2734. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 12 March 1816

2734. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 12 March 1816⁠* 

12 March. 1816.

My dear Rickman

I have been reading Turners Tibet, [1]  having felt my intellect hungry for it after what you said in its praise. A good book, – a strange country, – & a stranger people. I do not find any mention of the proportion between the sexes, – & this silence may seem to infer that the <there is no visible> disproportion; – but on the other hand women being every where less abroad than men, it may exist, without being obvious to a traveller. I can account for the system of polyandry [2]  as he calls it only in one way; – that among the first settlers there was, from whatever cause, a paucity of women, & that it originated in necessity. As for instance it might have done at early Rome, if there had been no Sabines in the within reach. [3]  Cæsar found a similar system here, [4]  – this island being peopled from the continent, there will x always a great majority of men among emigrants & colonists. But if the system thus began in an actual disproportion, that disproportion (in the ordinary course of nature) would continue the same, unless more a supply were introduced from without: – to restore the natural equilibrium women must be imported, – not bred. In Tibet there seems to be no importation.

Their Lama, [5]  like Apis, [6]  who is always the same has this advantage over other Rulers, – rather there is this advantage in the fraud that it gives them choice of the subject, – & that as Apis was sure to be a fine oxe so will the Lama be chosen among the finest specimens of the human infant. It is a book that gives me much matter for speculation.

Have you read Elphinstones Caubul? [7]  The Afghanns are a fine people. – Of all the Easterlings the Persians or the Hindoos are the worst.

I send some history [8]  in another inclosure; – work with which I have been refreshing myself for a few days.

Can you send me the Report concerning the application of the money voted for the relief of the Portugueze? [9] 

Remember me to Mrs R. – & remember that we look to see you this year.



* Address: John Rickman Esqre
Endorsement: 15. March 1816
MS: Huntington Library, RS 272. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp.18–19 [in part]. BACK

[1] Samuel Turner (1759–1802), An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet (1800), describing his diplomatic mission to Tibet and Bhutan in 1783. BACK

[2] Turner, An Account of an Embassy (London, 1800), pp. 348–349. Tibetans mainly practised fraternal polyandry to prevent the division of family landholdings. BACK

[3] In Roman myth, the founders of the city acquired wives by abducting women from the Sabine tribe in c. 750 BC. BACK

[4] Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book 5, lines 8–12, claimed the British tribes he encountered in his invasion of 54 BC practiced polyandry. The standard modern interpretation is that this was propaganda to discredit the British as barbarians. BACK

[5] Turner obtained an audience with Palden Tenpai Nyima (1782–1853) the 7th Panchen Lama. Like many senior Lamas he was selected for his office as an infant and regarded as an incarnation of his predecessor. BACK

[6] Apis was a deity of ancient Egypt, whose worship was centred at Memphis. Apis was believed to be incarnated in the form of a black bull. Every time the bull died, the priests of Apis instituted a search for the calf into which Apis had been reborn. BACK

[7] Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779–1859; DNB), An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, and Its Dependencies in Persia, Tartary, and India (1815), no. 922 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[8] Probably a section of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[9] The House of Commons had in 1811 voted £100,000 to be used to relieve the civilian population of Portugal, after much of the country was laid waste during the French invasion. The Report of the Commissioners who had distributed the money was presented to the House of Commons on 6 July 1814. Southey required the Report for his History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

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