Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbooks   1809-1816
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Jacob Aemilius Irving Letterbooks consist of three volumes of out-going correspondence written from Liverpool, England, and Jamaica, 1809-1816. These slender volumes are an outstanding resource for understanding the mentality of a Jamaican sugar planter during the years following the cessation of the British slave trade. While there is little information on plantation management, per se , the letters provide considerable insight into the psychology and management of debt. Having inherited a substantial debt as receiver of his father's estate, Irving struggled to settle the family accounts, placing himself in continued conflict with relatives and creditors alike.

Irving's management of his daily business demonstrates how thoroughly his vision of the world was trans-Atlantic. His network of agents, suppliers, friends, and competitors extended not merely to the West Indies, but to America and Britain, as well, and for Irving, the nation clearly straddled the ocean. Intriguingly, the letters suggest the manner in which debt worked to cement Irving's network of relationships, however uneasily -- indebtedness was the mortar binding Irving's familial and commercial lives. To Irving, debt was an inevitable byproduct of successfully maneuvering the sugar trade, and the gambler's mentality implicit in this formulation comes across clearly in the letters to Irving's largest creditor, Joseph Birch, and to his attorney, Alexander Peterkin, and clerk, John Pigot. Of particular interest is an excellent series of letters to and about Jacob's nephew, James, imprisoned for debt at the tender age of 19, admonishing him for profligacy and a lack of concern for his budget and accusing him, at one point, of a conscious design to indebt himself. See especially the letter of 1810 September 13 and the letter to Alexander Peterkin written on 1811 August 6.

The commercial impact of Anglo-American foreign relations and the War of 1812 forms a second, though relatively minor line of interest in the collection.

Finally, the Irving letterbooks are a fine resource for understanding aspects of the mentality and economics of slaveholding in Jamaica. While there is nothing in the collection relating directly to the management of slaves, there is considerable discussion of trading in slaves, their value to the estates, and their status as currency in the Jamaican economy. Among the most intriguing letters is one in which Irving described the departure (in England) of his servant, Peter:

"My Man Peter has left us after long threatening to do so -- indeed I was obliged to [word crossed out: discharge] part with him he had become so idle & fond of company, his services were not worth having -- it is no more than what I always expected -- for as soon as these gentry get to this Country, & get connected with Buckra Woman the fools go mad, & at length when poverty & disease ensue, the press gangs get them, or they become beggars in the streets. I should as soon recommend a Man to bring his horse with him to England as his domestic servant" (1812 March 3 to John Pigot)

In an impassioned letter to Simon Clarke responding to reading an antislavery work (1812 February 26), Irving includes an edgy defence of the slave system against charges that it is antireligious: "Teach them [slaves] morality, and you teach them wisdom. Teach them religion, and you confound their understandings, & render them a prey to Evil-doers !"

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