This Book of the Month blog was researched and written by Debbie Manners, Front of House volunteer at the Devon and Exeter Institution.

Travel literature was popular and widely available in Britain during the nineteenth century. This book by Henry Nelson Coleridge is one of several accounts of trips to the West Indies in the early part of the century, alongside those, for example, of George Pinckard published in 1806, Methodist minister Rev. Richard Bickell in 1825, and Matthew Gregory Lewis in 1834. (Lewis had inherited two Jamaican estates with slaves, and visited them in 1815 and 1817. His book was published posthumously.) Such ‘first-hand’ accounts helped shape public opinion on colonial matters, including slavery, and indeed provided an important resource for historians well into the twentieth century.

Henry Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1798, the fifth of the six surviving sons of Colonel James Coleridge and Frances Duke Taylor. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he excelled. He was a barrister and writer, and after the death of his uncle, (and father-in-law), the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he became literary editor of the great man’s works. Throughout his life, Henry was dogged by ill health, in particular spinal problems and rheumatism, living only to the age of forty-five.

In the opening chapter of Six Months in the West Indies, Henry suggests he made the trip for health reasons. ‘I went simply and sheerly on my own account, or rather on account of the aforesaid rheumatism.’ Other sources disagree. Henry wanted to marry Sara Coleridge, (daughter of Samuel T. Coleridge), a match strongly opposed by his father, on the grounds that Henry’s finances were too precarious, and by Sara’s father who felt the couple, as first cousins, were too closely related. An opportunity presented itself to the families to send Henry away for a while, thus postponing talk of marriage. (Although it did eventually happen in 1829.) Henry’s uncle, William Hart Coleridge, newly appointed Bishop of Barbados, was due to take up his post, and Henry went with him, setting sail in December 1824.

Taken as a whole, Henry’s account of his trip around twelve of the eastern Caribbean islands makes surprisingly easy reading. He gives vivid details of the vegetation, the towns, the architecture and the people. He was clearly captivated by the beauty of the landscapes, remarking for example on the ‘unspeakable loveliness’ of Trinidad, and the ‘soft and noble’ features of Grenada. The tone is light-hearted and rarely serious. Indeed, his family is said to have been annoyed by the book’s ‘flippancy’. It was published anonymously in 1826. The second edition, the subject of this review, was also anonymous, but when a third edition was issued, in 1832, by the same London publisher, the author’s name was included.

By the mid 1820s the issue of slavery was a major focus of British debate. Readers of this book would have expected to find some discussion of the subject. Britain had abolished the actual trade in slaves in 1807, but the practice of using slaves on plantations continued, and from 1823 abolitionists stepped up their calls for full emancipation.

As a member of the upper classes, Henry’s views in this book often reflect those of the pro-slavery lobby, known as the ‘West India interest’. From this class came the plantation owners, and it is perhaps not surprising to see Henry echoing their romanticized idea of a paternalistic relationship with the slaves. He remarks on ‘the relations between master and servant…the pride of protecting and of the gratitude for protection given’.

On several occasions Henry addresses the issue of education for slaves. It is to ‘education that the sincere philanthropist ought to address his present labours’. Even among abolitionists in the 1820s, there was a widespread belief that slaves must receive a Christian education before being capable of living peaceful and productive free lives. The slave revolts in Haiti from 1791 – 1804 and Demerara in 1823 had alarmed the British establishment, sparking fears about the dangers of slave emancipation.

During his trip, Henry stayed at some of the finest plantations, often in the company of the Bishop. It seems quite possible that he was deliberately kept away from plantations where slaves were badly treated. Accordingly, in Grenada, Henry noted that the slaves were ‘good humoured’ and ‘vivacious’, while in Barbados, he observed that they ‘have gardens of their own which they may cultivate as they please’. He could not resist teasing parliamentary abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton, when he wrote about slave children in Barbados. ‘Mr Buxton himself could not doubt the happiness of the children.’

There are some moments when he is displeased by what he sees. In St Vincent’s he was ‘disgusted’ by the practice of putting slaves in chains, while in Nevis, he criticised the unsuitable lightweight clothing for slaves working on the high, cold, hill estates, as well as the lack of respectable clothing for female slaves.  Where he does address issues of slave cruelty, however, he blames the lower-class white plantation owners. ‘I am bound to say that the only cases of cruelty, which I either met with or heard of in the West Indies, were one and all perpetrated by persons of this description.’

In the final chapter of the book, entitled ‘planters and slaves’, Henry collects his thoughts on the issue. ‘The truth is, there is much to praise and much to condemn.’ He insists, ‘I have observed with diligence’, however, he remains largely on the side of the plantation owners. ‘From the general and prominent charge indeed of cruelty, active or permissive, towards the slaves, I for one acquit the planters.’ However, despite his generous descriptions of slave welfare, he clearly understood that slavery must come to an end, ‘the process of enfranchisement must begin as of to day (sic)’. He could see the way the wind was blowing. ‘Personal slavery, though familiar to the ancient laws of England, is now hateful to every English man, and justly so.’

It is hard to reconcile Henry’s account of favourable conditions for slaves with the stories of cruelty highlighted by abolitionists at the time, for example in their own publication the Anti-Slavery Reporter, or the Jamaican Gazette, which they distributed widely to further their cause. Ultimately, this book by Henry Coleridge is perhaps more valuable as a reflection of early nineteenth century British establishment views on slavery, rather than as a first-hand account of conditions on plantations.

Thank you to Peter Wingfield-Digby who, in 2021, sponsored the restoration of this book.