18900107  See an image of the original letter, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/yg3c-xh29


Trinidad, Tuesday 7th Jany. 1890


My dear Mother,

It is 5 o’clock on a wet afternoon; business is over for the day, & there is still an hour till dinner, so I shall begin my letter for next mail, which leaves some 10 days hence.

This morning I sent you a postcard telling you I had just arrived from Demerara. I wrote you already about the sugar estates there. Some of the largest are owned by a Mr Quintin Hogg, brother of Sir J. McGarrel Hogg.[1] He is also the proprietor of extensive estates in Ceylon, & of the Polytechnic in London & has founded a “New Religion”. These facts I have from the (R.C.) Bishop of Demerara who was my fellow passenger on the French boat. You will notice that I have latterly become quite “chummy” with the West Indian Dignitaries of the Roman Catholic Church. To meet his lordship there came on board the steamer my old acquaintance the Archbishop of Trinidad, who smilingly & politely lifted his hat to me. The Bishop asked me to go & see him on my return to Demerara. On the steamer we had a discussion about the old bones of contention – free trade – which I firmly upheld while the Bishop advocated protection. He then started “evolution”, – physical, intellectual, & spiritual, but I held my tongue – venturing only to make an occasional remark – partly out of respect for the old gentleman & partly from a wholesome fear of getting out of my depth.

There were several very interesting men on board the French Steamer. They were returning from Cayenne & Salut (Dutch or French Guiana I think) where they had gone to observe the eclipse. Salut is a penal settlement & very unhealthy place.[2] It was there that Father Perry from Liverpool, who was sent out by the English Government to watch the eclipse, took dysentery, of which he died on the man of war “Comus”.[3] Among them were Professor Schaeberle & another, from Lick Observatory, San Francisco, commissioned by the Govt. of the United States, Count de la Baume, by the French Govt., & a gentleman named Rockville from New York, who had gone down to see the eclipse for himself.[4]

They were able to make their observations with complete success, & I heard several most interesting conversations about eclipses, the velocity of light, the spectroscopic photography as applied to astronomy, & so on.

This Mr Rockville has travelled all he world over, & has met a lot of well-known people. He was telling me about a day he had spent in Edison’s laboratory in New York. It was at the time when Edison was perfecting the phonograph. Mr Rockville was impressed with a feeling akin to awe at the wonderful invention & its far-reaching possibilities. It seemed to bring home to him that every word that a man uttered would be brought into judgement against him, & he realized how careful of his words a man should be. Just then Mr Edison shouted in a squeaky voice &, as he turned the handle, the phonograph repeated, in a still shriller way

“There was a little girl
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead”
& then told how she “lost this little curl”
“And it made her look perfectly horrid”.

What a come-down from lofty moral reflection to absurd reality, was it not? I think the anecdote is worth preserving as one more illustration of the short step from the sublime to the ridiculous.[5]

I’ve just read a book called Macaria by an American authoress – one Augusta Evans.[6] She wrote another book – Infelice – & I think I remember seeing the name in the library or at home. All the characters, without exception, quote poetry by the yard, without the slightest provocation. This kind of idiocy is only laughable at first, but as you go further into the book, it becomes horribly irritating, & you are kept in a state of nervous dread the whole time, just as in a game of “snap”, wondering who will succeed first in flinging a quotation at somebody else. Out of curiosity I noted a few of the outbreaks of the most violent cases.

Young woman “A” refuses a proposal & quotes, to the rejected suitor, 9 lines of blank verse; young man takes refusal philosophically, & in next chapter discusses fame with young woman “A” & quotes 11 lines; young woman “B”, star-gazing at 1 a.m. is told by her uncle she ought to be in bed, – she says she won’t go & quotes 6 lines; Uncle takes tea with a young man, tells him not to work too hard & quotes 9 lines; Family Doctor condemns charitable societies & quotes 18 lines (!); young woman “B” defends them & quotes 6 lines, gives a book to a small boy & quotes 6 lines, talks of woman’s sphere & quotes 15 lines;  Family Doctor goes to the wars, & quotes 8 lines as he says good-bye to young woman “B”, who quotes 3 lines; young women “A” & “B” both in love with same young man – he is killed – B faints – A brings her round by quoting 9 lines; A paints a picture & quotes 9 lines, B looks on & quotes 4 lines, & the chapter closes with 11 lines.

