Discovering Maria Nugent’s journal: her case for a religious morality amongst enslaved people in early nineteenth-century Jamaica
“I am pleased to share this edited version of a paper I gave to the British Society for Eighteenth century Studies looking at the travel journal of Maria Nugent (1771-1834) which I found in the School of Advanced Study libraries” Dr Beverley Duguid, Independent Scholar
Women who travelled to British colonial territories in the nineteenth century had very specific motivations for travel. Mostly, they went abroad with a spouse and for leisure and were middle-class. However, travel and writing about their experiences, often permitted these women an element of freedom, which they couldn’t manage through travel alone. Therefore, the act of writing about their travels meant they were somehow able to free themselves from convention and express controversial opinions on, for example, slavery, economics and politics; subjects which it was not the norm for women to discuss with ease back home. There are several published accounts, by women in existence who both went to and wrote about British and Spanish colonial territories. For example Maria Graham (1785-1842) who travelled to Latin America in the early nineteenth century and left journals of her travels. Various editions are catalogued in the Institute of Historical research library
However, during the pre-emancipation period, there were some women who went abroad for longer periods of time and latterly published lengthier narrative accounts. These women ‘travellers’ ran households, saw to the management of servants, organised activities which took place within the home, and also administered to the ill. This was a way that women could help to ‘build [and maintain] the Empire’. Maria Nugent who kept a journal of her time spent in Jamaica, (also held in the above library, in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library and Senate House Library), is an invaluable text of the period.
In 1797 Maria Nugent married George Nugent most likely in Ireland where the family had property. The couple had two children who were born during their residence in Jamaica. Nugent travelled to Jamaica in 1801 with her husband because of his appointment as Lieutenant Governor and Commander in chief to the island. As established above, it was expected that Nugent would take on a very traditional role abroad her duties were predetermined to be mistress of the house and look after its day to day activities together with that of wife and mother. Indeed, her journal reflects this activity with vast accounts of entertaining, organising servants and discussions with planters and some visits to plantations. She not only spent much of her time indoors, but supplanted her domestic life in England for that of a life in Jamaica. In addition, her direct and frank comments caused her to be cited by historians on the Caribbean. This research has assisted in the development of racial discourse surrounding Caribbean and colonial history. Crucially Nugent’s comments on slavery and the political debate surrounding it at this time is not just a valuable source for those researching the pre-emancipation era and plantation life, but also perfectly exemplifies the problematic nature of language used in the past.
After discussing a visitor’s opinion on slavery she wrote: ‘After amusing herself with [sic] the evidence of the House of Commons on the part of the petitioners for the Abolition of the slave trade… as far as I at present see and can hear as the ill treatment of slaves, I think what they say upon the subject is very greatly exaggerated…individuals may treat some slaves badly but on the whole they are ‘well used’’. In fact Nugent frequently discussed her frustration at the inefficiency of the slaves and black house servants often calling them lazy and idle. She wrote: ‘reflect all night upon slavery, and make up my mind, that the want of exertion in the ‘blackies’ must proceed from that cause’.
Therefore, the journal is not simply an imperialist history, but this controversial writing is representative of many aristocratic views of the time and a journal which reveals the character and sensibilities of the author through her gradual revelation of her ‘self’ and as a British woman in the colonial context. On the one hand the journal is tantalising. Its writer had a close-up view of the business of administering a British West Indian colony during a critical period of the Napoleonic wars. Despite the political importance of these events, the journal also revealed the mood and opinions of the author at different periods of time during her stay. Her references to the French invasions fighting and the St Dominque (Haitian) slave rebellion (1791-1803) coupled with her general fear of insurrection of the ‘Negroes’ reveal not only the importance of West Indian colonies to the British and French i.e that they were willing to go to war, but her general anxiety about her surroundings. This unique combination of the ‘actual’ and ‘personal’ is what makes Nugent’s journal so distinctive. Throughout there is an air of opposing and complex subjects: war, death, conflict and ill health in particular in relation to the climate and her fear for her children. However, religion was a more salient topic.
In general, women’s religious practice was something which they carried with them abroad and measured the society they visited against this practice. Because of this, women often found indigenous religious practices unsatisfactory, to say the least. Nugent was not only worried about what she saw as the slaves’ non-religious status but she also stressed time and again, her anxiety about their marital status- many slaves were unmarried. Her belief that ‘there would be no need for the slave trade if religion was instilled in the Negro population’ in other words Christianisation of the black population, occupied a high percentage of her diary.
Therefore her need to play a part in the ‘normalisation’ or normality of slaves was common throughout her text. She wrote that one particular plantation owner (Mr Vaughan) thought that religious instruction would lead to ‘improvement’ and describes slaves in receipt of this as ‘sober, quiet and well behaved’. Nugent’s desire to convert slaves is also shown through her actions: she used her own religious practice to encourage them into ‘normal lives’. Her desire to save the slaves is apparent in many passages such as the following: ‘We met a gang of Eboe Negroes, just landed and marching up the country. I ordered the postilions to stop that I might examine their countenances as they passed, and if they looked unhappy; but they appeared perfectly the reverse. I bowed, kissed my hand, and laughed; they did the same. The women, in particular seemed pleased, and all admired the carriage &c’.
There were however, complex factors in slaves’ inability to marry and Nugent never gave the full picture. In the pre-emancipation era often slaves were not permitted to marry as they were, of course property. Post emancipation marriage became more important for free slaves who saw liberty as literally being free to marry and take responsibility for a wife. They therefore married as a statement to affirm intimate relationships and to legitimate their own children. Marriage between slaves may have posed problems for slave owners who did not want to change their slaves’ status, economic or otherwise. However in the eyes of travellers like Nugent, who compared societies with their own this would have seemed controversial to say the least. For Nugent, in particular it was the fact that slave women had children out of wedlock that was largely distressing. Marriage was intrinsically linked to religion and morality, for example, children born within wedlock, she thought would be taught prayers by their own therefore ensuring their continuation of religious practice. Her moral concern is extended to plantation owners who did not pay attention to their own morals by engaging in intimate relationships with female slaves. She wrote that ‘until a great reformation takes place on their part neither religion, decency nor morality can be established among the ‘Negroes’. If they would marry and the white man give [sic] a better example.’ Nugent’s moral standpoint on female slaves is somewhat contradictory as she somehow apportioned blame to the females for their relations with white overseers. Despite considerable evidence from historians that, at the time, colonial families knew that women were often violated by male overseers. Overall, Nugent’s treatise does little to convince us of her ‘affection’ for her slaves which she at times pointed to, but only her moral crusade.
In conclusion although the theme of religious morality running through Nugent’s text can be problematic, this source not only also tells us about the country that Nugent visited, but the ‘person’ who visited it. Fundamentally, women’s social status and education certainly played a role in how they interpreted and wrote about their surroundings. Therefore, most diaries like Nugent’s cannot be read in isolation but must engage with its [colonial] context. Despite the fact that her text makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading, nonetheless, it is this very same uneasiness which unearths Nugent’s journal as more than a reconstruction of a ‘colonised state’ but of the author’s ‘self’.