1580. Robert Southey to John May, 16/18 February 1809

1580. Robert Southey to John May, 16/18 February 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick, February 18. 1809.

My dear friend,

I should have written to you before this, had it not been for a more unpleasant reason than the permanent one of constant employment. Edith has had a serious indisposition, which at length confined her to her bed for eight days; and it was but yesterday that she was sufficiently recovered to walk from her own room into mine.

I am anxious to hear how your brother bears the climate of Brazil. [1]  Healthy as that part of the country is, yet, I believe, few Englishmen can escape without some seasoning; and there was an account, some little while since, in the papers, which made me tremble for him and Worthington. [2]  What, too, is your Lisbon news? Notwithstanding the Duke of York and Mrs. Clarke, [3]  I think of those countries; and notwithstanding the disasters which our gross misconduct could not but bring on, my confidence in the ultimate success of a good cause remains undiminished. I could have wished, indeed, that the work of reformation which Joseph Bonaparte is beginning had been begun by the Junta; [4]  that they had called the principle of liberty as well as of loyalty to their aid, and made freedom their watch-word as well as the Virgin Mary, for she may be on both sides. Certainly it was not easy to do this; and I have always suspected that those leaders, such as Palafox, [5]  – who might have wished to do it,– bore in mind the first great struggle of the Portuguese against Castille, when the Infanta D. Joâo, a prisoner and in chains, served as Joâo the First’s stalking-horse, and was painted upon his banners, till he found he could safely assume the crown himself. [6]  The convenience of such a name as Ferdinand’s, [7]  and the stain which France has left upon the very name of Republicanism, were causes which might well induce a timid, and therefore a feeble, line of conduct. But it was as a Republic that Spain must be emancipated, for the old dynasty is too old to be restored in any of its branches. They could not agree in choosing a new one, and they will not submit to have one forced upon them with such monstrous and avowed injustice. Why is Bonaparte gone to Paris at such a time? If any change in the North should call him into Germany, with only a part of his army, the tide will roll back, and King Joseph be forced, a second time, to decamp. [8]  Meantime I expect a desperate resistance along the southern coast, wherever our ships can be of use. Is it possible that we can leave Elvas without seeing it well garrisoned? The place is absolutely impregnable. Moore [9]  would have done wisely had he fallen back upon the frontier, where there was a double line of fortified towns, into which he might have thrown his troops, whenever he felt it necessary to leave the mountains, and against those fortresses the French would have wasted, and must have divided, their force, allowing us time to send out another army. Regular armies, in such want as this, must always be successful in the field; but they have always met their chief disasters before fortified towns: tactics are nothing there; individual courage everything; and women and children fight by their husbands and their fathers from the window, or the house-top, or on the walls.

Have you seen William Taylor’s defence of the slave trade, in Bolingbroke’s ‘Voyage to the Demerara’? [10]  It is truly William Taylor’s. Thoroughly ingenious, as usual, but not ingenuous: he weakens the effect of his own arguments, by keeping the weak side of his cause altogether out of sight. In defending the Slave Trade, as respects the duty of man towards man, he has utterly failed. He has succeeded in what you and I shall think of more consequence, in showing what the probable end is for which wise Providence has so long permitted the existence of so great an evil. The ways of man he cannot justify; the ways of Heaven he has. I know not that this expression is allowable; what I mean is, that he has shown how all this evil has been necessarily tending to commensurate good.

About twenty sheets of my first volume are printed. [11]  I have suspended the task of transcribing for three weeks, while busied upon some books of main importance as documents, which I was lucky enough to obtain from a public library, and was therefore compelled to return as speedily as possible. [12]  You would be surprised to see the piles of papers which are daily accumulating, and not displeased at their method. Four books I have just written for to the Library in Red Cross Street; [13]  still I am in want of the ‘Annual Letters from Paraguay,’ [14]  – a grievous want. It happens, fortunately, that I can, with sufficient propriety, wait for them till the second volume, and by that time, if they are in England, I may hope to unkennel them. William Taylor sent me one book, which has proved of much importance; Sealey [15]  had a list of some which I hope Borel [16]  will be able to find amid the wreck of the convents. Meantime, I find fifteen hours in the four-and-twenty short enough to work through what I have in hand. Remember us to Mrs. May, and believe me

