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January 2022 Item of the Month

West Indies 1797 campaign diary of Major William Eden

A rather scrappy paper wrapper, illustrated with a garland coloured blue, covers An Almanak, calculated for the Island of Martinico, for the year of our Lord 1797, printed at Saint-Pierre by John Thounens. The almanac was used as a diary by Major William Thomas Eden (1768-1851) during his time in Jamaica and from 19 February to 23 June at Le Vauclin in Martinique, returning to England and landing at Spithead on 1 August. I have called it a campaign diary in the title but it is perhaps more of an aide-mémoire to Eden’s Caribbean social life than to his military service.

William Eden was the youngest son of Sir Robert Eden, 1st Baronet, of Maryland, and will have spent the first eight years of his life in Baltimore. His career in the British Army to 1820 is summarised in The Royal Military Calendar or Army Service and Commission Book which records he was serving with the 79th Regiment of Foot (Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders) in 1797; he would go on to serve in India and Java and attain the rank of major-general. He is buried at St Andrew’s Church in Ham.

The diary suggested itself as our item of the month due to Eden’s first entry of the year, a laconic bracket taking in 1 and 2 January with the single comment “intoxicated”. Most diarists begin the new year with the best of intentions but Eden was clearly a realist. Most entries throughout the almanac are very brief, recording dining companions, important events and purchases.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February is noted. Chronicled more fully is an account of the loss of a guineaman (slave ship) on the reef off Vauclin on 10 May which had only just been captured by two privateers that morning. (A series of very attractive contemporaneous maps of the island in the Grey Papers may be used for orientation.) Sixteen of the French privateer crew were abandoned by the retreating marauders and then rowed into Le Robert up the coast with an English pastor (presumably captured); “181 negroes were saved”. These must have been men and women being shipped from the west coast of Africa to the Americas to be sold as slaves – not much of a salvation. In the same entry Eden also records having received “5 joes [Portuguese reals] 3 dollars and a half” to be shared out among the party at Vauclin, and which may perhaps be a share of the prize value of the same 181 survivors. At other points in the diary Eden records hiring out slave labour from a person named Modest and he bought a slave on 19 May for 19 joes (£35 9s 4d). Among Eden’s other occasional purchases are a parrot (1 joe) and several pairs of boots. His gambling losses are also itemised in the margins alongside the money he received from the Paymaster.

Two final curiosities are a sketch plan of a fort with bastions and hachure countouring, (Eden was a competent military draughtsman), and a table of pictograms which then serves to decypher a ?humerous exchange between a lady and a Mr Fox about a rabbit.

The diary is one of many running to 1850 documenting Eden’s personal and professional life, including his travels in Europe, and together with his letters and military papers is found among the larger Eden family papers held here in the Special Collections at Durham.

Image of a sailing ship sketched on the final page of the diary, 1797 (EDE/C6/14)
Ship sketched on the final page of the diary, 1797 (EDE/C6/14)

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.