1710. Robert Southey to John May, 16 November 1809

1710. Robert Southey to John May, 16 November 1809 ⁠* 

Nov. 16; 1809.

My dear friend,

The Parliamentary Report for which you wish is not to be obtained. When any report is considered curious, every member takes care to claim his copy, and there are none to be disposed of among the profane. This is very seldom the case, and the usual fate of Parliamentary Proceedings is to be condemned for waste paper. I myself used no other paper for packing up all my books. This Historical Report, that upon a new London bridge [1]  (containing, by a strange waste of public money, engravings of all the plans which were delivered in); the Population Returns, [2]  the Poor Returns, [3]  and the evidence upon the Duke of York’s affair, [4]  were all in request and unobtainable. Of the Population, Rickman secured me a copy, as being his work; he wished to do so with the very book in question, but it was not in his power. In all ordinary cases it is only to ask and to have.

Can you furnish me with any particulars of the conduct of the French at Lisbon, or in any other part of Portugal? I should be glad to state specific instances of their rapacity and excesses. [5]  My hopes, or, to speak more accurately, my faith, respecting that peninsula. remains unshaken. The people of both countries have much to go through, and may perhaps be for a time overpowered (though never, I think, wholly suppressed), but the event will be their regeneration, – a new birth into freedom, a resurrection of glory. This, however, cannot be under Fernando and Prince D. Joan. [6]  The striking parallel between the situation of the former and of the Portuguese Infante D. Joao, the son of Inez de Castro, [7]  is very remarkable. Like him, Fernando is a mere rallying word for the present; and as he cannot make his escape, his nominal authority can do no harm. It is otherwise with the Prince of Brazil; he might return, and with him the old abominations. [8]  I should wish therefore to see a revolution proclaimed and acted upon in Portugal, though the recall of our army were to be the immediate consequence. I am afraid we do them, and have done them, more harm than good. The salvation of nations (under God) must come from their own right hand. The appointment of the Duke of Wellington to the chief authority would dispirit me more than any other circumstance (being a measure at once so degrading and so disheartening to the Portuguese), if I did not recollect how, during many years of the Dutch war, [9]  they looked to other nations for help, and accepted leaders from them. The history of that war furnishes much important matter of parallel and instruction.

In Paraguay the Spaniards are losing their own language. At Rio Janeiro this will not be the case; but will you inquire of your brother, [10]  whether it be not so in other parts less immediately connected with Europe, and especially in the interior; that is to say, whether the Tupi or Brazilian, as it may perhaps be called, is much spoken by the Brazil-Portuguese, [11]  or whether a mixed language, according to the usual process, is growing up. Are there any natives about Rio? – many? – of what tribes, and in what condition? Do the two races intermix as they used to do, and is there in the mixed breed any of that mulish obliquity of nature which has been represented by the Jesuits as characterising the Mamalucos? [12]  I think not, except from causes as easily to be removed as explained. The vicious disposition of mules results from the physical imperfection of their nature. I think I can explain why. All animals are vicious when under the influence of lust: materialists, who look no further, may triumph in the fact. Nature has materials to spare; in the mule they have not their natural determination; he is always in a different state of body from that of perfect animals; that which in them is collected and carried off at certain seasons, seems to be diffused at all times through his whole system. Now this cannot be applicable to the mulatto. That the Mamalucos were a bad breed I believe; but it was because they learnt the evil of both races, and the good of neither.

Will you request him to send me any books which may be printed there. [13]  Their ‘Almanack’ would be curious here. It is not unlikely that a book which my uncle long looked for in vain at Lisbon may turn up in Brazil,–the ‘Vida de F. Joam d’ Almeida,’ by P. Simari de Vasconcellos. [14]  Almeida was a disciple of Anchieta, [15]  and there is no document the want of which I have regretted so much, because it relates to that portion of time of which there are the fewest records.

Harry is going on well, and, to my great joy, is employing his leisure upon a ‘History of the Crusades,’ a project which he long since formed, and in which I have always and earnestly encouraged him. I have good hope of his doing credit both to himself and his name. It was not a little gratifying to me, when I talked to him about this, to perceive how gladly his wife listened to me, and with what an affectionate ambition she looked on to his labours. He has the advantage of setting out with that system of book-keeping which I did not discover till after much labour; and he will have all the assistance that I can give him. I cannot, indeed, do so much for him as my uncle has done for me, but it is in my power to do more than any other person could do, from the nature and variety of my pursuits.

My uncle is probably in London at this time, and you will have heard news of him from himself.

Will you give me your opinion respecting life insurances? This business of the ‘Register,’ [16]  or, in its stead, plans which I have in reserve, if the engagement for it should not be continued, will, I think, enable me, without inconvenience, to insure my life for 10001., if such a step be advisable. Upon this subject I will be guided by your advice. I have long thought of writing to you concerning my worldly affairs; that is to say, as to what measures should be taken, in case of my death, with my copyrights and manuscripts, – the only property which I should at present, or for some years to come, leave behind me. This will require a separate letter, and shall not be delayed longer. Remember us to Mrs. May. God bless you.

R. Southey


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 175–179. BACK

[1] A competition to design a new London Bridge was held in 1799. Parliament chose a design by John Rennie (1761–1821; DNB). BACK

[2] In 1801, Rickman had organised the first census of the British population. BACK

[3] In 1804, Rickman took charge of a parliamentary report on the state of the poor. BACK

[4] Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827; DNB), Commander in Chief of the army. He held the post from 1798–1809, but was forced to resign after a parliamentary enquiry into allegations that he had profited by allowing his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke (c. 1776–1852; DNB), to accept money from army officers, in return for which promotion was arranged. BACK

[5] For Southey’s work on the Edinburgh Annual Register for which, from 1810 to 1812, he contributed the ‘History of Europe’ for the years 1808–1810. BACK

[6] Ferdinand VII (1784–1833), twice King of Spain: in 1808 and from 1813 until his death, and in 1809 deprived of his throne by Napoleon and under effective house arrest in France. Prince Regent, John VI (the Duke of Braganza) (1767–1826), the ruler of Portugal had fled to Brazil, as the French invaded his country, in 1807. BACK

[7] Inês Peres de Castro (1325–1355), the lover of King Pedro I of Portugal (1320–1367) died before he became king. She was supposedly exhumed and, as a corpse, legally married to Pedro so that their son, John, Prince of Portugal (1349–1397), became legitimate and therefore the heir to the throne. BACK

[8] John VI did return from Brazil and became King of Portugal in fact as well as in name in 1821. BACK

[9] After 1580 Portugal was in a dynastic union with Spain: over the next fifty years it was involved in war with the Dutch, first in the Netherlands and, from 1602, in the East Indies and South America. The Portuguese allowed Spanish and German officers to lead several campaigns. BACK

[10] After the 1807 collapse of the May trading firm in Portugal, William Henry May (1785–1849), John May’s younger brother, had become a merchant trading in Brazil. BACK

[11] The language of the native Tupi people of Brazil. In the early colonial period Tupi was used as a lingua franca throughout Brazil by Europeans as well as Amerindians. BACK

[12] A term used in South America for mixed race European-Indian people, and more specifically applied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the organized bands of Portuguese who roamed the interior of Brazil and Paraguay capturing and enslaving Indians. The Jesuits, opposing them, brought the Indians into village colonies under their protection. BACK

[13] That is, William May. BACK

[14] Simão de Vasconcellos (1596–1671), Vida do Padre Joam d’Almeida da Companhia de Jesu, na Provincia do Brazil (1658). Almeida was a seventeenth-century English Jesuit missionary to Brazil. BACK

[15] Vasconcellos also published Vida do Vener. Padre Joseph de Anchieta, … Taumaturgo do Novo Mundo, na Provincia do Brasil (1672). José de Anchieta (1534 -1597) was a Jesuit missionary involved in expelling the French, and their Indian allies, from Brazil. BACK

[16] From 1810 to 1812 Southey contributed the ‘History of Europe’ for 1808–1810 in James Ballantyne’s Edinburgh Annual Register. BACK

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