Cape Henry, Haiti: 1813-1814. Cape Henry, Hayti [sic!], 18 July 1813 and 4 February 1814. Folio (ca. 31x19 cm) and Quarto (ca. 25x20 cm) letters, 7 & 3 pp. Respectively. Brown ink on watermarked laid & woven paper, both letters addressed and docketed on the last pages. Paper slightly age toned, original fold marks, the smaller letter with a minor hole on p. 3 after opening, with a loss of three to four words, but overall very good letters written in a legible hand.
Historically significant original source on the history of the first years of the short-lived autocratic Kingdom of Haiti (1811-1820), which was formed on the basis of the former French colony St. Domingue (western part of Hispaniola), after it had gained independency in 1804, and became the Republic of Haiti - the world’s first black republic and the only nation established as a result of a successful slave revolt. In 1806 the Republic split into two parts - southern Republic led by Alexandre Pétion, and northern State ruled by Henri Christophe (1767-1820), who proclaimed himself the king in 1811. An autocracy based on the labour of the serfs, the Kingdom of Haiti collapsed after Henry Christophe’s suicide in 1820, who was in fear of an imminent coup d’etat. Both states were unified the same year by Pétion’s successor Jean-Pierre Boyer, with the Spanish part of Hispaniola being annexed in 1820 and thus the whole island being united in one country.
The two letters written by a British merchant who traded coffee in Cape Henry of Haiti’s northern kingdom give an interesting first-hand account of the early years of this autocratic regime. Created on the wave of strong anti-French and anti-colonial sentiments, the Kingdom of Haiti attracted British and American merchants who were eager to fight for the new market in the Caribbean. The first letter is a lengthy detailed account of the latest events in the coffee business and political situation in the kingdom. As follows from the letter, Robert Milne arrived to Haiti in May 1813 on board a merchant ship “Louisa” (which he apparently partly owned), convoyed from Barbados by H.M. Brig “Opossum.” Interesting are his notes that the unreliability of the Haitian post caused him to send his letters in several copies, this particular letter being written in two copies and sent by the schooner Hotspur (called for London) and schooner Maryann via New Providence.
A large part of the letter is dedicated to the arrangements made to dispatch the “Louisa” (with a large cargo of coffee) to London. “The ship Louisa is now fairly loaded, with a cargo consisting entirely of coffee, the weight of which is gross, in lbs French 688381, net 670462 lbs, and what I now feel most anxious about, is the arrival of a ship of war to take her from hence to Jamaica to join convoy or to protect her to England direct.” Milne describes the difficulties with finding a ship-of-war to convoy “Louisa” back to London. He recounts that Admiral Stirling of HMS “Argo” sent the official letter to the British merchants of the Kingdom of Haiti, saying that “he had instructions from the Lords of the Admiralty to give convoy to the Haitian trade.” Milne’s letter to Admiral Stirling asking for a convoy for “Louisa” was left unanswered, and he stated that “should none arrive on or before the 1st August, I shall consider Admiral Stirling’s letter as being disregarded, and dispatch the Louisa direct for London either by herself or in company with the Brig Three Brothers <…>.” It is known that both ships were dispatched without a convoy, and were captured by a Charleston privateer “Saucy Jack” in August 1813; “Louisa” was burned “to prevent her falling into hands of a British man-of-war, in chase” (Coggeshall, G. History of the American Privateers and Letters-of-Marque, During Our War with England in the Years 1812, 13 & 14. New York, 1856, p. 146).
Milne also reflects on difficulties in doing business in Haiti: “I would much rather run the risk of the seas in good or bad ships as might happen and spend my life as an humble supercargo between Great Britain and this place, than permanently remain here at the head of the first establishment in Cape Henry [emphasis added]. It is not many months, since the most horrible events happened, to the richest and best of the native mulattos under this government most materially to the injury of British property; but in regard to it, the like will probably not happen again. There are few strangers who are acquainted with both sides of this island, who would not prefer living under the government of the King to that of the president. The south side of Hayti however is more populous and productive than this side, in as much as the average crops of coffee of the ones are annually for exportation 12000000 lbs French, while that of the others I only 4,000,000. Coffee forms 7/8 of the value of both <…>'.
