I am surprised no to have come across this incredible book earlier, as it records life in Jamaica from the turbulent years of 1801-5. Maria Nugent (1771-1834) nee Skinner was the wife of George Nugent (1757-1849) Commander in Chief of Jamaica 1801-6, so this provides a unique though restrained insight into the island at the highest level.
At the heart of the journal is their love story. Though they had married in 1797 their first child did not arrive till 1802, so they were still on their honeymoon, and were clearly devoted to each other. She was constantly concerned for his welfare when he was away on work, and she often notes his astounding stamina, working long hours and travelling long distances on horseback, in a few instances returning late in order to see her. Several times she describes how he works in her private room while she draws, reads and writes, so they enjoy rare moments alone together. She often copied out his correspondence in order to relieve some of his workload. From the outset she says she will not record official matters, but that still leaves much important historical and personal information.
Her husband’s role was an incredibly varied and busy one, overseeing the courts, supervising the island’s defence, and entertaining many visitors, so Maria was very much his helpmeet, organising dinners and balls, managing a large domestic staff, and holding the fort in his many absences. The arrival of the new king of the Mosquito Indians is particularly difficult for her as he was an unruly teen whose uncle was completely out of his depth dealing with his tantrums.
She provides much information of her home life, of managing servants, of entertaining visitors and of the journey round the island with her husband to acquaint him with the place, but also to understand the people, which showed a real commitment to his post. Much of the journal is of visitors, and valuable observations on the landscape, properties she visited, and of the many curiosities. As war approaches she notes the rise in deaths, several instances of severe mental illness, and complains of the local diet – mostly heavy meat dishes which she blames on some of the ill health, as well as the excessive alcohol consumption of course.
She is fascinated by the great beauty of the island, the profuse growth of trees and plants, the many exotic sights and sounds. She travels along dangerously narrow roads in the mountains and crossing flooded rivers, fearful of falling to her death. Towards the end of her stay in Jamaica there is the growing fear of disease as she notes the growing numbers of deaths, which ultimately leads to her family returning home with your small children though her husband is held up for some time.
Her curiosity also extends to the life of the negroes on the island, and she encourages her servants to learn about Christianity and to become baptised. She describes local debates on the issue. She is amused by the behaviour of the ‘blackies’ especially their rowdy celebrations at Christmas, but there is surprisingly little mention of the elephant in the room – slavery. She is interested in the work of Wilberforce, but suggests abolition of the trade may not be necessary as many people were having children, so importing slaves was dying out. She visits a sugar mill, sees how the canes are fed in and the crushed stalks burned to boil the juice. She is shocked to learn the men work 12 hour shifts without breaks. Towards the end she records the arrival of a group of slaves, noting they look happy, well dressed and cheerful. This seems wrong, and yet they were generally fed up on arrival, given time to recover, and given new clothes. After weeks of filthy, dark, cramped conditions on board a ship, this is possible. It seems they felt they had been rescued from hell.
When she arrived, she would stay up late, dancing her self to exhaustion. But after the birth of her son, her health deteriorated. she complained of exhaustion and a range of problems, and constantly worries about the health of herself, her son and especially her husband, whose physical and mental stamina is utterly extraordinary. He was 44 when he arrived, an age when many people were worn out, yet at times he was surviving on only a few hours sleep a night, travelling extensively and managing everything from courts of chancery to coastal fortifications.
Maria returned to England with her children, expecting her husband to join them but there were delays in the arrival of his replacement. She hears he has arrived in England and sets off to meet him. Their coaches pass on the road, they stop and he runs back to his beloved wife.
The family portrait is a very odd one. It seems each person was painted separately. Lord Nugent in particular seems to be looking at a book or journal, oblivious to his devoted wife and their children.