I don’t think I shall read “Infelice”.


Friday 10th Jany.

The mail is in & I have just recvd two welcome letters from you, one from Father, & one from Julie; – no papers, please ask Father to send me the Weekly Whig.[7]

Your letters bear date 16th & 22nd Dec. & you are impatient at not having heard from me. I told you before I left that you would not have any news from me before Jany. 6th, but you seem to have forgotten this.

What Finlay was it that you had for whist along with Richard Wallace, Mrs Dods, & Mrs Rogers? I had a fair game the other evg. with some young fellows here & won renown & 4/-

The Blacks at your tea night were, I suppose, the heiresses from over the way. What do you think of them on closer acquaintance?[8]

The winter gaieties are in full swing & now that I have been away for two seasons & Julie is taking my place, I shall be quite forgotten. Besides you get to know new people & I should be quite a stranger now. When I come back I shall say, like the travelled young man from Cookstown in Grannies’ evergreen’d story, “Are these the chucks that were the chicks when I left?”. I don’t know half the people that were at your hen-party.

Did the young people go to Newetts’? I should not have done so. It was kind of Mrs Newett to ask them, but she was aware that the proper thing to do was to call, & when people know that, their invitation is more an affront than a compliment. It is not necessary to give the many reasons why.[9]

I am particularly stiff – if you like to call it so – about such matters.

Julie & the family swallow-tail are in great demand. If he has as much fun while he wears it as I had when it was my property he may be quite satisfied. He seems to have enjoyed Mrs Parfitt’s two dances very much.

So Miss Brown’s reported engagement is not a fact. By the way, I met a young fellow in Demerara, Higinbotham by name, whose home is a place called Guelph, some 12 miles from Toronto. A very decent chap, – connected with a Canadian Insurance Co. I asked him if he know Miss Molesworth (Toronto is where she lives, is it not?) but he said not. However he has not been much in Canada for some time, but was going back to Toronto in a month or two.

How is Miss M’Hinch after her long stay in London? Please give her my kind regards. I await your account of Xmas eve. You must have been a jolly party.


Sunday 12th Jany.

Heavy rain still continues to fall here, though the dry season should have begun before Christmas. The people cannot dry their cocoa & some of it has already gone bad. If the rain does not cease very soon the loss will be severe.

What an extraordinary thing is that epidemic of influenza which is spreading over all Europe.[10] I hope none of you have been troubled by it. Y’days telegram says the little King of Spain is dangerously ill with it; poor little chap, I hope he will get over it.[11] If not, I am afraid there will be another struggle in Spain among the many factions. Castelan & the moderate Republicans would probably throw in their lot with Zorilla, & the extreme section & succeed in bringing about a Republic. The movement wd be aided by recent events in Brazil.

The Carlist regime is a thing of the past, & I don’t think the Spain of today would tolerate a restored Inquisition.

We had a sharp little shock of earthquake the night before last at a little after seven o’clock. We were at dinner at the time. It was a sudden bump with a short vibration afterwards lasting only a few seconds. I thought something very heavy had fallen in the room overhead. The astronomer immediately noted the time & particulars. He said they had, in Lick Observatory, an earthquake about once a month, & that this one was probably caused by a displacement in the earth’s surface of one sixteenth of an inch.

By the way, I am told that this Mr Schaeberle, the astronomer, has discovered some comets, one of which bears his name.

Today I have turned to good account an accomplishment that I never expected to come in useful, – the deaf & dumb alphabet. There are three new arrivals in the hotel, a gentleman, his wife & her brother. The two latter are deaf-mutes. I made the acquaintance of the deaf & dumb brother & went out for a walk with him. We carried on a most animated conversation by means of the finger alphabet. He is a most intelligent fellow, sketches, botanizes & so on. He laughs & cracks jokes, seemingly quite indifferent to his affliction. He is a man of about 30, & he comes from Co Wicklow.

