Virgin Islands

Friday 30th August – this morning the first objects which presented themselves to my view were the Virgin Islands. Their forms and appearances were as diversified as their numbers, which was great. Some were of considerable extent and high – others were small, mere rocks, and almost level with the water. Among them is one, more remarkable than the rest; and serves as an excellent mark for the Navigator. At a distance it resembles a city in ruins, but when you are close upon it you perceive that it consists of nothing but stones on stones irregularly piled. This is called Jerusalem in Ruins.

Again being so close, when I came upon deck, to the islands I did not see the separations or channels between the different islands – so that the whole seemed an extensive mainland. Numerous indentations are formed by the curvature of the various islands and islets. Some of the Virgins are cultivated and inhabited, tho’ but a very few, – the rest are barren and deserted. Immense numbers of sea birds hover around them. As we proceeded onwards we passed between two islands, which formed one entrance to the circle, and when beyond these, we found ourselves in a very extensive and secure basin, formed by these islands. Among these we had no difficulty in recognising the one to which we [were] bound from its superior magnitude & height. In less than an hour, we came to anchor off the Town & at some distance. The Town is called [?] Road Town and is situated a little to the left of a small Bay, formed by a semi-circle of rather high hills, thereby covered with wood up to their summits. The town is built at the very foot of the hills, which rise immediately and abruptly up behind it. The very small portion there is of level ground, all around the Bay, is studded with houses small & great – and likewise at different points up the hill houses & negro huts are perched, which with their small plots of cultivated land impact a very pretty effect to the scenery. Along the sides of the various hills are plantations.

Land at Tortola

Such were the objects & such the impressions we received when we came to anchor. At 10 A.M. the Master went on shore with the Mails & I as usual accompanied him. Having delivered our despatches, we went about to spy the nakedness of the land. Road Town is the most miserable concern I have yet seen any where. It consists of a very limited number of houses – very few of them of respectable appearance, while the majority are low mean wooden sheds hardly worthy of the name of town dwellings. Indeed this part of the Bay is dignified with the name of Town [Bay _rchin simply because there are here more & better houses than in any other part of the Bay. And yet this as well as all other towns has its President, law courts & most of the paraphanalia of office which might more exclusively belong to larger communities. If I mistake [not], it is a dependency of S.t Kitts, whose House of Assembly legislates for Tortola as well as for themselves.

Leave Tortola – Arrive at S.t Thomas

At 11.35 A.M. we returned on board, and immediately set sail for the island of S.t Thomas, the Ultima Thule of our expedition. Our exit from the circle of islands was by a very narrow channel between two of them, almost opposite to the Bay of Tortola, where the land terminated to our left, but we had a continuation of the islands to our right for some way farther. Far to leeward, several small islands are visible.

During our progress we experienced several severe squalls with rain & dense atmosphere so that we could not see S.t Thomas, till all at once the atmosphere being cleared by a squall of unusual violence, we saw ourselves close to S.t Thomas.

At 4.30 P.M. we came to anchor near the town, and looked forward to the enjoyment of 7 or 8 days here, or perhaps more. That you may better understand my expectations, I should tell you that the Packet never leave S.t Thomas for England, until the Mail boat from Barbadoes, which would set out thence, eight days after us, arrive with the answers to the letters we brought. According then to the length of her passage to S.tThomas is our stay there. If she has fresh breezes, she will be here soon, if light our sojourn here will consequently be longer.

As soon as we were safely anchored, the Master and I went on shore, and there saw, as the Welchman says, what we did see. I propose shortly to speak more particularly respecting S.t Thomas – and therefore for the present shall be silent.

Saturday 31st August – very squally weather with occasional heavy showers. Did not go to town to consequence [sic] in consequence of the weather but land on an island near us.

