V is for Spencer Thomas Vassall

Library of Congress 2010652217

Spencer Thomas Vassall (1764-1807) was the second son of the loyalist John Vassall (1738-1797) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father lost his American estates but retained his sugar plantation at Newfound River, Jamaica. The picture above of Four Jamaican Figures Talking at a Fence is by John Berryman who visited Jamaica between 1808 and 1815 and drew more than three hundred pictures of slaves. In view of the current Black Lives Matter campaign, I thought it apposite to show the foundation of the Vassall family’s wealth rather than a picture of Spencer Thomas himself.

John Vassall had four sons and two daughters. When he died at Clifton in 1797 he left £4000 to his daughter Mary, having previously settled £4000 on his daughter Elizabeth when she married. He left his real estate in trust. From the trust income his wife was to have an annuity of £600, his oldest son John to have an annuity of £200, and his other sons to have annuities of £100 each. The rest of his estate was divided between his sons in the same portions of two fifths for John and one fifth for the three other sons. Spencer Thomas inherited 133 slaves.

In 1834 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. Slave owners were promised compensation. Spencer Thomas Vassall’s widow Catherine and his son Spencer Lambert Hunter Vassall inherited his share of the Newfound River estate. His widow had remarried. Following the Slave Compensation Act of 1837, Mrs Catherine Strode, as she now was, was awarded compensation of £2,595 18s 5d. That is the equivalent of between 1 and 2 million pounds in today’s money. The total cost of the compensation awards in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope was roughly £20,000,000. If you are interested in this subject, University College London’s excellent website on Legacies of British Slave-ownership is at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/research

The slaves themselves, of course, didn’t benefit from the Compensation Act. Being nobody’s property – not even their own – they weren’t eligible. 1834 was also the year when the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted under the Unlawful Oaths Act. When they combined to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, these six farm workers swore a secret oath, thus laying themselves open to prosecution. They had aroused the ire of a local landowner, James Frampton, for protesting against the reduction of their wages from eight to seven shillings a day. At eight shillings a day, assuming they were employed every day, which they weren’t, their annual remuneration would have been £146. It’s a figure worth bearing in mind when looking at the sums paid out to former slave owners.

This is the coat of arms granted by Elizabeth I to John Vassall (1544-1625). He was a Huguenot who came to London from France sometime before 1572. By 1588 he was an alderman and rich enough to equip two ships at his own expense to join the English fleet facing the Armada. He died of plague in London in 1625.

Both John’s surviving sons, Samuel and William Vassall, were original investors in the Massachusetts Bay Company, owning a twentieth each of Masssachusetts Bay. William emigrated to America with his wife and seven children. He settled in Scituate but quarrelled with the church of Plymouth over their treatment of Quakers and returned to England before dying in Barbados. Samuel was a large scale ship owner who stood out against the King in the matter of tonnage and poundage and was later awarded over £10,000 in compensation by the Long Parliament of which he was a member. He was an early developer of the triangular slave trade and from 1651 was a major shareholder in the Guinea Company.

It was Samuel’s son John (1625-1688) who acquired Newfound River and other properties in Jamaica shortly after the English conquest of the island from the Spanish. The map above is from the BCW Project’s article on Cromwell’s Western Design which can be found at http://bcw-project.org/military/anglo-spanish-war/western-design As the map shows, the conquest of Jamaica in 1655 was very much of an afterthought after the failure of the English attack on Santo Domingo.

The early years of the English in Jamaica weren’t easy. The last Spanish governor, Cristobal Ysassi, conducted a guerilla war in the mountains where he was joined by escaped slaves led by Juan de Bolas. In 1660 the English persuaded Juan de Bolas to change sides, but resistance continued into the 1670s under a new black leader, Juan de Serras. Over time the English and the escaped slaves, who were now called Maroons, established a modus vivendi punctuated by frequent wars. The English interest was to prevent the Maroons welcoming new escaped slaves into their midst, whilst the Maroons wanted to establish areas in the mountainous north of the island where they would be free from interference. In the picture below from Robert Dallas’ History of the Maroons Colonel John Guthrie and the Maroon leader Cudjoe are shown making peace in 1738 towards the end of the First Maroon War.

British Library

It was only after the earthquake of 1692 that, as Jason Daniels puts it in Atlantic Contingency, “Jamaica transformed from a frontier society dominated by ex-English military men turned small planters and privateers, who were governed by martial law, into a well-settled plantation society dominated by a diminishing number of powerful white planters and their enslaved Africans.” And indeed it wasn’t until well into the 18th Century that sugar replaced piracy as Jamaica’s main industry.