He also describes an audience with the King Henry Christoph whom he visited with “Mess.rs Dodge & Marple” [American merchants, the owners of “Dodge, Marple & Co.,” one of the largest American trade firms in Haiti in the 1820s]: 'I had a good deal of conversation with H.M. Who understands English perfectly well, yet in speaking to an American or British subject, he always chooses to have his own government translator, whose translation he patiently waits, unless like another great ruler, something is said that irritates him, and then he breaks out in such a strain of vehement reply, both in gesture and language, that none but himself dare look up or speak.' Milne noted that the king offered him a position of his personal commissary, or manager of supplies, “but practical results in many ways guard me against having any thing to do with the immediate business of King Henry I…”
There is also an interesting note on the royal palace Sans Souci, which was acknowledged by contemporaries as the Caribbean equivalent of the Palace of Versailles, but turned into ruins during the earthquake in 1842. The palace 'is on a scale of magnitude almost equal to any nobleman's house in England, directly off the shores of the island, and the construction of that place, has cost what to a European eye, is a most astonishing achievement of labour; but the external architecture is neither very regular nor very elegant. <…> To enlarge and beautify Sans Souci, the King is daily depriving the buildings of the Cape of every thing, which previous to their conflagration, most contributed to their ornament.'
Milne also recounts on the contents of the letter written by one “Mr. Rouse of Ely Place” – apparently his competitor - “that insidious, lying fellow Rouse, who, well knowing that [his letter's] contents would literally be laid before the King of this place,” accused Milne of concealing the real purposes of his travel to the Kingdom of Haiti, engaging in shady financial schemes, and that “to gain my aims with the King of Hayti I would not stick at trifles.”
Milne also briefly characterizes the small community of “white people” from Cape Henry which “seldom exceeds fifteen or twenty [people], even including ship masters;” and notes that he has “only seen two white women in this island, one a poor old Frenchwoman who has resided here forty years' and 'a very old Englishwoman, who is in great poverty, and earns what little is required for existence by selling shells. The French woman is a clerk in the coffee house and has charge of my linen'. Milne notes on the latest news about the capture of the USS Chesapeake (1 June 1813), and then gives a grim picture of the extent of censorship in the kingdom: “The King has a newspaper containing the particulars, but we strangers cannot be indulged with a sight of it, nor even hear the details stated, although there is not a white man in the place that has not expressed an anxious wish to know every thing about the contest. <…> In regard to the political affairs of this part of Hayti, it is not prudent to communicate much from hence in writing, and in letters addressed to this place, the subject should never be mentioned, nor even alluded to in the most distant way; as all letters on arrival are opened and read by the Officers of government, and their contents laid before the King in the most minute manner. Even newspapers addressed from Europe or America by individuals to their friends, are as aright demanded by the government here, which very seldom gives them up, or even communicates their contents, but in as much degree of error, consider their interest to be in opposition to that of strangers, as we are termed'.
The second letter gives business instructions to Milne’s brother Alexander and expresses 'satisfaction and exalted pride at the grand events that have taken place at Dresden & Leipsic, as well as the affairs on the side of Spain'. In the letter his father copied on the second leaf of the bifolium (dated Cape Henry, 30 November 1813) Milne expresses his deep disappointment at the capture of the ship Louisa “which was loaded with Coffee to the extent of 320 tons <…> I feel this disappointment deeply, it affects my interest in many ways <…> Captain Silk did every thing in his power to prevent the loss of the Louisa, and in a spirited manner resisted capture, at the hazard of all the lives on board, while there remained the least chance of succeess <…> Poor fellow, I am sorry for him, he indeed numbers among the unfortunate. In six weeks hence I shall have neary 100 tons of Coffee to ship, had all gone well with the Louisa, I think she would have made a capital voyage. Whether I shall remain here beyond next summer must depend on the determination of my friends in London, if they will support me by making shipments or the oncontrary – unaided by them, beyond that time I can do no good in this place'.
Overall very historically interesting content rich letters written by an eye-witness of the first years of the Kingdom of Haiti.
Price: $2,250.00 USD