I also had reason to believe that he had died in Eisenach in Saxony, where he had been living since at least 1807.

From time to time over the last eight years I have returned to the problem of the uncertain terminus of Macintosh’s life and have trawled newspaper records and genealogical databases without success. I realised today that I had taken things as far as I could and wrote to an Eisenach-based genealogist, Christian Andreas Hoske, to see if he might be able to help. To my delight, Christian wrote back within a few hours with an entry from a register of deaths held by the Landeskirchenarchiv Eisenach (reproduced above) which records Macintosh’s date of death as 13 January 1813. The full entry, in Christian’s transcription, reads:

William Macintosch, aus Glasgow gebürtig, ist den 13ten Januar an Schwäche, in einem Alter von einigen 70 Jahren und wurde den 15ten Januar beigesetzt

Notwithstanding the Teutonic rendering of Macintosh as Macintosch, and the mistaken statement that he was born in Glasgow (an easy mistake to make, perhaps, given his connections to that city via his brother George), it seems highly likely that this is, indeed, “my” William Macintosh. The statement that he died “in einem Alter von einigen 70 Jahren” (i.e., around the age of 70) would tie in with what I know; Macintosh would have been 74 in January 1813. At this stage, and after so long spent hunting down this information, I am happy to accept the ambiguity and signal my thanks to Christian for so swiftly solving this particular part of the puzzle. And there we have it: William Macintosh (August 1737–13 January 1813).

October in review

Another month has flown by, seeming even more rapid than the first. In looking back at last month’s report, I am, however, relieved and somewhat surprised to see that I (largely) achieved the goals I had set for myself, namely to take stock of all the primary material on which the book will draw, and to put together a timetable to help structure the analysis and writing that is to follow.

The first of those tasks involved consolidating the archival reference photographs and transcriptions that I had accumulated during the past eight years and chasing up a number of leads that I had not previously been able to follow. In this endeavour I have been entirely dependant upon the support and kindness of a number of archivists and librarians who have tracked down and reproduced documents—often for free or for a nominal charge—that I have needed to consult. These new pieces of the puzzle have both confirmed things that I suspected and revealed totally unexpected aspects of Macintosh’s life, such as his time spent as a counterrevolutionary agitator in Bern during the French Revolution.

As things stand, I have identified primary “Macintosh material” in nineteen repositories in five countries. Ironically, while it has proved quite straightforward to obtain reproductions of material from distant locations, such as the US, accessing material closer to home has proved more difficult. I have tried without success, for example, to book a timeslot to consult material at the National Archives, and the British Library has currently stopped taking reproduction requests. On occasion, however, I have been able to draw on the kindness of academic colleagues to help fill in some of the blanks. This week, for example, Dr Tessa Murphy was good enough to share some of her archival reference photographs with me so that I could check a couple of sources from the Colonial Office files.

While taking stock of the primary material has helped me develop some sense of “control”—in that I know what I have and I know what I still need to consult—the sheer amount of primary material, particularly relating to Macintosh’s time in the Caribbean, is rather overwhelming (a single letterbook of Macintosh’s outgoing correspondence runs to almost a quarter of a million words, for example). It is here that I feel the pressure of time most acutely; I could easily spend my entire fellowship just reading the primary material. The challenging task is to develop criteria for determining the 1% of important sources and jettisoning the remaining 99% without feeling I have missed something vital.

The book’s chapter structure (columns) with supporting primary sources identified (in rows by repository).

To some extent these criteria have begun to emerge from my attempts to complete my second task: to structure the book and my writing timetable. After going round the houses on this one a number of times, I have developed a structure that I think works in respect to the themes I want to address in the book and the primary and secondary sources that support it overall. I have sketched a plan for a book with five empirical chapters, structured roughly chronologically-cum-geographically, dealing in turn with 1) Macintosh’s political apprenticeship in Granada; 2) his experiences in, and political examination of, British India; 3) the authorship, editorship, and publication of Travels; 4) the reception, piracy, translation, and reading of Travels in Britain, Continental Europe, and North America; and 5) Macintosh’s counterrevolutionary activities during the French Revolution and his subsequent exile to Germany.

While I have always known that I cannot hope to write the whole book during my fellowship, I am very keen, if at all possible, to complete a first draft of the five empirical chapters by the end of August 2021 and have drawn up a timetable with that goal in mind. Although I am very much on home ground when it comes to the two chapters on the publication and reception of the book—these are processes and themes I have dealt with in earlier work—the other three will really take me out of my comfort zone in terms of area specialism and scholarly expertise. That, of course, is part and parcel of research that is driven by curiosity; you have to follow it wherever it takes you.

