Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Letter From Jamaica

I have been meaning to tell this story for a while, and I hope I can still remember it accurately - I think I can, as it is pretty memorable. Among the documents in boxes of assorted "stuff" I am listing at the archive, was a letter sent by an English expatriate living in Jamaica in the 1780s. At some point a typed transcription had been made, which I read through. I forget the name of the correspondent, so I'll call him Mr. Smith. The letter told his life story over the previous several years, beginning when he was living in Philadelphia. Here is the gist of it:

The letter began by asking the recipient to pass on news of him to his mother, should she still be alive. Mr. Smith had had no contact with her for many years, having "taken umbrage" at her refusal to allow a certain Miss Polly Topping to join him in Philadephia. As an Englishman he naturally supported the British during the War of Independence (and wanted it known that he would do the same again, whatever the cost!). When the American army reached Philadelphia he was evacuated with no notice, leaving most of his property behind - though he did manage to take a fair amount of cash and valuables. From Philadelphia he went to New York, where he set up in business as a store owner, with considerable success thanks to an affluent patron.

Yet again, as an Englishman and supporter of the British, Mr. Smith found himself on the wrong end of the war, and left by boat for Newfoundland, Canada. After a hair-raising journey, duirng which the captain was killed standing next to him, and which ended with a near shipwreck and the passengers clinging to the sides of the boat in various states of undress, he started up in business again. He found Newfoundland too cold, however, and moved on again, this time to the more congenial climate of Jamaica - he waxed lyrical about this and about the fruits that grew on the island. Yet again, he got a successful business going, and chartered a boat to collect his family and goods from the other side of the island. Unfortunately a tremendous hurricane arrived along with the boat, and though the captain had tried to wait out the storm some miles from shore, the boat was wrecked along with dozens of others, drowning most of those on board. He listed some of the passengers, including a "good negro woman" and his nine year old natural son, and describes searching through the dead bodies on the shore, but it isn't clear if the woman and boy are among those who died.

The letter ends on a slightly querulous note, telling the recipient not to speak harshly about the illegitimate child, as "for every ten men here that lives with a woman, one does not" (in other words, everybody does it!).

Doesn't it read like a potential film script?


Melanie B said...

Wow that does sound rather thrilling.

Faith said...

That is so cool! And yes, it does read like a movie plot!