Horatio Nelson first met Simon Taylor during the American Revolutionary War, while stationed in Jamaica. The two remained in touch. As Nelson remarks towards the end of this letter, by 1805, they had been acquainted for about three decades. The letter was written while Nelson pursued the French fleet in the Caribbean, during the months before the Battle of Trafalgar, and in it Nelson expressed his opposition to William Wilberforce and the abolitionists. (The redacted name was that of Wilberforce). This version appeared in William Cobbett’s Political Register on 21 February 1807, while parliament debated abolition. Cobbett sympathised with slaveholders like Simon Taylor, hated Wilberforce and opposed the abolition of the slave trade. It seems likely that Taylor provided him with a copy of this letter in an effort to mobilise the heroic and patriotic reputation of the recently deceased Lord Nelson behind the pro-slavery cause, as part of a last ditch effort to halt the progress of the Abolition Bill.
On 7 September 1790, Taylor wrote to Arcedeckne from his sugar plantation, called Holland, at the far eastern end of Jamaica. While a revolution by white slaveholders might have been an unlikely prospect for Jamaica in 1790, foreign invasion was not. And as the possibility of war with France loomed, Taylor described the outlook of his fellow planters. He speculates here that tensions between Jamaica and Britain will escalate to crisis point as soon as the unrest in France and prospect of war subsides. He did not realise that the French Revolution was yet to become more radical, that the neighbouring colony of French Saint-Domingue would experience a revolution of its own, and that conflict with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France would continue for more than two decades (and for the remainder of his life).
[…] it [the prospect of an invasion] has not given the alarm that in other circumstances it would have done, for from the apathy that at present prevails here from the cursed treatment we have received at home from the minister and his friends, respecting the slave business, I believe they will if it comes to the test, hardly find any one foolish enough (except the military themselves) to take up arms, or risque their lives to keep a country for England, that thinks them monsters, murderers, and a people that ought to be exterminated from the face of the earth, but that if their properties and laws are securited [sic] to them that it signifies very little to them what is the name of the tyrant and accordingly will wait with indifference and if it should so happen change masters they will do it without any reluctance, as they cannot be more oppressed by any people in the world, than by the present system established in England. […] I really conceive that they [the British government] want to gett ridd of them [the Caribbean colonies], as if they were useless to them, and I positively do not think that in the course of ten years, there will be one belonging to Britain, or even so long, if the French National Assembly establish themselves on a secure footing, and form any thing like an efficient constitution, for men can scratch a pimple untill in becomes an uncurable ulcer, that is the case at present subsists between Britain and this island, & had it not been for the troubles in France, it might have broke out sooner but as soon as they are at an end, it will break out with more virulence, if they do not stop it, by altering their measures […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1790/29, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Holland, 7 September 1790)
Taylor saw the proposal to end the slave trade as a breach of faith between Britain and the colonies of the British West Indies. Despite the apparent impossibility of Jamaica seceding from the British empire in the same manner as the thirteen mainland colonies during the American Revolution (due to the reliance of white colonists on British armed forces to protect them from slave rebellions and foreign invasion and on protected British markets for their exports), Taylor persistently discussed the prospect during the first months of the abolition debates in parliament. Whether he was in earnest or privately venting his frustration at British attitudes towards the planters is a subject for speculation.
[…] We are by no means desirous or willing to separate from Britain, but for my part, if the slave trade is abolished, or putt on such a footing, as that we cannot have negroes on at least as good terms as other nations, I shall that moment wish the separation to take place that instant, and for ever. As for their faith, it is as much derided as the Punica Tides. Where is faith to be putt in a nation that gave charters, and passed Acts of Parliament to encourage the African Trade for negroes, and proclamations for people to settle the islands, and embark their all in those undertakings, and then to abuse the people they have deluded, and wish to stop the trade by which only they can carry on their settlements, where is their faith that the emigrants under those proclamations should enjoy every priviledge of Britons, and then pass Acts of Parliament to establish courts of amiralty [sic], where property is to be tried without a jury. Where was their faith to entice the emigrants from America to go and settle on the Mosquito Shore [evacuated in 1786 in agreement with the Spanish], and then give the place to the Spaniards. Where their faith to sell lands in Tobago, Dominica, St Vincents and Granada, and now to abolish the African trade, but to cheat the people out of purchase money. If they call this faith, I do not know what faith is, but think the true name is robbery, villainy, and swindling in the highest degree. If they once arrive at a separation, and expect they will have the supplying us with manufacturies, they will be greatly mistaken, do they supply Hispaniola and the French islands with linnens, woolens, iron mongery, coppers, stills &c or ships to carry home their productions. They know they do not, nor never did. Do they supply any articles to America that are ever paid for, their merchants will tell them no; and every one who has trusted them is ruined, and if they chuse to carry on trade without returns, they may have custom enough. […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1790/18, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Kingston, 17 June 1790)
In September 1788, Taylor looked forward to the meeting of the Assembly, convened earlier in the year than usual to discuss the issues raised by British demands for the abolition of the slave trade. He also made some of his boldest statements about the prospect of abolitionism driving white West Indian colonists into a rebellion against the mother country.
[…] The Assembly will meet next Tuesday the 30, and I will send you an acct. of what they do. It seems to be that they really do mean to force us into a rebellion, and they forgett that Hispaniola is not more than 28 leagues from us, that St Jago de Cuba is not so much, and is only a nights run, they may know from the number of troops they lost here in the warr, how difficult a matter it is to keep up an army in the West Indies, what would it be if the inhabitants should drive away their cattle sheep & c. and refuse to supply them with provisions of any kind. Should they send out fleets, and any accident happens to them, they have not a port to go to but America, which bears them no good will, and to what purpose can all this oppression tend to, but to please the whim of a sett of fanaticks, mad priests, and a sett of vagabond negroes, and to alienate the minds and affections of, I will venture to say, of their best, and most usefull subjects. […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1788/23, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Kingston, 23 September 1788)
Taylor’s discussion of breadfruit relates to the infamous 1787 expedition of the HMS Bounty, commanded by Captain William Bligh, to collect plants in Tahiti and introduce them to the West Indies, where it was anticipated that they would help provided food for the enslaved people on sugar estates and other properties. Taylor’s discussion on this point leads into a discussion of his continuing mistrust of the British government’s policies towards the British-Caribbean colonies and speculation about the degree to which Jamaica might achieve self-sufficiency in food and clothing.
[…] The bread fruit would certainly be an addition to our negroe provisions, but a hurricane would certainly blow of [sic] the fruit, as well as either break the trees, or blow them up by the roots, but tho they are liable to that, they still would be of very essential service to us, tho I do not believe Mr Pitt cares a farthing if all Jamaica the Windward Islands and the inhabitants of them were annihilated so that he could but gett a revenue from them. […] [I] am afraid to buy any new negroes untill the hurricane months are over and we see how the blast affects the young canes and sprouts. […] there seems to be a system adopted by the British legislature to extirpate the cultivation of the cane in the British West India colonies, and consequently to force us to live upon our internall resources, and have recourse to the manufacturing our own cloathing from our cotton, and to have no connexion with the mother country at all, if it is so, the late hurricanes have cooperated wonderfull well with its plan, and they will in the course of the next seven years see their scheme so farr carried into execution that this island will hardly be able to be considered as a sugar colony, as the proprietors will not be able to carry that manufacture on, and the iron foundries copper smiths and manufacturers whose dependence is on the trade to the West Indies and the coast of Africa will have leisure to employ themselves otherwise. […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1787/5, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Kingston, 1 May 1787)