My task for November is, then, to deal with as much of the primary material from the Caribbean as I can before beginning to write the book’s first empirical chapter. My current timetable gives me until the middle of December to complete that portion of the book, but I will not be too hard on myself if I overrun. No research or writing takes place in a vacuum and the twin concerns of pandemic and politics are always there to rob me of my focus and motivation*, but I know from previous experience that when it is possible to achieve a rhythm in writing it can be both sustaining and positive in its effects. Onward, onward!

* Here, I am fully in tune with Macintosh’s expressed desire to “drink the Waters of Lethi [sic] to forget Politics”.

The closer you look, the more you see

George Rose by Sir William Beechey (1802). NPG 367.

In my last blog post I noted the fact that Macintosh had, over the course of twenty years between 1780 and 1800, “sent [anonymous] sketches of plans of finance &c to persons closely connected with Government in England”. I was intrigued enough to see if I could identify any of these letters and think I may have found one in the papers of the politician George Rose (1744–1818) at the British Library. The finding aid for Add MS 42774 includes a tantalising entry:

f. 78 Louis XVI of France: Anonymous letter from a Scotsman in Paris conc. Anglo-French relations: 1792.

The subject matter, the location, the date, and the recipient all seem to fit Macintosh’s M.O. very closely. I know from another source that Macintosh wrote to Rose at least one other time (in 1800), but I have, as yet, been unable to track that letter down. Indeed, I only spotted the 1792 letter whilst trying to find the one from 1800.

Although I have searched the BL Archives and Manuscripts catalogue many, many times, I was encouraged by this discovery to try again and was rewarded by a few hits that had previously escaped my notice. These include a 1781 letter (Add MS 8406 f. 199) from Macintosh to Charles Jenkinson, 1st Earl of Liverpool, then Secretary at War, and a batch of correspondence from 1796 (Add MS 38231) to and from Charles Flint (1777–1832), Alexander Fraser, 15th Lord Saltoun (1758–1793), and G. Chalmers [most probably George Chalmers (1742–1825)]. It is likely that these letters concern Macintosh’s counter-revolutionary activities in Bern, but I look forward to confirming that in the new year.

The identification of any new correspondence from the 1790s is really helpful, since Macintosh’s own archive fell silent after its seizure by the revolutionary authorities in 1794.

Muddled and cranky: Macintosh’s letter to a Prime Minister

Macintosh to Addington, 15 November 1801. Devon Archives and Local Studies, 152M/C/1801/OZ/130

Although my current focus should be falling exclusively on Macintosh’s experiences in Grenada in the 1760s and 1770s (as I prepare to begin work on the first of the book’s empirical chapters), I do find it hard to resist the lure of distraction whenever a new or unexpected piece of information about Macintosh presents itself.

This week I received a copy of a letter from Macintosh to the then Prime Minister, Henry Addington, that I have long looked forward to reading. The reason for my anticipation was the idiosyncratic and rather brilliant description of the letter in the catalogue of the Devon Archives, which reads “William MacIntosh, Henry Addington – Ideas on taxation from an old pamphlet (muddled, cranky letter), 1801″

While I do think the archivist was perhaps a little unfair on Macintosh on this occasion, I fully recognise the problem: Macintosh often wrote in convoluted and circuitous ways that make interpretation—particularly from a distance of more than two centuries—challenging, to say the least. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating letter that both confirms some things I had known, or suspected, and reveals new information and opens up new lines of investigation.

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, by Sir William Beechey (1803). NPG 5774.

The letter is interesting partly for what it reveals about Macintosh’s time in Germany. It was sent from Offenbach on the south shore of the river Main, opposite Frankfurt, and contains an account of Macintosh’s investigations the previous year (1800) in Nuremberg. As Macintosh tells it,

In a research amongst old books in the shop of an antiquarian in Nuremberg last year, I found a neglected pamphlet, which I thought worthy of being preserved & bound, on the profound subject of finance.

Macintosh then goes on to expound, seemingly on the basis of this pamphlet, his views on the issue of taxation which, put simply, was that excessive taxation “upon the Necessaries of Life” would drive up the price of British-manufactured goods and reduce their competitiveness on the world market. In Macintosh’s view, “the principal burthen [sic] of the State machine must be made to fall [instead] upon the pecuniary incomes of persons, without exception, in a progressive ratio not dissimilar to the mode of estimating diamonds”.

Perhaps keen to assure Addington that this was no idle speculation, Macintosh underlined his long-term commitment to the task of shaping the government’s view on issues of finance:

At various periods—within the last 20 Years—I sent sketches of plans of finance &c to persons closely connected with Government in England; some of which have been partially adopted—without the real Author’s name being known.

