Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Jacob Aemilius Irving Letterbooks, 1809-1816

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, June 1996

Summary Information
Title: Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbooks
Creator: Irving, Jacob Aemilius
Inclusive dates: 1809-1816
Extent: 3 volumes (518 pages)
Abstract:
The Irving collection consist of three volumes of outgoing correspondence written from Liverpool, England, and Jamaica, 1809-1816. These volumes are a resource for understanding the mentality of a Jamaican sugar planter during the years following the cessation of the British slave trade.

Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1996. M-3239.2.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open to research.

Copyright:

Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbooks, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.


Biography

Saddled with the debts of his deceased father, Jacob Aemilius Irving left his family's sugar estates in Jamaica in July, 1809, to try to right his affairs. Traveling first to New York, to renew commercial contacts and try the waters at Ballston Spa, Irving was greeted with the disconcerting news that he was to be arrested for nonpayment of debt, the result of losing an old lawsuit recently revived by the mercantile firm of Moulton & Livingston. Rescued by his business associates, the Gansevoorts, Irving settled with Moulton & Livingston and continued on to Charleston, S.C., to bring his three sons home to England with him. "Not at all satisfied with the state of Education" in Carolina, Irving wished to provide the children with better schooling, but added tartly that he did not wish them either "to imbibe a partiality for this Country!" (to Joseph Birch, 1810 April 26).

In July, 1809, Irving left for Liverpool. Although professing to "shrink with horror" when thinking of the "disasters, and distresses of various branches of my poor Father's family" (1809 September 13 to Capt. Jackson), Jacob had little inkling of what the "various branches" held in store. Within a year of his arrival in Liverpool, he was called upon to bail out a nephew, James, who had been imprisoned for an enormous debt of over £4,000, accrued through scandalously high living. At considerable personal expense, Jacob assisted in James' liberation from prison during the summer of 1811, and arranged for his nephew to work off his debt in Jamaica -- though he held little confidence in James' success. Jacob wrote that his "unfortunate" nephew had "seen so much of the dissipation of fashionable life, we are not to expect much steadiness from him, although he professes to be determined in working his reformation by oeconomy & an attention to the business of planting &c.," adding parenthetically, "At any event it is better he should go out, than remain here a certain prey to his Old Associates..." (1811 November 8 to Alexander Peterkin). In a separate letter to his clerk, J. Pigot, Jacob suggested that the wine on the estate should be well hidden. To Jacob's credit, James proved just as unsteady as feared, and even more underhanded. James' ongoing efforts to gain a share in the receivership vexed Jacob so highly that he was finally forced to cut off his nephew entirely in March 1813.

Another profligate nephew, Capt. John Jackson, turned up in England as well, and grew into an even more serious financial liability. Beginning with his instance that he be allowed to borrow money against his paltry annual income from the hire of some "inferior negroes" he had inherited, Jackson continually pressed claims upon Jacob's pocketbook. Exasperated, Jacob scolded Jackon that he had "never in any transactions with any of my family met with anything but ingratitude and discontent" (1809 November 5 to John Jackson), and from there, his relations with Jackson devolved into a round of litigation and personal animosity.

Irving's troubles were not restricted to family. The American embargo of 1807-1809 cut into his trade, and the vicissitudes of the British market played havoc with Irving's plans, particularly after the Lords' rejection of the distillery bill of 1811 resulted in a string of failures among London merchants and a drop in sugar prices. Compounding these problems were the loss of ships at sea and, in 1811, a loss he could "ill afford" to arson at the port of Montego Bay. Unlike some of his correspondents, Irving did not agree that the fire was the work of people of color, seeing himself rather as a victim snared in a web spun of international silk:

"It is highly expedient in the Magistracy to offer large rewards for apprehending any Persons who may have designedly perpretrated such a flagitious act -- As to the Negroes or People of Colour they have no view, no object to answer in such a measure, unless insurrection accompanied it -- which was not, nor likely to be the case -- No! The evil originates among a parcel of wretches that creep into the country by Cuba -- Outcasts of all sorts -- Spaniards, French, Portuguese, Yankees, Jews &c &c -- and as there have been attempts since to do the like, it is presumed it is not an accident" (1811 August 6 to Alexander Peterkin)

Through this troubled period, Jacob's largest creditor, Joseph Birch & Co. of Liverpool, remained favorably disposed toward Irving and little inclined to extreme measures. By 1816, Irving appears to have worked himself free of at least some of his debts, and may have begun to resolve some of the family strife that had plagued him for so long.


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 !"

