3143. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [late May 1818]

3143. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [late May 1818] ⁠* 

My dear R.

There is a Mulatto now living in Pernambuco {who} was born in the service of Joam Fernandez Vieira, [1]  & was six or seven years old at the time of his death, – he cannot therefore be less than 145 years old. His limbs are withered, his skin shrivelled, & he has lost almost his teeth, & wanders in his discourse, – but he is erect, his eye bright, & his voice full & clear. Koster has seen & conversed with him. He spoke of something as having happened “just now” – which phrase when he was farther questioned, he explained to mean about fifty years ago.

Thank the Capitaneus for his Memoirs. [2]  I suspect that some marine volcanos having been the cause of this dislocation of the ice, – & my ground for the suspicion is that the fish have deserted the coast of Kamtschatka, [3]  thereby occasioning from want of other food a bellum civile among the bears, & a bellum plusquam civile [4] of the Bears against the Russians & Kamtschatkans.

Barrow seems to have succeeded to Dalrymple as a theorist at the Admiralty. [5]  I wonder the Congo Expedition has not made him especially cautious of exposing valuable lives to imminent danger.



* Address: To/ J Rickman Esqre
MS: Huntington Library, RS 359. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, p. 105 [dated November 1818].
Dating note: Dating from content, which places this in late May 1818. BACK

[1] João Fernandes Vieira (c. 1613–1681), the Brazilian landowner who helped direct the Portuguese fight to oust the Dutch from Pernambuco in the 1640s and 1650s. BACK

[2] A Memoir on the Geography of the North-Eastern part of Asia, and on the Question whether Asia and America are Contiguous, or are Separated by the Sea (1818). BACK

[3] The lack of ice in far northern latitudes and its presence elsewhere in the Atlantic was much remarked on. British newspapers had carried a number of extracts from Hamburg papers, e.g. Morning Chronicle, 8 December 1817. One of the extracts reported that in the Kamchatka peninsula ‘in the course of last winter an incredible number of bears have left the woods, frequently entered the houses of the Kamtschdales; in many places have attacked and devoured the inhabitants; nay traces have even been found of their having killed and devoured each other; at the end of the winter many bears were found who had perished of hunger. In several settlements they have killed from two to three hundred bears, the oldest Kamtschadales do not remember ever to have seen so many bears so savage and blood-thirsty. The cause of this savageness and of their hunger is, that for these two years past there has been an entire want of fish in the Kamschatka sea, and fish, as is well known, are the chief food of the bears, which being usually so abundant in those waters, they easily contrive to catch. A couple of shocks of an earthquake have been lately felt in the Peninsula.’ BACK

[4] A ‘civil war’; and a ‘more than civil war’. BACK

[5] John Barrow (1764–1848; DNB), Second Secretary of the Admiralty 1804–1806, 1807–1845 was the main reviewer of travel writing for the Quarterly Review. Barrow, an armchair geographer, sent two naval expeditions to the Arctic in 1818; he had also sent explorers into Africa to ascertain the courses of the Niger and Congo rivers – Murray had just published A Narrative of an Expedition to Explore the River Zaire, Usually Called the Congo, in South Africa, in 1816, Under the Direction of Captain J. K. Tuckey, R.N. To Which is Added, The Journal of Professor Smith; Some General Observations on the Country and its Inhabitants (1818). This expedition resulted in the death of 38 of its 56 members. Alexander Dalrymple (1737–1808; DNB) was the first Hydrographer of the Navy 1795–1808. He was the main proponent of the existence of a vast undiscovered continent, Terra Australis Incognita, in the South Pacific. BACK

People mentioned

Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)
Burney, James (1750–1821) (mentioned 1 time)