It was sugar that brought wealth to Jamaica or rather to the plantation owners of Jamaica. As tea evolved in Britain from a bitter drink drunk by the upper classes into a sugared drink drunk by all and sundry so the demand for sugar increased exponentially. Tea was heavily taxed and just as heavily smuggled so exact figures are hard to find. It is estimated that in the half century from 1650 to 1700 Britain imported 180,000 pounds of tea. In the decade from 1750 to 1760 Britain imported over 40,000,000 pounds of taxed tea. Sugar soon replaced cotton and tobacco to become Jamaica’s only significant export. Some idea of the increase in production can be gauged by the increase in the slave population. John J McCusker in The Rum Trade estimates that the slave population in the British Caribbean rose from 148,000 in 1710 to 428,000 in 1770.

For the first nine years of his life Spencer Thomas Vassall spent the summer months in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The house above, now called Longfellow House after the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who lived there for many years, was built by Spencer Thomas’ father, John Vassall, in 1759. Apart from his Vassall cousins, of whom there were bewildering numbers, John Vassall was connected with other leading lights of New Englabd society. He was married to Elizabeth Oliver, sister of the Lieutenant Governor.

John Vassall owned property in Cambridge and Boston supposedly worth between £7000 and £8000, but these amounts were dwarfed by the income derived from his Jamaican estate which brought in £3000 a year before the hurricane of 1771 and more than £1000 a year in the years immediately after. Clearly, if John Vassall was to hold on to his Jamaican property, he needed to side with the crown, but it appears he was also a loyalist by inclination. He accepted a place on the Council of Massachusetts without compulsion and incurred the wrath of the crowd by a vigorous defence of the new Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Hutchinson. In March 1775 Rivington’s Gazette reported that “Colonel Vassall, of Cambridge, from intolerable threats, and insolent treatment by mobs, of his friends and himself, has left his elegant seat there, and retired to Boston, with his amiable family, for protection.” When the Revolution began he took himself and his family to England. His property in America was confiscated. By a bitter irony “his elegant seat” served as Washington’s headquarters from 16th July 1775 to 4th April 1776.

Spencer Thomas Vassall’s last year in North America must have been alarming. Far from suffering any form of post-traumatic stress disorder, the eleven year old must have started badgering his father into buying him an ensigncy almost as soon as he set foot in England. According to the Memoir, he received “a suitable education, first at a foreign academy, where he acquired a knowledge of the modern languages, and afterwards at a military establishment in England.” This education took eighteen months at most since he was gazetted into the 59th Foot in 1776. The 59th Foot was stationed in Boston when the American War broke out. It had suffered heavy losses and its remaining men were drafted into other regiments while its officers returned to England to recruit. Almost certainly John Vassall had met some of these officers when they were in Boston and almost certainly he paid over the regulation price for his son’s ensigncy.

There are problems about the Memoir. It’s not at all clear why the book was published at all. Much of the text is word for word the same as an obituary published in the Royal Military Chronicle for May 1811. Presumably it was printed as an act of piety by his widow Catherine, who had married Thomas Chetham Strode in 1816. But why? Before 1811 she had already commissioned a memorial to her first husband designed by Flaxman and executed by Rossi in St Paul’s, Bristol. More baffling still is the question of authorship.

Most people attribute the Memoir to Margaret Holford (1778-1852) who also wrote (after 1826) under her married name Hodson. The problem with this attribition is twofold. First the Memoir concludes with an Elegiac Ode to the Memory of Lieut-Colonel Vassall. By Miss Holford. There seems little point publishing the Memoir anonymously if you then advertise yourself as author of the poem. Again, if Miss Holford had actually written the Memoir, it would have been more than a trifle immodest of her to write, “Many literary tributes have been offered to his memory, among which stands pre-eminent an affecting monody by Miss Holford, the admired author of ‘Wallace’.” The editor of the Royal Military Chronicle doesn’t help, expressing himself only “as indebted for the following memoir to a person who would give grace to any society, and dignity to any work.” So the author was still alive in 1811. Which counts out another possibility, Anna Seward ‘the Swan of Lichfield’. The poem that ends the Memoir is also introduced by the author’s name, Amelia Anderson Opie.

So perhaps we’d better settle for Margaret Holford. In Gender, War and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives edited by K. Hagemann, G. Mettele, J. Rendall we read:

It’s about time I got to the point which is that Anna Seward, Margaret Holford and Amelia Opie were all literary lions in their day. Which is strange since the poem that adorns the Flaxman memorial in Bristol begins ‘Stranger if e’er you honour’d Sidney’s name’ and continues in much the same vein. Still, there’s no accounting for changing tastes. And the point is Spencer Thomas Vassall had the benefit of the social connections of his numerous Vassall cousins. In particular, he was the great grandson of Leonard Vassall whose brother Florentius was grandfather of Elizabeth Vassall, and as such had access to Holland House and the people who frequented it. Holland House was the closest London got to a Parisian salon and all three of these ladies attended Holland House dinners at one time or another.