Subject Terms

    Subjects:
    • Birch, Joseph.
    • Debt, Imprisonment for.
    • Debtor and creditor--Great Britain.
    • Debtor and creditor--Jamaica.
    • Estates (Law)--Jamaica.
    • Irving, James, b. 1792.
    • Liverpool (England)--Description and travel.
    • Moulton & Livingston.
    • Rum.
    • Slaves--Jamaica.
    • Sugar trade--Great Britain.
    • Sugar trade--Jamaica.
    • Wine.
    • Young men--Conduct of life.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letter books.
    Contents List
       Container / Location    Title
    Volume   1  
    Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbook,  1809-1811 [series]: (180 pages)
    Volume   2  
    Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbook,   1811-1812 [series]: (157 pages)
    Volume   3  
    Jacob Aemilius Irving letterbook,   1812-1816 [series]: (181 pages)
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Abolitionists--Great Britain
    • 1812 February 26
    Abortion
    • 1812 February 26
    Arson--Jamaica
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 August 6
    Bail
    • 1809 September 12
    • 1809 October 14
    Ballston Springs (N.Y.)
    • 1809 September 4
    Birch, Joseph
    • 1810 May 16
    • 1810 July 27
    • 1810 August 9
    • 1810 August 14
    • 1810 September 4
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1810 November 5
    • 1811 March 5
    • 1811 November 27
    • 1811 December 5
    • 1811 December 6
    • 1811 December 10
    • 1813 January 5
    Blacks--Jamaica--Social conditions
    • 1811 August 6
    Bourbon, House of
    • 1812 December 17
    • 1814 January 18
    • 1814 April 19
    Children--Death
    • 1813 April 22
    • 1813 May 4
    Coaching--Great Britain
    • 1810 September 14
    Debt, Imprisonment for
    • 1810 July 16
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 24
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 October 3
    Debtor and creditor--Great Britain
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 24
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 November 5
    • 1811 June 10
    • 1811 October 3
    • 1811 November 27
    • 1811 December 5
    • 1811 December 19
    Debtor and creditor--Jamaica
    • 1810 July 16
    • 1810 July 27
    • 1810 August 9
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1812 March 3
    • 1812 August 3
    • 1812 August 3
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 18
    • 1812 December 3
    • 1812 December 3
    • 1813 January 6
    • 1813 January 11
    • 1813 April 3
    • 1813 April 7
    Debtors and creditors--Great Britain
    • 1811 August 6
    Democratic Party
    • 1810 April 18
    Distilleries--Jamaica
    • 1811 October 18
    Distilleries--Law and legislation--Great Britain
    • 1811 May 1
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 June 4
    Domestics--Great Britain
    • 1812 March 3
    Domestics--Jamaica
    • 1810 May 16
    Ede & Bond
    • 1811 December 6
    • 1812 June 2
    Education--South Carolina
    • 1809 December 8
    • 1810 March 8
    • 1810 April 26
    Embargo, 1807-1809
    • 1809 August 3
    Entail
    • 1813 May 13
    • 1813 May 29
    • 1813 June 29
    Erskine, Alexander
    • 1811 January 1
    • 1811 June 4
    Estates (Law)--Jamaica
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 November 24
    • 1810 December 5
    • 1810 December 29
    • 1811 January 1
    • 1811 January 14
    • 1811 January 24
    • 1811 February 1
    • 1811 December 10
    • 1812 September 2
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 18
    • 1813 May 13
    • 1813 May 18
    • 1813 May 29
    • 1813 June 1
    • 1813 June 1
    • 1813 June 7
    • 1813 June 21
    • 1813 June 29
    • 1813 October 6
    • 1813 October 6
    • 1813 December 13
    • 1813 December 18
    • 1813 December 20
    • 1813 December 30
    • 1814 January 12
    • 1814 January 17
    • 1814 January 26
    • 1814 March 23
    • 1815 June 8
    • 1815 October 16
    • 1815 October 23
    • 1815 November 6
    • 1815 November 8
    • 1815 November 22
    • 1815 December 21
    • 1816 January 8
    • 1816 January 20
    Family
    • 1812 October 18
    Fathers and sons--Great Britain
    • 1812 December 17
    Girls--Conduct of life
    • 1810 November 24
    Grain trade--Great Britain
    • 1810 October 8
    Great Britain. Army
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1811 February 25
    • 1815 June 7
    Great Britain--Foreign relations--United States
    • 1809 August 3
    • 1809 December 8
    • 1810 March 8
    Great Britain--Politics and government
    • 1812 October 7
    Insurance, Marine
    • 1811 January 1
    • 1811 August 6
    Irving, H. H.
    • 1812 October 26
    Irving, James, b. 1792
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 October 3
    • 1811 October 3
    • 1811 October 18
