3694. Robert Southey to John May, 15 June 1821

3694. Robert Southey to John May, 15 June 1821 ⁠* 

Keswick. 15 June. 1821

My dear friend

The public news from Brazil has made me look daily with much anxiety for tidings concerning you, – in what manner these revolutionary movements may have affected your interests. As they have neither been hasty, nor unforeseen, I should hope there had been time to extricate your property from the precarious hands in which it was placed, – but then I call to mind how much easier it is to run into danger than to withdraw from it, & that tottering Governments xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxx are too much alarmed & perplexed to pay much regard to their engagements. On the other hand it occurs to me that the Government would endeavour to fulfil its engagements to British subjects, in preference to any others, because the Kings intention of returning to Portugal must have for one chief motive, the desire of feeling himself within reach of British protection. [1] 

I think of writing a paper upon the state of Portugal & Brazil for the Q.R. [2]  The separation of the two countries can hardly be prevented now, indeed the wisest conduct could only have delayed it, & brought it about quietly & amicably, by a division of the kingdoms, fixing one son at Lisbon, & the other branch at the Rio. [3]  But the tendency of all commercial colonies is towards republicanism, – the foundations upon which monarchy rests are not to wanting. It is to be expected that the Brazilians will form a Constitution in imitation of the American States, – without any regard to the difference of their habits, character, & former institutions. Disputes & divisions between the great Captaincies will be the next step, & while the great cxx cities undergo as many revolutions as Buenos Ayres, [4]  the interior will be at the mercy of troops of Banditti, as bad as the worst of the old Paulistas. [5]  I can see but one motive which may perhaps alarm the revolutionary party, & possibly keep them within some bounds: a fear of the negros, who in case of civil war may renew in most of the great cities the tragedy of S Domingo. [6] 

The prospect in Portugal is not so bad. The revolution there may be prevented from going the same lengths as in Spain, [7]  by the situation of Lisbon, where England would not suffer the King to be put to death & whither an Austrian force might be transported from Naples, if the throne were in danger. [8]  The Portugueze reformers appear to mistake the nature of the political disease in that country, which was less in the form of their government than in its corruptions – & the abuse of the laws. Had the laws been regularly administered they would not have had occasion to try their hands at making a constitution.

I am bestowing great pains upon the first vol. of Brazil, the reprinting of which will soon be finished. [9]  A great many curious facts & details I have got at by means of books & papers which have come to my hands since its first publication, – particularly from a History of the West India Company in Dutch by Joannes de Laet. [10]  The additions which I have made amount to a tenth of the volume as far as the printing has proceeded. – Thirty sheets of the Peninsular War are printed, – this is my main business at present. [11]  & I must work the closer at it, having suspended it lately to write a view of Oliver Cromwells life for the Q.R. [12]  This I have just finished, & count upon its produce for my Midsummer bills. It is a fine subject, but the limits of a review will not allow room for doing it justice. One of these days I shall enlarge it for insertion in the projected series of biography. [13] 

Richmond must be at this time in full beauty. So indeed is Keswick, – summer is come at last. & the delight of bathing draws me out of doors when nothing else would. In this library of mine, I very often think of yours, as the only room which may fairly viex with it. If we could but bring the two within a reasonable distance of each other, it would add very much to my enjoyments.

My Uncle writes in good spirits, so that I hope he has recovered from the effects of his long & miserable confinement at Bristol. I hear a very good account of his eldest son, from Knox, the Usher of his boarding house, [14]  who in kindness for me, takes more interest in, & more pains with him, than money could purchase. The boy has good talents, is not wanting in diligence, & has the best possible disposition. It is a great source of satisfaction to me that my Uncles children promise so well. If it please God that he should live to the age of his elder brother, [15]  he may by that time see the three eldest [16]  so forward in the way of life, that they will only have to proceed regularly in the course before them.

