Senior, Henry. [Manuscript][ Letter Book of Henry Senior...
transcribed Correspondence with His Mother; Mary Senior, and his Brother; Nassau Senior, from Kingston Jamaica 1815-1816..
8vo. 112 manuscript pages, a few blanks at rear. Bound in red straight grain morocco, worn to spine and extremities, somewhat shaken in its case, nevertheless durable. Section of loss to head of spine. Internally clean, marbled endpapers, front inner hinge cracked. Over 100 pages of preternaturally legible and aesthetically pleasing manuscript, each page rather meticulously ruled in ink, with the occasional little sketch by way of elucidation. Occasionally when faced with item like this, it’s a little difficult to figure out where to start:
Do we begin with the opening letter to Mary Senior (who was born in Barbados in 1769), charmingly addressed “Jamaica - 1815- Chester Coffee Estate, 1/2 or rather 3/4 of the way up the Blue Mountains, from the side of a large fire therein; 58 and a half, the Mountain winds blowing almost a hurricane and the rain descending in true Equinoctial torrents. 1815 - 15th October, forenoon.” whilst the author is recovering from a bout of fever: “I was in so weak and low-spirited a state, after my escape from the Yellow Fever, when the last packet sailed, that I could only write to Nassau, whom I begged to give you all my news. I had indeed a narrow escape; and I fancy my medical attendants have hardly yet forgiven me for recovering after they had told everyone that my case was hopeless, that mortification had taken place, and that I could not live twelve hours, which opinion, bye the by, I overheard...”? That seems like a logical place to start, after pointing out that Henry Senior was the younger brother of Nassau Senior, major economist and legal big wig, part time confidante of famous Opera singers (he was the legal advisor to Jenny Lind, and drew up the contract that secured her services to P.T. Barnum) and the man who rather problematically said of the Irish Potato Famine: It "would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good" (perhaps as a mitigation to that out of context quote it should be considered that his preoccupation was entirely with the exercise of and distribution of profit, it has been said of him that his problem was with “poverty, and not the Irish.” Not sure that actually helps to be honest...). Nassau’s younger brother, ex-ADC to an unnamed General resident in Kingston, apparently at some pointed wounded in military service (possibly with the 65th Foot in the Peninsular), and a man who considered himself a “Jamaican”, was a regular correspondent and features quite regularly in the commentaries of enslavement in the West Indies with his lack of enthusiasm for the existing system “The more I see the more I am convinced that every vice and every depravity must exist in a country where slavery is tolerated.” Obviously such an opinion isn’t the worst that one can hold, but it was most likely written whilst he was recuperating at Chester Vale Estate, a coffee plantation that in 1815 was the workplace of over 200 enslaved peoples. He would eventually become an author of fiction (”Charles vernon: A Transatlantic Tale.”) and Governor of Antigua. In the meantime, Henry, 21 years old at the time of writing gives blisteringly vivid accounts of the destruction of Chester main house by hurricane in November of 1815: “...my letter was interrupted at twelve by a call to luncheon, in the midst of which we were suddenly alarmed by seeing one of the fine Mangau trees before our window torn up by the roots, whirled into the air, and carried up out of sight. This made us apprehend what soon succeeded, a most violent equinoctial hurricane...the wind continued raging with tremendous force and next, we were terrified beyond description by the whole wing of that part of the house we had just quitted, walls and all, giving way, tho’ a most substantial stone building.” Eventually, in the midst of the plantation house and all its environs being laid waste (including the enslaved people’s quarters), Henry and his companions, all hurt (mostly Scottish emigres, a large number of the plantations in that region being owned by absentee Scottish families) crawl on their hands and knees into the kitchen, which subsequently collapses “injuring us all more or less” and take refuge in a cellar “knees deep in water” together with “Mr. Atkinson, Dr. McNaughton, the overseer, book keeper, five black men, four black women and their children”; the house falls in above them “...with a tremendous crash...and the the scream of the poor women and children, the, as they supposed it, dying prayers of the men, was horrible beyond any thing I can imagine - I rose up, from sitting on an empty barrell hoping the beams might strike my head first and end at once my sense of misery for myself and my companions: for death, if they were falling, was inevitable.” (which gives some odd insight, along with some later episodes, as to how these people ended up occupying more than half the world...Henry is habitually more worried about being afraid than he is of being dead). Henry survives, going on to describe the mishaps that he has so far survived in the space of a year “in May nearly blown up by Gunpowder in the fire that destroyed Port Royal, third the Alligator, fourth the Yellow Fever, fifth nearly drowned on my return from the mountains, my house and all being carried away by the current of a river swelled by the rains, my servant calling out ‘Massa dead!! Massa drowned!!’ till I was stopped by an Island in the middle - I only want an earthquake.” he ends rather philosophically “I am quite recovered from the fever, and the hurricane has cooled the air.”
Odd as it may sound, after 10 pages of vivid near death experiences, this just gets better. My personal high point is the 30 page account of an attack upon Henry’s ship by American privateers in which he is armed by the captain, put in charge of the ship’s boys, and kills a boarder with a musket. PIRATES!!! (ahem, sorry...) You know, as you do. An outstanding, and actually downright thrilling letter book. Also present is some laid in correspondence between Amy St. Loe Strachey (of those Strachey’s) and a previous owner of the MS, discussing her upcoming biography of Nassau Senior (her grandfather), and her comparing of the events of the letter book with some family documents in her possession.