Sunday, June 14, 2015

More Letters found at Gilford



As per usual, I set out for my latest trip to Ireland with a list. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. The most important discoveries are rarely the things that I set out to find. This year, it was on my last day at Gilford Castle that I stumbled across a cache of family letters dating back to 1863. They had recently been rediscovered by Christine Wright. Half a dozen of them had been written by Thomas Jackson when he was in his 20s, and they covered a period of his life that until then had largely been terra incognito. 

Before I had left on this most recent trip, I had written a chapter about Jackson’s first passage to Hong Kong. It had leaned on passenger lists of ships which mentioned a Jackson, as well as on weather reports, news articles, and relevant travelers’ diaries. These bits had been all that I had found so far, and it had meant that this chapter relied on a fair bit of guess-and-by-golly. 

It is one thing to know from studying ship design that the bunks in the ships between Marseilles and Hong Kong that Thomas sailed on were 5’0 long, and to be able to conclude that at 6’2, he would have had to have slept like a contortionist. It is quite another to read his own account of this:
Our ship was very much crowded every berth occupied, which made bad worse, my bed was about 2 feet long [actually 5 feet long – he may be joking], and my head frequently found its way into another gentleman's berth who slept alongside.

The first of this most recent cache of letters is dated September 23rd, 1863, and is in some ways the most revealing. He wrote it when he was twenty-two years old, when he was working as bank clerk at a branch of the Bank of Ireland in Belfast. He starts out this letter by teasing its recipient, his eighty year old great-aunt Barbara. She had given him one of those carte de visites which were so popular in that era. One of his friends, Samuel Edgar McCormick, the young publisher of the Weekly Press, had also been given a copy, but his was a better version of the same photo. As fate would have it, I also have a copy, probably the one that Barbara had given to one of Thomas’ younger sisters.
Barbara DONALDSON née BRADFORD (1783-1865), widow of William DONALDSON (1768-1815).
Barbara had a keen intellect, and her correspondence with Thomas indicates that her mind had not dimmed in old age. Her husband had been extremely active as the key organizer of the United Irishmen in South Armagh during the late 1700s uprising. He was not only an activist, but an insightful commentator on the political, economic, and moral issues of their time. He was one of those Presbyterian farmers of South Armagh who was defiantly and energetically on the side of Catholic emancipation. Together, they had one daughter, but when she was seven years old, Barbara was widowed at age thirty two. 

Years ago, I had transcribed and posted two of William Donaldson’s letters, one written in 1811, a second in 1812. Over the past couple of centuries, most of the thousands of letters exchanged in this extended family were lost, but I am grateful that at least these two letters had been considered worthy of saving. Some of the themes, such as the treatment of Africans by whites, are echoed in Thomas’ letter written half a century later.

When Thomas was writing this letter to his great-aunt, the Americans were in the thick of their civil war, and slavery was still as much an issue as it had been when Donaldson wrote in the early 1800s. It intrigues me that even though Thomas supported the abolishment of slavery:  the course events have taken lately bids fair for the accomplishing of this most desirable end , his sympathies were otherwise with the Confederate Army:
I would like to see the Confederates succeeding in obtaining their independence the break has come too wide to heal and considering the animosity that exists between them I think it was to be better for both parties to have a separation.

In some ways, this sympathy with the South is not surprising. A number of members of the extended family had fled to the Southern States in the late 1700s and early 1800s to avoid persecution in Ireland for their political beliefs (as well as for their manufacture of pike heads which the tenants used to unseat the government’s horsemen), and Thomas’ family would have had full accounts of their version of life there. Added to this evident loyalty to the South, Thomas was also concerned about the balance of power between America and Europe should the American States unite. He also expressed concern about the prospect of war in Europe, and what that might mean for Poland:

Modern inventions in Gunnery etc. etc. have made war far too terrible a thing to be trifled with – the day has gone by forever when nations for the most trifling reasons or very often capricious wants declare war. The age of Chivalry has passed, and has been succeeded by an age of cold calculating matter-of-fact common sense.

In this section of the letter, he praised the Emperor of Russia:
I have great confidence in the present Emperor of Russia, his acts for so far have been strongly in his favor; his liberation of the Serbs against such extraordinary opposition as he met with from the Nobles will exalt his name to a very high position among the benefactors of the human race. The historian of the next generation will praise this great act when reviewing his life. Unfortunately he has been placed on a throne over a vast country a great deal of which was gotten wrongfully and held by military power            the right of nations to govern themselves is being more recognized every day and Russia is composed of so heterogeneous a collection of nations that sooner or later it will be dismembered.

In his final comment on war, he concludes:
Look how England suffered    her history has been written in blood nothing but wars, wars, yet look at her present position first among the nations of the earth – America is now passing through the fiery ordeal. I remember having heard Dr. Morgan say that nations suffered for national sins just as individuals do for particular ones – God's dealing with the Israelites would certainly hear him out in his opinion.