End of VIth week

VI Hebdomadal Period – This has been a very busy week with us, and as you perceive we have done a good deal. I know not when the same space of time has passed so rapidly. Expectation and curiosity were always lively – for something new awaited us every day. When however I ask myself the question, am I quite satisfied with what I have seen? I am forced to answer no. And why? Because you have no time allowed you to enjoy the beauties of nature – to visit the country or enjoy the pleasures of society in the town. We have been like persons in the situation of Tantalus, the cup of pleasure has been held close to our lips, but when we try to quaff it, the appointed time of our departure is come, & we must leave it untested. In short nothing can be more unsatisfactory than our glance at the islands – and the matter is rendered the more provoking, when we learn that such & such a place is beautiful – and that such & such an object of curiosity is to be seen, only a few miles out of town. We had several invitations but could not accept them – and hopes were expressed (I suppose ironically) that the next time we came we would have more leisure, vain hopes of leisure never to be realised.

I was delighted with the various islands, and used to compare & contrast them together. I considered the ruggedness & abruptness of some with the comparative evenness of others. Thus Barbadoes – Tortola & others differed altogether [from] Lucie, Martinique & Guadeloupe. I am inclined to think that there exists some good reasons for the difference. Query is this to be found in the nature of their formation, whether volcanic or coraline. Those of volcanic origin, as may naturally be fancied would be rough & irregular as these islands I have mentioned – in all of which there are craters of volcanoes, either now extinct, or still in activity. There again those whose structure is of coral are more even & smooth, with abundant appearances of that substance – as Montserrat – Nevis – &.c

It would be useless to speculate on this subject when one has so little information or so few data on which to ground conclusions respecting it – therefore I shall drop it & proceed to something else.

Slaves – Emancipation

It was expected, throughout the whole of the islands, that we would have brought the intelligence of the measures resolved on by parliament as to emancipation of slaves & the indemnification to the Masters. Hence wherever we landed, we were eagerly questioned by both descriptions of characters. The Masters were anxious now only to know how much they might expect for their property in slaves – & whether Government had decided to pay them the value per capita generally, or to each island in proportion to its imports & exports.

The poor slave again regarded none of these things – but [that] he asked questions as much as the others shewed, how he looked solely after his own interest. It was with them have you brought us “The Good News,” and when I asked them to explain to me in what respect they would be benefit[ed] by the alteration, I received many different responses. Very few indeed whom I saw & spoke with seemed to be aware of the dignity of freedom, or the disgrace of slavery – but some there were. The rest were clamorous for freedom, because they connected with the enjoyment of it, the power of pursuing their own inclinations uncontrolled – of living in idleness – of dancing & of enjoying. Their narrow minds cannot admit the idea, that tho’ freed from their Masters, they must work for the Government – that they must be as orderly and obedient as they are now, or subject themselves to punishment. Nor is this to be wondered at since a similar infatuation respecting the objects of liberty has pervaded the minds of more enlightened whites. The cry of liberty has been raised by those who could not tell what they meant by it – and to obtain it, the most outrageous acts of cruelty have been committed.

Some of the slaves I entered into conversation with were perfectly indifferent to the alternative of freedom or slavery – persons indolent & inactive in their disposition & perceptive faculties – who hated the trouble of thinking & were contented to do as they were bid by others.

Another class of slaves yet remain to be mentioned. These are those who refuse to be emancipated, and prefer the mild paternal government of a good master, who provides for them in health & sickness – in youth & in old age. The number of these is I believe comparatively small but still their conduct is very peculiar.

Now, my dear Mother, since matters respecting emancipation have proceeded so far, that the act must be carried into execution, I am sincerely glad, that the name of slave will be forever abolished by us. This acknowledgement I make, lest from the tenor of some of my previous epistles you should imagine, that I was a bigoted advocate for slavery – whereas my sentiments only went so far as to question the propriety of immediate emancipation, tho’ never of a gradual & ultimate emancipation.. How the system will work no man can positively say – but in this we all unanimously join in praying, for, that we may never have occasion to repent or to pursue a war of extermination on those who are by our country & Christian Philosophy, presented with the gift of freedom & the means of advancing in intelligence & civilization.

Sunday 1st Sept.r – very squally weather with occasional showers. On board all day.

Monday 2d – variable weather – went on shore – got drenched with rain – felt unwell.

Tuesday 3d  – confined from indisposition; constant rain – squally weather.

Wednesday 4th – still unwell – constant rain – squally weather.

Thursday 5th – better to day – went on shore for a short time – frequent showers with squalls.

Friday 6th – rain all day – little wind – anxiously looking for the Mail boat – but no appearance of her.

Read on …