Yours very affectionately,

Robert Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 219–221 [in part]; John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 128–131.
Dating note: L&C dates this 16 Feb; Warter dates it 18 Feb. BACK

[1] William Henry May (1785–1849), John May’s youngest brother and like him a merchant in Portugal. William was displaced by the French invasion and had crossed the Atlantic to establish a firm in Brazil by August 1808; it was unsuccessful and cost John May much money. BACK

[2] John Worthington (dates unknown), a business partner of John May’s. He was a merchant at the British Factory in Lisbon and later went to Brazil. BACK

[3] Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827; DNB), Commander in Chief of the army. He held the post from 1798–1809, but was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that he had profited by allowing his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke (c. 1776–1852; DNB), to accept money from army officers, in return for which promotion was arranged. BACK

[4] The junta was the de facto government of the parts of Spain not occupied by French troops and ruled by the King imposed by Napoleon in 1808, his brother Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte (1768–1844). During his reign, Joseph ended the Spanish Inquisition. BACK

[5] José Rebolledo de Palafox y Melzi (1780–1847), Spanish general, who in 1808 and 1809 commanded the defending forces at the first and second sieges of Zaragosa. The city fell to the French after an heroic defence by its citizens, and Palafox was imprisoned. BACK

[6] John I (or João I; 1358–1433), King of Portugal and the Algarve 1385–1433, whose accession ended the 1383–1385 civil war between himself and his half-brother Infante Dom John (or João; 1349–1397) of Portugal after the death of Ferdinand 1 of Portugal (1345–1383), King of Portugal and the Algarve 1367–1383. BACK

[7] Ferdinand VII (1784-1833), King of Spain from 1808, but forced to abdicate in favour of Joseph by Napoleon and imprisoned in France until 1814. BACK

[8] Joseph and the French army occupying Madrid had been forced from the city by a popular uprising that began on 2 May 1808. Joseph returned only at the end of the year when the French retook the city. BACK

[9] Sir John Moore (1761–1809; DNB), Scottish General with a long and varied military career. He was also MP for Lanark Burghs 1784–1790. After the controversial Convention of Cintra (1808), Moore was given the command of the British troops in the Iberian peninsula. He was fatally wounded at the Battle of Corunna on 16 January 1809. BACK

[10] Henry Bolingbroke (1785–1855; DNB), A Voyage to the Demarary (1807). This work was revised by William Taylor and published as A Voyage to the Demarary, Containing a Statistical Account of the Settlements there and of those on the Essequebo, the Berbice and other Contiguous Rivers of Guyana, in 1809. BACK

[11] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil was published in 1810. BACK

[12] Southey had Scott borrow, from the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, a copy of Martin Dobrizhoffer (1717–1791), Historia de Abiponibus, Equestri, Bellicosaque Paraquariæ (1784). Southey eventually owned a copy of this work, listed as no. 843 in the sale catalogue of his library. It was translated by Sara Coleridge (with Southey’s encouragement), as An Account of the Abipones, an Equestrian People of Paraguay (1822). Scott also sent José Gumilla (1686–1750), Histoire Naturelle, Civile et Geographique de L’Orenoque (1758), a French version of the original Historia Natural, Civil, & Geografica de las Naciones situadas en las Riveras del Rio Orinoco (1731), and Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557), Navigationi et Viaggi (1550–1559). Of Ramusio, Southey owned an early edition (3 vols, 1588, 1583 and 1556), no. 2382 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[13] Dr Williams’s Library, established in Red Cross Street, Cripplegate, in 1729, through the bequest of the Presbyterian minister and benefactor, Daniel Williams (c. 1643–1716; DNB). BACK

[14] The Cartas Ánuas de la Provincia del Paraguay (or Annual Letters from the Province of Paraguay), the published reports of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay (1607–1767). BACK

[15] Richard Sealy (c. 1752–1821) a wealthy Lisbon merchant, the father of Mary-Harriet Sealy, who married Henry Herbert Southey in 1809. BACK

[16] Untraced. BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)