PRIVATEERS OF THE CARIBBEAN - A Journal of the ‘Cut Throat War’ of 1812, 1813-1816
Octavo notebook (12x18cm) bound in black roan over boards, rounded spine; rubbing to edges; marbled endpapers; a pencilled guest-list on the verso of the first flyleaf: ‘Miss Copleston, Gen[era]l Thomas…’ A 1943 statement of provenance is tipped on the third fly, tracing the manuscript to the ownership of John Serle ‘navy schoolmaster’ in Sheerness.
The manuscript comprises three long letters home, or ‘a Journal of my adventurous voyage’ (p13) copied by their author Henry Senior, together with his occasional corrections and some minor censorship later in the century, c20,000 words. One tiny diagram appears in the text (a Venezuelan ‘camp stool’,p 70) and Senior left himself further gaps in the text to insert illustrations/ maps which weren’t executed. The first letter (pp1-12) was written to his mother Mary (nee Duke, daughter of a former Solicitor-General of Barbados) from the ‘Chester Coffee Estate ½ or rather ¾ of the way up the blue Mountains from the side of a large woodfire… the rain descending in Equinoctial Torrents. 1815. 15th October forenoon’. This recounts a catastrophic recent storm and is signed ‘Henry Senior’, surname scrubbed out. The second letter (pp13-45) was written from the British army headquarters in Jamaica, ‘Up Park Camp… Jamaica 7th Nov.r 1816’ to Senior’s older brother William Nassau Senior (‘My Dear Nassau’) a probationary fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and future Professor of Political Economy and friend of De Tocqueville. This letter answers his brother’s request for an account of himself and describes Senior’s trans-Atlantic voyage on the Falmouth ‘packet’, Lapwing, in the autumn of 1813; their bloody capture off Jamaica by the American privateer out of Baltimore, Fox. Despite promising to be ‘less prolix’ in his third letter, this final missive (pp46-116) is the longest of the three, covering his mistreatment at the hands of the American privateers/ pirates of the Caribbean, their escape to Venezuela, the horrors of mass executions witnessed there and a final rickety voyage through the Caribbean and return to British protections on the south coast of Jamaica where, in the voice of white privilege, his narrative ends amidst ‘the most luxuriant vallies, many of them cultivated and green with sugar Plantations, others still uncleared from the luxuriant woods which cover every spot of uncultivated Land in the Island. The large stately houses of the Planters were easily distinguished, while the small huts of the Negroes were lost in the Grove of Cocoa Nutes…’
Henry Senior (1794-1861) was the son of John Raven Senior of Compton Beauchamp, Berks and Mary, daughter of Henry Duke. He was appointed Ensign to the 60th Regiment (Royal Americans) in 1813, the 6th Battalion being stationed in Jamaica during the War of 1812 - his family had long term connections with the Caribbean on both sides. The American schooner Fox received its Letter of Marque from President Madison in 1813 and sailed out of Baltimore; the capture of the Lapwing and two other British vessels described by Senior must have been among the privateer’s earliest actions. After the Peace of 1815 the Fox seems to have gone freelance and became involved in the slave trade. The chaotic situation in the Caribbean was a function of the War of 1812 which pitted America and its allies against Britain together with the chaos unleashed by the south American revolutions which Senior experienced up close during his month in Venezuela. To bring together the brutalities of the War of 1812 and the south American revolutions in a single document lends real distinction to this manuscript.
FALMOUTH - SCHOONER ‘FOX’ - PIRACY IN THE CARIBBEAN
Senior’s first letter to his brother begins with his ill-omened departure from Falmouth (22nd October 1813) though at first he enjoyed his passage and ‘kept a log book of my own daily’ (lost to the privateers). When only ‘An hour’s sale [sic] from Bridgetown in Barbados’, even as Senior was ‘anticipating the delight of a ride to Mr [Stephen] Walcott’s Estate at Byde Mill’ (a plantation with 102 enslaved people) another vessel is seen to pursue the Lapwing: they show ‘an English flag flying… a prodigiously large Schooner and full of men’ which, as it came alongside was ‘hauling down the English colours and hoisting the American Standard… and in true Yankee ostentation, all the Crew mounted on the rigging, stood on the Ship’s side and managed to show us her immense superiority of number… [and] called on us to surrender (by speaking trumpet) “to the American Privateer Fox”’ (p27) in response: ‘our brave little Crew gave 3 cheers, and fired a Broadside into her - as an answer the Privateer returned it instantly’ and ran
‘her Bowsprit over our quarter [deck]... In an instant it was covered with about 30 or 40 most ruffian like fellow, brandishing their cutlesses and pouring a volley of true yankee curses on us… the foremost of the Americans, after “damning my heart liver and lights”, and discharging a brace of Pistols at me... said he would give me no quarter, would make mincemeat of me, and eat me for supper… I discharged my musket at him… and, however horrible it is to think of in cold blood, I cannot express the satisfaction I felt on seeing the fellow instantly drop and pitch head foremost into the sea.’