This concept of nations suffering for the consequences of their sins presents an interesting theological conundrum for Thomas, coming as it does just after he lauds Britain for becoming first among nations as a result of the wars which it has won. We do know that both his mother and his future wife fervently believed in the kind of god who pulled strings to determine everything from war to domestic issues, a kind of theology which sets definite limits on the ambit of free will, but with respect to this kind of faith, Thomas was agnostic – at least in his later life.

In the next letter in this collection, written to the same great-aunt Barbara, Thomas gives an account of his last day as a clerk in Belfast. He even writes a complete transcription of the letter of reference he received. Clearly, great-aunt Barbara is someone worth bragging to. The ring that he received at this event was also mentioned. It is a signet ring that I have had the privilege of holding in my hand. Although he received it half a century before the British Herald designed the arms for his baronetcy, the design of its seal matches that of the sheldrakes which would later be included in his official arms. To me, this means that regardless of what any official Herald night have thought about Thomas’ likely ancestry in 1902, Thomas’ family had long believed that they descended from the families of Jacksons whose arms included a similar bird.

When I transcribe and annotate these letters, I have an utterly idiosyncratic approach. My aim is to use such documents as a parking place for bits of facts that I might need to find quickly in the future. I will confess to being a bit of a magpie. For example, in my transcription of the December 13, 1864 letter, I have also included a timeline of what I suspect was Thomas’ itinerary on his way from England to Hong Kong. Who knows? Maybe there were other travelers on this same voyage whose descendants may have bits to add to this. 

He describes several scenes of his passage to Hong Kong, but the description of his first day in Bombay, shows him at his most poetic:
My eyes were regaled by a scene of surpassing splendor last night. The cool air, and the stillness of night tempted us into the Verandah. The leaves of the trees appeared covered with Silver, the rich foliage gently waving up and down, the full moon and stars with the  truly beautiful Eastern sky pleased the eye; while the ear was pleased with the noise of the sea, as wave after wave broke on the shore immediately below us.

I won’t run through all the letters – there are links to all of them beneath so you can read them yourself - but I will end with a few excerpts from the letter which he sent to this same great-aunt on January 14, 1865. He had just landed in Hong Kong earlier in the day at 8:00 in the morning, his first time ever in the place that would become as much a home to him as the old farm at Urker. He started work right away – in my new harness at 9:30

One of the scenes he describes on the same day that he arrived in Hong Kong is the famous waterfall at Galle, a place that he had visited a few days earlier:
In front is a Hindu temple apparently very old. And as the spectator perches on a rock and gazes on the Cataract above the precipice below the foliage of hundreds of trees intervening and “the Sea the Sea the Dark Blue Sea” in the distance, the eye is pleased and the mind exclaims “Paradise”
Clearly, his mental library includes quotes from Byron, a contemporary of his great-aunt, and a likely a clue to some of the early influences of his early education.

It intrigues me, that at the end of such a long and momentous day, it was a priority for this twenty-three year old to write such a long letter to this particular great-aunt. I am becoming ever more convinced that either she or her daughter were the ones who had made it possible for him to escape the limited mental environment of life on the farm, and to pay for his education at Morgan’s School in Dublin. There was no way that his parents could have afforded the tuition, modest as it was. During the late 1840’s, their cattle were seized more than once on account of their inability to pay the rent for the lease on their farm.

In 1851, when Thomas was ten years old, one of the legacies left by Eliza Donaldson, the spinster daughter of this Great-aunt Barbara, was to Thomas’ mother. It was given with a telling proviso:
To my cousin Eliza Jackson otherwise Oliver I leave three hundred pounds for her sole use and benefit free from the power or control of her husband and to be given to her at such time and manner as her brother Thomas and her sister Mary Jane Oliver shall consider most judicious for herself and family.

The hidden history behind this bequest was the reality of Thomas’ father’s impulsiveness and addiction to drink. Luckily for young Thomas, if it takes a village to raise a child, he was blessed with an exceptional village. Although Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne is usually the one singled out as the most significant mentor in his life, the women deserve much more notice than they have been customarily been given. At least two of them, great-aunt Barbara Donaldson as well as his mother Eliza Oliver clearly have to be placed at the front of that list of significant mentors.

POSTCRIPT
Barbara Donaldson died March 31, 1865 at the old family home at Cavananore, Co. Louth. Amongst her many bequests, were funds earmarked for the education of girls in India, for Jewish children in Constantinople, and for children in Africa. There was also money for the Ulster Institution for the Deaf Dumb and Blind, for the orphans of Piedmont, Italy, and a bequest for the schools established for coloured people by the Reverend William King at the Elgin Settlement, Upper Canada.