You could not have fixed your son [17]  at a better college than Exeter: – perhaps it has one advantage over Oriel, that it does not hold itself quite so high. My old friend & fellow collegian Lightfoot has lately placed a son [18]  there, by Copplestones advice, who could not find room for him at Oriel, [19]  that is more suo, [20]  he preferred some body of more consequence to the son of an old acquaintance in humble life. – Your next care respecting John will be the choice of a profession for him. [21]  This is a very anxious subject, – I shall be an old man before it comes upon me, if my poor Cuthbert should live to grow up, & if I should live to see, – two contingencies each of which has the chances very much against it. At present thank God he thrives, & is as happy as the day is long. The others are doing well. Your god daughter took the field to day with a sketch-book in proper form. Poor dear Nash was always urging her to this. – Have you got your portrait? [22] 

There is the beginning of a letter-biographical in my desk, the date whereof makes me ashamed. [23]  – Remember me most kindly to Mrs May & your daughters [24]  – & to John also if he be at home. The two Ediths [25]  desire me to present their remembrances. xxxx xx Pray let me hear from you soon –

God bless you

yrs most affectionately

R Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre./ Richmond/ Surrey
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: 10 o’Clock/ JU 19/ 1821 F.Nn; [partial] E/ 19
Endorsement: No. 220 1821/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 15th June/
recd. 20th do./ ansd. 25h do
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 254–258. BACK

[1] An army revolt in Porto on 24 August 1820 had established a junta to run Portugal; it declared its intention of organising elections to a Cortes, which were held in December 1820, and demanded John VI (1767–1826; King of Portugal 1816–1826) return from Brazil, where the court had fled in 1807–1808. The king reached Portugal on 3 July 1821. It was feared in Brazil that his return would signal an attempt to put Brazil firmly under Portuguese control and this led directly to the separation of the two countries in 1822. BACK

[2] This article for the Quarterly Review was not written. BACK

[3] Despite Southey’s fears, Brazil did not become a republic or disintegrate, but remained a monarchy under John VI’s eldest son, Pedro I (1798–1834; Emperor of Brazil 1822–1831). The ‘other branch’ is probably a reference to Pedro’s younger brother, Miguel I (1802–1866; King of Portugal 1828–1834), who did indeed gain the throne of Portugal, but only by briefly usurping it from Pedro’s daughter, Mary II (1819–1853; Queen of Portugal 1826–1828, 1834–1853). BACK

[4] The Spanish Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, with its capital at Buenos Aires, had been effectively independent since 1810, but was torn by conflict between centralists and federalists. BACK

[5] Portuguese settlers in the Sao Paulo region, who carried out expeditions into the Brazilian interior in the seventeenth century, in search of slaves and gold. BACK

[6] The French colony of Saint-Domingue. Negro slaves had risen in revolt in 1791, eventually establishing the independent state of Haiti in 1804. BACK

[7] A revolution in Spain in 1820 had restored the liberal Constitution of 1812. BACK

[8] Austrian troops had crushed the liberal revolution in Naples in March 1821. BACK

[9] The second edition of the first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil (1822). BACK

[10] Joannes de Laet (1581–1649), Historie ofte Iaerlijk Verhael van de Verrichtinghen der Geoctroyeerde West-Indische Compagnie (1644). Southey had bought a copy in Brussels in 1817; it was no. 1671 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[11] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[12] ‘Life of Cromwell’, Quarterly Review, 25 (July 1821), 279–347, an assessment of the life of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; Lord Protector 1653–1658; DNB). BACK

[13] Southey did not fulfil his plan of writing a full-scale biography of Cromwell for a series that Murray was planning. BACK

[14] John William Knox (1784–1862), an usher at Westminster School 1806–1821, where Edward Hill was a pupil. BACK

[15] Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Hill (d. 1824), Herbert Hill’s older half-brother, with whom he had fallen out in early life. BACK

[16] Edward Hill was born in 1809, Herbert Hill Jnr, in 1810 and Errol Hill in 1812. BACK

[17] May’s son, John (1802–1879). He entered Exeter College, Oxford, on 2 February 1822. BACK

[18] John Prideaux Lightfoot. BACK

[19] Oriel College, Oxford, where Copleston was a Fellow. BACK

[20] ‘In his own manner’. BACK

[21] John May became a clergyman – as did Charles Cuthbert Southey. BACK

[22] One of Nash’s portraits of Edith May Southey; see Southey to John May, 8 April 1821, Letter 3667. BACK

[23] The latest of Southey’s autobiographical letters; see Southey to John May, 7 April–1 September 1821, Letter 3665. BACK

[24] May’s daughters, Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)


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