This is a collection of travel letters written by my maternal grandfather John (Jack) McCaldin Loewenthal, known as JMcC, to his mother Jane at their home in Lennoxvale, Belfast, between 1889 and 1895, when he was in his mid to late 20s.
They were written during his journeys to South America and the West Indies, where he had been sent as a “traveller” by Isaac Weinberg, co-founder of the firm “Moore and Weinberg”, Linen and Jute traders, based in Dundee and Belfast. His role was to represent the firm and secure commercial contracts for both Dundee (run by Weinberg) and Belfast (run by his father, Julius Loewenthal, Isaac Weinberg’s business partner).
The reason these letters survived for posterity is that he had specifically asked his mother to keep them as a record of his travels, for him to look back on after his return home to Belfast.
The letters are a diary-like account of his travels and travel impressions, also containing little anecdotes, as well as more personal interactions with his mother to do with family and friends in Belfast and Dundee, as well as social chit chat. They were part of a regular correspondence between him and Jane.
They were separate to those he wrote to his father which were reserved for matters of “business”.
Sadly, neither the letters from Jane to JMcC, nor the letters to Julius were kept.
These travel letters reflect how this descendent of Irish and Scottish Presbyterians and German Jewish merchants perceives himself and the world in the Victorian colonial trade environment.
We see a refined, self-confident, well-read, multilingual young bachelor who thinks of himself through and through as an “English gentleman”, except on St Patrick’s day, when he is definitely an Irishman. His views mirror those of the epoch, and at times can be jarring to present-day sensibilities.
We sense the perception of superiority of imperial English society with respect to other colonists (“natives”), let alone indigenous people or descendants of recently enslaved African people (“blackies” and “niggers”). Guests at a party in Brazil referred to as “Many of the guests were coloured – not black – but with a touch of tar”.
We hear of “English Clubs”, and “English guest houses” where “good English food” can be found, and good company can be kept. Women are either “young”, “young and pretty”, or good conversationalists. But serious company is kept with male peers (“good young fellows”). There are dinner parties, dances, picnics and theatre outings.
The letters provide a fascinating window into the world of “upmarket” international sea travel in the 19th century, the extent of the network of British and German influence in South American and West Indian economic and early industrial life, local political events and skirmishes, and social mores.
Being able to transcribe these letters and immerse myself into JMcC’s world at the time has been the most sustaining and pleasurable occupation of the prolonged Melbourne pandemic lockdown of 2020-2021.
Melbourne, November 2021