When Elizabeth Vassall married Henry Fox in 1797 she brought with her two Jamaican plantations, Friendship and Greenwich. These were sufficiently substantial for her husband to change his name to Fox-Vassall when compensation became a probability. Henry Fox 3rd Baron Holland was a major player in Whig party politics in Britain. He was Lord Privy Seal for six months from October 1806 in the Ministry of All the Talents. Since her husband was usually in opposition before 1806, his connection with Elizabeth may on balance have hindered Spencer Thomas Vassall’s career. It does however explain the wealth of literary talent available to mark his death.

The extract above from Visitation of England and Wales volume 13 (1919) summarises the careers of Spencer Thomas Vassall and his son. The Memoir fills in some of the gaps. To his chagrin, Spencer Thomas Vassall arrived in Gibraltar during the siege but after the garrison had repelled what proved to be the last setpiece attack on the Rock. He served in Flanders twice and was lucky to have escaped with his life in 1794 when he accompanied General Don under a flag of truce to the French camp where “Brun, the French commander-in-chief, in a fit of frantic rage….” treated them both as spies. He married in June 1795 but spent most of the late 1790s in Antigua.

In 1800 Vassall purchased a lieutenant colonelcy and took command of the 38th South Staffordshire Regiment of Foot which had returned from the West Indies with fewer than 100 effectives and was recruiting in Lichfield. It is probably then that he met Anna Seward and her friend Margaret Holford. Next year the 38th were sent to Ireland where Vassall remained for four years – 1801 in the Visitation is a misprint – together with his wife and children. In 1806 the 38th were part of the force that captured the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch. The picture below, painted in 1820, is of the Battle of Blaauwberg on 8th January 1806 when the Dutch Governor, General Janssens, was defeated by Sir David Baird.

Following the succesful invasion of the Cape, the main British force continued to South America intending to hurt the interests of Spain, another nation allied to the French. This ill conceived invasion appears to have been the brain child of Commodore Sir Home Popham. Popham persuaded Baird to lend him the 71st Regiment and collected more men and guns from the garrison of St Helena before reaching the River Plate in June 1806. A British force of 1600 men and 6 guns proceeded to surprise and capture Buenos Ayres. Predictably enough this small British force was unable to hold the Spanish capital. In August 1806 the 71st capitulated and were marched off into the interior.

The British government recalled Popham as soon as his despatch from St Helena reached London. However, faced with a fait accompli, they decided to reinforce the invasion, sending a new expredition from Britain under Sir Samuel Auchmuty and drecting Baird to send reinforcements from the Cape. Vassall had been selected as commandant of the British garrison and could easily have summoned his wife and children to join him. He chose not to. According to the Memoir, he sent several letters home, presumably to his Fox-Vassall connections, lobbying to be allowed to accompany the second expedition.

In October 1806 the new force from the Cape under command of Lieutenant Colonerl Backhouse secured a new base at Maldonado in an action where Vassall again distinguished himself. Auchmuty landed there on 5th January 1807. Deciding that Buenos Ayres was too strongly held to be recaptured, Auchmuty chose to attack Monte Video instead. On 3rd February the city was taken. It proved to be the high water mark of Britisjh involvement in South America. A still larger force was ssent out from Britain under Lieutenant General John Whitelocke who failed to take Buenos Ayres and was cashiered on his return to England with “his sword broken over his head”.

But the later events of 1807 are irrelevant here. The Memoir includes a long letter about Vassall’s death at the storming of Monte Video by his orderly, Sergeant Mathews. The letter, which appeared in several English newspapers, was dated February 10 1807 and addressed to Sir Home Popham “a friend of the family”.

A little later, having advanced through the breach, he was leading a party to

Vassall was wounded on the 3rd February and died on the 7th from gangrene. I remain perplexed as to why this brave officer never once received promotion without purchase.

These are Spencer Lambert Hunter Vassall’s arms as depicted in John Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History. They show the augmentation of arms granted posthumously to his father following the taking of Monte Video, “the sun rising in full splendour from behind the breached bastions of a fortress, and above the same, the word “Monte Video”; the number 38th on a canton argent, within a branch of cypress, and another of laurel, the stems uniting in saltire….”

By way of valediction here is another of John Berryman’s pictures

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