    • 1811 October 18
    • 1811 November 8
    • 1811 November 8
    • 1811 November 27
    • 1811 December 5
    • 1811 December 6
    • 1812 March 3
    • 1812 March 3
    • 1812 June 2
    • 1812 August 3
    • 1812 September 2
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 7
    • 1812 October 18
    • 1812 December 3
    • 1812 December 3
    • 1813 January 5
    • 1813 February 2
    • 1813 April 7
    • 1813 April 7
    • 1813 April 22
    • 1813 May 4
    • 1813 May 29
    • 1813 June 29
    • 1813 July 3
    • 1813 July 3
    • 1813 July 7
    • 1813 October 6
    • 1813 November 17
    • 1815 May 16
    • 1815 May 22
    • 1815 May 23
    • 1815 June 7
    • 1815 June 7
    • 1815 June 8
    Irving, William, b. 1792
    • 1813 June 1
    Jackson, John S.
    • 1810 November 6
    Jamaica--Social life and customs
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 August 6
    Jews--Jamaica
    • 1811 August 6
    Liverpool (England)--Description and travel
    • 1810 July 16
    • 1810 July 27
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1811 June 4
    Merchants--Great Britain
    • 1810 September 19
    Merchants--New York (N.Y.)
    • 1809 August 6
    Miscegenation
    • 1812 March 3
    Moulton & Livingston
    • 1809 August 1
    • 1809 August 2
    • 1809 August 6
    • 1809 August 6
    • 1809 August 6
    • 1809 August 26
    • 1809 September 12
    • 1809 September 12
    • 1809 September 12
    • 1810 May 30
    • 1810 May 30
    Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, 1769-1821
    • 1812 December 17
    • 1814 January 18
    O'Connor, Charles
    • 1812 October 7
    Pearson, Alexander
    • 1811 March 22
    • 1811 March 22
    Plantations--Jamaica
    • 1812 June 1
    • 1812 June 2
    • 1812 October 18
    Prisoners--Great Britain
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 24
    Prisoners--Jamaica
    • 1810 July 16
    Rheumatism
    • 1810 September 4
    Rum
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1812 November 7
    • 1813 September 4
    • 1813 November 6
    Shipwrecks
    • 1811 January 1
    Slavery and the church
    • 1812 February 26
    Slavery--Jamaica
    • 1812 February 26
    Slaves
    • 1812 March 3
    Slaves--Emancipation
    • 1812 February 26
    Slaves--Jamaica
    • 1810 May 16
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 24
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 October 3
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1810 November 5
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1811 February 1
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 October 18
    • 1812 March 3
    • 1812 March 3
    • 1812 February 26
    • 1813 April 7
    • 1813 May 4
    • 1813 November 6
    Slave-trade--Great Britain
    • 1812 February 26
    Smallpox
    • 1813 April 22
    • 1813 May 4
    Sugar law and legislation--Great Britain
    • 1810 October 8
    Sugar trade--Great Britain
    • 1810 July 27
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1810 September 15
    • 1810 October 8
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1811 February 1
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 December 6
    • 1812 January 4
    • 1812 January 22
    • 1812 January 22
    • 1812 June 30
    • 1812 September 2
    • 1812 December 12
    • 1813 February 2
    • 1813 February 2
    • 1813 September 4
    • 1813 October 6
    • 1813 November 3
    • 1813 December 18
    Sugar trade--Jamaica
    • 1810 September 15
    • 1810 October 8
    • 1810 November 6
    • 1811 February 1
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 December 6
    • 1812 January 4
    • 1812 January 22
    • 1812 January 22
    • 1812 June 30
    • 1812 September 2
    • 1812 December 12
    • 1813 February 2
    • 1813 February 2
    • 1813 September 4
    • 1813 October 6
    • 1813 November 3
    • 1813 December 18
    Turtles
    • 1812 January 22
    United States--Commerce--1789-1812
    • 1810 May 16
    United States--Foreign relations--Great Britain
    • 1809 August 3
    • 1809 December 8
    • 1810 March 8
    United States--History--War of 1812
    • 1812 December 3
    • 1814 April 19
    United States--Politics and government--1789-1812
    • 1810 April 18
    Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of, 1769-1852
    • 1813 July 19
    West India Association
    • 1811 June 4
    • 1811 June 4
    Wine
    • 1810 July 16
    • 1810 September 5
    • 1810 September 15
    • 1811 March 5
    • 1812 March 3
    Young men--Conduct of life
    • 1810 September 13
    • 1810 September 19
    • 1810 September 24
    • 1810 November 5
    • 1811 August 6
    • 1811 November 27
    • 1812 June 2
    • 1812 October 18
    • 1813 January 6
    • 1813 January 11
    • 1813 March 26
    • 1813 April 3
    • 1813 April 7
    • 1813 May 29