Beyond the contents of the letter itself, which have interesting parallels with discussions around a controversial duty imposed on goods exported from Grenada in the 1760s and 1770s, it is really useful to have confirmation of Macintosh’s status as an anonymous informant and would-be persuader. What this does mean, of course, is that there will be many unsigned letters from Macintosh to British politicians that I can never hope to find. As I try to remind myself, however, my task in this book is not to be definitive, but to open up the world of Macintosh for other scholars to explore.

It takes a village; or, reflections on (collaborative) lone-wolf scholarship

Christian Slater as Adso in “The Name of the Rose” (1986)

Although research can often feel like quite an isolated business, especially in the context of a pandemic, it is rarely truly solitary. Even though my work on Macintosh might seem to epitomise lone-wolf scholarship, it is, in fact, collaborative and depends on the assistance and guidance of many people. I have been particularly aware of the collaborative nature of my work in the last week or so as I have sought to chase up various archival leads accumulated during the last eight-and-a-half years.

In firing off a dozen or so reference requests to libraries and archives in the UK, France, and the US, I have frequently been amazed at the rapidity and helpfulness of the responses. Although the website of the Archives nationales in Paris warned that it might take months to process my request for a reproduction of material, the photographs arrived within two working days, free of charge. This incredible efficiency was beaten only by the staff of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania, who answered a query about the George Macartney Papers at 6.30 a.m. on the day of my enquiry and later provided gratis reproductions.

This week I have also benefited from the language skills of a number of colleagues: Dr Dominik Hünniger pointed me in the direction of some German-language reviews of Macintosh’s Travels that I hadn’t seen before, including an interesting one by Georg ForsterDr Elizabeth Haines and Dr Emily Hayes together helped me untangle a French source on Macintosh’s counter-revolutionary activities in Switzerland; and Dr Susan Pickford kindly offered to help out if my request to the Archives nationales did not materialise. Meanwhile, my PhD student, Ed Armston-Sheret, was able to ferret out a source through an Adam Matthew database to which he currently has access via a fantastic Royal Historical Society scheme.

One thing is clear: I’m going to need to set aside quite a bit of time to write the acknowledgements section of my eventual book.

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!

The (online) inventory of Macintosh’s confiscated library

Inventory of Macintosh’s confiscated library. Archives départementales de Vaucluse, 1 L 461, fol. 3.

Over a number of years I have been working to reconstruct Macintosh’s private library, which was seized by the authorities during the French Revolution. My work on this was undertaken using the inventory drawn up in Macintosh’s home by the individuals charged with taking possession of his books. That document (1 L 452 in the archive) is somewhat rough and ready and translating and transcribing it was rather tricky (although I was, thankfully, helped in this task greatly by Dr Elizabeth Haines and Dr Emily Hayes).

I noticed today that, since my last visit, the Archives départementales de Vaucluse has made available a digitised version of that same inventory, albeit a rather tidier and more legible version (1 L 461 in the archive). It must have been written up later at the point at which the inventory was handed over to the district archivist, Jean-Étienne Néry. It would, of course, have been good to know about this version a few years ago (it might have saved a few headaches), but it’s nevertheless good to know that it exists and is easily accessible.

The (expanding) field of Macintosh studies

I mentioned in an earlier blog post, that I am not entirely alone in my work on Macintosh’s Travels. Laura Tarkka-Robinson from the University of Turku has also been exploring the meaning and significance of Travels in relation to ideas of national character and how those ideas intersected with key debates in colonial policy and political economy.

She has recently published a very interesting book chapter, “An empire of renewed ambitions: political economy and national character in the Travels (1782) of William Macintosh“, which looks at the relationship between the ideas espoused by Macintosh in Travels and those of Adam Smith, particularly as expressed in The Wealth of Nations (a book Macintosh read en route to India and to which he responded directly).

Ann Montague

Notice of the death of Macintosh’s wife, Ann, in The Monthly Magazine, 1806.

The character of the archival material that survives from Macintosh’s life, being primarily concerned with business and politics, means that his family—brothers, parents, wife, and children—are something of an absent presence: glimpsed from time to time, but rarely occupying centre stage. The nature of Macintosh’s marriage is long something I have wondered about. It was touched by tragedy, including the death of children, and defined by alternating periods of separation and reconciliation. It was not, however, until this weekend—more than eight years after setting out on the archival trail—that I finally learned the name of Macintosh’s wife: Ann Montague. Having a name means that I have some hope of filling in the details that Macintosh’s correspondence omits.

Detail from Richard Horwood’s “Plan of the cities of London and Westminster” (1792–99).

Although they were never divorced (as far as I can tell), it is evident that William and Ann lived separately for a number of years, both voluntarily and involuntarily. When Ann died, at Francis Street (now Torrington Place) in Bloomsbury, in 1806, Macintosh was in exile in Eisenach and would not have been able to return to London for the funeral. Ann’s death was, however, noted in The Monthly Magazine as one of London’s “distinguished Characters recently deceased”.