We were talking about deaf-mute education, & to illustrate the rapidity that comes with practice in the finger-language the gentleman who is not deaf told me that when he was married to this deaf & dumb lady the service was conducted simultaneously by two clergymen, one viva-voce reading the usual Church of England service, & the other, himself a deaf-mute, using the finger alphabet & going through the same service. Neither clergyman knew where the other was in the ritual, but the deaf & dumb one got ahead & came in first at the finish!


Tuesday Jany. 14th

I shall close & post this letter now, for I shall probably sail for Curaçao by a steamer due tomorrow, & I have a lot of things to square up still.

I can’t say when you will get my next letter – probably it will go by New York, so don’t expect any by the next Royal Mail Packet.

Best love to all.

Your affectionate son.








  1. Quintin Hogg (b 14th February 1845, d 17th January 1903) was a tea merchant and philanthropist. Having made his fortune, he became concerned with educational reform. In 1864 he founded York Place Ragged School for boys in rented rooms off The Strand. In 1882, he founded the Young Men's Christian Institute, later renamed the Regent Street Polytechnic. It is now the University of Westminster, the largest provider of adult education in London with headquarters still at the same location on Regent Street.
  2. The Salvation Islands (French: Îles du Salut). Between 1852 and 1953, the islands were part of a notorious penal colony for the worst criminals of France.
  3. Stephen Perry (1833-1889) was a Jesuit priest, astronomer, and educator. His life is described in an article by George Bishop in the Journal of British Astronomical Association 1979, 89 (5) 473-84.
  4. John Martin Schaeberle (b 1853, d 1924) was a graduate of the University of Michigan who served as Astronomer at Lick Observatory from 1888-1898. His obituary by J. M. Hussey appeared in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, December 1924, Vol. XXXVI, No. 214. The eclipse described is the total eclipse of December 1889, which Schaeberle and his colleague Burnham were sent to Cayenne to observe. It was this eclipse that led Schaeberle to formulate a mechanical theory of the solar corona. The Lick Observatory is now owned and operated by the University of California. It is on the summit of Mount Hamilton, in the Diablo Range just east of San Jose. Count Aymar Eugène de la Baume Pluvinel (b 6 November 1860, d 18 July 1938) was a French astronomer and professor in the École supérieure d'optique.
  5. Edison later developed a talking doll that repeated the words. It is preserved by the US National Parks Service, which has also put the recording online: https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/photosmultimedia/there-was-a-little-girl-edison-talking-doll-cylinder-brown-wax-rolfs-colleciton.htm
  6. Augusta Evans Wilson, (b 8th May 1835, d 9th May 1909) was an American Southern author and one of the pillars of Southern literature. She wrote nine novels: Inez (1850), Beulah (1859), Macaria (1863), St. Elmo (1866), Vashti (1869), Infelice (1875), At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887), A Speckled Bird (1902), and Devota (1907). These are all available free online at https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/1399.
  7. The Northern Whig was a regional newspaper first published in Belfast in 1824. In its early years the paper as its editor and owner Finlay was in favour of Catholic Emancipation and supported the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Its editorial line was liberal and unionist and it was seen as reflecting a Presbyterian slant on the news.
  8. We know little about the heiresses – except their worth as it has come up several times. Also Addie and JMcC go to the wedding of James Black (possibly related, as it is a very posh affair) in NY on 28th January 1891. See Index to People.
  9. Probably Jane Newett (b 1845) of Dunluce Avenue off the Lisburn Road.
  10. The 1889–1890 flu pandemic, also known as the "Asiatic flu" or "Russian flu", was a pandemic that killed about 1 million people worldwide, out of a population of about 1.5 billion. It was the last great pandemic of the 19th century and is among the deadliest pandemics in history. A 2005 genomic virological study says that "it is tempting to speculate" that the virus might not have been an influenza virus, but human coronavirus OC43. In 2020, Danish researchers reached a similar conclusion in a study that had not been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal as of November 2020. They described the symptoms as very like those of COVID-19.
  11. At the beginning of January 1890, King Alfonso XIII of Spain fell ill, who was at the time five years old. His health deteriorated but, eventually, the king recovered: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3867475/.


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John McCaldin Loewenthal: Letters Home from a Victorian Commercial Traveller, 1889 - 1895 Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Fink, Robert Boyd, Sarah Watkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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