This Rev. William King (1812-1895) was a far flung relation of Barbara’s, but they were very close relations in terms of their beliefs. When he came to speak at a public meeting in Armagh in 1859, to raise money for his school, Barbara Donaldson was most likely in attendance. King had already secured 9,000 acres (3642 ha) twelve miles south of Chatham near the American border and fugitive slaves had been funneled up to the settlement thanks to the effectiveness of the Underground Railway. There is even a character based on King in a Harriet Beecher Stowe book, Dred, A Tale of the Great Swamp.

At first King had faced arguments from nearby landowners that the black settlers would drive down property prices, but his approach to setting up the allotments had worked so well that most of the opposition dried up in time. He had divided the land into farms of 50 acres each, and then granted them to the freed slaves with the proviso that they had ten years to pay for the cost of the land before title was transferred. Since the settlement was situated between the Great Western Railway and Lake Erie, the nearby jobs afforded by the railway complemented the earnings that the freed slaves made from their farming. By 1857, over 200 families had settled there, and the Elgin settlement became known before long as a model of economic self-sufficiency and educational excellence.

In King’s school on the Elgin settlement, the quality of education was such that whites started to want their children to be admitted there to learn alongside the children of the freed slaves. This made it one of the first integrated schools in North America. Like Thomas’ great-aunt Barbara, King believed in the benefits of a classical education, and he included the study of both Greek and Latin in his curriculum, He defended this choice by asserting: Blacks are intellectually capable of absorbing Classical and abstract matters. In this, he sounds very much like William Donaldson in his letter of 1811, where he quotes a traveler to Africa who had experienced the people there as a generous and hospitable race of man, when their manners has not been contaminated by having intercourse with the whites.

All this was part and parcel of the kind of moral and educational grounding that young Thomas benefited from receiving as a child. This active opposition to all kinds of racism has to have shaped the way that Thomas approached his relationships with members of the Chinese community in Hong Kong. It also has to be part of the reason for his success, not only as a banker, but as a man who with other businessmen – both Chinese and European - shaped so much of the late 19th century development of the city of Hong Kong.

THE LETTERS
One of the most challenging letters to transcribe was the September 2, 1864 letter. Above is an image of p2. Thomas wrote the 1st half of the letter horizontally - as one would - and then he wrote the 2nd half vertically overtop the 1st half. He was probably short of paper.
1863 September 23 At the time of writing, Thomas is 22 years old, and a bank clerk in Belfast. He is writing to a much loved and respected 80 year old great-aunt. I have also done a page which includes photos of nearly everyone mentioned in the letter.

1864 September 2. Thomas Jackson had his last day as a clerk at the Belfast branch of the Bank of Ireland on Wednesday August 30tht, and this letter was written three days later on Friday.

1864 December 13. Sent from Bombay. On November 12th, 1864, a month before Thomas Jackson wrote this letter to his sister Mary, he had signed a contract with Agra and Masterman’s Bank to work in Hong Kong. He had received £137.10 for Passage Money and Travelling Expenses

Ceylon, Malta and Emeu passenger lists. This page is a companion piece to the letters which describe Thomas JACKSON's first trip from Marseilles to Hong Kong.  

1865 January 14. Thomas Jackson arrived on this day in Hong Kong for the very first time. He was 23 years old, and had a contract to work for the Agra and Masterman's Bank.

1865 April 15 TJ to Mary JACKSON. Thomas Jackson is writing from Hong Kong, after being in the employ of the Agra Bank for three months. He is twenty-three years old. A friend, Lane, is on the staff and the two of them live at the Agra Bank House with the Manager. The manager is not named, but Henry NOBLE (1833-1866) was the manager of the Agra Bank at this time. His wife, Catherine Isabella Haywood NOBLE, died on November 15th, 1865 in the Agra Bank House, Hong Kong, I presume that she and her husband and their three children: Henry Haywood Noble, Ada Catherine Noble and Edith Isabella (who was born in Hong Kong on October 24, 1864) also lived there when Thomas did. I need to confirm this. Henry NOBLE was the older brother of George Edward NOBLE, another HSBC manager in the late 1800s.

1868 February 2 Thomas JACKSON (1841-1915) at Shanghai to Mary JACKSON (1844-1921) at Urker near Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Ireland. I have good news to write about, namely that I leave Shanghai on the 6th Inst. for Hankow the Directors having appointed me agent at that port with a salary of one thousand pounds a year. “hip hip hurra” to commence from the first of this month. Surely the above is going ahead in style. I did not apply for this promotion and was no little surprised at getting it. I have included a backgrounder piece on this.

1870 April 22 Thomas JACKSON is writing from Shanghai to his Aunt Mary Jane OLIVER at Cavananore. He mentions his sisters: Bessie (aka Elizabeth), Mary, Sally (aka Sally) and Margaret (aka Peggy). I am getting as rich as Croesus, why actually I have about £500 during the past year and have invested the Dibs safely – Isn’t that something. Just fancy any person named Jackson worth £500 the very idea is absurd. Seriously if I had the Urker folk straight I could easily save half my salary or more, but the former must be done.

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