The next American broadside proved fatal to the Lapwing with ‘more than half of our crew being stretched there [on the deck], killed or wounded, and the quantity of blood spilt on so small a place made it almost one continued slop, and so slippery that I frequently fell’. Senior’s journal is at its most revelatory in his account of the American privateers who looted the Lapwing ‘in the most brutal manner’ and imprisoned the survivors ‘together in the hold of a Ship, without a breath of air, under the line, our wounds so putrid a state that the stench annoyed the sailors on the deck above us… maggots bred in them’. Discovering he has a knack for diplomacy - and languages - Senior learns that ‘The Captain of the Schooner Fox was born at Curacoa of French parents, spoke a mongrel language between French and Dutch… half frenchman, half dutchman and half devil… his name was Jaques… The sailors called him “Jack.”... though sailing under American colors, he could not speak English’. Fascinatedly, Senior describes how the American ship and its British prize made their way to a pirate island off Venezuela - the ‘uninhabited Island of Blanco’ - where the Americans removed ‘all that was valuable out of the Packet and carried it into the interior of the island… all this has convinced me that Blanco is a sort of depot… that it is the Pirate’s Isle of Lord Byron in the west Indies’ (p39). Impotently observing, Senior records the capture and looting of two more English sloops by the American privateer before he was move along with the rest of the wounded onto another prize: ‘the privateer and her prize the Packet [Lapwing] steering for America, the Sloop and the unwounded Crew of the Packet… for Curacoa… and ourselves in the Anna Maria, for Barcelona.’ At this point Senior finished his first letter to his brother which he despatched via HMS Primrose.
VENEZUELA - BOLIVAR & BOVES
The second letter to his brother recounts the four day passage to Barcelona on the northern coast of modern day Venezuela which he found held by the republicans but with ‘the Royalists under General Bores… attacking the whole province; the scene of action was about 30 miles… to the South westward of the Town where their own army under Bolivar and Sir Gregor Mac Gregor (a Scotchman) was encamped…’ Senior and his fellow invalids were adopted by ‘two young Scotchmen’ - Buchan and McLean - and installed in a house on Principal Square where they attracted ‘a considerable crowd to see the English wounded Strangers; two thirds were a mungrel race… of a light copper colour, the other third were of the origin from whence they had sprung, either white or black, but unmixed negro blood, quite black, seemed the rarest colour, proving that the Slave Trade had long been discontinued along this coast’ (p66).
From his verandah Senior viewed and records regular parades by troops - ‘The Patriot Infantry gave one a compleat idea of Banditti’ (p75), there are bull fights and mass executions by cannons loaded with grapeshot of colonial loyalist prisoner, on one occasion turned on ‘a Bishop, a Colonel, two majors and six inferior Officers… as a refinement of cruelty [they had been imprisoned] for a week in separate Dungeons on Bread and water with a Confessor to each; they then brought them forth to Public Execution in the Square… their knees knocking together, some blubbering and all looking like snivelling school boys’. Senior reports how each day brought news of ‘the atrocities of Boves’ (a brutal Spanish war lord) and in the same spirit Senior recounts to his brother his own encounter with Simon ‘Bolivar the Patriot General, as he afterward told me himself on my meeting him at Jamaica [who] used to keep his Prisoners till he had got two or three hundred of them and then, when he has nothing else to do “pour passer les tems” was his own expression, cut them down with his own hand “thus proving! The different sabres in his Regiments…’ As December came to a close Boves’ descent on the city prompted a mass flight which forced the wounded Englishmen to accept the loan of an unseaworthy boat which they sailed to Kingston Jamaica where, on arrival, ‘Our mutilated appearance must have oddly contrasted with our happy looks, numbers of young negro Boys ad Girls followed us crying out “Hi, de Buckra men been fightee fightee.”’
The first of the three letters in this manuscript concerned Senior’s 1816 recovery from yellow fever thanks to ‘a clever young Scotchman a Doctor McNaughton who has just got himself Doctored at Edinburgh’ only to be ’terrified beyond description’ when a tropical storm destroyed the whole plantation house (Chester Vale Coffee Estate, Jamaica) where he wrote the letter - ‘ a most substantial stone building, the roof entire, without loss of a single shingle or beam, being carried up in the air…’ Senior taking refuge in a cellar after ‘the kitchen gave way, injuring us all more or less and I fear maiming one negro for life’ (p8) with ‘Mr Atkinson, Dr McNaughton, the Overseer, Book-keeper, 5 black men, 4 black women and their 6 children, what I suffered from cold and the bruises I had received exceeded far any thing I ever had…. Far worse than the Surgeons knife when searching for the bullet….’ (p9) It is perhaps a foretaste of the astonishing drama contained in this manuscript.