2453. Robert Southey to John May, 1 July 1814

2453. Robert Southey to John May, 1 July 1814 ⁠* 

July 1 1814.

My Dear Friend,

Yesterday I received your letter, with its inclosure of 50/., a fresh obligation for which I stand indebted to you. Arriving on Thursday, it could not be acknowledged on the same day.

The Chamberlain’s office, I perceive, is much more slow in its payments than the Exchequer, where they usually pay one quarter shortly after a second is due. [1]  The fees, &c. are within a few shillings of 20l., which somewhat exceeds the first quarter of the salary, but there is also the wicked commutation for the sack [2]  to be received, payable at another place, which will more than answer the deficiency. This is paid by William Nicol, [3]  whom Harry has seen at Bedford’s, and from Bedford he will learn when the money may be forthcoming. Have you received the bust yet? [4] 

The fault which has been committed about the slave trade arose from the principle upon which we treated, which appears to me to have been radically wrong. [5]  Unquestionably it was a great point to re-establish the Bourbons, and it was good policy to separate the cause of Bonaparte from that of France; this latter point you know I have often endeavoured to enforce. But the French had no merit to plead in deserting their tyrant; their suppleness and their fear made them stand by him to the last, and their capital was in consequence conquered. Blucher [6]  was at the gates when they capitulated. France, therefore, had no claim upon the generosity of the allies, but her negotiators, as usual, have been expert at their business, and flattered the crowned heads into an ostentatious display of what is magnanimity between man and man, but folly between nation and nation, under the present circumstances of Europe. Since the days of Louis XIV [7]  the power and the ambition of France have been the curse of half the world; there was now an opportunity of repairing the blunders committed at Utrecht, [8]  and stripping France of the acquisitions which Louis XIV made. Ministers say that the cessions which we have made were to purchase certain equivalent arrangements on the continent. To this it may be replied that for any arrangements in which we were directly or indirectly concerned, we made an ample equivalent by restoring Gascony, then subject to the British arms. [9]  But the real truth is, that terms so favourable to France were granted to render the new Government popular; and that now, as in every former instance, the British negotiators have not fully understood their own strength, nor adequately supported the pride and power of their country. “Whatever we may restore,” they should have said, “ is on our part a mere gift. You have no equivalent to offer, and no possibility of recovering what you have lost by arms. We will give you your sugar islands, [10]  &c., if you will assent to the abolition of the slave trade; if you do not like the condition, so be it – the islands shall remain as they are.” What possible reply could have been made to this?

The evil, however, is not so great in this instance as the alarm. To prevent the introduction of fresh negroes into our own islands is very practicable, and very easy. No kind of commodity is so difficult, or rather impossible, to be smuggled, if the simple regulation is adopted of making every person register his slaves. There can be no importation to St. Domingo, [11]  and the islands which we restore have been long enough in our possession to feel the possibility of advantage of doing without any fresh supply; and demonstrated as the impolicy, as well as the wickedness, of the trade has been, I think there is little reason to doubt that the stipulation in the treaty for its absolute abolishment at the time appointed will be fulfilled, even if it be not affected sooner. There are far greater difficulties to encounter with Spain and Portugal. The Prince [12]  cannot attempt it without inevitably losing Brazil. Whether the same consequences would take place in Cuba, I do not know. When you see in my second volume [13]  the long and persevering struggles which the Jesuits made against the Indian slave trade, and how ineffectual were all the efforts of the Government and the Church, – the latter most zealous in the cause, and with agents the most able and the most virtuous, – you will perceive what difficulties are to be encountered in countries where the only alteration which has taken place is in the growth and enlarged commerce of a few widely distant cities.

The good in which the slave trade will terminate seems to me to be that of preparing for those countries in which European constitutions are incapable of that degree of labour which is “healthful and necessary, as well for the soul as the body,” a mixed race, uniting so much of the European mind and African conformation as may render them the fit inhabitants of a tropical climate.

I love to trace the moral order of things in the history of the world. The aborigines (as we call them) of the new world seem to me, with few exceptions, to have been either so far sunk into a savage state, that upon the great scale of things, they might be considered as barren fig-trees – to be hewn down: [14]  or they were like the Canaanites, some for their vices, and some for their cruelty, worthy of extermination. If the guilt of misery attendant upon such a process be objected, I feel the weight of the objection; but am, at the same time, satisfied that it resolves itself into the great question of the origin of evil: that, comparing it with the good which there is in the world, the evil seems to me as much lost as the filth and impurity of our navigated rivers is in the sea; that what evil there is is temporary as to individuals, and evanescent as to the species, and that a future state sets all to rights. I thought to have said something respecting Norway, and upon the state of things in Spain, but have left myself no room. [15]  “Roderick” [16]  monopolises me just now; I am in all the bustle and passion of the catastrophe, and my next, as far as it is possible to foresee anything, will, I trust, inform you of its happy termination.

I hope the sea has entirely removed the whooping cough. God bless you.

Yours, most affectionately,

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 356–359. BACK

[1] Southey’s salary as Poet Laureate was paid by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. BACK

[2] Part of the Poet Laureate’s traditional payment was a butt of sack. Southey’s predecessor, Henry James Pye (1745–1813; DNB), exchanged this for £27 p.a. BACK

[3] William Nicol (fl. 1800s-1850s), printer and publisher. Nicol was also Assistant Paymaster in the Lord Steward’s office and thus had some responsibility for part of Southey’s salary. The Lord Steward, who has charge of the Royal Household’s domestic arrangements, had traditionally provided the Poet Laureate with the butt of sack, as a supplement to his salary. Even after the wine had been converted into an annual sum of £27, this was still paid by the Lord Steward. BACK

[4] A copy of the bust of Southey sculpted in October 1813 by James Smith (1775–1815). BACK

[5] The Treaty of Paris, signed on 30 May 1814, fixed France’s boundaries and dealt with the fate of its colonies; formally restored the Bourbon dynasty as rulers of France; and committed France to abolish the slave trade within five years. BACK

[6] Gebhart Leberecht von Blucher (1742–1819), Prussian Field Marshal and commander of the Army of Silesia, which occupied Paris on 30 March 1814. BACK

[7] Louis XIV (1638–1715; King of France 1643–1715). BACK

[8] The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, and was widely criticised in Britain as too lenient towards France. BACK

[9] British troops had invaded the south west of France in October 1813 and occupied Bordeaux on 12 March 1814. BACK

[10] Guadelupe and Martinique had been captured by British forces in 1809–1810 and were restored to France under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. BACK

[11] Haiti, a former French colony, which had finally expelled French troops in 1803. BACK

[12] John VI (1767–1826), Prince Regent of Portugal 1799–1816, King of Portugal 1816–1826. BACK

[13] The second volume of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819), published in 1817. BACK

[14] Luke, 13:6–9. BACK

[15] Demark had been allied to France since 1807, but by late 1813 was isolated and bankrupt. Consequently, on 14 January 1814, the Danes signed the Treaty of Kiel with Britain and Sweden. Most importantly, it ceded Norway, which had been under Danish rule, to Sweden. The Norwegians responded with a declaration of independence in May 1814, but Swedish troops were poised to invade the country, crossing the Norwegian border on 29 July 1814. Eventually, the Norwegians agreed to union with Sweden. In Spain, Ferdinand VII (1784–1833; King of Spain 1808, 1813–1833) had abolished the liberal Constitution of 1812 on 4 May 1814 and arrested the liberal leaders on 10 May. BACK

[16] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK