Eunice and Ron Shanahan have shared with readers of the Victorian Web this material from their website, Letters from the Past. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

This letter from the past is about emigrant Scots in the West Indies. It came from Mr Paterson, Jamaica, 9th Decr. 1837 and was addressed to James Murray Esqr, Advocate Aberdeen.

Information in The Stamp Atlas (Stuart Rossiter and John Flower) shows that Jamaica, British from 1655, was the first British colony to establish a post office. A Postmaster was appointed on 31st October, 1671. A postal service was in operation — when not interrupted by piracy or shipwreck — either by the British Post Office Packet Service (from 1702-1711 and again from 1755-1840), or at other times by private vessels.

The writer, Mr Paterson, is obviously happy with his island life, and from the contents, he appears to be involved in running the settlement, or at least in obtaining the migrant labour.

The situation of Morant Bay (based on the map of Jamaica from Encyclopaedia Britannica). Click on the image for a larger view.

The first paragraphs are about the health of the Scottish migrants who were now living in Jamaica, and praising the climate of their new home.

Morant Bay Jamaica

My Dear Sir,

I had the pleasure of addressing you on the 25th Augt. and I ought ere now to have acknowledged your esteemed favor of 17th July. It afforded me much pleasure to receive a letter from you. In my letter above alluded to I anticipated the information which you was anxious to receive regarding the Emigrants, who came from your quarter, and I have no doubt it would afford you gratification. I am happy to inform you that they are continuing to enjoy good health, excepting Mrs Peddis, who has been unwell for some time past, and who in my opinion, had she remained in Scotland, would have been in her grave ere now. Her disease had commenced before she left home, and the change of Climate, I think will be the means of carrying her through it, and ultimately restoring her to good health.

I believe it is unprecedented in Jamaica, that 53 persons young and old, have lived together in one place for 8 mo's and not one to have had any serious illness. This requires only to be known to show what my climate is and the comforts which the people have had.

Then he goes on to discuss more migrants and tradesmen coming to join them, and the cost and best means of travelling.

I expect soon to hear from you in reply to my letter of 25th Augt, respecting Peter Diack's two brothers, and the other Tradesmen, whom I wished you to look out for, if they are desirous of coming here, you may engage them on the same terms that you engaged those previously, but before arranging with Messrs J. Gladstone & Co regarding their passage I would require to know the numbers.

However, it would be better as previously mentioned to engage a passage for them in a vessel to sail from Aberdeen or any port which they could reach by the least expense from that port. I presume however, that to go direct from Aberdeen to Liverpool or London would not be very expensive. Should you engage any of the persons referred to before communicating with me Messrs J. Gladstone & Co will make the necessary arrangements for their passage and as soon as I hear from you on these matters, I will write you.

The 'J Gladstone' could well be Sir John Gladstone, father of the future PM, William Gladstone. The Gladstones owned estates at Holland in Jamaica and made their fortune in the sugar industry.

The next bit explains how even someone with no money could emigrate by working his passage, and paying for it once he had arrived and settled.

Dr. Henderson pleased me better on the passage than he did when I saw him first. His manner to a stranger is not the most agreeable, but I think he is well disposed, and understands his profession tolerably well. He has not paid me any of his passage money (I mean the balance), indeed, I have not asked it from him since his arrival here, knowing from what he said he had not the means of paying me, and if you can with propriety get payment of the balance from his uncle, and place the same to my credit I shall feel obliged, you will see the sum by reference to my letter to you from Liverpool.

'Job's Hill' was an estate at St. Mary's in Jamaica that belonged to a Walter Hyslop who died in 1824. It then appears to have been owned by John Farquharson who had 672 slaves.

I regret very much that I am not yet able to give you the information that you wished for regarding Job's Hill. I am most desirous of making myself acquainted with the state of matters regarding that property, and you may depend on my doing so ere long, whatever trouble, or expense it may cost me. I shall endeavour to do so in the month of Jany., as I expect after the Holidays are over to have a little more time. I note what you say regarding the Attorney and I think it is somewhat inconsistent his representing the property as not doing well on the one hand and on the other proposing to lease it. I would advise you not to Lease it to him, nor indeed to anybody else, without previously getting the opinion of two honest, competent and impartial judges as to its annual value.

He ends up with the usual family news and enquiries.

I hope your sister and Dr Henderson are in good health to whom I beg to tender my best regards. I am happy to inform you that I, and my family enjoy good health. Wishing you and yours many happy returns of the season.

I am, My dear Sir, Yours Truly

Robert Paterson.

The P.S. is very interesting, as it shows that immigrants were expected to be versatile, particularly the wives. It is unlikely that she would have received any payment for her services.

P.S. One of the schools in this parish Viz at Morant Bay became vacant lately by the Death of the Schoolmaster and altho' the one that I brought here with me was engaged for three years, yet as I had promised to promote his interests, and usefulness in a more public way if an opportunity occurred I recommended him to this situation, in consequence of which I require another teacher.

I remember that you had in view about the time I engaged the person alluded to a man that you thought would suit me. If that person is still out of a situation, and is desirous to come here and if you think that he would suit, as a teacher and clerk, or as a teacher & storekeeper and is able to be engaged for a moderate salary I should not mind employing him. A married man possessed of the necessary qualifications for the Duties here and whose wife understands dress making would be very suitable particularly as the wife could be very well employed in this place.

Robert Paterson.

The letter was addressed to James Murray Esqr - Advocate Aberdeen.

The postal markings are interesting, and indicate the route and timing of the journey. On the front of the letter:

  1. Manuscript "Packet". Vessels under post office control were called Packet Boats, and letters carried on them were called Packet Letters. At this time the vessels were sailing ships, and it would not always be known which vessel would be calling for the mail, or how long the journey would take.
  2. Manuscript charge mark 2/6 which was not prepaid, and would include the packet charge of 1/3d, plus the inland UK rate from Falmouth to Aberdeen.
  3. Additional 1/2d stamp in green, applied in Falmouth to be charged as the letter was to be 'carried by a stage coach with more than two wheels over a Toll Road in Scotland'.

On the back of the letter there are two stamps:

  1. a smudged Kingston Jamaica date stamp DE 11 1837, and
  2. Edinburgh receiving date stamp JAN 25 1838 - about six weeks from Jamaica, island-hopping through the West Indies, across the Atlantic to Falmouth, then to London, then Edinburgh, and finally Aberdeen.

The letter was sealed with red sealing wax, and the seal is a hand holding a sword, with a banner across the point of the sword containing words which seem to be PRO REG * ET CRECE, but the last word is hard to read.

A letter like this with its chatty contents, explains why I find postal history so interesting. Each letter involves me in research about some subject or country, postal rates, routes and past ways of life. For instance, later postal records show that in 1859 Morant Bay was allocated the numerical obliterator number A59 for use on stamps of Great Britain, so the settlement must have flourished, and the Scots must surely have enjoyed a much better life there in Jamaica.

Last modified 12 December 2002